‘Bring yourself away from evaluating things visually,’ the American choreographer Faye Driscoll whispers into my ear as I lie on a deckchair in front of the currently closed Hebbel am Ufer theatre. ‘Observe the sensations. Perhaps you don’t feel anything, that’s fine too.’ My eyes drift shut as I prepare for an experience that seems more like a private therapy session than a contemporary dance performance.
A 13-minute ‘audio choreography’ commissioned for Berlin’s Tanz im August 2020, Guided Choreography for the Living and Dead is unlike other participatory dance performances: we are not required to leave our seats or even move a muscle while listening to instructions read to us through headphones. Instead, we are encouraged to focus on our internal reactions, sensations, and images that appear in our mind’s eye. As a result, the piece raises an important question: where does performance actually take place? Onstage, or inside our minds?
The work is inspired by guided body scans, common in contemporary dance training, where attention is directed towards different limbs and organs to aid meditation and movement exploration. The instructions, however, gradually become faster and more sexual than those you’d find in your average improvisation class. Suggestive deep breaths punctuate phrases including ‘come into my mouth’, ‘pound me down’, and ‘come on, take it’, transforming the work from a methodical set of directions into an invigorating wake up call, enticing us – as the title suggests – to enliven our ‘dead’ bodies after the disembodiment of lockdown.
Driscoll’s practice has always been centered around participatory modes of performance, but Guided Choreography for the Living and Dead feels particularly relevant to the coronavirus crisis: audiences are able to socially distance, or even take part via YouTube. It’s a novel experience, and it is interesting to see choreographers work with expanded notions of what constitutes choreography. But I can’t help wondering how much this experimental spirit, and the audience’s appetite for it, will last after we’re allowed back in theatres to experience bodies in motion.