Where do I sit?

…Here? On the stage?

Upon entering the theater for UNCG School of Dance‘s MFA Thesis Concert, rows of empty chairs encased the stage’s perimeter, and a wooden box (the size of a platform) took centerstage. As I worked through the perplexity of the large, wooden set piece and the fact that I was actually sitting on stage, the environment encouraged me to release myself from the confines of my expectations and make room for a new perspective to take hold over the next 30-45 minutes. Following instructions, I inhaled deeply, my lungs full of excitement, and then released a passionate exhale into a gray balloon. I later learned that this balloon would accessorize the exterior of that curious, wooden box.

Who knew how much impact a box, a different seating arrangement, and a balloon could make?

of liminal space, choreographed by Caitlyn Schrader in conversation with dancers, served as a beacon for exploration and innovative thoughts to challenge orientation, boundaries, transitions, and perception. After entering the theater, I realized that there was no beginning or end; there was only the current moment. From the moment we entered the space to the moment we exited, it was all a part of the performance itself.

As dancers moved throughout the space in and around the audience, the part-to-whole relationship between audience and performer shifted drastically. Not only did I see dance, but I was also feeling it. We were communicating! Many times, I questioned my role as an audience member: Am I, to some degree, a part of the cast? What are the boundaries here? Everyone is dancing!

Each audience member contributed to the conversation by obstructing normality in some way. Whether by fidgeting in our seats, interacting with other audience members, or attaching to the set our gray balloons filled with previously released expectations, the audience’s movement was a significant factor for this piece. We were physically contributing to the design of the performance in real time. I wondered: If this show had been absent from the stimuli of an audience, would it have taken place at all?

The assurances of a planned performance can offer a comfort that masks the vulnerability instilled by a live audience. By of liminal space shifting the setting so that spectators and performers share the same space, a sense of surrender was required that can be otherwise neglected in traditional performance spaces where boundaries are clear. The relationship between spectator and performer changed, and the question became: Who is in control here?

On the other hand, as audience members with the expectation to view a performance, the spatial manipulations of intimate seating arrangements encouraged a need to reassess our understanding of what was and was not expected in the space as an observer.

Dancers used the wooden box, along with two full-size hanging mirrors, to offer a kaleidoscopic view, serving as a reflection of how we see obstacles and the world around us. Sometimes we allow barriers to limit us, but the dancers’ use of the wall-like box and the reflections of the mirror permitted me to see how easily one can choose to adopt a new perspective. Dancers attached themselves to the box throughout the piece, almost like a shield, serving as the only dividing factor between themselves and the audience. Finding ways to orient themselves in, around, and on top of this liminal space created a visual representation of just how far the performers could manipulate the audience’s experience. Yet again, they were distorting the traditional lens through which we as spectators view performance art.

The show continued, and I found myself pulled in from every angle, immersed in the act. Before I knew it, dancers were bowing, and we were all exiting the stage on yet another tangible element to burst our expectations through the roof: bubble wrap! Yes, to conclude the performance and release the energy developed within the room, we walked out on bubble wrap. Can you imagine? So cool!

…(con)fabulate, choreographed by Allison Beaty in collaboration with the dancers, explored the “powerful, yet fragile nature of human memory.” “Ever since I can remember, I’ve always loved science and dance, so this experience was one of the first times that I had the chance to intertwine the two so completely,” says Beaty. Using her love of science to discover neurological memory mechanisms and psychological principles of remembering and forgetting, Beaty’s work magnified how we perceive and associate memories and embodiments of the past with our experiences.

I was taken aback by the sensory overload at the beginning of the piece as it featured various voice recordings of the cast expressing memorable experiences. I wasn’t sure what to pay attention to at first; I felt like a toddler in a playroom filled with stuffed animals and shiny trinkets. (Needless to say, I was excited!) Having never experienced the enigmatic element of voice recordings in a live dance performance, I was hooked. What I eventually grabbed hold of (after calming my excitement) was the voices of different cast members listing unrelated memories. I listened closely as they call out, one after the other:

“I remember…

I remember the fish.

I remember hearing laughter.

I remember this purple package.

I remember the smell of the station…”

The premise of the work experienced in Beaty’s piece indicated the power of patterning and how we perceive sequencing. The beginning phrases seemed similar, but I had trouble interpreting them as a complete sequence. 

As the performance continued, the question of how repetition and muscle memory condition oneness between body and mind connectivity echoed in my brain.

Following the curiosities of this question, I began to challenge myself, wondering how the placement of specific movement patterns resonated with my own memories. Can I remember certain movement phrases based on surrounding stimuli (lights, costumes, staging/blocking)?

A scrim displaying inverted images appeared, showcasing the dancer’s previously mentioned memories, (fishing hooks, trees, etc…). I questioned whether the choreography aligned with the images broadcast onto the screen. I looked further to notice how the lighting design (deep blue and chocolate) created an elusive, refracted paradigm, emphasizing how dependent we are on light exposure (or, in this case, lack thereof) for information about our environment. I was constantly looking for things to help anchor my memory (like making a mental note of landmarks to keep from getting lost in a new town). Because of the low lighting, spectators were forced to pay close attention to the synchronisms of each repetitive pattern in order to compare them to the images.

As the dancers moved in unison, I watched as the shadow of one body mirrored others on the scrim. The combination of projected images with shadowy bodies on the scrim made me consider where I was directing my attention and why. Is it a particular memory that is grabbing hold of my attention? Is it a body impulse guiding my perception of the layered experience in front of me? Is my eye-level perspective different from the angle of the silhouetted shadows cast on the scrim? Tempos fluctuated interchangeably, with none being right or wrong; each person’s experience was truly relative. Beaty used the abstract nature of visual projections to mirror the essence of the cast’s memories, and fused them to show the cohesiveness between movement, sound, thoughts, visuals, and feelings.

In a talkback, Beaty shared that the beginning 15 minutes of the work was a result of two foundational phrases that were purposefully spliced at various points in space and movement. This allowed Beaty to test the cognitive elasticity of dancers after observing an “error” of movement, providing them the opportunity to continue their progression rather than feel ashamed or inadequate for performing an error.

The works of artists Caitlyn Schrader and Allison Beaty were pivotal in that they inspired questions about our self-awareness as beings of movement. It was a  complete sensory experience.  Their work emphasized the resiliency required by diving deeply into self-study, and it produced a profound outcome in their approach. With a shifted perspective, cultivated through self-study and movement awareness, they created a space that warrants everyone the chance to see themselves in the work of others – if they so choose. Through dance performance, Schrader and Beaty applied somatic practices to coach experimental ways of approaching the perception, observation, and performance of art. Congratulations to both MFA graduate candidates for their phenomenal work!

Please click HERE for more behind-the-scenes information on the artists’ processes.