I write a lot about the joy of being in the audience – how I love to love theatre and how often I lean over to the person beside me and whisper “I’m so fucking excited” as the lights fade to black. Today I want to talk about my failings as an audience member.
Back in 2009 I saw Philippe Genty’s Lands End. It was a performance of exquisite grandeur: an eloquent, wordless love letter to the imagination. At the end of the performance, the young couple beside me tentatively offered their hard-earned meaning making.
“Is that right? Is that what it meant?”
“Absolutely! If that’s what it meant to you!”
I remember how philanthropic my words felt at the time. I was standing at the gates of Possibility, barefoot and smiling, my words a sweeping gesture at the castles and hills around me. “My kingdom is yours!” I proclaimed. “Wander where you will! The only rule is No Rules.” I went home imagining the adventures the pair would have with my words as their permission slip. (All the metaphors!)
I thought of this exchange two weeks ago when I saw Atlanta Eke’s Body of Work at Dancehouse. The piece is stunning; equally as eloquent as Genty’s but without the grandeur. This was small, tight, fierce, uncomfortable, mesmerising in its persistent self-examination, witty, distressing and obsessive, with a deep undercurrent of wrongness and impending destruction. Body of Work is the foreshocks of a human earthquake. It is rats fleeing, dogs howling and a sky full of birds. It did things to my body, knotted my gut, locked my joints and left me a raw, miserable ball.
But here’s the thing: I was already that miserable ball when I walked into the theatre. I will always feel like an outsider in dance. The fact that I’ve become something of a resident outsider for Dancehouse in recent months – as the non-dance member of an assessment panel, host of a forum and writer of an article for Dancehouse Diary – hasn’t lessened my feeling of being the alien in the room. If anything, the more I learn, the more aware I am of the disconnection I have from my body and my inadequacies at translating dance into a verbal or written responses.
Now I do not write about these two incredibly different shows to draw a comparison between them – for they were worlds apart and aimed to elicit very different emotive responses from their audiences.
It also doesn’t matter why they produced in me such incredibly different emotions. Lands End was wordless (I think: it was a long time ago) and I happily drifted through its visual poetry without their familiar tether but when Atlanta exchanged nine words with her tech mid-way through Body of Work, I clung to them like a lifeline. I counted them. Literally. I treasured them. I emblazoned them on my brain and across her body. But many days I’m fine without words. It could have been that one was part of a dance festival instead of an arts festival or it could have just been that I was having a bad week; a week in which again and again I asked myself what possessed me, an introvert, to push myself into a field that demands extroversion; a week in which I envied visual artists their quiet galleries. Perhaps it was that, as an arts writer, I feel responsible when I lack an instantaneous eloquent response to art.
Whatever the reason, I was made Other by Atlanta’s work and it is good to be Other. It reminds me of the bravery of those who take a punt on an artist or art form they have never experienced before. Art worlds develop their own dialects, verbal, visual and physical, for which there are no dictionaries or travel guides. In asking someone to enter these worlds, we are asking them to prepare to feel underprepared.
I think of the people I interview for this blog: those travellers sans Lonely Planet, under whose noses I wave my mic recorder mere minutes after they have crossed the boarder back into their home land. “What happened to you? What did it mean? Be the anthropologist!” I ask, well-meaning jerk that I am. If someone had done this to me after Body of Work I probably would have burst into tears. “Don’t ask me. This isn’t my first language.” After a calming gin and tonic, I might venture an interpretation immediately followed by the self-depreciating “Is that right? Is that what it meant?”
I know I entitled this “my failings as an audience member” and I know that I did not ‘fail’ Body of Work. It made me feel. A lot. Almost too much. And I am engaging with it, questioning myself and interrogating my intellectual and emotive responses perhaps more ruthlessly than a sane person should. But it made me feel like a failure. A shaky, foolish, voiceless heap taking up a seat that should have been given to someone more deserving. And you know what? I have room in my heart for work that does this to me.
So shake me to the core. Leave me the outsider. Batter my ego. Knot my gut, lock my joints, catch my breath. Anything that leaves me still picking up the pieces two weeks after the fact is a wonder. Fucking bring it.
PS. I had a friend read this to check if it was self-indulgent self-flagellation. It passed his test but I apologise to anyone who found it like wading through an ocean of angst.