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Flash Review Essay, 5-31: Sited
Social Agreements of the Proscenium

By Andrew Simonet
Copyright 2007 Andrew Simonet

PHILADELPHIA -- Nothing like getting away from the proscenium to help you see it more clearly. Lisa Kraus reimagined "The Partita Project," a piece which she has staged in theatrical and non-theatrical spaces around Philadelphia, in an empty 18th-century mansion in Fairmount Park on May 5 and 6. 15 audience members -- the limit for each show -- joined eight dancers, a violinist, and a guide for an hour-long tour-journey-haunting offered three times per day.

Now, the term site-specific -- like accessible, community, multimedia and interdisciplinary before it -- is starting to suffer from the loving abuse of overuse. So let's get into it. Kraus's compassionate meditation on space, social dance versus performance, intimacy, and decay was a delicious reminder of what a site actually is.

A site is not just a place to perform your work. It's a set of social agreements, a place where certain bodies behave certain ways, rules that knit audience bodies to performer bodies. It's a place where we are situated. Okay, so you can use a site just as a really good-looking and affordable set, but let's say that, like any collaboration, truly site-based work includes context, a local in addition to a locale. I look for a set of values, codes, a sense of what we are to each other.

We know who we are in the proscenium audience because we know the agreements. So first, a quick rundown of my understanding of the glorious, the tried and true, the so-prevalent-they-feel-natural Proscenium Agreements, a.k.a. Control, Consensus, and Separation:

1) The space is configured to generate control. You can make it night or morning with lights, have complete silence or a rocket launch. There is (understood to be) no unintended sonic or visual information.

2) The audience is arranged and regulated to achieve consensus. We all sit in rows, facing the same way, with (ideally) a reasonably good view of the whole space. Sound is configured to be heard fully and simultaneously by each person.

3) Performers achieve separation. They don't mingle with the spectators beforehand, they wear clothes and makeup that are, for the most part, not what they chose to put on this morning. They do not enter the audience space and vice versa. If I know a performer and she sees me, she doesn't acknowledge it.

A little aside: The proscenium is a huge cultural achievement. I think the rituals and rules of the proscenium are gorgeous, and I treasure the possibilities they provide. I just don't like assuming them. And too much supposedly site-specific work I see is simply transplanted proscenium.

Let's get to the work. "The Partita Project" was a profoundly first-person experience, both singular and plural. Wandering feet, wandering minds, and wandering eyes were all indulged and encouraged. So rather than capturing the imagined consensus, I'll write about One Body's Journey Into a Site-Based Work.

Proscenium work is performed in a theater, centrally located and commonly understood as an art space.

One thing about site work is you have to go find it. "The Partita Project" brings me to a not-so-easy-to-describe spot in Philadelphia's massive Fairmount Park. The Mount Pleasant Mansion is an historic home that overlooks the Schuylkill River (that's SKOO-kill). But you can't mapquest it. The address just doesn't work. And I have to say, that is kind of great. It isn't that hard to find of course, but for a place that's only a few miles from my home, it's surprisingly elusive. When I do pull up in my car to the manicured though slightly faded mansion, I'm definitely away, away from my city, away from the grid, away from the congested and contested streets of Philadelphia.

Theaters have entries and waiting areas that act as gathering points and holding areas for audiences as they arrive.

While I wait for the performance to begin, I stroll around the grounds. Inside a small side house is an exhibit about the restoration of the mansion. One section is labeled "Preserving Original Material: The Process." I think of the choreographer and her interest in baroque dance. A woman with frosted hair walks in. I smile at her; she doesn't smile back. I wonder if she has a ticket.

I open a door and start walking upstairs. Is this part of the exhibit? Is my body allowed here? I don't get any strong signals either way, so I walk up. The top floor is completely unfinished, a muddle of renovation and storage, definitely not included. We are so sensitive to these signifiers; this is what makes us flexible but conservative as audience members. What are the codes here? Do we agree? I'm tuning up for the show.

The beginning of the performance is signaled, often by sound and light. Everything before that moment is not included.

A woman in a tank top sits on the edge of a rolling hill of grass, perhaps meditating. She looks like she's floating. I'm including this. I think Kraus would want me too.

Around back of the main house, I catch sight of several dancers meeting and greeting the audience following the 1 p.m. show. I don't want to see them because

Performers are not seen by the audience before the piece begins.

A couple of them wave. I skulk away. (Full disclosure: Two of the dancers have danced for my company. I have worked with some others in workshops and our Dance Theater Camp. Lisa Kraus was on the faculty of the Center for New Dance Development in Arnhem, Holland, when I was a student there, and has also contributed to this publication, including writing about my company. I also like the performers and choreographer all very much on a personal level.) I want some surprise, some separation. Or rather, I sense that the piece wants that. Right? Hard to know exactly, but I'm reading the signs and placing my bet.

I duck inside the small "kitchen house," and fill out an audience survey from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, presenters of "The Partita Project" and overseers of Mount Pleasant Mansion. It's been a while since I've done one of these things. I find I've moved into age category "D. 35-44." The categories only go up to "G. 65 and over." So I'm halfway, which feels about right.

All audience members are presumed to have a similar baseline of information about the performance, often stabilized by a program.

Jon Stein, a lawyer, the head of Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, a heavy-hitting Lefty force in the city, and also a contact improviser and dancer is coming out of the 1 p.m. show, elated by the piece. He's wearing bright green tapered sweat pants and a shiny T-shirt. He says he was last at Mount Pleasant in 1965. I wonder for a moment if he has reached category "G." Jonathan and I have worked and danced together a lot in the past year. Today, though, we are just talking, not dancing. We are bodies that approach each other, embrace, then maintain a kind distance.

Theaters are climate-controlled spaces, weather- and season-neutral.

Outside, it's sunny and breezy, maybe 55 degrees and we're all a little confused about how to dress. Assembling unofficially into an audience archipelago in front of the mansion, we 15 ticket-holders wear a mix of tank tops and sweaters, shorts and heavy jackets.

The role of the audience doesn't change. Though each theater and piece may be different, audience behavior is largely consistent.

We want to know how to behave here, and there is someone here to help. She's speaking in uptalk, though. "All right? Let's gather folks? For the 2:30 performance?" Our archipelago shifts, mostly in facing, to indicate that we are with her. All mammals understand facing. "Everybody here for the 2:30 performance say 'Aye'?" Pause. One guy meekly says "Aye." No problem. "Has anyone ever been to Mount Pleasant Mansion before?" Pause. "Yes." Same guy. "No," says the 7-year-old girl in front of me with delicious candor. "Well, welcome back?"

Here comes the juicy situating info, or at least the first bit of it. "You will encounter the dancers in a more intimate way than you're probably used to." Well said. Technically not true for me, but I get the point. "Pay attention to your guide, who knows where the dancers will be dancing." Loads of info there. There's a guide! Well, that's 3/4 of the questions answered. Someone with inside knowledge will be there to provide instruction and, I assume, adjust any boundary-breakers. Also implied: we'll be getting out of -- and maybe in -- the way of actual moving dancers. "If you need to leave, look for the guard or Caroline." She gestures to a confederate.

Now there's a proscenium agreement I have never put my finger on!

If you want or need to leave the performance in the middle, there are doors in the back. Leave quietly, ideally during a scene change or transition.

Such a simple little custom, but vital. If you've ever been to a space where they say, "You cannot leave once the performance has begun," you know the faint scent of panic an audience gives off when it is cornered.

A side note: I am obsessed with the audience-performer agreements and with how they are conveyed. The most obvious and most overused way is to have a preshow announcement by a non-performer or, just as often, by the choreographer/director, who is not in the piece. I prefer information that embodies its meaning, not a proscenium delivery for an anti-proscenium message. If you want to activate the audience, do it from the get-go.

We are led to the walkway in front of the main doors. Two footmen, the precise and stoic Zachary Svoboda and John Luna, sway back and forth in front of the door holding tall staffs. They are harlequins dancing a segmented duet, pop-and-lock pliés followed by unlikely leans. I hear the docents chatting behind me. And then someone at the back of the group says, "Please join me." It's Kraus, the choreographer, who leads us inside.

"Come in a little more, please." Oh, so Kraus is our guide. She's making sure we all get past the threshold. We're a brand new audience, and we're still learning just how much push it takes to get all of us through the door, a puppy that doesn't know how long its tail is. Kraus begins telling us about John McPherson, the man who commissioned the house and a privateer, or legally sanctioned pirate. She says the word "booty." It's been a long time since I've that word not mean ass or healthy snack food.

Folding stools are offered, presumably to be set up once we reach the various locations. We divide into stoolers -- four by my count -- and non-stoolers.

Dancers are passing through the foyer, holding golden balls and more staffs. They are gentrified circus folk, garden whimsies come to life. One rolls in and out on a physioball. The audience gives some agreed laughter -- "We acknowledge the humor and we support its presence" -- without any genuine laughing.

"As we go through the house, feel free to place yourself wherever you want," Kraus says. Wow! I'm thrilled. Until she adds, "Generally, along the walls is preferable." Ouch. The old do-whatever-you-want-as-long-as-it's-what-I-want. Still, this is a rewriting of Separation:

In the proscenium, the performers are spatially distinct from the audience, separated by a neutral zone not to be transgressed

and its corollary:

The seating arrangement and lighting render other audience members less visually important than the performers.

Gabrielle Revlock and Josie Smith duet with the batons. As promised, we are very close to them. The music begins, Diane Monroe playing violin. It's terrific. Live violin in a small space is so absurdly loud, such a physical way of generating sound, dragging horsehair across strings.

"When we go upstairs, you're free to wander and place yourself in whatever spaces you choose." Choose. Another Proscenium Agreement I've never put my finger on!

The only choices facing audience member are whether to attend the performance and, sometimes, where to sit.

There is, of course, a great relief in not choosing. Just take in what the artist has to offer you. Live performance is a tasty throwback to a time before the Age of Interactiveness. The time of long novels, restaurants without menus, colleges without course catalogs.

Upstairs, Jaamil Kosoko and Melissa Putz sit for a slow-motion tea service, all pinkies and dignity. They perch on plain chairs painted by Michael Biello with period stencils. Just the outline of the period. I'm struck by Kosoko's dark skin, his soft energy so unlike the footmen, in the midst of this slightly campy Comedy of Manors. Intentional comment? Probably not. Just the outline of the period, I remind myself.

Changing rooms, I hit (cause?) an audience traffic jam. But we're good, we're getting comfortable. A little teamwork and we're all squared away. Devynn Emory and Meg Foley are gliding through a dressing room duet, flirting and floating in gloves and lipstick toward a long row of shoes on the floor. I notice the birthmark on Emory's arm, the bruise on Foley's shoulder. I like being this close to dancing bodies. Any attempt to project sameness, to insist that all dancing bodies are identical and anonymous, fails with proximity.

Out the second story window, toward the river, a woman in purple trundles diagonally across the lawn toward a bright gold ball.

I'm looking out the window. So I'm not a proscenium spectator. What am I? I'm an invisible guest at a period tea party. I'm touring an 18th-century house haunted by young post-modern ghosts.

A man and woman in the audience trade places for sight lines as we all edge back into the tea room. I love being part of an audience that is learning things, that is silently, respectfully creating and obeying a system for everyone to get satisfaction. Gives me hope for the world.

Revlock and Smith duet once again, proper, erect, with just enough playfulness to let us know they know. Both dancers have wonderful technique and something else. Revlock marries her extension with a heartfelt wildness, seamlessly shifting characters and states. Smith can give us the pointed foot and the breath-filled spine all at once, technique and release utterly married.

The stools are starting to look like a burden. No one has managed to sit in one yet, and carrying them increases your footprint considerably as we all co-navigate narrow doorways.

The woman in purple outside is now seated. A train rolls by between her and the river. And cars. And crew boats on the river for a regatta. An effect that would costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce intentionally is here inserted into My Partita Project for free. I think of the Japanese term "borrowed view," including in your landscaping the view of a tree or mountain or lake that is not on your property.

I think about the people rowing crew and the thousands of spectators. Sculls? That's the word, right? I picture them rowing in their skulls. Scull and Bones. Booty.

I'm missing the dance.

The whole company is now in the upstairs hallway, looping a grape-vined septet between audience and violinist. Emory and Putz mix a bit of weighty partnering into a gentle court dance. I'm pinned against the wall by two women who are both wearing black jackets and gray pants. Seems unlikely.

Next is a swirling group dance, the performers leaning on the walls, going off their centers, dignified carriage crossed with off-kilter gravity. Revlock leans and looks over a shoulder, so perfectly off, so precisely improper.

Foley steals the sheet music from the musician, announcing it out loud. I'm in the back, so I don't get all of this. But the talking is messy and a bit easy. I think of my friend Dito van Reigersberg, who says, "All of the attention to detail and shape you dancers bring to your movement.... Every moment of your talking should have that." Alas, this talking doesn't. The recitative Announcement tone of Lisa's tour guide talking might -- although I'm not decided -- be forgiven as a comment on the droning voice of a museum docent. But not this. Speech needs to come from some urge to speak, some objective, and this speech doesn't.

There is genuine laughter, though, from the audience as we descend the stairs and the violinist is challenged to "show us what you got" with -- can you imagine? -- no sheet music. She kicks it, funky and felt, and the laughter follows, though not from me.

The violinist returns to Bach as the young girl -- hey! -- finally gets to open her stool and sit on it. Back arches on the floor and a big musical finish earn some almost-applause from the stoolers.

We ooze into a big side room, empty except for some fragments of gold picture frames in the fireplace, on a wall, on a windowsill. I watch Foley's silky rond de jambe, Kosoko's genteel carriage, Smith's arched, sensuous port de bras.

Kosoko's arm almost hits me. Nice. Smith, Revlock, and Foley launch a sprightly trio of support and impulse. Putz, Emory, and Kosoko enter through the far door spiraling through an earthy trio. Propriety is giving way to sensation. Period movement is giving way to movement perhaps generated by the dancers.

Two silver cars and a red SUV pull up in the driveway. I try, but can't smell the dancers as they fly past me into the hall. I wonder for a moment if other people do that. They are circling now, exiting through the near door and reentering through the opposite door. I'm right by the exit door, so I decide to look out in the hall and see them "backstage." Holy crap! They are dancing in the hall! It's a truly beautiful moment for me. I never never never thought they would continue elaborate group dancing out of our sight. I learn another new proscenium agreement.

Performers who exit into the wings are no longer performing.

What a delicious thought to imagine that actors might stay in character past the sight lines, that dancers might be spinning and rolling nonstop until they reappear from the wings.

The performers return and clap for the violinist. We all clap. The dancers stand and listen to Monroe play, grooving slightly, tapping feet and shaking hips. They are striving for Ordinary, but Ordinary is one of the hardest things to perform, and it falls flat.

The space clears out and Foley and Emory push and roll through penetrating floor work and real-weight partnering. Revlock touches my back when reentering. You don't get that at the Joyce.

The violinist leaves and chairs are set up for, yup, Musical Chairs. There is more fake "real" stage business, and the audience laughs in recognition. Lisa herself snaps out a rhythm as the "music," and the dancers dwindle down to the inevitable victor. I believe this is the fourth time I have seen this game in a dance, always with the same "real" affect. I don't care for it. Smith wins. Kosoko is ruthless and is, to my eye, intentionally dismissed by Kraus in an admirable feat of timing.

The dancers move out into the hall. Kraus talks about the suffering in Bach's and McPherson's lives. We move to the hallway. Emory signals me to change my spot. Another new one.

The performers communicate equally with all members of the audience.

The dancers are casual on the stairs above us. I stand behind a stooled videographer. I see the view through the tiny video camera screen. I realize that half of us are seated. We are an audience! For the first time, we're here in chairs and the performers are up there!

A plane flies by as Putz ends a solo in a delicate and so very long stillness. She repeats the solo and Emory joins her in unison on a different facing, a gentle floor ritual for two. Then they are three as Foley joins.

I notice the fold in an armpit where the razor can't quite reach, that signature gray line. We really are close. Bodies are different at this distance. Less pretty, more beautiful. Effort is palpable, unhidden. Impossible to separate person from body.

Foley and Emory lie on the steps, in a unison duet of death and touch. Spines that were carried decorously are now draped diagonally across the stairs, heads that were held aloft roll improbably across planes of gravity. A woman in the audience has a stiff neck and rubs it. An empathetic response to the choreography? Perhaps. Someone in front of me is wearing striped tube socks, pulled up, and spandex. How did I not notice this earlier? The duet looks flatter but somehow more official through the video camera.

Other dancers descend the stairs. Emory is cantilevered into an inhuman compass turn, a slowly slanting weather vane. I notice she is wearing dance sneakers, the ones you can point your foot in. I am surprised by this. Foley finishes frozen, kissing no one, eyes closed. It stays alive.

I'm trapped behind a stool. The stools have really come full circle, and now I'm strange for not wanting to sit on one. I see one gorgeous pink branch outside as the rear doors open and we follow the dancers outside. "You'll stay on the stairs." It's Kraus's final instruction, using second person future for the first time.

They are all lined up along the low ridge, the one where I saw the meditator levitating earlier. As they split into a long circle run, a befuddled older man looks on from the parking lot. A woman approaches the scene, then retreats back to the parking lot.

The performers bow. We applaud strongly, correcting for our small numbers with vigor, imitating the sound of proscenium applause.

"The Partita Project" is at home here. The erect spine of baroque dance makes friends with the dropped pelvis, the weighty head, the flung shoulder. Mischievous 21st-century bodies are haunting this 18th-century mansion, and we 15 are given license to wander, to feel the breeze of bodies shoving past us and the breezes rushing up from the river.

I wander back into the house, hug dancers. Kraus gives Kosoko a small correction for the next, and final, performance. I think of us choreographers, adjusting tiny details, things never to be noticed, even before the last show.

A security guard is eating Cheerios out of a mug. That's the kind of detail you can't make up.

I'm locked in. I leave through the back, then wander, with my now experienced audience friends, through the next assembling group.

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