At a recent post-show discussion, we received a provocative set of questions from the audience after we were asked to describe our investigations around the conventions of dance and theater. Why are we interested in form? Why are we distinguishing between dance and theater? Isn’t it a bogus academic distinction at this point? How does formal investigation contribute to creating “the moment”? We’re experimenting with form to what end, and why is it important to us personally?
Investigating artistic form is not only important to us, we believe it’s necessary for making contemporary work. In order to create performance on the cutting edge – and that’s the goal, right? – we must make interventions in how the audience watches performance. This requires looking at how audiences perceive the elements of performance and organize the information presented to them, which in turn means focusing on the conventions of our disciplines. The “moments” worth building arise not only through the use of unrecognizable elements, but out of unfamiliar forms.
Dance, theater, efficacy
In our research, we’ve addressed the question of form by talking about efficacy. We originally borrowed the term from Ranciere, but have shifted it in our own parlance to refer to how a work asks to be viewed. More specifically as choreographers, we look at how performers’ movement is meant to be interpreted by an audience, through contextual clues and representational practices deployed within the piece, or based on a learned history of viewing conventions.
The line between how dance asks to be watched and how theater asks to be watched is eminently clear. The division lies in the audience’s assumption that the performer is portraying a character. In our recent physical research, which was intended for a theatrical context, we worked on choreographing isolated gestures, while suggesting to the viewer they were psychologically connected for the character. For example, an exercise: A character walks onstage. She immediately slaps her forehead: Has she forgotten something? Realized something? We expect to receive an explanation. She remains with her hand on her forehead. How long does she stand there motionless? At what point does it stop being read as a character, and instead through other narratives: the actor has forgotten her lines, it is a dancer with a choreography of stillness, it is nothing at all?
Despite the naturalistic gestures, we found ourselves switching to a distinctly non-theatrical mode of viewing at specific points when the performers’ movements veered outside the realm of psychological believability. We could agree at what point we stopped looking for the character’s reason to move, and began to view it purely as "movement" – as dance – when we didn’t believe there was a psychological explanation underlying the gesture. To stay in the realm of theater, there had to be a connection between the action of the performer and the perceived intention of the character the performer is portraying.
The Merce Machine
Of course, dance certainly can and often does employ character and theatrical efficacy, as Nutcracker audiences can attest. Dance also developed its own version of efficacy in the second half of the twentieth century, and that mechanism can be traced to Merce Cunningham. The Playlist audience is no doubt familiar with Cunningham’s use of chance operations and his collaborations with John Cage in which the music functioned separately from the movement. But the most radical accomplishment of Cunningham’s work was that for the first time, disparate elements could appear together onstage without resulting in a narrative connection, character portrayal, or emotional expression. If the movement was derived from chance rather than a dramatic arc, and if it did not connect logically to the sound or visual design, then the onus was shifted to the viewer to either connect these elements or not. Movement became just that – movement, without a character or psychological rationale; a dancer can grimace one moment and smile the next without suggesting to the viewer that the dancer has become happy. This is a far cry from how we view characters in a play, where the smile would indicate an interior state, expressed in order to tell a story. The reason we can see “arbitrary” movement, or simple stillness, and call it (maybe jokingly) modern dance, is Merce Cunningham.
This formed a profound historical break in dance, and in many ways the field is still reeling from it. It allowed for postmodern dance in the 1960s to explore the body as material, without the burden of expression. Breaking action and intention allowed dance to explore medium specificity – a key aspect of modernism as defined by the critic who defined the epoch, Clement Greenberg. Similar to the shift away from representation in modernist visual art, this break in dance allowed for other mechanisms of making meaning to arise. And although experimental theater routinely deconstructs and fractures narrative elements, a fractured narrative is still a narrative, and most theater makers still define themselves primarily as storytellers. Conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith claims that poetry is 50 years behind painting, in that poetry largely endeavors to construct verisimilitude and express emotion: “The leading poets in America who get the prizes are the equivalent of academic 19th-century-style figurative painters. These are people that have no idea that modernism ever ever happened.” To borrow his phrasing, Fire Drill maintains that theater is 50 years behind dance.
Conventional theatrical representation, representational theatrical convention, conventional representational theater
If Cunningham’s medium-specific movement divorced action and intention, claiming that as dance, how does theater fit into the medium of live performance? Is the assumption of a connection between action and intention (i.e., of character) integral to theater? Drawing on our experience as viewers, we say yes. “Theater” IS the assumption of a psychological motivation behind a body’s movement onstage, the representation of a character, and thus a piece of live performance being read as “theater” is a function of the audience’s decision to interpret it as such, not the intention of the artist. The efficacy of theater, or how it asks to be watched, is that viewers are impelled to piece together the elements they see onstage into the logic of character and narrative. The moment the actions of the performer can no longer be connected to an interior state of a character, then we’re not in the realm of theater anymore.
Our work on the boundary of that efficacy has revealed it to be a particularly strong one. In our experience, viewers who are extremely acculturated to theatrical viewing efficacy insist on seeing character in our work, despite the fact that the piece did not intend to portray characters. This way of viewing is specific to our culture and has persisted over many centuries and aesthetic changes, even if it is not common to humanity. When director Peter Brook took his company to the Sahara desert to perform for communities with no tradition of theatrical representation, they were met with confounded reactions and ultimately annoyance; audience members even attempted to help what they thought was the sudden illness of an actor simply portraying an old man.
Theatrical conventions that have to do with viewing and efficacy can certainly be present, even if the performance takes place outside of a conventional theater, in a gallery, house, public space, etc. What defines theater is the way it asks to be watched, and Brook’s own dictum, “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and that is all that is needed for an act of theater to be engaged” should helpfully be amended "... as long as the audience member is prepared to view it as such."
Two plus two equals four, plus—
So through this line of reasoning, we have proposed that theater is based on the conventions of creating character – not an original revelation. But what we’re interested in exploring is what to do with the conclusion that theater is built on the link between action and intention. We find this link to be both liberating and damning. Damning, because it means that theater can never truly break down its elements and deal with the question of its own materials, as other art forms have historically done. (Like, think of how many other ways bodies can exist onstage other than being characters.) This keeps theater stuck in an expired paradigm, relegating it to the aesthetic past. On the other hand, if considered shrewdly, this assertion could lead to some carefully calibrated experimentation with theatrical efficacy. We live in an era that demands audience engagement (for better or worse) and theater has a history of requiring a very particular kind of engagement on the part of its viewers. The persistence of theatrical viewing convention shows that viewers can be molded over time, and they can insist on making meaning even when the form itself becomes fractured. Even if this mode of viewing is relatively outdated, let’s ask ourselves how to work with it: How do audiences view performance? How do they make meaning out of what they see, whatever that content may be, and what does this tell us about our culture and the present moment?
This is why we find “formal concerns” to be crucial, vital, fertile, and pressing. We routinely return to interventions in efficacy as the source of inspiration, and are developing a body of work in which the audience is asked to watch each piece differently than the next. We believe that if we keep producing work through the same efficacy and conventions, then we won’t make anything new. If the content of a performance is challenging, but meant to be viewed through a conventional mechanism, the work still reinforces a particular order of meaning and how we make it. We’d like to assume that our colleagues want to make work on the cutting edge — so we have to look closely at what dance and theater are made of.