Watching Dance, Rituals of Spectatorship

Issue #07: Rituals of Now

And in fact, the image of unsuspecting audience members performing pre-determined, ritualised actions in a partially unknown context and without tangible benefit to the universe or the gods seems to resonate with the way we live our lives.

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Attending a dance performance entails social and cultural reciprocity—whether prescribed, or intuited by the viewer. The occasion involves rituals, however small and little pondered these may be. No nineteenth-century patron of the opera or ballet would have thought of not wearing evening attire to a performance. Applause is itself a ritual in western theatres, attended in upscale venues by cries of “bravo!” and tossed bouquets, in humbler, experimental ones by yipping.

In actual ritual performances, the protocols can be intricate. Consider the Gisaro. This ritual of the Kululi in Papua New Guinea, as described by Edward Schieffelin in his The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers, involves codes of reciprocity that must be observed by the longhouse hosting the Gisaro and the guests from another longhouse. The guests have done their homework and come prepared with songs that will remind the hosts of places that they have cherished and of the loved ones they have lost. It is expected that the singer-dancers and the attendant chorus will cause the hosts to weep.

Grief then turns to anger, and the four elaborately costumed and made-up male dancers who spell one another until dawn become its recipients. To relieve themselves, members of the host group seize burning torches and put them out against a dancer’s body. The pitch at the end of the sticks is low-burning, and he keeps dancing unless serious injury pulls him out of the fray. At the conclusion of the event, the guests give the hosts small gifts to compensate for having aroused sad memories. After an amount of time has elapsed, they takes their turn at hosting a Gisaro.

The weeping is contagious. The watchers expect to become participants. The dancers know they will be burned. The balance between communities is maintained.

In dance performances taking place in theaters, most of the rites that spectators and performers negotiate aren’t spelled out; they spread by a sort of contagion. Audience members observe how those more familiar with the art form behave, or learn the customs by other means (such as newspaper criticism noting that “the audience gave it a standing ovation” or that Mr. X “took numerous bows”).

As I have implied, the place where the performance is to occur, the style of the choreography, and the kind of company presenting it induce different understanding of the rituals involved. I can’t recall ever seeing a performance of The Nutcracker whose intermissions didn’t sprout little girls in their party frocks twirling around the lobby. Few grownups dress up to attend the ballet these days, but the children in the audience, like the children in that ballet’s first act, come decked out in their best. You get the impression that they believe that not to do so would be unthinkable, even disrespectful.

Dance being the elusive art that it is, many spectators seize on quantifiable elements of which they can approve or disapprove. Huge leaps invite applause; so do multiple pirouettes. Who has not heard spectators counting under their respective breaths the ballerina’s fouettés in Act III of Swan Lake? They know that custom (and the music) decrees thirty-two turns, which offers them the opportunity to participate in the occasion and express their excitement. The applause in turn fires up the receiving performer.

On occasion, applause may affect choreography. I have been struck (and often dismayed) by changes that have taken place in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations since that perennial favourite’s premiere in 1960. In the duet “Fix Me Jesus,” as performed by Minnie Marshall and James Truitte decades ago, the man was not a lover, but a supportive figure (a minister perhaps) helping a possibly lost soul. At one moment, he holds out a straight arm, and she leans back against that strong, yet yielding horizontal bar, opening her chest to heaven and lifting one leg as she does so. I’m not sure exactly when audiences began to deem this moment a feat that needed to be applauded. Over the years, many of the female dancers appearing in the duet have lifted their legs higher and higher, arching their bodies far back over the supporting arm and causing their partners to adjust. The now ritualised applause can induce more extreme displays. One dancer, who had previously been a member of the Joffrey Ballet, bent so far backward that her head, like that of a contortionist, circled around to face forward beneath her raised leg.

During years of attending new and controversial forms of dance, I’ve been aware of how spectators modify their behaviour while figuring out how to interact with the work that they are seeing. Some, of course, don’t want to have anything to do with work they deem “not dance.” We’ve all seen people sneaking past the knees of others, whispering apologies, and hastening toward the exits. On occasion, others have mastered a more defiant almost ritualised response—a noisy retreat, perhaps with an over-the-shoulder complaint, and, if possible, a slammed door.

Audiences who are potentially interested, but perhaps slightly wary of vanguard work may be gently prepared by such devices as pre-performance talks. When Ella Baff, the executive and artistic director of the summer Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts, makes her ritual appearance on the stage before every show, she is often able to tell the spectators that they are the very first people in the world to see this particular new work. All around the theatre, almost imperceptibly, spines seem to straighten, eyes brighten, and ears prick up. You are among the first! You may love the work or loathe it, but you are present at an event that demands your attention.

Non-proscenium performance spaces have their own rituals of spectatorship—chief among them is the line to enter a theatre whose doors remain closed, almost until performance time, or even after it. Patience is required, and those unfamiliar with the custom have to be mollified. The first time that I began to think about how spectators prepare for a performance, what expectations they may have, and what rituals they may have to observe occurred in 1973. I was one of those standing for what seemed like a long time in a line that snaked up splintery, well-trodden stairs leading to a former industrial loft in downtown Manhattan. We were waiting to see Meredith Monk’s Education of the Girlchild. Yet, although occasional glancing at watches occurred and a few weary sighs, almost everyone seemed to know the drill and could guess from experience that, when the door opened, Monk would already be in place for her new solo; that’s the reason that we were still outside. Likely we’d be sitting on folding chairs or cushions on the floor once we got in.

Ritual performances in many cultures are expected to affect a society’s needs—for rain, for health, for fertility, etc. And in many of them, as in the Gisaro, the line between observing and actively participating may be blurred or deliberately crossed. It’s intriguing to see how various choreographers query that boundary in works (often site-specific ones) that are not in themselves rituals, and equally interesting to observe how one’s fellow spectator-participants embrace their roles, usually unquestioningly.

Being asked to leave one’s coat and bag raises few hackles, although some people among the limited number of spectators attending Noémi Lafrance’s 2006 Home in a Brooklyn loft wondered why we were told to go into the kitchen first and wash our hands. Yet the atmosphere of ritual that was conveyed by those instructions (and hints in the advance publicity) had evidently prepared everyone for the unexpected chores that awaited us after we had been ushered to seats around a long dining table. Write with the magic markers provided on the naked body of a woman lying down and inching along the surface before us? Sure. Stick paste-wet strips of paper to to her body? Uh… okay. This was an art ritual without a purpose beyond the act of seeing-doing-thinking about the multiple meanings that eventually emerged.

At one point in his 2009 Crotch (all the Joseph Beuys references in the world cannot heal the pain, confusion, regret, cruelty, betrayal, or trauma. . .), Keith Hennessey invited three volunteers from the audience at New York’s Dance Theater Workshop to come and sit close to him in a semi-circle, then asked the rest of us to cluster around. One volunteer held a spool of red thread. Hennessy took the needle end and sewed back and forth between the clothing of each of the three and his own skin, until long red lines connected them to him. The work had all the trappings of a ritual—the hero suffering an ordeal to unite himself with his followers. No one winced, no one drew back. Those gathered couldn’t all have been familiar with Hennessy’s work. Were they simply up for anything?

And, in fact, the image of unsuspecting audience members performing pre-determined, ritualised actions in a partially unknown context and without tangible benefit to the universe or the gods seems to resonate with the way we live our lives.