Is the audience for dance engaged in a kind of group voyeurism? What is really going on when we watch young and highly trained thoroughbreds push their bodies to unnatural extremes for our entertainment? Is the effect titilating? Listen to the audience as a dancer executes an especially challenging passage, say, the thirty-two fouettes of the Black Swan. And when a dancer falls, is there an element of pleasure in the audiences’ collective gasp?
These questions swirled around me after watching the most recent performance in the continuing Bill Hayward / Miranov Dance / Redress Films The Intimacies Project. Eight of us gathered in Hayward’s studio where he had constructed a mock window out of a plastic sheet and rigged it with an irrigation system to simulate the look and sound of falling rain. We were instructed to stand in front of the barrier to watch the performance on the other side, as if we were looking into a stranger’s apartment. The only props in the “apartment” were a long low steel bench with a moss-covered sphere at one end.
As the house lights dim, we hear a plaintive harmonica and heavy breathing. From behind us, a man (Jason Nowak) carries a limp woman (Jordan Marinov) upside down – his arms are wrapped around her calves. It’s as if he’s carrying a lifeless sack. He places her on the bench, where her hands drop toward the floor. After he leaves, she rouses herself and begins to move about. The music changes from Charlie Chaplin's haunting "Smile" to the driving beat and percussive lyrics of The Roots' "Walk Alone." It was during the next fifteen minutes of solo dance that my comfort level was pushed to its extreme.
Jordan Marinov (pictured above) is a compelling dancer. With her mile-long legs, angular features, and intense expression, it’s tough to take your eyes off her when she’s performing. Even when she’s still, she radiates energy. Watching her through a window felt illicit, yet it is impossible to look away. She makes full use of the space, by turns cowering, uncoiling, reaching, crawling, stretching. Now she’s a frightened animal, now an angry aggressor, a supplicant, a lover. She moves the bench across the floor to below the window, climbs upon and continues to move. She looks out the window, but over, not at, us. We’re eye level with her thighs and torso and her dance is an invitation to examine her bare skin. She’s that close. Yet there’s a barrier, we can’t touch. Then, in a brilliant stroke, we're shaken out of our reverie by Marinov's voice. "I knew a guy once," she says. So rare is the sound of a dancer's voice that the effect is unsettling.
In previous performances in the series, Marinov danced with a partner. Together they animated the push-and-pull of two individuals at once yearning for and repelled by true intimacy. This time, she was alone for most of the performance and drew the audience into her evolving emotions. Without the usual comfort of a theater seat – we stood throughout – or the distance that typically separates the audience from the stage, we felt exposed, vulnerable, perhaps even more so than the dancer before us. I have a feeling that this is exactly the response Hayward / Marinov were hoping to arouse.
The performance at Bill's took place over a week ago and I'm still haunted by it. My experience with dance began as a girl, when my parents took my siblings and me to watch the New York City Ballet or The American Ballet Theater, or the Joffrey Ballet, or Twyla Tharp, or Alvin Ailey perform at City Center or the New York State Theater. Who knows why they chose dance as our primary cultural activity. There were museums and opera too -- lucky us -- but dance dominated. Times being what they were, our seats were in the far reaches of the fifth ring; the dancers mere dots on the stage. During college, my friends and I would drive up to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and watch the NYCB from the lawn, still far from the stage. Years later, my sister Amy and I examined our bank accounts and realized that -- oh joy! -- we could afford better seats so we moved closer until we eventually splurged on orchestra seat subscriptions. Watching dance from ten rows back is a revelation. You can distinguish one dancer from another and you can see and hear them working. Perspiration flies off their bodies, their nostrils flare and chests heave. Sometimes you see terror, as I did in the eyes of a dancer as he circumnavigated the stage in a burst of grand jetes. A misstep could end a career. Some of the magic is lost by this proximity, but there's an exponential gain in appreciation for the art. Dance may be the most artificial of all of the performing arts - who ever crosses the street on their toes? -- yet that's also what makes it the most beguiling.