The watcher’s art 

Wherever you look, There You Are

Audience participation is a polarizing element of performance that, depending on your perspective, can instantly enhance or eviscerate a viewing experience. The majority of us crowd folk fall into the latter category; we are used to simply showing up and being entertained. There’s a certain anonymity and privilege that comes with purchasing a ticket, and showmanship and spotlight should fall to the troupe, not the Tom, Dick or Harry sitting next to us.

Or, in the case of There You Are, sitting directly across from us.

In this modern dance concert, the audience is positioned around the performance area in the shape of a pentagon. The space is tightly arranged so the five dancers are just as likely to brush against an onlooker as a fellow dancer. There’s no sound score, no lighting cues and very little ambience. There’s nothing, in fact, distracting the audience from the movement—except, perhaps, the audience itself.

The setup makes it difficult to avoid stealing glances at the person across from you just as often, if not more so, than the dancers. Do they understand what’s happening? Which pocket of action are they watching? Did they just pick their nose? Did I? Are they watching me? Wait, what am I watching? The crowd becomes a sixth performer, its reactions and mannerisms as integral to the show as anything else. For the unfocused or unfamiliar, it’s intimidating and unsettling. For the rest, it’s an absorbing experiment.

Producer and choreographer Kaila June Gidley was hoping for exactly this sort of effect. There You Are is structured as an intimate look at five dancers coming together, breaking apart and then joining back again, and Gidley gives the audience as much responsibility for supporting that vulnerability as the dancers do in offering it. They’ll show you theirs if you show them yours.

If only the setup were the only risk. The performance itself—one continuous 50-minute piece—includes poetry, singing and percussion all executed by the dancers within improvised and choreographed movements. The actual dancing begins with predominately floor work, meaning the dancers sprawl, spin, roll and interact without ever standing up. A pair of duets featuring Kitty Sailer, a dancer with Missoula’s professional touring Headwaters Dance Company, and Heidi Junkersfeld, a founding member of the OpenField Artists collective, are rooted in contact improvisation, where they play with balancing weight, lifts and individual extensions without ever separating. Sarah Bortis, also a member of Headwaters, has a gorgeous albeit brief solo—one of the only straightforwardly traditional dance segments of the concert. A considerable amount of time is spent with dancers running and walking outside—and occasionally darting through—the pentagon, constantly shifting the audience’s focus. There You Are is a jumble of ideas served up as matter-of-factly as the title suggests, with little explanation or context.

What’s it all mean? At times, based on the text, it comes across as an abstract commentary on open space, awareness and community—and at other times simply as five dancers studiously collaborating, as if in a public dance workshop. In one section, for instance, the dancers join in a circle and sing a cappella, harmonizing beautifully over lyrics that begin, “I have water for my journey / I have bread and wine.” In a later section they refer to each other by name and, one-by-one, follow instructions through a common dance warm-up exercise. It’s clear that any narrative is secondary to the overarching experiment of seeing what happens when all of the above is blended inside the pentagon.

Which brings us back to watching the crowd watch the show. Challenging the traditional relationship between audience and performer isn’t new, but in the realm of modern dance—an art form that’s perpetually fighting an I-don’t-get-it stigma—the pentagon arrangement is a risk. Combine it with a clutter of choreographic ideas and There You Are comes dangerously close to impenetrable. That level of confusion, however, turns the star of the show into those trying to process it. Who’s checking their watch? When did the kids in attendance—at least a half-dozen were at the preview showing I attended—tune out or just leave? Who gets what? It’s an intriguing voyeuristic encounter at the least, and a multilayered group study at best. Whether the dancing is the primary focus or not, There You Are offers no shortage of things to watch.

There You Are will be performed in the Open Space inside the University of Montana’s PARTV Center Friday, June 22, and Saturday, June 23, at 9 PM sharp. $5. 
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