Most of the piece was carefully engineered; it seemed more calculated than liberated.
Faye Driscoll’s Thank You for Coming: Attendance. At the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. October 8–10.
By Marcia B. Siegel
Before the night was over Thursday at the ICA, the gracious prospect offered by Faye Driscoll’s Thank You for Coming: Attendance culminated in a mostly joyous but sometimes reluctant tribal dance. Driscoll’s idea was to engage the audience in the performance, a task that can’t be easy, especially in Boston. As we entered the theater we were instructed to divest ourselves of shoes, jackets, bags. I was hurled back to the 1960s and the early throes of experimental dance. At that time, disrobing stood for getting rid of our previous notions of dance and theater so we’d be ready to absorb an experience not yet codified. By now I seem to have done all that work, but most of the audience at the ICA hadn’t been born when Meredith Monk took over the campus of Connecticut College and Anna Halprin got people to parade through the streets, so it was all new to them.
As we were depositing our stuff where we were told to put it, six people stood in the erstwhile audience seats, about Row J, and chanted clusters of words or syllables. The only thing I could make out was, “Please be sure to take no record/Except the one in your mind.” I quickly recorded this in my notebook. Then we were shown some risers around the edge of a squarish platform where the stage area usually is, and we squatted down on them. Five dancers (Giulia Carotenuto, Sean Donovan, Alicia Ohs, Toni Melaas, and Brandon Washington) appeared on the platform and began a long sequence that looked like a version of the old improvisation gambit where you have to stay in contact with your partners while moving. The performers would get into some contorted sculptured mass—bodies grounded and twisting through other bodies’ legs, or balancing like storks, or ostensibly holding one another up, cheek to shoulder, fingers to foot. Though seemingly frozen in each precarious pose, they were throbbing internally or suppressing twitches. I could feel the intensity. As they moved together into new positions, they’d make improbably melodramatic faces that changed in an instant to something different. I thought the whole thing looked artificial, rehearsed, even the balances that were meant to seem approximate.
The bodies closest to the floor heaved up and down, inching the whole big contrivance toward the edge of the platform. As they pushed and thumped, I realized the platform was miked, and later I learned that Faye Driscoll had crawled underneath it, equipped to amplify the sound of their mass maneuvers.
Through the rest of the piece, I grew more and more aware of Driscoll’s presence. A tall, sturdy woman in a black T-shirt, she cued the changes in the action from within the crowd. Without letting go of each other, the dancers rolled off the edge of the platform so they were practically in the laps of the audience. They nuzzled gently at spectators, then they rolled back into their arena, carefully pulling up the platform’s canvas cover with them. Still in their lineup and rolled in the canvas, they looked like a giant caterpillar crossing the dance floor. Revealed beneath the canvas were many narrow benches pushed together.
Driscoll came out and hefted the benches one by one onto the low shelves where we’d been squatting, quietly commanding each bank of sitters to get up and out of her way. While she was doing this, the dancers passed out favors to the audience: gold lamé shower caps, bunches of artificial flowers, bits of black mosquito netting, and we were told to do something with these toys.
When we’d all gotten re-seated on the benches, the dancers began a series of mime-plays: duets, trios, groups, acting out seductions and rejections. The audience thought some of this was hilarious, but I couldn’t see it all so I didn’t get the jokes. Guitarist Michael Kiley, behind one row of the audience, sang a long litany of names, mostly on one note. I thought the names were those of the dancers and crew as well as the members of the audience. To occult cues, the dancers echoed some of these names. Driscoll, standing in the audience, began a stamping accompaniment, joined by the dancers and the audience.
They were working themselves into a kind of frenzy, led by Driscoll. The dancers grabbed outlandish props that had been planted in the audience and performed blackout skits, cheerleader yells, and dance bits. Sometimes they persuaded an audience member to join them. One woman had been given a large neck piece, and Ohs got hold of the other side. During the minimal duet that followed, the scarf was revealed to have yards of fabric, and, attached with their heads inside the expanding cylinder, the two women scrambled across the floor.
Next thing we knew, the dancers were swooping in to the center and out, and skipping around the perimeter of the space. New people began to join the roundelay, first Driscoll, then other collaborators, stage assistants, the audience. Long snaky ropes you hardly noticed were given to designated audience members and crew to hold, and by some stage contrivance the ropes were raised over the performance space like a circus tent. Finally, most of the audience had been drawn into the farandole. At last the tent was lowered, along with the lights, and the piece was over.
No one received a program until the end of the 75-minute event. Perhaps the producers were afraid to interfere with the audience’s spontaneous reaction. But most of the piece was carefully engineered; it seemed more calculated than liberated. I’ve always resisted coercion in the theater, perhaps it’s my professional wariness of theatrical trickery. Driscoll’s piece was a curious mix of theatrical inventions and simulated interactions. I enjoyed the successive surprises of the piece, but there were times when it made me feel claustrophobic.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.