The following is my reaction to ‘Wall Dancing’, an experiment in “stillness and movement” (by Padmini Chettur) that I was a keen witness to. It is not a judgment on the merits of the work since I’m ill-equipped on that front. It’s just what I thought about it — before, during, and after the event.
Before the dance
The very first thing that piqued my curiosity about the work was the blurb on the poster: “The audience may enter and exit at any time, they are also free to sit, stand, or walk around the space.” This was avant-garde stuff, I thought to myself, and asked Madhusree (one of the five performers) whether it really was as anti-proscenium as I thought. And whether the audience really could do all that instead of sitting quietly, affixed to a spot. She said yes, except I wasn’t allowed to tickle the performers. I didn’t, of course.
The proscenium is the usual paradigm of the artist-audience relationship that involves a clear separation between the artist and the audience — the arch surrounding the stage (the “proscenium arch” facing the audience) defines the boundary, apparently also called the “fourth wall”, of this relationship. Obviously, it is a rather asymmetric relationship. The artist is the creator, the audience the consumer. The interaction between the artist and the audience is mediated by the “fourth wall”, which on account of its two-dimensional nature only allows a restricted range of vantage points, literally or otherwise. The governing metaphor seems to be, from the audience perspective, “I pay you, you entertain me.” In other words, it’s a fairly passive contract on the part of the audience. From the artist’s perspective: “I perform, but I decide how you see it.” That is, although it is a more active contract on the part of the artist, the artist could have hidden motives that seek to convince you to see things in a particular way, or perhaps hide other ways of seeing from you, the audience. I am, of course, stretching the metaphor a bit here, using “proscenium” to imply the perspective that the artist wants you to consider.
During the dance
The reason for my curiosity should be clear now. I’ve only ever seen the proscenium style of things, on either side of the “fourth wall”. This was an opportunity to consider an alternative. So, after a train ride and a walk, I arrived at the venue on the appointed day. The first thing I was handed over was a paper with a list of ‘Titles’ and ‘Prices in INR’ which contained “items” like:
- Opening rolls (10000 INR),
- Arm Section (6000 INR),
- Large corner trio (12000 INR),
- Horizontal tracing (10000 INR),
- Walldancing (15000 INR),
- Finale: duet, trio, solo, duets, solo (25000 INR)
My first thought was: “Is this some hoax, selling (presumably) dance for money? Or perhaps it’s one of those ‘arty privileges’ that only the ‘highbrow’ or the wealthy can afford. Very phony stuff.” It didn’t occur to me — as it turned out — that the ‘pricing’ was more a joke than anything else, perhaps also a satire on putting a price to art. I am not sure about the latter bit. Anyway, that part clarified (and my worries about being ‘found out’ — that I am neither ‘arty’ nor ‘highbrow’ nor even wealthy– put to rest), I surveyed the performance space. Walls, of course. Also, the open space the walls enclosed where the audience could sit, stand or walk around. White walls. Mostly white and yellow lights. Minimalist.
The performance itself started with the ‘opening rolls’ which involved the five dancers standing near different parts of the walls making extraordinarily slow, even subtle, turns around their body-axis. If you watched their feet, you could tell they were turning, but otherwise the movement was quite smooth. I think two of them turned counterclockwise and the other three clockwise when looked at from above. But I could be wrong. It’s a minor detail anyway. All the 25 ‘titles’ on the list were performed, and I saw no money being exchanged. The music, when it was used (it wasn’t, mostly), was rather minimal again. I am not sure what I mean by ‘minimal’ here, except that it wasn’t flashy. Mostly the silence substituted quite well for any other kind of music. It was so quiet that I couldn’t help wondering how awkward a fart might sound if someone were unfortunate enough to break into one.
After the dance
Here’s what I thought of the performance itself:
It was an experiment in slowness. The movements were deliberately slow, and there was a conscious effort to keep the movements smooth in places — like the hour hand of a clock, which moves but you don’t see that over a matter of seconds. It’s not easy to stay with slow things, given how accustomed we are to speed and immediacy in our time. So it was, I think, a nice attempt at taking one out of the usual ‘hurry up!’ mode to the ‘take your time’ mode. Of course, there was the occasional faster piece involving some manoeuvers with the walls or the corners, sometimes solos, and sometimes duets, and the occasional trios.
It was also an experiment in patience — and I do not mean it in a pejorative sense — on the part of the performer, and the audience. I imagine it required quite a bit of patience and focus from the performer. I was happy to move around and look at the performance from different places in the room, sometimes unintentionally disturbing the performers (which I tried to avoid, though).
Most importantly, I think, it was an experiment in perspective — the performer’s and the audience’s. For the audience, there was clearly a potential for greater levels of engagement with the work than the proscenium would allow. They had the freedom to explore their space, to view things from a perspective of their choosing. A perspective that is not affixed to a “fourth wall” but is fluid. The relationship between the artist and the audience was more open, more alive in this format. There were more than merely two sides to the performance. The audience were not so much a collective as they were individuals trying to find perspectives that drew them in. So in a way, this was a more active contract on the part of the audience. The audience was very much a part of the performance, for the perspective one brings to the performance can significantly influence one’s experience of it. There was no one way to see it. It is this capacity for nurturing many perspectives that allows art to be more than an object or a commodity with a ‘price’. It allows art to be not merely a ‘thing’, but instead a relationship between the artist and the audience. One’s unique experience of this relationship makes art an avenue for self-exploration, as much for the audience as for the artist herself.
I think I liked it. It’s good to see things differently. To have the freedom to do so. Although, a passing thought occurred to me that one could perhaps do more with the medium — walls, in this case. There was no obvious ‘story’ to draw the audience into the performance. Perhaps adding a narrative to the bare movements would enrich the experience. That said, it might also take away the focus from “stillness and movement” to “narrative and intrigue”. Anyway, I am just thinking aloud on some possibilities that occurred to me. I usually don’t think much about art — it’s either “good” or “bad”. This one was different.