by Sarah Maxfield I fell in love with performance because of its ability to transport me to another place. As a kid in the Midwest, I could find this transformative magic in the touring company of a Broadway show. Now, as a working artist and ever-more-seasoned New Yorker, I find it harder and harder to experience that wonderfully overwhelming feeling of entering another world. Each time I go to a performance, I am filled with hope that the anticipated alchemy will occur, and usually it does not. That perfect moment, when I have let go of expectations and the performance itself is so well-communicated that for an instant I truly believe in it, is rare and wonderful. Still, thinking back over 2006, I remember a few instances of transformation. One is Ivy Baldwin's GONE MISSING at Dance Theater Workshop. The lights came up on performers frozen in snow-covered tableaux, evoking travelers on a large ship drifting into unknown waters, and I was hooked. I wasn’t the only one; the focus of this moment commanded a palpable hush from the audience. The quiet mystery of the wintry landscape coupled with the heart-wrenching, pathetic humanity of these under-dressed, under-equipped travelers created a hypnotic environment where punctuating expressions of desperation were continually silenced, as if covered over by a fresh blanket of snow. As some of the lost travelers met icy ends, our view began shifting with clever spatial manipulation taking us under as well as above the frozen landscape. Hints of Russian dialogue further proved the humanity of these wanderers – connecting us to them at the same time distancing our American ears. This gorgeous, poetic journey was sweet, heartbreaking, and utterly captivating. Another piece from last season that still hovers in my memory was also at DTW, and also included images of snow, though very different ones. XXXXX, A SITUATION FOR DANCING by Heather Kravas and Antonija Livingstone was a complex, intriguing, touching work. I can still picture Kravas and Livingstone, dressed in cartoonish pot-bellies and long grey beards, one dropping freshly cut paper snowflakes to float down from a ladder onto the other. Later, with a sudden burst of energy, the Hungry March Band paraded in through the house, behind the closed stage curtains, and out again, their music fading with their footsteps, leaving behind a gleeful audience waiting for the next surprise. There were many. The piece twisted and turned, shape-shifting, constantly reinventing itself without ever seeming purposeless. Indeed, I learned from others who viewed the piece on different evenings that each performance was unique, manipulating time and the choreographic material in a variety of ways. The evening that I saw the piece, it ended with Kravas and Livingstone, no longer in disguise, holding hands. After a long moment, Kravas, with intense focus, urinated on the stage through her underwear. This act, a cliché of performance art, managed to be vulnerable, honest and affecting, where it could have been comic and pretentious. I wished I had been able to see each variation of this fascinating, multi-part performance. Live performance has the unique ability to bring people together in an experience, and the balance of the relationship between audience and performers is often explored in contemporary theater and dance. Sometimes that exploration is awkward. Turning the tables on an audience can put them on the spot, and even make them hostile to a performance, (which is occasionally the desired result). It is much more difficult to actively include an audience in a performance in a way that is actually fun for them, but Ursula Eagly’s NOBODY TRY TO BE A HERO did just that. Flashlight-toting performers “captured” the audience and led us in small groups to our seats in the basement of the Chocolate Factory Theater. These women then instructed us how to behave in order to make it out “alive.” The sternness of their speech was offset by their appearance – surely no one felt threatened by these four young women in tennis skirts and t-shirts depicting the Swedish flag. Yet, threatened or not, once the lights were switched off completely, the audience squealed, screamed and squirmed as we played a massive game of haunted-house-telephone, passing each other creepy mystery-items explaining, “These were his eyes,” or “This was his liver.” “He” being one who had disobeyed the rules – information we had heard from our neighbor, who had heard it from her neighbor, who had heard it from one of our captors. The audience was comprised entirely of adults, and most of them jaded performance-goers, yet we were all delightfully grossed out and thrilled by sitting in the dark, passing around cold food. The context made the situation special, and safe to luxuriate in childish absurdity. In contemporary performance, I appreciate that transporting the audience to an alternate place is often not the goal of a piece, and I am frequently intrigued by works that do not even attempt a transformative quality. However, as I think about the shows I attended in 2006, those moments of alchemy are the ones still in my mind, still making me think, and still working their magic.
dance, Sarah Maxfield