When I say I like art, what I mean is I'm interested in creative labors like painting, chainsaw art, folk music and scratch cooking.
Modern dance performances, however, had until recently failed to stir much in me. In my admittedly limited experience, I have been nonplussed by what appears to be mostly rolling, wiggling and somersaulting. I don't get it. What really does that mean?
So when last week I attended You and Me, the traveling performance piece by Colorado-based dancer and choreographer Tara Rynders, my enthusiasm was tempered. I was told the show would be interactive, which made a novice like me an ideal patron, if not a terrified one. I was told that it would take place in the home of Bare Bait Dance Company Artistic Director Joy French and that it would undoubtedly be very modern dance-y. And so, when the performance began and the dancers, dressed in loose-fitting monochromatic dresses, began rolling in the sliver of grass beside French's home as the 30 or so audience members stood watching from the sidewalk, my heart sank, and a thought floated in: Ugh.
After a prologue that had the audience follow the performers as they danced around the Westside, the meat of the show began. Individual audience members were asked to follow a treasure map—drawn by local actor Jeff Medley who shares French's home—to meet dancers in locations around the neighborhood. My map and schedule, each delivered in personalized envelopes, instructed me to meet privately with six performers over the course of two hours.
Some of the one-on-one sessions were innocuous, the experience a little muddled by pragmatics. Like my first session, wherein a blind-folded Joy French was tied to a tree like a marionette. You pulled on her strings to make her arms and legs move. The ropes were tangled though, and I don't think the people in attendance were prepared to pull hard enough to really make French dance.
Other sessions, however, were powerful in ways I have never so acutely experienced while taking in an art show.
At 7:50, my schedule told me to meet Patrycja Humienik in the garage behind French's home. We stood alone on the concrete floor, and she gestured for me to touch my palms to hers.
"Will you hum with me?" she asked.
I nodded, and we began humming. After a few seconds, Humienik began making other sounds—melodic whoops and swoons—and the purpose of the session became clear: We were writing and performing a song together.
For the duration of the five-minute episode, this was torture. My thoughts about what we sounded and looked like prevented me from even trying. My nightmare, I thought. All I could muster was some vague chirping sounds, humming and choked nervous laughter.
When it was over, the relief was only momentary, and almost immediately a new thought floated in: I'm an ass.
Sitting as a member of an audience in a theater, there is a distance between you and the performance that is convenient and safe and gives you permission to play critic without personal investment. Being a part of the performance, however, provides no such comfort. When you don't like the show, you have only yourself to judge. Singing with Humienik seemed unbearable while it was happening, but afterward all I could think about was my lame unwillingness to make silly, improvised music with another person.
My last stop for the evening was with the event's organizer, Rynders. I met her in the field behind Lowell Elementary, and without saying a word she handed me headphones, which were connected to an iPod on her wrist. She pressed play.
"Hi, Jamie," a recording of her voice said. It asked if I wanted to dance.
It was a rock song I didn't recognize. I began to do the only dance move I do: tapping feet beneath gyrating hips (I've often been told I don't move my upper body enough). I was eager to engage this time, to let myself go a bit.
The choruses were big emotive crescendos and we moved in circles, sometimes exchanging grins, sometimes twirling away from one another. At one point I spun too quickly and the headphone jack popped out of the iPod. We scrambled, laughing breathlessly to plug me back in.
A car slowed as it passed on Phillips Street so the kids in the backseat could watch. I waved and they laughed. I stopped paying attention when the music came back, but surely they cheered as we returned to dancing.