Performance invites mystified transformations.

Do you believe in magic? 

Not only was my adult tap class going to perform their recital routine to that song before we were derailed by the pandemic, but the question it asks is so critical to understanding performance. 

I gave an interdisciplinary talk recently at my campus with a colleague from the biology department. We spoke about creativity, neuroscience, and the role of dopamine in learning. One of the concepts that came up in our research was the role of neural states in performance. You might remember from my previous blog post that affect is a perceived changed in states. Performers have for centuries been aware of—and even made deliberate use of—the power to affect neural states through ritual. Performers tend to be a superstitious bunch and pre-performance rituals are a vital part of any performer’s preparation before taking to the stage. Whether it’s in the form of holding hands in a calming circle, wearing a hidden talisman, or avoiding uttering aloud the name of a certain Shakespeare play, performers are serious about their pre-show routines. Neuroscience affirms the importance of these rituals because they are a way to access and intentionally control our brain’s neural states. We want our brains primed for the performative encounter.

The most elementary and powerful example I can think of regarding neural states is with regard to my youngest dancers: the age 3-5 group. I noticed at one recital that they never sneeze on stage during their dance. And kids at that age sneeze all the time! So there’s something about the pre-performance ritual: getting dressed in the costume, sitting through makeup application, getting your hair done, etc. (and not to mention the actual act of stepping out on stage under the light and in from of an audience!) that sends a clear message to the brain: now is the time to prioritize the dance and not sneezes. 

The little ones don’t intentionally seek to enter a specified neural state to enhance their performances, but more seasoned performers do and that’s where the significance of ritual comes in. 

Most of our theoretical understandings of ritual come to us from the work of anthropologists who notice that human practices we would call ritual tend to have some elements in common. Rituals are defined as acts or sets of acts experienced by human beings that usually contain symbolic elements and are meant to represent or invite a change of some sort. A wedding is a kind of ritual—it’s an event experienced by humans where symbols (rings, the unity candle, etc.) represent the union of two individuals, which is the change that is represented. There’s also a beginning point, an end point, and the passage of sacred time in between. Sacred time is easy to understand; it’s basically any time that it would be a bad thing to answer your cell phone. 

All performances are ritualized experiences. Whether we think about it or not, changes occur when we are onstage, both for ourselves as the performer and, we hope, for our audience. We leave the venue different than when we arrived. We perhaps know something more about ourselves or about the world as a result of our participation in the ritualized act of performance. 

This didactic potential of performance is the central concept of my notion of a pedagogy of performance—that learning is a process not defined by a unidirectional relationship between teacher and student (where the teacher presents and the student passively learns) but rather by a triangular relationship between student, teacher, and the act of performance. Imagining learning this way, we see the act of learning as both larger than the sum of its participants and also significant to a much larger context. Understood this way, the act of performance can change ourselves and also the world. 

It is this concept of transformation through performance that I argue is a kind of magic (Hey! Another song for my recital this year!). After all, what is magic but a mystified transformation? 

Let’s think about the idea of a person changing. As someone who lost over a hundred pounds in the last year, transformation has been on my mind quite a bit! We’ve all heard that a leopard can’t change its spots. And yet, we have many examples of those who have. Immensely difficult, of course, which is why genuine human transformation seems so rare. What could possibly effect such change except for magic? 

Magic is a useful term for theorizing processes of transformation that work outside of our view and understanding. When I spoke about magic at that talk I mentioned, I saw winces and heard scoffs from the biology faculty members in the room. Scientists get all kinds of uncomfortable when we humanities people start talking about magic as an explanation for phenomena, but I think it works in this case. 

Let’s think about the magic spell. Spells are clearly rituals according to the definition I laid out briefly above. They are intentional invitations for mystified transformations to take place. And, isn’t that what a performance is? When we invite an audience to come and watch us as we do our thing within the sacred time and sacred space that is the performance venue, aren’t we inviting transformations that could never be induced otherwise? And don’t those transformations occur through processes that we don’t fully understand? And yet, despite our lack of understanding, the effects are significant and fully real. 

A recurring theme in all of my work and thinking is the notion that performance bears a power that can drive significant transformations in ourselves and in others. Affect (as discussed an a previous blog) is one such way to understand how transformations can be brought about and even rendered contagious. All of these possibilities are what mae performance so powerful. 

As I often say “it is in acting as if, that one becomes.” This single mantra is at the center of my thinking about power, pedagogy, and performance: if we want to become something, all we have to do is start performing as if.

How have you been magically transformed by performance?