It is difficult to review something that by its nature seems to defy the expectations of viewership. Yes, while tickets were purchased, and a performance setting was defined, my relationship with Be My Guest Performer by Alexandra Barbier was ultimately one of participation, if not straight-forward collaboration. Barbier’s interest in developing this work is expressed as a desire to blur the audience-performer line. What does it mean to perform for an audience? What does it mean to be in attendance for someone else’s movement experience? My writing about this performance therefore has to be a reflection of myself as a performer as well. It was not a performance to be critiqued or analyzed, but rather a shared space with multiple voices and approaches.
From the beginning, Barbier crafted the space in one of The Gateway’s abandoned storefronts in a way that informed the participants that their bodies, their voices, and their experiences were just as important to the evening as Barbier’s were, if not more so. One of the biggest sources of discomfort in “audience participation” is the fear of participating against your wishes. Barbier offered a solution to this by directing (through projected text) the audience to put on a sticker expressing their level of desired involvement. Among varied discussions of audience consent in performance, I found this to be unexpectedly thoughtful. No one was put on the spot by being asked to relocate, being asked to verbalize their consent, or feeling any pressure from the performance itself. The power was in the audience’s hands throughout the evening.
I’m still intrigued by the premise of the evening, especially when it comes to questions of defining what a performance is. If audience and performer are in a shared space together, everyone is inherently participating by being present. So, why, not just for dance artists, but for anyone who makes a living on “stages,” is the meaning and the focus directed at those who have “choreographed” the evening? Barbier examined this principle by upending the “rules” at the beginning of the show. She spoke directly to us, encouraged us to leave our phones on and take pictures, and sat in the traditionally observational space.
The structure of the evening was fairly simple. Barbier presented a series of choreographic structures that the audience was invited to participate in. The most remarkable element of these structures was how removed Barbier felt as a performer. The piece was structured in a way that felt almost like a less-expositional, composition classroom, with Barbier guiding the experience as opposed to being a to-be-observed performer. She built a score through loop pedals that utilized audience voices, offered paper bags with movement directives, and taught a gestural phrase. But then she removed herself from the space and just allowed the audience to play. At one point, when speaking to the audience, she removed herself from the space by facing away and speaking into a camera that projected her image. Even though she was physically present the whole evening, by the end it truly felt like a dance improvisation with everyone in the room participating.
That said, even though the space was inhabited by dancers (mostly), it took a little bit of time to shed the notion of defined roles. To that end, I’d be curious to see how a longer experience could develop and be guided in varied ways. Knowing that this is Barbier’s MFA thesis research, I’m sure she will continue to grapple with these questions, but in the meantime, she created a safe exploratory space that felt fun rather than pressure-laden.
Be My Guest Performer continues Friday, August 9, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, August 11, at 1:30 p.m. at the The Gateway - in a storefront on the east side of the fountain, near the north end of the mall. Tickets and details can be found on the Fringe Festival website.
Natalie Gotter is a dance performer, choreographer, instructor, filmmaker, and researcher. She holds an MFA in Modern Dance with emphasis on Gender Studies from the University of Utah. She is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance and Muhlenberg College.