When the Audience is Part of the Show

March 2, 2009

Live dance performance, with all its unpredictability, seems risky enough in itself. When dance artists choose to bring an audience member onstage, they take an even bigger gamble. How will this unknown person respond to their prompts? Will she be cooperative, or will she ruin the moment by being overly self-conscious or awkward? (Or is her self-consciousness/awkwardness at being onstage the point?)

Dean Moss and Yoon Jin Kim’s “Kisaeng becomes you” hinges on moments of audience participation, and when I saw the show at Dance Theater Workshop this Friday, that gamble paid off. Intended to demonstrate the similarities between the Korean “kisaeng” (courtesans) and today’s artists, “Kisaeng becomes you” is a patchwork of dance-theater sketches, two of which involve audience members. During the most striking segment, the dancers dressed an older volunteer in a geisha-like wig and white gown, and went through an elaborate “rehearsal” with her–she was told to walk in circle, to bow, to cover her eyes, and to recite lines of poetry (“Everything you do…everything you say…deceives”). The woman’s initial discomfort disappeared slowly as, after running through the sequence several times, she became familiar with her part. Then she “performed” the little routine–for us, and for the video camera held by one of the dancers. There was a sort of electricity in the air as she moved and spoke gently; we were all holding our breath for her, knowing that it could have been one of us up there,  in the lights, under pressure. It was a beautiful moment.