To practice togetherness in public
Text: Anette Therese Pettersen
I enter a stage, a performance space, that immediately has many shared features with my elementary school’s gymnastic hall. It’s something about the floor, I think, and the way the windows are placed high up on the wall (were they?), that makes a connection in me that resonates in my body. I stand still, I have an immediate hesitation.
I was incredibly bad at gymnastics all through school, and hence; hated it. I ran too slow, I was horrible at all ball games because I was afraid of the ball (I was generally afraid a lot as a child), I was also quite small, and not strong. I was not picked first in any team sports. When being instructed in this performance space to just find a spot to sit down, I am torn between the adult and the child within, about whether to fled the scene or to stay and fight. I stay. I try not to fight, but I stay.
We gather in breathing exercises, we walk about, and we are told to find a love object in the room. I position myself next to a piece of scenography in the outskirts of the room, next to the wall. I’m not really in love. I’m being pragmatic. I relax in my ordinary role as the non-bodily-participating audience member, next to a couple of other members. We are told to lock eyes with someone else in the audience, to find a partner. From where I am sitting behind a pink screen, there are few eyes to lock with, and the session ends without me having someone. I was not picked, my body screams. I want to flee. Again. But I decide to stay, again.
I turn to the man next to me. He is leaning against the wall, his eyes are almost closed and he seems detached from it all. “Didn’t you find a partner?”, I ask. He shakes his head. “Me neither”, I say with a small smile. He just looks at me. “So, maybe we should be partners?”, I try. He continues to look at me. Not convinced. Quite the opposite. I smile more. “Do you want to try this?”, I ask – with a voice that sounds a lot more eager than I feel. He continues to look at me. Still not convinced. I move, so that I face him. Smiling even more. “Let’s just be reluctant together”, I say. He is not comfortable with speaking English. Actually, he is not comfortable with any of this. Nor am I, but I keep pushing. We perform the task we have been given: to try to telepathically send images of squares, triangles and circles to each other. Needless to say; we fail. We are both relieved when the session ends and the performance continues. I am a bit content that I managed to stay. Until I realise that in my battle I forced the man to join me, that I took on the same role as my gymnastics’ teacher. Predator and prey, at the same time.
I feel nervous in advance of The100Hands’ Show Me. I’ve been told it’s a participatory performance, and after having talked about my experience in the gymnastics space, someone expresses a certain eagerness towards how I will experience this performance. What will it be, I wonder; what will I have to do – perform? “Search for someone else’s gaze, lock eyes and stay connected”, the three dancers instruct us when I arrive together with other festival participants.
Being there, searching for that pair of eyes, reminds me of previous encounters. As meeting new people also reminds us of others. How Elske’s laughter remind me of my friend Pernille. Or how Dirk will look up into the air when he is considering something, much the same way as one of my brothers does.
Standing in front of a stranger in Show Me, I have the previous day’s failure in mind. But I also remember sitting in the stairs at Black Box theatre in Oslo, some months earlier, also locking eyes with someone. Also in a performance. And while standing in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, eye to eye with a stranger, I come to think of something I read somewhere. I think it was in a column by a therapist, an advice for couples who wanted to stay together; that they should practice this eye-to-eye-thing, to look into each other’s eyes every day for a certain amount of time. That this would strengthen the bond between them, how it makes us feel more empathy for the other. Apparently, it is very rare to do that. And I think about how I most likely looked into that man’s eyes longer than anyone else did that day – including his girlfriend.
Later, we are standing in a crowd, watching two of the performers describing the third, partly by the content in her wallet. For a moment I get scared that they have collected all our bags and wallets, from the bench where we left them as we entered the space, located behind the wall they are sitting in front of. What does my purse and wallet contain today? Anything embarrassing? But I have experienced this before. In a different place, a different performance. Some years ago, in the performance Bunny, by Daniel Kok (Discodanny) and Luke George. It was in the winter, way up north in Norway, at Hammerfest dance festival. I was watching a performance that was partly participatory, where the performers wanted to explore the desire between dancer and audience. The two performers had backgrounds within pole dancing and massage, and used ropes as a part of their performance. Both to tie one another, and inviting the audience to participate in it. I was in charge of a talk the next day, in which I would talk with one of the performers, so I felt some sort of responsibility for their act. I had also talked to them before the performance, and thus established a level of basic trust that comes from getting to know someone. So, when the audience proved to be less willing to enter the stage, Luke George locked eyes with me. He was tied up, rolling and crawling on the stage – which was a patch of carpet, as the ‘stage’ was just a corner of a lobby or some other room where the audience could come and go, pass by as they pleased. Luke more or less crawled into my lap, looked at me, and I caved in. I agreed to be taken on stage, be tied up and blindfolded. Much to my own surprise, and much against my limits of comfort space. After being carefully led around the stage, moving awkwardly as I was both blindfolded and temporarily disabled with my legs tied together, the scarf around my head was removed and I discovered the entire content of my wallet-purse being carefully placed on the floor. They were on their side quite surprised by the vast amount of stuff I had in it, and I was in turn (again) surprisingly chill about it.
Why, I wonder – why did I become so uncomfortable in the workshop by The100Hands, while so at ease back then in Hammerfest? Somehow, I was sure that they would have my back covered. That they wouldn’t abandon or make a fool of me.
How we meet; on what terms and conditions for responsibility and power, plays an important role in this. There is a big difference between interacting with a professional performer, knowing that the main responsibility is in their hands, and between interacting with other members of the audience, not knowing what days and experiences they bring with them, to what extent they are prepared for this shared moment of performing. In some performers I trust, in others not. And some days, and with some audience members, I am open to explore, to share intimacy, and other days, and with other people, not so much. On my second day, attending Dutch theatre festival Boulevard in ‘s-Hertogenbosch it takes a huge effort, a big chunk of courage to just enter the performance space.
Searching for my space in the common space
As a child I would greet people in the street, saying hi as we passed. Growing up in the suburbs of a midsize Norwegian town, it felt odd to be walking down a desolated street, not greeting and by that acknowledging the one or two other persons passing you there. I was not a very outward person, I am rather shy, but these short relations with others have always given me much pleasure.
I realise, small moments of togetherness have always moved me, especially when they happen between strangers. The way we form temporary units or collectives is very appealing to me. Whether they only last for a few seconds, like in moments you see something strange – someone behaving in a way that surprises you – and you meet the eyes of someone else seeing the same thing, sharing the surprise, joy or even anger. Or in performances, where several of these small units often occur within the larger collective we somehow form in the time the performance lasts.
I carry these meetings with me and remember many of them. How we share pleasure, pain and moments of slapstick as we pass each other. I remember being about seven years old, walking up a small hill, on my way to the store, meeting the eyes of an older man, how we said hi, and then kept walking. Nothing more than that. It was summer, I was most likely going to buy an ice cream. Before learning fear of others, and shame, I would greet everyone.
I was reminded of this as I watched Chiara Bersani in Seeking Unicorns. She slowly makes her way through the Kapel GAST. In a room that has features like it’s been a church once, with big windows high up on the wall. Arches at the end of the space, and hard, tiled floors. We, the audience or temporary guests, are seated on soft cushions on the floor, or on comfortable chairs, covered with velour. She, on the other hand, has a tiny figure. At first, lying on the floor, in one corner of what is the temporary stage. Then, she moves on all four, on knuckles and knees, much like I imagine a tiny unicorn would move. Pausing, looking startled when someone in the room coughs. Moving around the space, making eye contact with most, if not all, people in the room.
A man is rocking and swaying to the music being played, and as she pauses in front of him, I see how she makes eye contact with the man. Close to him, he doesn’t flicker, and his seated dance seems to give echo in her, the music passes through him and on to her body. The compassionate smile of what I think is a journalist. The slightly embarrassed, but also lovingly and apologetic smile of the photographer seated next to the journalist. How much of this will she remember afterwards? How many of these meetings are stored?
On my last day at the festival, I get up early to write. I have breakfast and coffee, and more coffee, and more writing, in bed. I decide to go for a run, remembering how the endorphins almost exploded in my body the first morning here, after having a full night’s sleep, after weeks of restless nights in the moist and clammy air of the Berlin summer, looking forward to a new hit, a dose of endorphins. And the disappointment when discovering someone else is already on the treadmill, the one treadmill in the entire gym. The personal trainer suggests I ask the guy how long he will be on, but I hesitate, as I myself would have lost my flow if someone did that to me.
I just hover in the area instead. Not sure whether to keep writing on my phone and responding to emails, or: explore a new gymnastic equipment. As I am in a place in life where I am adventuring into several new areas; moving to a different city, starting a new job, I want to stay in something that is familiar to me. The joy in the familiar. In repetitions. Listening to the same playlist.
But instead I move up on something new. The fumbling as I climb on. Finding a flow, feeling good about it when I finally get there. Loosing the flow whenever I get self-conscious. Pushing myself a bit further. Trying to figure out what the machine is about. I am out of my comfort zone, but it was I who decided to go into this new situation, and the performance is for me alone.
Essay from Anette Therese Pettersen after seeing Preview: Lands of Concerts: Body Work Edition by Jija Sohn, Andrea Zavala Folache & Lucy Wilke, Show Me by The100Hands and Seeking Unicorns by Chiara Bersani at Theaterfestival Boulevard 2019. Anette is 1 of the participants of the Dance&Dare SummerSchool, an international project for creative writers who dare to look for new words for dance and performance, by Domain for Art Criticism & DansBrabant. Go here to read all the essays: http://dansbrabant.nl/en/blog/