new moves in modern dance
As a new direction in modern dance blurs the line between performers and audience, dancer Claire Alrich examines Soar, a dance production that welcomes this unconventional trend.
We begin together — dancers and audience mingle in the cold, fluorescent lobby. The performers wear pedestrian clothing, and because we — the audience — have all shed our winter bulk at the door, the only distinction between us and them is their bare feet. Together we walk into the theater and find seats on low white stools that are arranged in a tight two-ringed circle on the theater’s stage. When we are settled, the lights go out. The darkness is thick with expectation, and a residue of heat lingers from bright stage lights. Low ambient music starts to pulse, and the lights brighten. The eight dancers are interspersed on the white stools. In the new light, they move their heads, looking around at each other and at us. They each embody an emotional intent — curiosity, searching, observation, seduction, play — in the quality of their movements and in the intensity of their gaze.
Slowly, the act of looking takes over their bodies. They hold each other’s eyes, maybe exchanging a secret, and their spines ripple in response, a new swell with each eye communication. Waves of energy radiate as the dancers’ movements build. In time their rippling spines push them out of their stools and into a run that sends them careening, a serpentine string of bodies, between the two rows of seats. The energy is infectious and I’m stirred to join, but I stay seated. In their sure movements, the power dynamic of the evening is established. We have entered their world; they know the rules, so we will watch, and they will move.
This is Soar, a dance production by San Francisco-based LEVYdance that I saw at Dance Place in Washington, DC this past January. The work is billed as “an immersive performance that places audiences and dancers together on stage in a choose-your-own-adventure experience.” Certainly my role as audience in this performance is distinct. Typical dance performances situate the viewers in fixed, forward-facing seats, clearly separated from performers by the line of the stage. However, with Soar LEVYdance joins a growing number of choreographers, dance companies, and performers who are shucking these traditional expectations and creating performances that pose new relationships between audience and artist. Here, we as the audience are actively shaping the space and energy of the performance; we’re participants, not just observers.
As Soar continues, the dancers’ movements increase in intensity. In the middle of the circled audience, they gather together. Bodies heavy and bent to the ground, their movements fluctuate between control — a muscled lift of a knee, a tautly curved spine — and release — a leg swinging from the hip like a pendulum, a head wildly rolling, hair tracing the body’s arc. Like a churning sea before a storm, their bodies move chaotically, while still connected by a deeper, invisible logic. At first they move like a single entity, then one, two, three break off to run again, weaving between the watching audience. Because the dancers are so close I can see the sweat on their skin, the strain in their calves. I can hear the pant of their breath and feel a rush of wind as they pass by. My proximity creates an intimacy between me and the other bodies in the room. It draws me further into this world, conscious of the complexity of every movement, curious at the fibers of meaning below each interaction.
Now dispersing through the space, the dancers form new groupings. Sudden pools of light appear, illuminating the actions of some, as others continue in eddies of darkness. One dancer flings herself repeatedly into the arms of another, only to be tossed back into the air and return to a run. In the opposite corner a dancer slides into a lunge; his arms reach up as if caught on marionette strings; his mouth opens wide in a silent roar. Directly across from me, three women grasp arms, tugging at each other’s limbs while their feet stay cemented in the ground.
At this point there is no way I can watch everything, partly because of the limits of my sight lines, but also because there are simply too many options and I can’t change my focus fast enough. Here comes the “choose your own adventure” aspect of the performance. Each audience member will choose different moments and different movers to focus on. Each one of us will leave with a slightly different perspective, a unique understanding, a self-selected view into the world of Soar. In these moments of choice I at once regret what I miss and marvel at what I do see. Yet it’s this multitude of moments, this embrace of the complexity of an instant, that I find compelling about this style of performance. The ability to choose what I see and how I see it is a reminder of the power we all have to shape our realities.
Fifteen minutes further into Soar, the “choose your own adventure” element comes again as the dancers break from their entanglements and approach the audience one-on-one. A woman with a black pony tail and white tunic approaches me, bends down, and whispers in my ear, “Red or blue?” (I can hear her exhaustion, the slight pant of breath that pushes into my ear.) I answer, “Blue.” She nods, takes my hand in hers, picks up my stool, and leads me across the dim space. Once I’m settled again, she smiles, and then turns her back on me, walking to another point in the circle to whisper in another ear.
Slowly, this process is repeated with each audience member, roughly 70 people, until everyone is positioned into one large circle around the edges of the space. It seems that everyone on my side chose blue, while those opposite chose red. The eight dancers gather in the center. With a swish, a dark curtain is pulled across the space, slicing the circle, the audience and dancers along with it, in half. On my side of the curtain two dancers — one male, one female — are left to dance a duet with movement that flings them across the space, almost into the audience’s laps. They twist their bodies together — interlocking legs and arms, pushing heads against palms — pulling out the ambiguity between affection and aggression. From the other side of the curtain I can hear the sound of pounding feet, but I can’t guess at what’s happening there. I try to keep my attention on the movement in front of me instead of dwelling on the choice I didn’t make.
As the evening continues the audience is constantly re-configured. We’re grouped in small gatherings around an individual performer; later we’re made to link hands and walk as a somber conga line through the space; and finally we’re left to organize ourselves, peering between bodies to see the action. While Soar is categorized as a dance performance, I find it difficult to say that was all that happened. To me it was at once a concert, a fashion show, a haunted house, and a social gathering all wrapped into the packaging of one event. The performance was as much about the music, the lighting, the space, and costumes as it was the choreographed movement of dancers. The genre-bending and sensory rich nature of immersive performance is why I find it so exciting, and why I see it as re-modernizing modern dance.
Immersive performance as an idea is not new. Dancers, actors, and performance artists have often taken their work outside of the traditional constraints of the theater. What does seem new is its growth, popularity, and acceptance as a format of performance. Though they still don’t eclipse traditional configurations, performances like Soar are increasing in numbers. They are happening in galleries, living rooms, warehouses, public parks, and old middle schools. There are big and small shows, one-man ensembles, and thronged casts. There are shows which sell out tickets for over $100 and renegade one-time-only events that charge no entrance fee.
As a dancer and dance-maker, I find this shift exciting. Modern dance does not always use obvious narratives or clearly recognizable spatial constructions, which can leave audiences feeling detached and confused. This is why I believe dance is best understood up close, when the humanness, the layered effect of the movement, is most visible. In immersive performance, we get this in a way that is more difficult in a standard theater set up. And the audience is more likely to connect to a modern dance show — and stay awake — when they’re asked to engage, to call on their instincts of choice, and to see their actions clearly affecting the performers. This approach to performance could expand the reach of modern dance and redefine who, where, and how modern dance is seen. It opens up the form to those who might not typically choose to see a dance show, pulling across artistic disciplines to create a mixed agenda and mixed-experience audience.
Soar ends with a white table in the center of the stage, and the audience split up around the space. Each dancer one-by-one runs, leaps on top of the table, pauses, then flings themselves — arms spread wide — into the catch of the waiting group. Again their approach is individual, human. Ferocity, glee, fear, and boldness entangle in the air and in the moment of the catch. The music builds and lights brighten to a yet unseen intensity. There is a feeling of effort and abandon, singularity and group. I feel wrapped up in it, almost elevated myself. I want to jump, to fling myself into the air, to let go and to be caught. But I stay put, supporting their flight.
Leaving the theater I don’t know that I “got it,” that I understood the intention that drove the creation of this performance. But I got my own “it,” my own ideas, my own feelings, my own take-aways. I left the stage with a sense of liberation, a lift below my belly button, the feeling of tactile community, and a new vision of what dance can be.
//Claire Alrich is a modern-dance-maker and venture-taker currently living in our nation's capitol.