Alchemic Bodies

Rehearsal shot by Jessica Cavender

Rehearsal shot by Jessica Cavender

Art school poses a quotidian task: how to create engaging –well heck, let’s use it, transformative experiences through bodies. In other words:

Goal: magic-making.

I may soon tire of the word, but I like it these days. I realize that I am interested not only in the alchemy of bodies on stage, but also in the reshaping of my audience’s (individual) bodies. How can I move them, literally, and what is my purpose when I do.

A natural magic lives in the proscenium setting of western concert dance; when my audience settles in a dark theater, their tushes gently cushioned, they are transformed into a new world as performers look majestically over ticketed heads into the great beyond. And they are changed by the magic of performing bod(ies) in defiance of gravity: legs aloft, jumps prolonged. Oh, do I love the theater. But my current creative impulse lives in the realm of the house. (You know this term, friends, from “house lights,” “front of house.” The house is where the audience is.) And now that I am spending five hours a week in the Motion Lab (MOLA) at The Ohio State University, I realize intermedia in the house is my jam. And my continuing bread n’ butter. There lives my method of magic making. In the MOLA I research how I can mediate the selfhood of my audience through the selfhood of the performer. How can I transform your sense of reality of self through designing what happens to your body?

And luckily, I am honored to have just received the SFI grant from The Ohio State University towards designing an immersive theater experience. The project will at first eliminates the visual perception of audience members in favor of emphasizing the range of other senses: touch, smell, and hearing. Audience members will be limited to 12 people. Or possibly 1. If more, they’ll be prepped to have downloaded an mp3, and to bring their own mp3 player (e.g. smartphone) and ear buds. They’ll be instructed to lie down with their respective heads on pillows, to put on an eye mask, and to be open to instructions via the mp3 recording and through touch. I’m interested in choreographing an audience. This work will harness ludology principles (a term I recently learned from my colleague John Luna) to create guidelines for scripted choose-your-own-adventure interactions among audience members, and between the audience and the “performers.” Experiences might include but are not limited to being guided to reach for someone’s hand, feel a breeze (via a fan) and place themselves in another setting through their shaped imaginations.

Some of these idea have been shaped from reading Susan Kozel’s piece regarding her performance work in Telematic Dreaming. She uses the forum of the “Dance and Technology Zone” to discuss her perspective on the work through both the intimate lens of a performer. She also writes as a researcher in the psycho-physical experiences of digital technologies and its philosophical implications. She writes, “It becomes more and more difficult to sustain a clear distinction between truth and falsity […]” and I’m struck by this allowance of discussion about theater. Because sometime we see theater as trickery. To examine theater that poses the unreal versus the real, but when we’re in a space that changes our own sense of ourselves, the one thing in life we cling to most as real, trather than an absolutist statement about theater/truth. I am down with her ideas about VR generating not necessarily more reality or truth but rather new experiences of truth and falseness. I like the directorial challenge of nailing them to an algorithm. I dig that she’s pointing to how choreographers as space-makers can imbricate technology (here I’m talking about projection) to alter people’s sense of their own bodies. How can I change the “reality” experience of your body, of your physical cultural relationships. I concluded my notes on her writing with “I WANT TO MAKE THINGS LIKE THIS.” This is a phrase the concludes a number of my readings and intermedia viewings lately, and helps me fight the internal battles of seeking originality while honoring my attraction to others’ works.


  1. Barbara Brown

    I love your opening idea: creating a transformative experience through bodies. One of the experiences I have loved when I have gone to a dance concert is this: while watching dancing, I can almost feel inside my own body a kind of interior straining and almost other-worldly but definitely tangible dancer’s stretched arm or a light leap of a Nureyev. Your idea is spot-on: dance is magic-making.

    I appreciate how you check in with us your readers about the meaning of the word “house”, but what about proscenium and ludology principles and “VR”? I have the sense that you’re writing for a dance and maybe theatre audience, so you lose me a bit in your final paragraph.

    Your final 2 sentences grab me again, because I can hear your distinctive Anna voice saying exactly those phrases and with that emphasis. Your passion is a treasure to honor.

  2. Elizabeth

    I am very intrigued by your reimagining the physical space and experience of the audience. I often think about how the traditional role of Western audience in classical music feels static and is aching for change…for a shift in paradigm. Bravo, you, for pushing the boundaries of the static into the new and perhaps uncomfortable. In my third grade classroom, our motto/hope/dream/goal this year is “lean into discomfort” and it strikes me that audience members may have to do just this to be transformed.

  3. Aditi Dhruv

    That is my most favorite thing – to be in a theater before the show (either as a performer or audience member) and feel the empty space just waiting…aching to be filled. As a performer, I feel it’s my ‘job’ of sorts to create magic for the audience. As an audience member, it’s my ‘job’ to allow the magic to tumble over me. I so badly want to be in the audience when you create this new work, very curious and intrigued by how it will all play out. Magic indeed.

  4. Sam Asher

    Congrats on the grant and wonderful to hear that you’re working to make a performance a more interactive and transformative experience. I’ve often found it difficult to overcome the fourth wall and really engage with the performers onstage. I’ve loved the performances where the audience is brought into the action, even superficially as in a production of Julius Caesar that I recently saw at the Globe. As probably the least dancy of your friends, I would request that you think hard about how to engage those not inclined to experience transformation at a dance performance. Unless of course that will hurt your odds of getting the next grant…

  5. Caitlin

    I love the idea that by manipulating the audience’s senses, you want to change their sense of themselves…sensory knowledge is so undeniably strong and transformative. In regards to the quest for magic-making, isn’t that the grandest of challenges? This is why I believe that dance (or maybe art in general) is a spiritual practice— and isn’t that what people used to/still go to houses of worship for? The rituals of religion (burning of incense, use of song, words, and a proscenium like setting) are quite theatrical, and what you are talking about doing- manipulating the senses in a way that elicits “new experiences of true and falseness” is an interesting corrolary. A theater of the senses, a theater of the mind, a making of magic…I’m in.

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