Guest Blog Post by Megan Nicely
I couldn’t attend Jess Curtis/Gravity’s (in) Visible at CounterPulse (Oct 3-6 & Oct 10-13) so I asked Megan Nicely to write a response. I Posed three questions and Nicely offered three compelling answers.
Did you feel that the dance was able to engage you differently without being able to see it? In other words, how did the dance “dislcoate[d] vision from the center of your experience?
I’ve attended Jess Curtis/Gravity’s work for many years. I’m engaged by the questions Jess asks and always curious how he will address them. In general, I would say that he begins with the body and looks for ways to expand or test different thresholds of experience and perception. He often works in collaboration with performers and other artists, and more recently philosophers. Reflecting on the performances I have seen, I observe a gradual shift from a focus on the performer’s body to increasingly include those of audience members as well. The recent piece (in)Visible is designed with this perspective in mind. The promotional materials ask: “How do you experience a performance? By seeing it? What if that’s not possible?”
The night I attended I was part of a much more diversely abled audience (at least based on albeit limited visual markers), which already speaks to some of the politics of Jess’s work. Audio Description and ASL interpretation were made available, and the visual experience I did have as a seeing person was enjoyable–six dancers’ skillful navigation of the circular and narrow spaces through the scattering of audience chairs, which heightened my kinesthetic sense. Throughout the evening, I appreciated having time to attend to my own audience body. I was not asked to participate in the ways some immersive experiences demand, nor was I simply watching a spectacle. By addressing what Jacques Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible,” (in)Visible speaks to the politics of dance aesthetics and challenges audiences to find meaning in new ways.
After experiencing the work, however, I found myself grappling less with other sensory modalities than with the space left by the demotion of vision, and what came in to fill its place. I find that the above promotional questions can be taken in several ways: first, they ask how artists might expand the art form to include multiple access points and varieties of sensory awareness, but they also ask what we can learn about vision’s role in dance by destabilizing its hierarchy. Because this work was designed less to give a seeing person a new experience than to include a non-seeing audience, I did find myself constructing meaning in new ways. In this particular piece, speaking stepped into vision’s location, accompanied by some less dominant touch as air, a prop, or a performer made subtle contact. This dominance of the voice stood out to me, not because I necessarily consider dance to be “nonverbal,” but because language, like vision, is a tool of power that can make explicit or invisible certain experiences. This choice interested me.
What did you take away from the dance? What questions linger?
First and foremost, as an audience member, I felt well taken care of. Prior to entering the theater we were each given a glow stick and were instructed that if at any time we felt uncomfortable or needed to leave the performance, we could simply break it, signaling a desire to exit. We were also greeted by performers as we looked for seating in the groups of chairs arranged on and around the periphery of the stage, and were reminded several times during the show that if we did not want to be touched by a performer, even if we had chosen to sit in an interactive chair, we could opt-out. These tactics set the tone for performance in the age of consent, where crossing conventional theatrical boundaries in order to shock audiences out of a “false reality” were instead approached with caution, suggesting not tamed performance so much as a new training of how to bring an audience body into a performance experience. Maybe it’s time to update Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty for today’s age?
What lingered after the performance was that these consensual audience interactions did not lend agency to the audience, except in refusal by saying “no.” Those in the participatory seats were manipulated like puppets or props, with often humorous commentary (“I am taking off the subject’s shoes,” “I am looking for the subject’s phone”). The specifics of these interactions were articulated verbally just before they happened, a skillful consent strategy. However, they were not questions but statements (although I did experience a whispered personal exchange next to me between a performer and audience member as the performer attempted a more ambitious move–standing on the audience member’s thighs–whispering as they ascended, “ok?”) I was awakened to the vast range of performance strategies for connecting with audiences without merely eliminating boundaries altogether. Here, the lines between the performance of consent and actual consent were blurred–as they often are in “real life.”
Does the dance resonate with any social/political issues out there right now?
The piece left me questioning what seems to be a problematic issue in our human social world: ambiguity. Not only are there grey areas of meaning and interpretation, but even when seemingly “factual” or descriptive, statements and actions do not always line up. Anyone who has stepped briefly into performance theory knows that the performative–when “saying something is doing something”–can either be truthful or in J. L. Austin’s words “infelicitous.” It is only truthful when socially agreed upon and repeated so that others understand it as such. While not performative per se, (in)Visible was a beautiful example of truthful alignment. Even when phrases themselves were more abstract or interpretive rather than descriptive–i.e., “I am not ignoring the subject” while dancing close by–there was little question that what was said and what was done were in agreement.
The alignment or word and deed is increasingly rare and often not the case. Different interpretations of words and actions populate today’s headlines. Words and movements can lie, as well as tell truths, depending on context, and with the rapid changes to these contexts, it is no wonder we don’t quite trust either words or actions very much at the moment. Will removing vision–and speaking for that matter–lead to other kinds of centralized experiences, both in performance and outside of it? While a welcomed change, do proceed with awareness. Lest you surrender all visual capacities, the digital audience survey, which earned one a free drink, did not allow one to “opt-out” of any of the questions. I guess that is the price for diverting attention to other sensorial desires.