Hung from a string at a slow diagonal, a plastic water bottle hovers within a dimly lit performance area. Rhythmically tapping the air like a metronome is the sound of liquid dripping. This is how Nora Chipaumire’s dance theater performance Miriam begins. The drip of water recalls a faulty sink with its discrete but insidious noise that nags at the back of your mind, keeping you awake in the wee hours of the night. More often than not, one will get up and adjust the troublesome faucet. But what happens if you can’t fix it and the water keeps leaking? The noise becomes menacing, haunting you deep into the night.
Perhaps it is the dark history of colonialism -the kind that scars generations long after the weight of oppression is lifted- that Chipaumire’s piece refers to in her tribute to South African singer Miriam Makeba, performed at YBCA mid-February. But its scenic tools –the set, sound and lighting- also point to the viewer’s own reflexes and habits, our yearning for the world to be in order: turning on the light when entering a dark room, tightening the leaking faucet. What if things can’t be fixed the way we’d like them to be? What happens when a performance presents us with aspects that we are not expecting or comfortable with?
As Jacob’s Pillow Executive Director Ella Baff suggests to viewers in her essay Invitation to the Dance, “dance is often abstract and ambiguous. It may be puzzling and uncomfortable, but relax – you are free to make up your own ‘story’ about what is happening on stage. Allow yourself to harvest feelings, images, and ideas from what you see. They may cohere or not, but you will expand your meaning-making. Ambiguity can be a source of adventure, pleasure, and personal discovery.”
Connecting the dots and creating our own narrative(s) when seeing a performance allow us to enter into a discourse with a work of art. As ODC Theater Director Christy Bolingbroke mentions, “we’re so conditioned to go to a show and be entertained. Contemporary dance is a well-organized absence of information. It is the audience’s role to fill in the blanks. There’s no right or wrong answer. Every viewer approaches the artwork through their personal history and set of values.”
For environmentalist activist David Abram, meaning making is a way to connect with that which we don’t know. Traveling to Asia and Indonesia to research the relation between magic and medicine, recounted in his book The Spell of the Sensuous, he touches upon the loss of our ability to interact with other forms of awareness in the natural world. He traces the origins of this disconnection to the birth of the alphabet and the written word. Our ancestors used to ‘read’ the landscape, anticipate storms, trace food back to its source. The introduction of the written word created a different ‘landscape’ on the page, with its codes and structure, creating an invisible screen between the reader and the palpable world. Abram equates our ability to decipher content and make meaning when reading to encountering ‘the Other,’ that which is different from us:
These letters I print across the page, the scratches and scrawls you now focus upon, trailing off across the white surface, are hardly different from the footprints of prey left in the snow. We read these traces with organs honed over millennia by our tribal ancestors, moving instinctively from one track to the next, picking up the trail afresh whenever it leaves off, hunting the meaning, which would be the meeting with the Other.
In comparison to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the questions we are asking in order to ‘encounter the other’ when watching a dance performance are quite similar. As the skilled tracker deciphers how fresh a print is and what animal it might belong to, the present day audience members may ask themselves “what do these movements mean?” and “where are they leading the narrative?” In both instances, decoding ensues. Consistent with Abram’s theory, when we ‘read’ a dance performance, we, consciously or not, encounter the other.
At the beginning of People Like You, showcased at the Walking Distance Dance Festival last May, Leslie Seiters and Rachael Lincoln are sitting downstage right, with their back to their audience and looking into a mirror. As the two performers gaze at themselves, the audience is reflected in their mirror. The opening of the piece is a visual analogy to what being a spectator also means: as we watch a dance unfold, we can see the performers, people like us, move through the dilemmas and life events that we all face. Watching the performers, we ultimately learn about ourselves.
A work like Miriam allows reflection on how one’s gaze is shaped by past performances, cultural inheritances and assumptions. Some performances ask less of us and simply comply with our set of values and the social and cultural codes we have integrated. Others are more demanding and take root into unknown territory. When watching a piece, we can ask “how much does the piece or artist demand of me? How does the set, the movement, the music, the costumes (or absence of) take me into familiar or foreign territory? How challenged do I want to be when watching art? Would I rather be entertained and how does the experience ultimately affect me?”
Questioning the art work, we are reminded of its ability to interact with us, and the ways in which it can “echo one’s own [sentience and] instill a reverberation in oneself that temporarily shatters habitual ways of seeing and feeling, leaving one open to a world all alive, awake, and aware,” as Abram writes. Every encounter with art holds that potential. When we recognize that we are entering in contact with another form of discourse, we can allow ourselves to be moved and affected.
In her introduction to Miriam, Chipaumire informs the audience member on how to go about making this experience most engaging: “I ask that the audience use their eyes, ears, skin, bones, hearts, head, nose, etc. I ask that they bring their museum, gallery, concert, church, club, sports watching and participating experience to fully engage with this challenging work.”
Dance, maybe more than any other art forms, calls for synaesthetic perception, one that requires the participation of more than just one of our senses. In his work on perception, philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty urges a return to the senses when engaging with the world:
Synaesthetic perception is the rule, and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the center of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist conceives it, what we are to see, hear and feel.
Both Chipaumire and Merleau-Ponty emphasize a way of seeing in which the entire body is implicated as a sensing organism. Optimally this sensual experience is shared so that both the viewer and the viewed ‘recognize’ each other. When we are introduced to a performance, we can observe the poetic structure of the stage and at the same time allow ourselves to also be seen within this environment. Inevitably the implications of this kind of seeing suggest a collaboration, one which can either be voluntary or involuntary.