Reviewing contemporary dance and performance leads the critic towards experiences that mobilise a total presence. A dance collective in Sweden, ÖFA, invites the audience to dance together with the dancers through the whole performance. The critic has a free choice: participate and still be able to write a review; or sit and watch, contrary to the intentions of the artistic project, positioning oneself aside.
So, I do as everyone else in the audience does: take off my shoes and wrap myself in the “toga,” the clothing of a man in ancient Greece. Mine is light green, and around me mingle other audience members in violet, red, blue, pink and different shades of yellow. Beautiful, even if arranging the material turn out to be more or less successful, and practical. The audience is divided into groups, designated by the colours of their togas. Everyone in the audience is taking part in the performance, we look at each other, but no one is observing from an outside position.
The ÖFA collective is a feminist group of some twenty or more people, some of them more intensely engaged in the interaction with the audience members, others joining from time to time. The city theatre in Uppsala, eighty kilometres north of Stockholm, invited the group, who designed the performance What Happens in Uppsala Stays in Uppsala. The theatre wanted to reach a grown-up, but younger, audience; in a university city such as Uppsala there is considerable interest and curiosity in gender theories. In this production, four dancers/choreographers and two musicians formed a kind of playground leadership for the audience. The atmosphere is friendly and caring and, to start with, we are taken back to Ancient Greece and the festivities and theatre performances of the god Dionysus, in which only men could participate. Humour is used as a tool to open up both the complicated questions of gender structures and problems of power. Shifting between a smiling kinder garden nurse attitude and sharp, smart irony we are dancing, moving, acting in groups, recreating theatre history.
This ironic guide to theatre history, and focus upon the weak position of women within the field, touches many aspects of relations between women and men, sex and love, sense and sensibility, society and the distribution of power. The music and the dance of the dancers-playground leaders make the performance equally aesthetic and polemical. In recent decades, dance has renewed theatrical life in many aspects. A performance like this one might not change the world, but it does change and open up the institutions and traditions of the performing arts.
For the critic, however, it is a true challenge. To keep the position of the critic as an observer, an expert, and a special, exclusive person who does not participate on the same conditions as the rest of the audience, is simply impossible. There is no other choice than taking part or not. For a sequence during the performance I am in a dancing circle, holding hands with the artistic director of the City Theatre. Should I? Could I? But, on the other hand, if I leave or take another place, I am breaking the we-are-all-in-the-same-situation rules of this playground-like performance. If I do not accept to eat the grapes offered with my eyes closed, did I experience this performance at all? The artists in this case demand my presence, critic or not, and, after all, the critic is a member of the audience, even if he or she is a special, well informed and professionally trained member of the audience.
Back at my desk, writing a review, I hesitate. This performance is a clear case of an event. The dividing lines between the performer, the performed and the observer of the performance are blurred and questioned. Reviewing in the traditional sense of criticism of a performance on stage, is not adequate. As a critic in a daily national paper, my mission is to deliver news, to describe and evaluate. The good-or-bad aspect cannot be neglected, but seems to be less important than the how-and-why. Still, the quality in terms of staging, handling the audience and managing to make us feel comfortable is impressive and of a high quality; although is that a skill artistic or pedagogic? My review was, after all, a positive one, where I tried to describe my experience, its joyful side as well as its serious side, of a discussion and reinterpretation of historical mainstream statements. How far do I have to go and share the positions taken by the ÖFA collective, as it is stated by themselves:
We explore, challenge and reconstruct the norms surrounding power structure,
professionalism and art. Our approach and method shapes the content:
how we work determines what will be. By working around the genre concepts
we are able to break new ground in the art world.
Our aim is that, through discussion and collaboration,
we enhance the ability to shape and live the life we want to live.
This may seem utopian, even naive, but it is interesting nevertheless. Reviewing in a daily paper, it comes quite naturally to focus upon the polemical side of a production, and upon the methods and the aspects of a discussion which is relevant to current events or debates. My next example of a performance is far more complicated. This time combining sculptures, objects, smells and dancing, this work is complicated, particularly by the nature of its audience, who are babies, carried into the show by one or two accompanying parents or other adults.
The performance, entitled Sensescapes, in the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm, by Serbian-Swedish choreographer Dalija Acin Thelander, welcomes babies aged three to eighteenth months old. As a critic, the ideal way to experience the performance would be by bringing a baby and share the sensation of touching woollen objects, smelling lavender, and crawling on the floor with other adults accompanying their little ones. How does one write about such work and from what perspective?
Theatre for the youngest is today accepted and taken seriously, even if it is still questioned and often on the lowest stairs in the hierarchy of performing arts. However, the defence of individual human rights and rapid developments in brain research combine to suggest that that very young children lack only the references of people older than them; they are not, in other words, deficient in perception. The need for art is the same, regardless of age, even if the art, as always, must correspond and communicate with its audience.
The audience is invited into a large workshop room, with dimmed lights and a sweet but discreet smell of lavender. Hanging objects and patterns on the floor attract the curiosity of the little ones, and the gently moving hill of velvet, silk and fur in the middle of the room starts to fascinate. Under it three dancers begin to come out foot by foot, arm by arm, and gradually they move out onto the floor and interact with the children.
Some of the children respond to the dancers, others prefer to walk on their own around the room. In the end of the performance, a huge net is lowered from the ceiling, getting closer and possible to touch. The level of concentration of the babies is probably not accessible for adults, but to focus becomes necessary—on the art objects, on the dance, the interaction, the children and their reactions, especially how the child carried by yourself reacts.
The grown-up visitor is invited to read the essay “The Emancipated Baby” by Ben Fletcher-Watson, in which he refers to his own earlier writing on performing arts practice in relation to the impact of child development research. Among others, he quotes Jacques Rancière’s The Emancipated Spectator (Artforum 2007): “For very young children, whose intelligence(s) are often called into question, artworks which revolve around participation, immersion and interaction can provide a space free of judgement, where any and all reactions are welcomed.”
“Free of judgement” is not the normal or traditional platform for the critic, and, needless to say, the grown-up critic is not the target for children’s theatre and dance, yet the only link between the production and the artists and the audience is the critic. The theories of eventness are more than fulfilled in parallel with the development of the contemporary performing arts. When understanding and interpreting no longer means only intellectual and rational understanding, how will the written text correspond with the sensations of the experienced performance? To describe, comment and evaluate the emotions felt is considerably more difficult; being precise becomes a challenge and a frequent escape is to let the written text become poetically personal in an attempt to describe the values of a sensation lived through. Already describing is, to say the least, difficult. To evaluate and critically discuss can only be a proposal and a testimony of a critic being as present as she was able to be.
*Margareta Sörenson ,president of IATC, is a Swedish theatre and dance critic, a writer and researcher in dance history. She writes for the daily national paper Expressen, and has written a number of books on the performing arts, the latest on Mats Ek, with photographer Lesley Leslie-Spinks. Her special interest in dance and puppetry has often led her to the Asian classical stage arts and increased her curiosity about contemporary ones.