Saturday, December 22, 2012

yoga and performance art

Kelly Bond and Melissa Krodman in "Colony" at the Capital Fringe Festival

Each Saturday when I roll down my yoga mat and begin a practice with a teacher in DC I do not know where I will end up. Of course there are familiar poses/asanas and certain patterns that link my movement and breath, but I also enter into unexplored territory. I savor a sense of discovery when I notice places in my muscles--and my mind--that are resistant and tight. Every week there's different information and some days the practice ends with a feeling of exhaustion, other days exhilaration. Daily shifts in the way I feel and how my body responds make the journey indeterminate, its outcome uncertain.

Recently I've been enjoying practicing next to a friend who shares my interest in performance and the arts, particularly relational aesthetics. Our conversation this morning touched upon ways in which visual artists and theatrical performers are tapping into similar trends: a current interest in immersive theater coincides with a resurgence of events in museums and galleries that make interaction a vital component in the realization of an artist’s creation. 

This blog post brings together some of these ideas…

“Breaking the fourth wall, and involving audience in a piece of theatre, has subsequently been used in ways that have different social poignancy to The Shining, and sometimes in ways that do not push against dominant values. Some shows have now achieved commercial success in New York by capitalizing upon the excitement of participation as a selling point. Yet even while it has become more common to position the audience as something other than passive spectators, choreographers have nevertheless continued to find critical tractions in different ways of engaging an audience. This has included working with the social values that are relevant to local contexts beyond the East Village scene.” 

Reading these sentences by Doran George--shortly after seeing Deborah Jowitt’s review of Dionysus in 69 and attending a symposium on immersive theatre in Washington DC--triggers my interest in "social poignancy."

The more I see approaches to performance that reconfigure artist/audience relations–David Zambrano’s Soul Project, Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, National Theatre of Scotland’s Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart–the more questions emerge. Does the incorporation of audiences into performances acknowledge the ways in which we interact with our technologies today, meaning frequently engaged, constantly available? Or does it speak to a desire for connection and intimacy in a time when screens are a primary source of communication and interaction?

As George points out, it is nearly impossible to put such a diversity of events – from Yvonne Meier’s The Shining to Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More to Third Rail Project’s Then She Fell – into the same category as “immersive” or “environmental” or “participatory” theatre. Each artist--and each event--negotiates its own strategies and purposes.

Nevertheless during the symposium in DC at Sidney Harman Hall a couple weeks ago, presenters and artists spoke about their concerns and intents and the conversation was generative. There was a brief history of the form in a Western context, its investigation of the audience’s role--namely a shift from invisibility to visibility of spectators—and the subsequent questions of personal and communal relationships. There was acknowledgement of the inadequacy of labels or categories: is this site-specific work? Environmental theatre? Interactive performance?

Although the symposium at Harman Hall focused on theater productions and producers, their ideas coincided with questions that have intrigued and inspired dancers and choreographers for decades. It would have been interesting to include artists working with movement in immersive environments--thinking here of Nancy Bannon’s recent work at Transformer Gallery or Kelly Bond and Melissa Krodman’s Colony at the Capital Fringe Fringe festival.

The language used at the symposium to describe productions and processes ran parallel to terms and concepts in dance: “ensemble-based devised theater,” “the audience completes the work,” the “intentional incorporation” of audiences, “inviting disruption and creating conditions for it to happen,” “site responsive work created in found spaces,” “using film techniques in live theater settings,” and the “doubleness of space – both theoretical and practical,” which refers to the identity of a site as a warehouse or bar and its transformation into a performance venue that does not replace or make invisible its other functions.

Artists who spoke at the DC symposium included Kathryn Hamilton, artistic director of Sister Sylvester, Rachel Grossman of dog & pony dc, Ryan Holladay, a musician and the New Media Curator at Artisphere, Liam Kaas-Lentz of Sojourn Theatre, and Kate Fleming, who worked on props for Sleep No More. Producers and presenters included Julianne Brienza of Capital Fringe and Chris Jennings, general manager of Shakespeare Theatre Company, and their acknowledgement of the complexity of presenting performances for audiences of 20 instead of 2,000 was refreshing and insightful.

But it was the artists’ perspectives alongside these practical—and economic--considerations that made the symposium valuable. When artists spoke about “expanding and contracting space,” “creating structures that allow environments to be elastic and adaptable,” and “managing audience expectations to allow the real and imagined to operate simultaneously,” I found their concepts intriguing. I also appreciated how they spoke about the journey of a production, and the ways in which its unfolding changes relationships between audiences and actors. The sensitivity they brought to understanding differences between invitation and expectation, particularly when incorporating audiences, gave their words particular resonance.

There was also mention of appreciating the quality of liveness, which becomes visible “when things go wrong.” I love this phrase because it made me think of a fundamental component of the arts as experiences that open us up to the unknown or uncertain. Maybe this is one reason why these explorations have such a hard time in DC, a city where image and status are particularly--and politically--important. But it is through these encounters with a theater piece or visual artwork that we discover aspects of ourselves, our resistances and values. These are the moments that are both different from and similar to discoveries made on a yoga mat. 

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