No Gaze for You!

Choreographers try to punch a few holes in the fourth wall

I'm lying on a clear plastic inflatable mattress, staring up at a mirrored ceiling; there are 24 of us, lying in rows of four. We have surrendered our coats, our shoes, and our bags. This is not a kinky sex game, nor are we going to have our feet massaged. It's the winter of 2005, and we're attending a performance of John Jasperse's trio Prone at the Kitchen; just now, we're part of the show for the other 24 spectators sitting on chairs on two sides of the room (later, they'll trade places with us). A dancer stands beside me and stretches a long leg over me; I gaze up at her footcalfthighcrotch and know—have to know—that she is not going to step on me.

Prone, like several works I've seen recently, not only signified creative impatience with the status quo, it adroitly expanded postmodernism's zest for deconstruction. Jasperse—along with Sarah Michelson, DD Dorvillier, Trajal Harrell, and others—is interested in exploring the whole issue of spectatorship, interfering with that imaginary fourth wall between audience and performers, and disrupting the usual avid passivity of our gaze.

For her 2008 The Sublime Is Us, Luciana Achugar seated a limited audience very close to a mirrored wall in one of Dance Theater Workshop's studios. When the dancers were in front of us, their reflections doubled them; when they were behind us, we saw them in the mirror. And always, we watched ourselves watching (some spectators took the opportunity to do a little grooming). As with Prone, we saw the dancers' sweat, felt them stir the air. But it was nothing like being in a reality show—no nasty surprises. These people would take care of us.

In such situations, we seem to erect our own fourth wall, and the performers set parameters. If you were one of the people (12 per show) who attended Nancy Bannon's The Pod Project at Dance New Amsterdam in June, you soon discovered that each of the brief, carefully synchronized acts performed in a fabric enclosure for you alone brooked no interference; you could smile or shake your head or say things like, "That's too bad." But you sensed that you couldn't change what had been planned or divert the speeches that some performers were delivering.

Last May, during David Dorfman's Disavowal, which dealt in part with the fine line between arousing people's social consciences and summoning up a mob, spectators were invited to get out of their seats in St. Mark's Church and gather in small groups around a particular performer. At the center of my group stood one of the female dancers, sobbing. People looked concerned and awkward. What would one do if this were "real"? And would it be OK to do it now? Finally, I touched the woman reassuringly on the shoulder. Others followed suit. But that night, anyway, no one went so far as to embrace her and hold her tight.

Audiences primed for performances like this are anxious to please and, apparently, hard to shock. When a mostly naked woman inched somnolently along an immense dining table in a Williamsburg loft during Noémie Lafrance's Home last April, we 20 people seated on either side of the table intuited what we had to do: We dipped black crayons in the water we'd been given and wrote on her body. That same week, Keith Hennessy invited the audience to cluster around him on DTW's stage and watch as he drew a needle of red thread through several people's clothes and then passed it through his skin. No one appeared to flinch.

Viewing such works may be novel for some people—both scary and titillating. In 2001, I watched a performance of Felix Ruckert's Ring in Bratislava, which calls for 14 spectators to rise and sit in a circle of outward-facing chairs; each volunteer is assigned to one of the performers, all of whom have taken a preparatory five-day workshop with Ruckert. For 40 minutes, the seated people are whispered to, performed for, gently touched, and manipulated. Ring was done three times that evening. It took quite a while to secure the participants for the first set, but they'd barely returned to their seats in the audience when 14 others sprang up to take their places.

In some cases, dance events presented in unconventional locales—while not involving the spectators aggressively, like those described above—inadvertently make the audience a part of the performance. A site-specific work, in particular, forces us to take in the setting and all that is in it—and beyond it. Those who saw the third part of Meredith Monk's 1971 Vessel still recall how a church across the street from the Soho parking lot where we sat was suddenly illuminated and the performers representing Joan of Arc's three saints were seen standing in the portico. (The church was torn down long ago. And we say, "Remember? That's where Meredith's church used to be.")

There may be chairs at the numerous free outdoor dance events that blossom in New York through most of August, but people come and go, eat and drink, text-message friends to join them, and dance in the aisles. Works intended for theaters adapt to platforms erected in public parks; others can be stumbled upon in unlikely places as you stroll by. If you're in the South Coast Plaza at Battery Park City on selected evenings between August 3 and 12 at 6:30 p.m., you'll discover Gabrielle Lansner's Turning Heads, Frocks in Flight (part of the Manhattan Cultural Council's Sitelines '09). Visit Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park Bandshell August 6 between 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., and you may get your first glimpse of hip-hop dance from South Korea (one of five Hip Hop Generation Next shows), co-presented by Lincoln Center Out of Doors and Dancing in the Streets. If you miss, say, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company's world premiere on Central Park's Summerstage August 14 or 15 at 8 p.m., you can cross the FDR Drive at Delancey Street the following day at 4 p.m., and catch it in East River Park.

These works don't challenge your status as an audience, as do the works described earlier, but when the sky is the backdrop and the same wind that ruffles the trees and your hair makes the dancers' costumes billow, that fourth wall becomes just a little bit more porous.

 
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