While choreographing within an academic institution has its limitations, I have found during the last few years that for preference I tend to make installation works that are about half an hour long. One of my favourites was a piece commissioned by M.I.N.T. Gallery for their queer performance series, called The Aviary. The audience was invited to move around the darkly-lit space observing the behavioral patterns of strange half-bird half-ballerina creatures over the course of a slowly developing improvisational score.
Five minutes into the work a man came up behind me and petted me like a cat. I treated it like a genuine mistake, let him know that this was not an ok audience behaviour, and carried on. He seemed genuinely delighted by the work, and made no further attempts to touch the dancers, but I wondered what would have happened if he had approached one of my cast who didn’t feel they had the authority to step out of character, or decide what kinds of interaction were appropriate? Was there a reason he went to the smallest and youngest looking of the performers? Why did he feel like he could touch us? There was no part of the instructions for the space that suggested touching was welcome. We do not touch animals in zoos, and we do not touch birds in particular. There is no art gallery in the world where you would walk in and touch the works on display without being specifically informed you could do so…
… Unless of course you would.
During my time as a freelancer in London I was hired by a major gallery as part of a cast of live-art performers, supporting an exhibition of international mixed-media work. Our roles included shadowing gallery attendees, activating installations, and displaying ourselves immobile in a series of poses – my favourite was a living sculpture that required me to hang in an impossible position, strapped to an invisible frame.
Eventually the cast had to send a message to the gallery managers threatening to quit because of the harassment we were receiving from members of the public, and from the security guards employed by the gallery. While I was strapped to the frame and unable to move or get away people flashed cameras in my face, did everything they could to make me blink or startle, and talked loudly about forcibly undressing or molesting me. The guard watching laughed and encouraged them, despite this having nothing to do with the work in particular or the exhibition as a whole. The gallery managers, thankfully, were receptive to our concerns, apologized, and tightened up expectations for how we should be treated. This is not always the case.
I have begun this blog post with two examples from my own experience to show some of the difficulties that happen when performers are harassed by audience members: the boundaries of appropriate behaviour are often unclear, performers are often dependent on others to enforce those boundaries, or they risk destroying the work if they speak up for themselves. The physical safety of performers and the sanctity of the audience experience are held up as comparable concerns, and frequently the latter takes priority.
Earlier this year Amber Jamieson wrote about sexual misconduct by the audiences at Sleep No More, and the comparative powerlessness of performers to protect themselves. The article explains that audiences to the show are masked, frequently inebriated, and are not explicitly told that touching performers is forbidden, despite requests from the cast for this addition to the welcome speech (the line has since been added). Audience members ejected for their misconduct have been let back into the show, and known violent “superfans” who aggressively pursue one-on-one opportunities with performers are allowed into the show night after night.
Sometimes the misconduct is all part of the show. In 2011 artist Sarah Wookie spoke out first anonymously, and then in an open letter about conditions at Marina Abramović’s production for the annual gala of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. To quote Wookie: “Of course we were warned that we will not be able to leave to pee, etc. That the diners may try to feed us, give us drinks, fondle us under the table, etc but will be warned not to. Whatever happens, we are to remain in performance mode and unaffected. What the fuck?!” When Wookie asked about safeguarding and signals for performers in distress, and was informed that nothing could be guaranteed. In this case dance icon Yvonne Rainer added her voice to the debate, parsing out the difference between Abramović’s own performance history of using her body to challenge audiences, and her method for conscripting others to do the same: “Subjecting her performers to public humiliation at the hands of a bunch of frolicking donors is yet another example of the Museum’s callousness and greed and Ms Abramovic’s obliviousness to differences in context and some of the implications of transposing her own powerful performances to the bodies of others. An exhibition is one thing — this is not a critique of Abramovic’s work in general — but titillation for wealthy donor/diners as a means of raising money is another.”
Collecting these examples, and I am certain there are many more out there, tells us that when performers of all genders are working in close proximity to audience members the boundaries for appropriate interaction need to be carefully delineated in advance. Procedures need to be in place, and followed, for dealing with disruptive audience members and those who try and push the limits of the space. For choreographers concerned about maintaining “performance mode” I will suggest that it is not difficult to include a hand signal, gesture, or even a blink sequence if there is someone watching out for performer safety. It is possible to choreograph outs and exits into a work so that performers can keep themselves safe without breaking character. If an audience member is flagged as disruptive they should not be allowed to continue through the work unattended.
In the examples above we can see the need for a proactive, rather than a reactive approach to audience disruption. The last time that you want to be making a decision about how to handle a poorly behaved audience member is in the moment when that behaviour is happening to you. While it would be wonderful to assume that the kinds of behaviour listed above will not happen, every performer out there knows that it does – as a steward at Sleep No More said: “It wasn’t until I got to a job where I wasn’t afraid I was going to be hit or groped every day, I realized how weird that was, that that was a part of my job, or that I thought it was part of my job.”
If dancers as a community want to assert that our creativity, our work, and our skills are valuable, we need our personhood and our bodies to be valued as well. That means the ability to set and maintain boundaries about what elements of our selves are available to audiences in performance, and which are not. We have moved on from the days when the poorest members of the Corps de Ballet were available for solicitation in the Foyer de la Danse. Our work is art, and art is not for touching without an explicit invitation. Our work is available because of the humans manifesting it; humans who need to eat, sleep, house themselves, feel, and maintain their own bodily autonomy. We need to make art in such a way that those needs can be assumed, met, and defended.