What Do You Expect? Well, I expect to understand what this piece is about. I have read the blurb online and it says that it is about the life of a dancer. I have one of them! I have the life of a dancer! So I expect I’ll know what’s going on. I also dread that I’ll know it all already and I try to nurture the hope that Halsackda will show me something, anything, that I don’t already know.
Watching any performance involves some sort of discovery. Sometimes it also involves surprise. Halsackda gives us an immediate surprise. The piece begins (proper modern dance starting positions in the dark) with a staged technical hiccup (oh, the lights aren’t working, sorry guys, let’s try something else.) I know immediately that the hiccup is fake, but I am not disappointed, I am in fact relieved that something disruptive and a little bit ‘fuck you’ is happening (even if staged technical hiccups are becoming more common than starting positions in recent dance-for-theatre making). I suppose I am glad that Halsackda is being somehow rigorous, as though he knows exactly the degree to which my heart sinks when I see the starting position, and says to me ‘It’s ok Ellie, this bullshit group pose is a JOKE. RELAX!’ The staged hiccup puts my trust in him – puts my trust in his artistic questioning, in his taste, in his ability to pull things off, in his choices… I think by pulling the rug out, in the very first instant, he sets me up to be in a state of watching in which I perceive interruptions to be de rigueur, I accept content as unprecious and I freely project my own ideas and beliefs onto what I see. I’d say it’s a good beginning!
Myself, yourself, ourselves
Something I enjoy about the piece is the group of performers. I recognise (or I assume) that the work is somehow ethically sound because of the performers’ disparities. It is unusual and refreshing to see dancers on stage being so different to one another; they each appear to play their own roles, or to play themselves. At least, this is what I assume, but Halsackda disturbs this by scripting their casualness, their realness, to such a degree that we soon realise that they are not really themselves. They are instead versions and subtle caricatures of themselves.
We also realise that the notion of ‘being yourself’ in performance is an impossible one. Not because that particular state of being is impossible to achieve, but because it is impossible to define. Halsackda is questioning the lines between ‘real life’ and performance. He uses both the script and the active roles of the dancers to explicitly question whether any lines can be drawn or whether we are always ourselves and are always performing (or indeed, never ourselves and never performing).
After watching the piece I begin to think more generally about how our idea of self originates from our awareness of being perceived by others. Performing to an audience of ‘others’ is therefore a situation in which we are particularly aware of ‘ourselves’. I wonder if it is just our awareness that changes or whether we actually change? What makes us use the phrase ‘I don’t feel myself today’? Is it actually in moments of awareness (for example when we are being watched or when we are ill) that we stop feeling like ourselves? I wonder which situations might make us lose awareness of ourselves – when we are alone, distracted, scared, excited, having sex, being in the zone (I love that one, there are so many zones to chose from), being absorbed in work or watching someone absorbed in work. In these moments of obliviousness do we feel more like ourselves? Or is it that in these moments are we are not thinking about how we feel, we are just feeling?
I notice that when watching What Do You Expect?, as when I watch any performance, I shift in and out of an awareness of myself. I am absorbed in what I see until I laugh and hear myself, or until I shift in my body in my seat and perceive my changing proximity to others.
The confusion of real and unreal runs as a thread throughout the piece. With repetition, scenarios which at first appear to be unimportant or throwaway are dismantled and their heavy construction is revealed. Sometimes this is simply a formality and at other times it is absurdly disconcerting. Moments of awkward acting are suddenly commented on and the awkwardness is exposed as knowing, and moments of apparent unguarded spontaneity are revealed as planned.
The piece is densely crammed full of stuff, but although it is overcrowded and overwhelming it is still touching. I am interested in how Halsackda both describes and shows things – for example jumping between a conversation about conflict to actual conflict. There is something smart in this because, although it seems obvious written down, the experience of watching it live it actually makes it difficult to recognise that two very different ‘scenes’ are expressions of the same idea. In every moment we are manipulated by tone, and by medium – trusting conversation more than action, applying our intellect and cynicism in response to language and then slipping into habits of suspended disbelief in response to actions or acting. It is easy to forget that it is all created by the same person and that it is possible to be cynical of action and to treat conversations as acts.
What Do You Expect? is comedy. Sometimes it is disappointingly aware of just how funny it is, and at other times it is surprising and smart. I appreciate the switching that happens between scenes – sometimes things develop slowly, sometimes there are abrupt changes and interruptions, sometimes gags are thrown in our faces and sometimes jokes creep up on us. This gives the piece freedom – it is able to be bold (asking the audience to participate in ‘clairvoy-dance’, a new chorographic technique which involves the audience mentally projecting ideas on onto the dancers in order to make them dance); it is able to be open (the quick audience feedback session mid-show asks for genuine comments from us); it is able to be darkly manipulative (are the jokes on us or on them?); and it is able to be a bit crap (the line dancing). What is consistent throughout all of this change is a hovering sense that the rug can always be pulled out from under us – that in the end the whole thing is a joke. So when the ending nears and the tone becomes one of real drama, when the bodies and words are taking themselves seriously and the choreography is no longer undermining itself with flippant commentary, I am not sure what to think. I suppose I have a strong sense of how predictable the seriousness is. Of course the whole piece, jokes included, relies on the piece being taken seriously by those making and performing it – seriousness is vital. But I already know they are serious, I don’t need them to show me. I think possibly the problem lies in a change in my sense of freedom as a member of the audience. With this shift in tone I do not feel free to project and interpret, instead I feel told what to feel. I am also tired of the angst surrounding the contemporary dancer’s belief that she/he is treated like a whore (this comparison happens in a particularly serious scene). I am not motivated by the dancer’s leopard print bra to interpret the word whore to mean anything more wide-reaching than sex worker. Hey dancers, sex workers have it much worse off… leave them out of our little struggles.
Halsackda’s final monologue however is great in its manic conviction. It is so manic and ridiculous that I am eventually freed from having to believe in it and can instead choose to believe in it.