Monday, March 9, 2009

At Ease: Getting Comfortable On Site

posted by Marissa Nielsen-Pincus

Toward the end of our first week of Undercurrents & Exchange, I got a call from Zach one afternoon saying he had some bad news. I had, so far, only been involved in the first day’s performance where I, as a mermaid, had flopped though the palms and up the stairs to meet Zach, the businessman. That first day, we had met a chilly response from our audience, who seemed uncomfortable with not knowing the how, when, where and why of what we were doing.

When Zach called with the "bad news" and before he had a chance to share, it flashed through my mind that perhaps there had been too many complaints about us disturbing peoples' lunchtime, and Undercurrents and Exchange was being canceled. This was, of course, not the case. The problem was a logistical issue that was soon solved. But thinking back to that first week and my response to Zach’s call, I realize how far we came in the month, both in terms of our own comfort in the space, and the comfort of our audience, who accepted and enjoyed our presence in the Winter Garden by the end.

Even before we began performing, my visits to the WFC and our early rehearsals were filled with a tentativeness. We would arrive around 7pm, right as they dimmed the lights in the Winter Garden. We would look around, talk about the space, try out little bits of ideas and choreography on the stairs or on the benches, but it felt as if we were afraid of breaking something, or getting caught, or being seen, even though we had full permission to be there. It didn’t feel like a safe space to experiment in. It wasn’t ours yet.

One of those evenings when we were rehearsing for the first day’s performance, I put on the mermaid tail and began to flop though the palms. I was almost immediately stopped by a worried guard who told me, "It’s against the rules to roll on the floor. God forbid you hit something and crack your head open, or God forbid you trip someone else and they crack their head open.” Clearly, it wasn’t just us who were uncomfortable with our presence in the space.

But through the month of February, we DID become comfortable.

Maybe it was the amount of time we began spending there. . .

I agree with what Tara wrote in her earlier blog entry: the WFC is a little city of its own. Once you enter you don’t have to leave. You can eat lunch, get coffee, buy clothes, buy toys. There is a drug store, Japanese, Mexican, and Chinese restaurants, places to eat, sit, walk, flowers and chocolates to buy. There is really no reason to leave the complex. So, in our long days of rehearsing, performing, and more rehearsing, we began to live there, eat there, nap there, work there. We became inhabitants of the space, using it like everyone else who works there. We were no longer outsiders.

But in addition to the time spent there, something else shifted on the Friday of the first week.

Baby Jane Dexter, a well known Jazz singer, and her trio were scheduled to perform that day at lunchtime, and Zach and I were going to slip in during her set and dance to one of her songs. We rode down the escalators on opposite sides, ducked under the stantions, and met in the middle. We then danced in a roped-off area in front of the band, with a big audience seated in chairs in front of us, an audience that warmly applauded when we finished. It felt strangely successful, even though in many ways it was the opposite of what we had intended to do in this project, to have an audience seated in chairs set up for a "Performance" and to dance in a roped-off area. That is not our idea of performing in public spaces.

But our audience had been comfortable, and because they were comfortable, they enjoyed us. In our discussion afterwards, we were able to verbalize what now felt like our real job for the month. There are tactics we can use as performers that allow the audience to "understand" that we are there for their enjoyment, hooks that draw the audience to us and help to familiarize us to them... and that serves to make them comfortable with our presence and put them at ease. Our job was to experiment with different combinations of these hooks, to play with how few we could use without losing our audience, and to discover how many we needed to keep them traveling with us: loud music, creating recognizable characters, dressing the same daily, playing our images and video shorts in the space all day long, building choreographic themes that developed throughout the month, dancing in high traffic areas that did not allow us to be ignored, staging large groups that a were also impossible to ignore. These were a few of our discoveries.

By the end of the month, it felt like we could do whatever we wanted and not only get away with it but also be appreciated for what we were doing: rolling on the floor (and it didn’t seem to scare anyone); just walking around (and still be recognizable as performers); dancing without music (and we were still clearly "performing," which hadn’t gone so well our first week); dancing up and down the entire staircase (and forcing all the people to move out of our way without feeling that we were resented by our audience); and performing simple duets that could hold the attention of the entire space (people circled all the way around the entire balcony to watch us).

We reached out to our audience, an odd assembly of people who are not accustomed to seeing dance not on a formal stage. And they eventually followed us. And accepted our quirky offerings. And enjoyed them.

I am left with a feeling that somehow in sharing our vocabularies we ended up with a strange amalgamated language of corporate culture and contemporary dance/performance/ art/ spectacle that we all could speak and feel at ease with. And somehow, this language feels almost radical, like we snuck into the World Financial Center and sprinkled a little counter culture into this corporate world, and it stuck.

1 comment:

Flawda said...

I checked out your third rail videos today. I think that is some seriously ballsy shit you guys are doing up there. My adrenaline went hrough the roof while Zach(?) was sitting on the steps "texting" or whatever... Sitting waiting for the mermaid to come up the stairs and acting like the rest of the suits there....very cool. Marissa's job too must have been exhilarating and terrifying. The whole thing was terrifying and awesome. I can understand the nerves of getting on a stage with people expecting a performance, but to give people a performance who could or couldn't give a shit is just insane, and very, very cool.