I just returned from participating in a symposium organized in connection with an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London’s Southbank Centre. The exhibition — Move: Choreographing You — looked at the way way performance and visual art intersect and collaborate. I’ll write more about this later. In addition to lectures and panel discussions with artists, choreographers and philosophers, there were many performances. I want to share some thoughts about one of them.
As the audience entered Queen Elizabeth Hall (right next to the Hayward, also part of the Centre) to take their seats, the performers were already on the stage. They sat there casually, all nine of them, in street dress, watching as we filed in, some four hundred people strong. I remember thinking they looked lovely sitting there. My eyes met one of the performers, someone I know vaguely, and she gave no indication of knowing me. They were watching us. But I had the impression that they couldn’t see us. They couldn’t see us the way you see a person with whom you are engaged in conversation. They could only inspect us, observe us, like the entertainment. Not because they were blinded by the lights. The house lights were on. But because they, or we, were out of reach, in a different space. They were on the stage. Or maybe, in a way, we were on the stage.
Xavier LeRoy, the choreographer, dancer and artist who headed up the performance collaboration low pieces and can be thought of as its author, eventually addressed the audience, saying something like:
We are going to begin now. What we propose is that we spend the next 15 minutes, all of us, having a conversation. When the time is up, the lighting person will shut off all the lights. It will be dark for a few minutes. Don’t be afraid. Then we will go on.
He also explained that there was no use of amplification during the show, so everyone would have to try very hard to make themselves heard.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that suckling is a primitive form of conversation, and that dance is one of its most sophisticated varieties. Conversation is not just talking, it is a dynamic of shared attention and listening. Conversation, like suckling, requires that we lock in, hold on, pay attention, and let go. Partners in conversation don’t merely talk about a shared topic, they get caught up in the flow of exchange. Tempo, attitude, posture, rhythm — all gets coordinated even though no one does the coordinating.
Most striking of all, to converse with some one — face to face, on skype, or over the phone — is to share a situation with them. You can see, or recognize, the person you are talking to. (This explains — I return to this point yet again — the unique dangers posed by driving and talking on the phone. Talking on the phone is not so much a distraction as it is a dislocation, a form of teletransportation.)
Is it possible for nine dancers on a stage to have a conversation with their audience of four hundred or more in a large theater? No. Definitely not. But then that’s the point really. Failure is sometimes much more interesting than success.
Just as we couldn’t really see each other, we couldn’t really talk to each other. The audience peppered the stage with questions, directed to no one in particular.
“Why do you want to have a conversation?”
“Can we really have conversation?”
“Where are you from?”
“Why is the piece called Low Piece?”
“Will this conversation influence the rest of the show that follows?”
Although the question were directed to none of the performers in particular, I had the impression that they took turns answering. At one point a woman rose in the front row and spoke in a voice no one could hear. She then turned around to repeat herself to the entire assembly: "It it is very good," she said, in a European accent of some sort, "that they want us to speak without amplification;" a performer herself, she explained, she feared that through use of technology she had begun to lose her ability to PROJECT — she almost sang this word — and it was good to try recover this dying skill.
As time passed, the room was flooded with all manner of different emotion. Some people started shouting things out in irritation. Others seemed to be bored. Still others were showing off, trying to introduce just the right bons mots that would, just possibly, ignite the event for everyone, or make its real meaning transparent. These people wanted to become stars.
But no conversation. None of the give and take and mutual interest that defines a conversation. It was more like a break-dance battle or some kind of show down. Them versus us. And then each of us alone for himself. It was a little like being at a demonstration — the whole thing seemed on the verge of going wrong. The tension in the room was palpable.
No conversation, but three things happened that were truly remarkable.
Like the actors on the stage, we became careful observers of the others and indeed ourselves. When a person spoke, everybody listened. Of course the room was large, and most voices were soft. So you could literally hear the room bend its ear, its concentration to make out what was being said.
The second remarkable thing was that the whole episode was fascinating. What started out feeling like a trick or gimmick of some sort — to me at least — now felt like a genuine experiment on the very possibility of conversation, and the distinct quality of existence inside a theatrical place. It was as if we had been choreographed and we were the performers. There we were, rapt, still, facing the people watching us from the “stage,” and we were engaged in some sort of larger than life display of shouting, feeling, shifting attention, nervousness.
My friend said it reminded her of a kind of enactment of the dawn of democratic civilization, like that first general assembly — the Althingi, the All-Thing — in Iceland over a thousand years ago, where tribal leaders came together and chose to talk instead of fight. And that struck me as about right. It was not ideas that were on display; no arguments were made or positions defended. There was very little saying. What we experienced in the theater was a simple, uncontrived, spontaneous group phenomenon. And it was a power phenomenon: speakers sought to project their personal power into the situation. And for the most part they, we, I, could not. What we experienced was a kind of political theater. But it was authentic political theater. We weren’t play acting. This was the best way of carrying on that we could muster in that situation. (Is this what contemporary parliamentary discussion is like?)
And then, with a thump, the lights dropped out and we sat in pitch dark. Xavier LeRoy later explained to the audience that the tumult that ensued was so loud that the actors on the stage could barely hear their own cues. What happened, now, in the dark, is that people really began to talk, in small groups, to each other, to the dancers. And it was loud. A proper conversation? No. Not yet. But an eruption of confident speech. It was as if, in the dark, we were free to be playful, whereas before we were, so to speak, laying the foundations of democracy.
I won’t discuss the rest of the evening. The work was staggeringly beautiful. And it achieved so much, right at the outset, in creating a situation, a situation in which we couldn't converse, a situation in which we couldn’t see each other, but a situation in which we could reenact our origins. It demonstrated the power of performance, or of art more generally, to open up ideas and allow for knowledge.