There we were, standing around, between the four white walls, underneath the late-summer sky, waiting to see what would happen.
We had a few things in common, things that members of a particular audience always have in common. We had all planned to come here at this particular time in anticipation of this particular event. We had come from other places, stopped doing other things, in order to start doing this. We had picked up our tickets, checked our bags, entered the concrete courtyard through the sliding glass door. Picture us as dotted lines on a map, swimming toward each other from a smattering of starting points, converging at the Black and White Gallery in Williamsburg.
We stood chatting, fidgeting, taking note of our surroundings. Each of us possessed a set of hopes and fears and reasons for being here. Hope: of being entertained. Fear: of being bored. Hope: of a shift in perspective. Fear: of missing the point. Hope: of feeling engaged. Fear: of audience participation. We shared at least one expectation: that something was about to begin, something like a performance.
Audience. Performer. One can’t exist without the other. Why, then, the stubborn boundary between the two? Does the shared ritual of waiting reinforce the gap between the watchers and the watched? Could it help to explain why, when the performers subtly invited us to dance—suggesting that we join them in nothing more complicated than jumping jacks—most of us stayed put, or at best, shyly conceded?
The pre-show chatter, polite and subdued, suddenly grew louder. “Is this part of it? The shouting?” asked my friend, who was standing beside me. I wasn’t sure. The crescendo died down. A flurry of activity erupted at our feet. The hum of small talk was replaced by a whisper of shuffles and scuffs. About a third of the crowd (19 people, I counted later) had dropped from standing to crouching, crawling, crab-walking, scooting, rolling, and otherwise ambling along the ground. They were the performers.
Or, is it just that we’re so used to sitting in theaters—us in seats, them onstage—that we can’t shake the convention without feeling uncomfortable? What is so comfortable—still, after all the years and fourth-wall revolutions—about “us in seats, them onstage” in the first place?
Within seconds of this stealthy beginning, the surprise had worn off. I came back to an awareness of myself standing, watching, trying to get a better view. (Soon I would realize there was no such thing as a “better view,” short of seeing all 360 degrees at once.) I felt the distance between me and them, even as they inadvertently brushed up against my legs while scurrying by.
Or how about this: Whatever guardedness we feel out there—our self-consciousness, skepticism, fear of being judged, desire to conform—we can’t help but bring in here. The thought of “audience participation” inevitably puts us in this state of mind, like an office party or the first day of school. The choreographer’s job is to undercut that, distract us from it, before it overtakes us.
In its first incarnation, The White Box Project, an evolving work by the site-specific choreographer Noémie Lafrance, sometimes felt like the first day of school (a little bit awkward) and sometimes didn’t. It wasn’t so much a performance or even a “dance installation” as an artistic and social experiment, designed to sharpen our awareness of just what we, as spectators, are doing when we watch.
Later, during a moonlit screening of Lafrance’s films (she creates and adapts dances for the camera with her company Sens Production), we saw that she is capable of dizzying her audiences. Rapture rides the waves of Frank Gehry’s architecture along with the dancers zooming across it; Descent peers down the tunnel of a spiral staircase on a kaleidoscope of women swinging from the banisters; Eyes nose mouth slips between waking and dreaming; and Melt careens over eight glistening bodies draped on a cement wall, reeling us in, tossing us back out.
At its best, White Box had similarly disorienting effects. In moving her performers around the space, Lafrance was choreographing us as much as them, continuously upending our whereabouts and our focus. The performers corralled us into the center and jogged around the periphery; cleared us off of one wall and herded us up against another; stopped and stood, straight-faced, and began to hum in such a way that we couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from. Their movement tasks belonged to a quirky realm between kindergarten and boot camp: They could delight or startle. Or fall flat.
But it was a work in progress—intentionally. Each half-hour session (three per night on three Saturdays in September, plus two on the final Sunday) was followed by a discussion with the audience, whose feedback would be used to reinvent the choreography the following week. “We want the audience to participate, but without telling them to participate,” Lafrance said on that first Saturday. She admitted that they hadn’t quite figured it out. They were exploring a delicate threshold. We were there to help.*
In my memories of being an audience member that night, one stands out—a moment in which I felt like a performer without being told to perform. The dancers were marching up and down the length of the space, as if directing traffic. “Penetrate! Penetrate! Advancing!” they shouted. “Reverse! Receding! Receding like a hairline!” The cacophony came to a halt. I felt suddenly on the spot. They had divided us into rows. A row of them stood looking at a row of us. Behind them, also looking at us, was another row of us. I experienced people doing to me what I had been doing to others all evening: watching. I realized something I had already known, but never so viscerally: that I am acting when I watch, not simply being acted upon. Watching is participation.
I stayed for two showings. The second was not quite as interesting, because I knew what to expect. With one exception: There was a man in the audience who, though he appeared to be in his 40s, had a childlike demeanor. He clutched a stuffed brown cat in one elbow and a tie-dyed rainbow shawl in the other. He had been at the previous showing, too. But this time, he got swept up in the performers’ world. He ran with them, shouted with them, created his own worlds out of theirs. He was doing what all of us had the freedom to do, a freedom we chose, for the most part, not to act on.
What is that mechanism inside of us that prevents us from dancing with the dancers, from participating with more than our gaze? It’s always at work, and it doesn’t stop when we enter the white box.
*Two weeks later: still exploring. This time around, the performers got us to do what they did (walk, sprint, kneel, lie down, do something akin to the Macarena). But not without some obvious prodding. How do you coerce covertly?