“The Performers” draws attention to everyday performance

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“The Performers,” a multimedia piece staged by Erica Janko ’17 last weekend at the annual Philadelphia Fringe Contemporary Arts Festival, tackled a range of themes from femininity to the audience’s role in a performance through the deft use of technology, choreography, and audience plants.

The show took place in the University City Arts League building. At six in the evening, a crowd of mostly students filed upstairs into a room where live projections, shone from an array of inward-pointing cameras, bathed the plain white walls and worn wooden floor in an eerie light. Opposite a mirrored wall to one side the space usually served as a dance studio four young women posed on windowsills with blank expressions. In one corner, A. Nirvaan Ranganathan ’17 manipulated a grid of colored lights on a tablet to fill the room with elegant chords.

It started without fanfare.

“They look left,” Jenko said, sitting neatly on a folding chair in the middle of the aisle. “Their feet are flat on the floor.”

The arrangement of the chairs in the middle of the room, with rows set up opposite one another, meant that no seat provided a view of the entire space. Audience members squirmed in their seats, craning their necks to find the subject of Jenko’s narration. She kept speaking, gradually speeding up until she was gasping for air between sentences. The audience slowly realized that she was describing Asher Wolf ’18, sitting in the row closest to Jenko, whose initial fidgets were turning into frantic spasms.

Then, a quarter of the “audience” burst from their seats and began dancing around the room, including Wolf, whose street clothes had allowed him to blend in perfectly with the audience members.

“We were told, ‘Imagine your body is like sand blowing in the wind, or iron filings attracted [to] or repelled from a magnet,’” Wolf said.

The players were directed to fall towards an imagined barrier between them and the audience, sometimes pulling back, sometimes breaking through and drawing close to those seated. Their movements were chaotic, almost riotous.

Jenko’s piece always had several things happening at once. While some dancers staggered between the rows of seats, others moved gracefully in twos and threes by the window, and a few sat still by the mirrored wall, watching themselves.

At one point, a woman in an orange shirt and blue overalls twirled in circles, contorted herself on the ground, and rocked back and forth while a woman in black clothing, her hair drawn into a severe bun, attempted to restrain her. At another, the dancers began removing their clothes, with Wolf (back in his seat) stripping to his white briefs. All the while, the mirrors and projectors kept the audience self-conscious and immersed wherever they looked, they saw their reactions.

A recurring conceit in “The Performers” was the concealment of players in the folding chairs. First, Wolf; then, other dancers; and finally, as the performance went on, those seated gradually noticed two other women in the crowd, one drawing a garish clown smile on herself with lipstick, the other slowly covering her forearms in nail polish.

We occasionally heard nervous laughter sometimes from the dancers, sometimes from the crowd. One audience member said the performance made them uncomfortable; another described feeling uncertainty over their role.

“At first, I was confused about the rules. I wasn’t sure if we non-performers were supposed to participate.”

While parts of the piece were choreographed, the bulk was improvised, with often expressionistic direction. Ranganathan, for example, was given adjectives like “uproar,” “playful,” and (his favorite) “particle-y” to guide his mostly improvised, synth-heavy soundtrack. Each of the female dancers, meanwhile, were instructed to embody an aspect of their experience as women. One chose shame; another chose the expectation of grace. Haylee Warner, the woman in overalls, chose infantilization.

“I had done a lot of political [performances] already about ‘being a weak female’ and I didn’t really want to do that,” she says. She recently graduated from the University of the Arts. “I wanted something that’s more fun, something that allowed me to have a larger range of expression. Then I realized how closely related [my character] is to who I am as a person and how I interact in the world.”

Although “The Performers” placed an emphasis on the relationship between femininity and self-presentation, it also challenged the audience to think generally about the ways they perform in their everyday life. Instead of tickets, audience members were given slips of paper reading “You can take action.” In a discussion after the show, led by Irene Kwon ’17, one audience member said they weren’t sure if the note was an invitation to participate in the show; after the first few minutes, they’d decided to remain in their seat.

The performance, which has been in development since January, was part of Jenko’s sociology and anthropology honors thesis examining the lives of contemporary artists living in Philadelphia. Last year, she shadowed several artists and conducted extensive interviews. Putting on her own show, she says, allowed her to experience that community firsthand.

Inspiration came from Erving Goffman’s introductory sociology textbook, which also provided her with the quote she placed at the top of each program: “A ‘performance’ maybe be defined as all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants.”

She hopes that her show would encourage the audience to examine how they perform in their own lives, even if the conclusions they reach might look different for each person.

“We all perform differently in everyday life,” she says. “We all have different bodies and different backgrounds. I’m just one perspective on that.”

“The Performers” ended with the dancers stepping, one by one, in front of each projector, until all images of the audience were cut off. In the few seconds of silence before the applause, the crowd looked blearily around at the motionless dancers, the other members of the audience, and the mirrored wall, unsure what to do next.

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