In my previous post, I made clear that I hate “arts-and-crafts” and, even as a young child, would always much rather spend my time working within more ephemeral experiences such as writing and dancing. This realization prompted me to think further in depth about what makes me feel that these art forms are so uniquely and fundamentally akin to each other and what makes them so substantively different from “arts-and-crafts.”
The reader of a written text and the viewer of a dance performance both assume the role of the audience. In so doing, they place themselves into a relatively passive position and treat themselves to an experience crafted by someone else, yet reserve the possibility of bringing their own views, histories, and affects to the performative encounter. Thus, performance is a unique, unexpected, and synthetic generation experienced within the “in between:” the sacred time between beginning and end, the shared space between the worlds of performer and audience, and the meaning produced between perception and affect.
In turning their attention to that which is presented between the posts of the majestic proscenium of the stage or between the similarly stately margins of the page, the audience intentionally subjects themselves to permanent transformation within yet another in between: the dynamic state between one’s inexperience and experience, especially with regard to their encounter with the work that performance places on display.
The audience invites their own transformation by taking part in the shared experience of the performative encounter, opening themselves to being thrilled, inspired, hurt, disappointed, impressed, prompted to remember, prompted to forget, subjected to change, or subjected to being left unchanged, which is itself still an unexpected shift.
Whether prompted by envy, sympathy, inspiration, or the magic of mirror neurons, an audience member–consciously or not–imagines themselves as the performer.
Whether watching a dancer on the stage or enacting the words of a writer on the page, I imagine myself as the performer. Experienced dancers in the audience find themselves following along with the marked movements of their own head. Readers mark the elocution of the words encountered by their eyes with subtle, almost imperceptible, movement of their speech faculties: their jaw, tongue, and lips, among others. We mark movements and we mouth words. We become the performer in order to understand, in order to feel the movements, the shifts, the changes. In order to be changed ourselves as a result of the doing, of the performing, even if it’s not our own performance on the page or stage. We make it ours in the doing, in the experiencing, in the feeling.
In a way, we fantasize that we are on the stage or page facing the other way, feeling the fear and exhilaration of being watched as we naturally, perhaps effortlessly, produce that rendering that prompts such a response in others. We wonder how it feels to do to an audience what the performer is doing to us.
In becoming better audience members, we become better performers who, in turn, undergo more powerful experiences as audience members. And become, yet again, better at performing. This circular and recursive process is never-ending (we hope).
In a sense, there is no audience, only performers. From our vantage point in our seat in the theater or facing the written text on the page, we enact for ourselves what the performer has done so as to feel it. There is no encounter with the world except through the experience of this kind of feeling.
I think this precise kind of feeling is what so intimately connects dance to writing. Or at least that’s how I feel it. More than “thinking,” performance and viewing is about the “feeling,” of the performance. I don’t mean emotion necessarily, for I consider that to be outward representations of affective states. By feeling, I mean more in the sense of “having a feel” for how to drive a car or how to write with a pen on paper. These are experiences that have a feel to them that seems to sink deeper into our consciousness than mere procedural memory.
It is these notions of experience, feeling, and enactment that make the arts of writing and dance so different from, say, the visual arts. I can marvel at a painting or sculpture, but I am not asked to enact my own performance of them or to envision “the doing” myself, such as is the case when I watch someone else dance or speak or read someone else’s words. Those things are acted out linearly, in the unfolding of an experience in real time. Linearity of performative experience enables us to imagine ourselves doing the performance rather than just staring at a finished stable product that remains before your eyes.
I think that’s what makes writing and dance uniquely performative: we share the time and space with the performer; we follow them along. We do it with them, if only in our imaginations (whether we consciously realize it or not).
And it is this fascinating cyclic and circular relationship between being the performer and being the audience that makes even sitting in the audience potentially transformative. I find it so transformative that as a teacher, I continue to try to find ways to develop pedagogical strategies that make use of the power of performance. That, I think, shall be my life’s work!