Joanna Haigood is co-founding director of Zaccho Dance Theatre in San Francisco, which produces and presents performance work that investigates dance as it relates to place.
Participation: coming together, joining, collaboration, sharing something.
Historically, social dancing has created a reason for people to come together, step into a common rhythm, and connect with a spirit that can transport and transform ordinary life into a deeply physical and emotional adventure. The energy of one’s movements is combined with the energy of others to form a mutual expression of joy, release, sensuality, connectedness, and hope. Partners improvise and build their own signature styles within the structure of well-known songs and a vocabulary of standard steps.
Hip-hop started as a social and cultural revolution for peace and unity in the South Bronx and is now an international phenomenon. Ciphers create competitive (and supportive) battles in which dancers show off their technique and individuality. Line dances like the Electric Slide and the Macarena connect large groups through set choreography. Partner dances, like the elegant waltz and the exuberant Lindy Hop, provide a way for dancers to move together and in response to each other. In clubs like the world-renowned Confitería Ideal in Buenos Aires, couples are enveloped by the lush and seductive music of the tango and swept away by the graceful gestures, sensual and sublime.
Performance involves the participation of the performer and the audience and leads to an energetic exchange, set up in part by the content and structure of the work. Performers provoke reaction in their audiences and then play off this response. This is where the magic of performance resides, where new possibilities for meaning can emerge.
Audience participation can be experienced through spatial relationships, circulation, and assigned activities. The audience for The Monkey and the Devil (2008), a work I created with Charles Trapolin, was free to observe the performance from multiple perspectives. The piece was performed in thirty-minute cycles, repeating continuously for four hours. The physical setup of the performance and the repeating format allowed the audience to choose what they saw, when they saw it, and in what order. Taking its title from ethnic slurs, The Monkey and the Devil investigated the rise of a contemporary racism rooted in the lasting effects of the US slave trade. Echoing an earlier time, today’s cultural figures unwittingly rehash old race-based arguments, updated for contemporary eyes and ears. Two massive rotating set pieces (twin halves of a room, designed by Trapolin) represent this duality. Their opposition recalls Abraham Lincoln’s declaration foreshadowing the abolition of slavery, drawn from the New Testament: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
In the case of Ann Hamilton’s work, the event of a thread (2012–13) at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, audience members could participate as both performers and observers. In one section, old-fashioned wood-plank swings provided an experience of reminiscence, romance, joy, and altered sense of space. Their movement pushed the air through the enormous room, producing a gentle turbulence that was beautifully expressed through a long, billowing curtain. In a way, it appears to be dancing. Some viewers lay below the curtain to watch it rise and fall. Simple, poetic, effective. Hamilton says, “the event of a thread is made of many crossings of the near at hand and the far away: it is a body crossing space, is a writer's hand crossing a sheet of paper, is a voice crossing a room in a paper bag, is a reader crossing with a page and with another reader, is listening crossing with speaking, is an inscription crossing a transmission, is a stylus crossing a groove, is a song crossing species, is the weightlessness of suspension crossing the calling of bell or bellows, is touch being touched in return. It is a flock of birds and a field of swings in motion. It is a particular point in space at an instant of time.”1)
One of the most powerful examples of social participation through the arts is Theater of the Oppressed. Developed during the 1970s by Brazilian director and social/political activist Augusto Boal, Theater of the Oppressed created a forum through which social and political issues could be debated and understood. Actors begin by presenting situations common or relevant to the community and then encourage the audience to intervene by joining the actors on stage and interjecting their own ideas and/or resolutions. It not only offers the “spect-actors” a method to imagine alternate outcomes, but also provides a place to rehearse for real social action. Over the years, Theater of the Oppressed branched off into several forms, Image Theater, Forum Theater, Invisible Theater, Rainbow of Desire, and Legislative Theater. It is currently practiced internationally.
Social media has permanently changed the way we interact with and participate in social, political, and cultural events. The speed with which our communication now occurs on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube enables us to assemble within hours, sometimes minutes, after a call to action. Everyday people now have direct influence on the way news is gathered and disseminated throughout the world, giving the masses an unprecedented power to report on events and to affect their course. Revolutions have been organized, criminals captured, leaders made and broken through the use of social media. Culture has been equally impacted, and choreography and dance are no exception.
Dances can now be learned from YouTube, and everyone with access can participate in the development of new dance trends. Whereas we used to stand in front of the TV to learn new dances on Don Cornelius’s Soul Train or Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, we can now use the Internet to research dances and post our own choreography, making the reach far greater and the feedback exchange broader than it has ever been before. Dances from all over the world have made their mark in communities everywhere. One of my personal “commercial” favorites is Michael Jackson’s Thriller, now performed in prisons, in talent shows, at weddings, and at thousands of Halloween parties. Thanks to YouTube, now anyone can participate in one of the most extraordinary pop sensations of all time.
Ann Hamilton, artist’s statement, http://www.annhamiltonstudio.com/projects/armory.html. ↩
Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed (Teatro de Oprimido, 1974; first English translation, 1979; New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993).
Joanna Haigood and Charles Trapolin, The Monkey and the Devil, 2008.
Marina Abramović, “The Artist is Present,” Museum of Modern Art, New York, March–May 2010.
Ann Hamilton, the event of a thread, Park Avenue Armory, New York, December 2012–January 2013.
Deborah Hay, Moving through the Universe in Bare Feet: Ten Circle Dances for Everybody (1974; Chicago: Swallow Press, 1975). Drawings by Donna Jean Rogers.
Björk, Biophilia, 2011. Accompanying the album is a suite of educational and interactive artworks and music, with apps by Luc Barthelet, Drew Berry, Kodama Studios, Stephen Malinowski, Scott Snibbe Studio, John Simon Jr., Touch Press, and Max Weisel.
Deep Listening Band, Through the Distance, April 1996. Telematic concert held using PictureTel video and audio over ISDN lines, connecting David Gamper at The Kitchen, New York; Pauline Oliveros at Vogelback Computing Center, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL; and Stuart Dempster at Speakeasy Café, Seattle.
Suzanne Lacy, De tu puño y letra: Diálogos en el ruedo, November 25, 2015, United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Quito, Ecuador. Workshops and performance focusing on violence against women and children, involving 1,000 male participants.
Michael Jackson, Thriller (video), 1983, thirteen minutes. Directed and co-written by John Landis.
Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC) inmates perform Thriller, Cebu, Phillippines, 2007. Uploaded to YouTube July 17, 2007. www.youtube.com
Thriller instructional videos also on YouTube.
AIDS Memorial Quilt, conceived by Cleve Jones. First displayed October 11, 1987, National Mall, Washington, DC.