I was recently at Sadler’s Wells to watch the American contemporary dance company Alvin Ailey. As the performance was about to begin, there were a few seconds between the now-customary request for the audience to switch off their mobile phones and the lights dimming down.
I could not stop thinking of that five-to-six-second gap afterwards. As the auditorium was bathed in darkness, the first choreography of the three-piece bill, Exodus, kicked off. But what about the before the after? What about those precious moments — seconds — before the curtain goes up, after which a performer enters their own “edited” reality? A reality that has been created for the public in attendance.
I began a two-character inner monologue as I drove home that night. Performer: here I am with only the curtain between us. Behind I have left the stripped-away, geometric shapes we did in rehearsals. The earth-bound, grounded movements from school. The raised leg and torso contractions. This is now the space and time we have created, choreographer and me, and us. Together we are a unit, aimed at stopping the never-ending flow of undifferentiated information you have accumulated so far, audience. But only for just over a quarter of an hour. You are our target; we will give you in the next fifteen-to-twenty minutes, spirit, suffering, redemption and hope. We will weave a story through these themes using only our bodies. Forget the music you will hear for the real music will emanate from us, will beam from us, will shine from us. We will be the temporary model of (fictitious) reality you will pass onto your brain to decode. Sometimes our choreographed patterns will make sense as a story, and sometimes they will confuse you. Good, we will not make it easy for you. In the same way we contort our bodies to tell a tale, we want you to contort your brain to try to make sense of this new, synthesised reality.
Spectator: what to expect? What to hope for? The smooth drive here, the traffic lights with hardly reds, mostly greens, the zebra crossings with almost no pedestrians to stop for, the late-summer drizzle, the windshield wipers dancing mechanically from side to side, the smiling faces of the early-evening Saturday revellers. All that I must leave behind. For now in between that curtain and me lies only a new reality, one that has been created for me and me only. It is not only my mobile phone I must turn off, but also the unedited background noise. Will the piece be raw or sophisticated, ballet-leaning or post-modern, safe or ground-breaking? Whatever it is, there will be a code, a certain formula I must decipher.
Sometimes we decipher formulas mathematically. Sometimes we do it with our senses. I have been at the receiving end of the two examples above. More as a member of the audience nowadays. But I also remember the excitement of performing in a production of The Little Prince. I had butterflies in my stomach during that “before the after” ten-second gap. And I loved having that feeling. I still remember seeing the black curtain in front of me and the emotions and thoughts it triggered.
As a spectator I would like to believe that I am open-minded. I do not just perceive with my mind but also with my entire body. I know that I consciously switch off the background noise. The drive to the theatre, traffic-heavy or smooth, the ever-changing weather, London’s mind-boggling road map. These elements are all part of my unedited reality. In order for both performer and audience to succeed together, this unedited reality must be switched off so that a new one can emerge. Fictitious, yes, but still, a reality.