The 5 Minute Hug: Testing the Boundaries of Dance as a Performer and Audience

–Thoughts on making the audience think, abstract dance, and internal and external meaning from my classmates, instructor, and myself.–

Today I woke up at 6:45 to get to my Modern II class by 7:30am, and before you call me a saint for waking up so early twice a week for the sake of art, just know that I’m auditing this class. I’m auditing it because I know that sometimes I don’t give a damn about waking up at 6:45 to dance and would much rather have that hour and fifteen minutes to sleep off the weekend. But sometimes getting up at 6:45 can change my entire day. Sometimes magical things happen in that short hour and fifteen minutes, like the class discussion we had today. I was late to class, mind you, and I almost decided not to go because even after forcing myself out of bed my bike had a flat tire, but damned if I wasn’t determined to go today for some reason I still can’t explain.

This past weekend was the ASU Graduate Dance Projects performances. Friday and Saturday each had a different show, and these shows are a performance opportunity for grad students to present dance work that does not count towards their final thesis, but allows them to experiment in front of an audience. I would like to highlight the word “experiment”. These performances, although not always, are usually very avant-guarde. And for those of us who grew up in a world of 4th grade dance recitals, the occasional performance of The Nutcracker, Broadway musicals, and episodes of So You Think You Can Dance these shows can….really piss you off. They can insult your very intelligence and notion of dance, make you feel lost and sometimes even scared, but that’s part of the point.

Sometimes these kinds of performances piss the performers off as well, and no, the choreographer’s goal is not just to get everyone angry (although it might be) or give them the middle finger (although…they literally might), but instead they are trying to make us think about boundaries of art and dance, how they are defined, and who defines them. They are also about teaching us how to be a receptive audience, and also to be a receptive performer.

I think most audiences don’t realize that they are also part of the show. They don’t realize that fellow inquirers sit among them and are just as interested in the piece as they are watching you watch the piece. I tend to be an audience member like that. Maybe you are too, you don’t even have to be conscious of it. I often look around when I’m confused to see if everyone else appears just as confused as I am, or if I’m the only one that is wearing this mask of bewilderment.

The performers and choreographers may get to decide if the piece’s goal is entertainment, shock factor, philosophical pondering, or seeing how much total crap you are willing to put up with. But the truth is it’s just a goal. They can only present something to you, but you have to decide how you receive it. And as an audience member you can learn how to receive information in new ways. The first time I attended an ASU dance performance I went home and was so angry I cried. I cried because I thought I had wasted my time, my money, and also thought that I was going to be stuck at a university for four years that had no idea what it was doing. And then I cried more.

Now when I go to a show, no matter where it is, I have learned to expect the unexpected and to try to take in every moment the best I can. THIS DOES NOT MEAN YOU WILL LIKE EVERYTHING. Crap is crap, and sometimes even really pretty choreographed  pieces that make everyone cry joyous emotional tears is also crap. It’s art for a reason. Don’t feel guilty because you don’t like something you see, or feel angry that some artist dares you to like all the crap they do, that’s not the point.

To start this discussion we had in class my teacher had us re-enact one of the pieces from Friday night. Three of us walked across the stage and embraced in a group hug, downstage, center. And that’s it. We stood there. Hugging. Sometimes an arm or a knee would adjust, placing us each in a different hugging role. We stood there for 5 minutes embracing each other. Our teacher had us sit down and then we observed the next group hugging.

As an observer in this hugging I sat there in silence watching the way faces expressed, and arms touched, and bodies morphed into this tangled mass. I noted the socks on the participants. Each hit a different place on the ankles, some scrunched down cartoonishly reminding me of a Norman Rockwell painting. I noted the way two of the women’s hands were close together as they were wrapped around the man and how it almost made it look as if a fourth person might be hiding behind the three. I observed the way they were hugging. The man hugged one woman, while the second woman hugged them both from behind the man. For some reason this second woman appeared to be less genuine in the hugging sentiment (perhaps she really was genuine). It reminded me of a love triangle, or maybe a blessing of well wishes on a couple, or maybe two close friends and a third less close friend. I couldn’t see either of the women’s faces. I could only see the man’s expression. He smiled with his lips closed and his eyes shut, and rested his face on the shoulder of the first girl. He looked so serene and happy.

As a performer I found the hug changed in meaning for me the longer I stood there. I couldn’t really tell how much time had passed because I kept thinking about what this hug meant. At first I only had my arms wrapped around one girl, and the third girl had her arms wrapped around us. Neither the first girl or I was hugging the third girl. I decided to shift my arms to embrace both the first and third girls, and all the sudden I had this feeling of maternity shift through me. I decided to follow that feeling and placed my hand on the back of the first girls head where it rested on my shoulder, and pulled the third girl tighter in the hug. I couldn’t decide what we meant. All I could think of was my two best friends hugging me when I decided to go out of state for college after high school, and them both choosing to stay in state. This hug between complete strangers reminded me of that hug. It was then I finally understood this piece. It meant something different to each person, even if that meant that it means nothing at all.

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A childhood hug between my sister and I.

We talked about the experience of watching and performing afterwards. One boy in class stated, “the more you think outside the activity you are doing, the longer time takes.” This was a very valid statement for many reasons as both an audience member and performer. When I was focused on being in the hug or watching the hug I was completely engulfed and lost sense of time. I was only absorbing knowledge about myself and others and the surroundings. When I was watching I felt my mind wandering once or twice but for the sake of the exercise I reeled it in again. The more my mind wandered the longer time took to pass. I mentioned that to my teacher, who said often even when she is watching really great material her mind will start to wander, and that instead of thinking she is bored or being a horrible patron she started to ask herself why that particular thought was coming to her at that time and place. Maybe it wasn’t the creator’s intention for her to have that thought, but perhaps it was important in interpreting what that piece means to her, even if in her mind she is going over a grocery list or something more philosophical like “how can I create better dances than this?”. But she also agreed that the less she was invested in a viewing or being in a performance the longer it took and the more agitated she got. Trying to stay focused in a big part of being an audience member, and when you’re not focused remember the thoughts you are having and compare them to the performance later. Maybe you will find something connects and surprises you.

I discovered through this conversation that learning to be an audience member is in many ways as challenging as learning to become a performer, even for those who take dance classes or regularly perform. It takes lots of practice, an open mind, and a good eye, but all of those things can be cultivated with time.

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