It is very nice to go to watch something without prior knowledge and without reservation. Billed as ‘part game and part performance’, The Applause Project by Joon Dance was just such an opportunity. Choreographer Zosia Jo Dowmunt wanted to investigate the act of audience applause and we, the audience, were her guinea-pigs.
We are given a rule sheet. In general, I’m not very good with these – I always panic that I’ll either forget a rule and not get the most I can out of the experience or always want to break them. I also shy away from being told what to do and how to watch. Anyway, the rule sheet is shown at the bottom of the page.
Zosia’s four female performers sit back to back to form a multiple voiced goddess in casual black and white clothes. They take us through the rules of how and when we might choose to applaud and I ask myself if I am being drilled on etiquette, listening to a performance guru or the dancers’ insecurities about needing applause to feel good? Zosia’s rules allow for compliance and rebellious instinct, which I have to say comes as a relief.
The goddess does gestures, which I think are too plain but serve as a nice device when repeated in silence, to echo and reiterate the rules. These four women then fall around in a circle of pelvises swinging high and low, recognisable inversions and knee-slides. Throughout the work I would like to eradicate the overused knee-slides and manage to do so by watching the dancers’ shadows mix with the warm lighting on the floor. At times, the movement feels incomplete but when the dancers allow themselves to really embrace the movement’s technique, there is definitely a lusciousness to their actions. The directness of their eye contact is something I admire (we are sitting on the floor very close to them throughout) and in a work so blatantly looking at spectator-performer interaction, the eye contact serves as an additional layer to performers’ and spectators’ engagement with one another.
So the time for the first round of applause comes and it is at first premature (someone is doing rule one), then I notice lots of people not clapping and in a culturally-conditioned split second think, ‘Oh it’s not the end that sole clapper got it wrong’ and next think ‘Oh, that’s a bit rude of everyone not clapping’. Aha it’s the game at work. Duh! And then to finish this first round, there is a battle of wits for the last clap (two trendy men fully flexing rule 2).
After this, there is a shorter piece and then a longer piece where the applause is so shocking because it comes all at once like a crack of thunder. It caught me off guard because I was contemplating how transparent the choreographic methodology of the movement sequences were. I saw phrases repeat themselves, elongate or evolve onto another body and my sharpest criticism for the night was that for me, in emphasising what happens at the end of the show Zosia’s movement content got lost. I have a question about how much the movement matters. Is it just filler to get to the applause. I hope not. The dance bit of dance pieces should matter and I have to say that even though I doubted at points, the audience seemed to be watching attentively as opposed to anticipatorily.
Unfortunately, in the pieces that used text, the sincerity of what the dancers were saying clashed with the insincerity of knowing the work was staged. Playing with our roles as audience members and applause made me hyper-aware of the theatre space. Prioritising the code of applauding sacrificed the illusion of the dancers words being how they were really feeling or have really felt in the past…
The beauty of being able to clap at anytime meant that the pieces’ ends sometimes seemed made up by us – was that really the end or was it a pause? Did that person think it was the end or was that spontaneous applause? Was that person playing the game or really thinking that moment was so fantastic that only rapturous applause would do?
Could we clap at anytime though? I clapped enthusiastically during the particularly serious 4-women-against-the-wall dance and definitely got some funny looks about breaking rank/being in the wrong, or even trying to play the game differently.
It is during this dance that I see that each woman has a different look in her eye and I realise that in a night with so much unison and shared material, Zosia has preserved her performers’ individuality. In her quest for more audience-performer interaction it is reassuring to see glimmers of individual choices in both parties. The most successful moment in her game comes when we all morph into clapping rhythmically with the dancers. It feels an incredibly fulfilling way to connect with what I am seeing. It’s like clapping in time at a Red Hot Chilli Peppers gig except quieter and less sure of itself as small-scale dance often is. Mind you, the moment was just as heroic.
Alongside applause, the sound used (heartbeats, percussive voice and base beats) formed a soulful meeting place. I looked around towards the end of the night and the audience were relaxing. It was a lovely sight. However, as the evening drew to a close, we were asked to dance with the dancers in the space and the 4th wall smacked me in the face. I felt the most inward of cringes and a bit like a grandma. For all the feeling connected and playing along, I was actually still a separate entity, which was a shame, but I thought that that might have just been me. I looked at Claudia Palazzo’s presence-filled groove in particular and gave myself up to joining in.
On the way home, Zosia’s hour-long evening left me with a sense of wanting to do ‘wrong’ claps more often. It liberates an audience from our traditionally stale use of applause.
Choreographer: Zosia Jo Dowmunt
Performers: Sarah Hitch, Claudia Palazzo, Kate Szkolar and Harriet Waghorn
Lighting designed and operated by Abigail Jackson
Rehearsal Directors: Mari Frogner and Harriet Waghorn
The Applause Project runs until 4th May 2013 at 8pm at Blue Elephant Theatre. Tickets £8/6.