Saturday, 1 October 2016

Thoughts in Progress

I was recently at Sadler’s Wells to watch the American contemporary dance company Alvin Ailey. As the performance was about to begin, there were a few seconds between the now-customary request for the audience to switch off their mobile phones and the lights dimming down.

I could not stop thinking of that five-to-six-second gap afterwards. As the auditorium was bathed in darkness, the first choreography of the three-piece bill, Exodus, kicked off. But what about the before the after? What about those precious moments – seconds – before the curtain goes up, after which a performer enters their own “edited” reality? A reality that has been created for the public in attendance.

I began a two-character inner monologue as I drove home that night. Performer: here I am with only the curtain between us. Behind I have left the stripped-away, geometric shapes we did in rehearsals. The earth-bound, grounded movements from school. The raised leg and torso contractions. This is now the space and time we have created, choreographer and me, and us. Together we are a unit, aimed at stopping the never-ending flow of undifferentiated information you have accumulated so far, audience. But only for just over a quarter of an hour. You are our target; we will give you in the next fifteen-to-twenty minutes, spirit, suffering, redemption and hope. We will weave a story through these themes using only our bodies. Forget the music you will hear for the real music will emanate from us, will beam from us, will shine from us. We will be the temporary model of (fictitious) reality you will pass onto your brain to decode. Sometimes our choreographed patterns will make sense as a story, and sometimes they will confuse you. Good, we will not make it easy for you. In the same way we contort our bodies to tell a tale, we want you to contort your brain to try to make sense of this new, synthesised reality.

Spectator: what to expect? What to hope for? The smooth drive here, the traffic lights with hardly reds, mostly greens, the zebra crossings with almost no pedestrians to stop for, the late-summer drizzle, the windshield wipers dancing mechanically from side to side, the smiling faces of the early-evening Saturday revellers. All that I must leave behind. For now in between that curtain and me lies only a new reality, one that has been created for me and me only. It is not only my mobile phone I must turn off, but also the unedited background noise. Will the piece be raw or sophisticated, ballet-leaning or post-modern, safe or ground-breaking? Whatever it is, there will be a code, a certain formula I must decipher.

Sometimes we decipher formulas mathematically. Sometimes we do it with our senses. I have been at the receiving end of the two examples above. More as a member of the audience nowadays. But I also remember the excitement of performing in a production of The Little Prince. I had butterflies in my stomach during that "before the after" ten-second gap. And I loved having that feeling. I still remember seeing the black curtain in front of me and the emotions and thoughts it triggered.

As a spectator I would like to believe that I am open-minded. I do not just perceive with my mind but also with my entire body. I know that I consciously switch off the background noise. The drive to the theatre, traffic-heavy or smooth, the ever-changing weather, London’s mind-boggling road map. These elements are all part of my unedited reality. In order for both performer and audience to succeed together, this unedited reality must be switched off so that a new one can emerge. Fictitious, yes, but still, a reality.

© 2016

Photo taken from Time Out magazine

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 5th October at 6pm (GMT)


  1. I've always admired those who could work through the butterflies to step onto a stage to perform.

  2. Intriguing.
    And I love the idea that the spectator has a job to do as well.

  3. That is a neat way to look at it, as they do have a job to do too, maybe not as much as those on stage. A reality all its own as the two mix though.

  4. The relationship between the performers and the audience has been a topic of discussion and experimentation at least since the origin of deus ex machina.

    It could be both the mental and the physical distance are too great for me, but I recall no butterflies, no expectations -- nothing much else other than concentration and focus when being a "player" awaiting any manner of "performance" in a public setting. As for being a member of an audience, I do not think I have expectations, only anticipation at times.

    It is interesting to think about, though, and could be a fun topic to talk about over a few drinks.

  5. An interesting post. I wonder if you've ever seen a dance company called Axis which features both able-bodied dancers and those who use wheelchairs? Look up wheelchair dancing if not and you will see other examples of what you discuss here, both challenging and beautiful. I hope you enjoyed the performance.

  6. Hi ACIL - that must have been a wonderful performance to see and be a part of. That silence before the curtain goes up - the anticipation of the audience, but more importantly each actor, dancer, performer ... you've given us food for thought with your descriptions ... cheers Hilary

  7. I didn't realise I had a part to play when I watched performers performing. I tried being a performer once and failed - miserably. I might take this topic to my next WI meeting.

  8. What a in interesting take on 'transitions' - a term we used as child therapists to talk about children who struggled when faced with such things as journeys to school (from being a child at home to being a pupil), or going to bed. (When my husband died it was the getting myself to bed bit that I struggled with - that process of leaving the day behind and being a person going to sleep. But I've never thought of those theatrical seconds and what they mean for audience and performer.

  9. La imaginación hay que dejarla volar y ver momentos sublimes con los espectáculos.
    Un buen domingo.

  10. I love when the silence comes, everyone doing as they are told, waiting. For the first, maybe 5 seconds, I am aware of them, feeling connected to the ones who know why they are there and disdainful of the rest, maybe I'm a snob or maybe I want to protect the performers. Then I think of my responsibilities - Kleenex, gum - no coughing or sneezing. And then I leave reality, it's as if my being moves right in front of the stage, no matter what I am sitting. I know they are just doing this for me, that they are conscious of that, that I am the only one in the audience that they have practiced for and of course the sheer joy of the moving.
    My most memorable moment at a ballet was when the curtain (red) slowly went up to mid stage, complete darkness behind and a soft sound began, like a muffled drum beat. The tips of shoes appeared, suspended in a precise horizontal line and then you could see it was the sound of pointe shoes quickly rubbing back and forth against each other, no music, just sound of maybe 15 pairs of satin rubbing rythmically. It was surreal and I will never forget that sound and the suspencion I felt.

    Thank you so much for this lovely post and bringing back one of my favorite memories.

  11. An interesting post. Thanks for sharing! What an opportunity to be in the show.

  12. Excellent observations. As a kid, my favorite moment when going to the movies was those few seconds when the lights dimmed and the curtain had yet to open. There was such a feeling of anticipation, as if anything could happen. Of course, it was always the coming attractions and a rather pedestrian movie, but those Twilight Zone moments were priceless.

  13. It is so wonderful to dance! I think some of that wonder may leave when performing a great deal, as there is always a standard to live up to--and it's pretty stiff--but there is such a joy in that kind of movement. It is a facility you must enjoy your whole life. Thanks for the dialogue! k.

  14. Interesting post about an interesting interval of time

  15. Those are lovely seconds before the performance begins--the excitement can be felt by audience too. Thanks. k.



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