The importance of being present

When I first started watching dance, I used to like everything I saw. Everything was new and magical. I remember being strongly impressed by technical virtuosity, touched by emotional expression, intrigued by experimental works, fascinated with all the novelties – at least for me at the time- that choreographers were bringing on stage. Each performance experience would stay with me for days.

This lasted for a short period of time – and then I started thinking critically. As I kept watching performances, listening to opinions of teachers and dance mates, reading reviews and other dance writings, I gradually acquired references and criteria. Things stopped being new and became familiar, repetitive even. I started considering issues of originality and relevance, seeking meaning and clarity, evaluating aesthetics. My opinions became more literary than experiential.

Later, during my dance studies, I was struck by the fact that there was hardly any input on watching dance. Amongst dance classes and theory and music and teaching classes there was never any time dedicated to discuss and reflect on watching dance, on putting on ‘the hat of the audience’.

Fast forward to a few years later and I find myself at the Spring Forward Festival. Everything is new again. Springforward is a festival unlike any I have ever attended before: a jam packed programme, a plurality of new dance voices and a new role for me – that of a dance writer of the Springback Academy.

What surprised me was the festival’s audience composition, which consisted exclusively of dance professionals: mainly festival programmers, dancers, choreographers and dance writers. Realizing this unusual composition made me wonder how different everybody’s mindsets must have been while watching the exact same performances. Programmers watching to see if any of the shows would fit their audiences back at home, artists tired from travelling and rehearsals watching to see what their colleagues are creating around Europe, and Springbackers, hoardingly watching performances, keeping notes in the dark, which they would later mould into 140-word reviews.

It made me wonder: how many other different ways are there to watch dance, according to the spectator’s context and intention? And how does the actual experience of the performance change for each spectator according to their different reasons for being in the audience?

As a first time dance reviewer, watching dance with the intention to write about it later completely altered my perspective. I found myself more alert, fully engaged in observing and absorbing every detail. Following the Springback mentors’ advice I attempted to ‘switch on the linguistic part of my brain’ and pump words out of what I experienced, and for the first time I pondered on ‘what a dance might smell or taste like’.

Like many other art forms that use abstract language, dance is rarely easy to approach. The very expression ‘to watch dance’ might not be quite accurate or enough – we are invited to experience dance with more of our senses, fully alert, and with an open mind. For me, putting on my new ‘dance writer’s hat’ brought back to my gaze some of the purity and freshness of my early dance watching days, in a more informed and savant manner. I discovered anew, the importance of being present.

Stella Mastorosteriou