I think it’s really exciting when people get up and leave in the middle of a performance. It shows that those people felt so strongly that sitting politely through the end was no longer an option, decorum be damned. It’s the kind of discourse I wish happened more often: discourse based not on politeness but on engagement. People get up and walk out of performances when they are engaged in disliking a work. Art is meant to be viewed, shared, received, discussed, and even criticized, and it falls short of any of those things if the audience isn’t engaged. Far from boredom, in which people obligatorily sit through shows completely disengaged, the act of walking out of a performance signifies care and discontentment. While I’m not advocating people get up and leave during performances anytime they dislike something, I am saying that when it does happen it indicates that those viewers were reacting to the work from an alert, honest, highly invested place.
Pina Bausch’s Danzon recently toured to Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall via Calperformances. One of the most highly anticipated dance events in the Bay Area this year, expectations ran high of Bausch’s legendary Wuppertal Tanztheatre. By the end of her life Bausch had acquired a reputation for creating quite epic pieces. While a fair number of people in the audience walked out of the show and some in the dance community expressed nonfulfillment, others have reported feeling overwhelmed and overcome. Wherever the audience fell on the like-dislike spectrum, the level of engagement was high.
I am still trying to comprehend what transpired through the course of the evening. It made no sense. It seemed to hint at everything but say nothing. It reminded me of things I don’t remember. It challenged me to hang on, seeming to intentionally lose me. At the same time it was so soft. From the naked women squirming in their bathtubs and the woman taping her thighs together to trap the man’s hand, to a camp telling jokes in tents and a padded fat woman spiraling around the stage to Saint-Saens Dying Swan, the piece felt like a series of random recollections. In its primordial sexual playfulness, it defied my attempts to make something out of it, contradicting my desire for order and purpose.
At one hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission, there was only so much time I could spend trying to understand what was going on before I simply had to sit back and watch. And when I finally stopped trying to thread it all together, it began to slowly thread itself. Toward the end Dominique Mercy, Bausch’s longtime collaborator whose simple human stage presence was powerfully affective, held a bag of dirt and threw handfuls in a perfect grid charted across the stage. Eventually I forgot he was there, as other action onstage grabbed my attention. And then just when I’d ceased to notice his presence completely, he burst forward into a wrenching solo to operatic music, catching my heart in my throat with his suddenness and heightened emotional drama before going back to mundanely throwing his handfuls of dirt. At another point a woman shoveled dirt on another woman as she danced, showering the whimsical whirling dancer in dark grainy earth. Things grow in dirt; it’s a fertile substance. Yet we shovel it over our dead too. Growth, death and fertility all came to mind at once. Yet instead of feeling like a forced image, it felt more like a suggestion. All of it felt this way, softly hinting at emotions and memories. In this way I felt like Bausch took me by the hand and led me around the neighborhood, and when I stopped worrying about where we were going and simply allowed myself to be led, I found myself at home.
Danzon made me smile and laugh and cry. It left me lost and found at the same time. I stand in awe of Bausch’s prowess in making me feel so much. But as I watched the man in front of me or the people behind me walk out, I marveled perhaps even more. This was a piece that elicited response. While mine happened to be incredibly positive and theirs seemingly negative, I think both have validity in that they were strongly felt.