Occasionally someone comes on the floor and after that the performance begins. If the starting point is onstage that means a body appears that has not yet begun to act or dance. Who or what is that body?
In the performing arts, especially now, there is a huge emphasis on the identity of the performer. But here we’re not talking about people portraying themselves or others onstage, instead about something more elemental. If the performer appears before the performance begins, then he or she can be identified as a sort of servant to the performance, about to enact something. This servant body is usually that of the professional actor or dancer, a kind of commando set into choreographies or plays.
In the process of dance and theatre training there is often an agreed-upon starting point, described by different names like ‘zero’, ‘first position’, ‘natural’ or ‘neutral body’. These terms refer to a state of balance and readiness without character or choreography: a position of preparation in order to accomplish any role or task, starting immediately. There is an implication that a neutral body, like a neutral mask, is a blank slate, a tabula rasa: “the mind before impressions are recorded on it by experience.”
But there is a problem with beginning here. This neutral prepared body is like a neutral gear in a car – the motor may be running but the gears are disengaged. The audience can see beneath the repose and the confidence to the feigned quality of anonymity in this neutral body. A neutral body is a representative of the cultural values of balance, harmony and reason merely by the fact of its verticality, horizontality and symmetry. The performer and viewer begin by implicitly agreeing on these same underlying values.
But the human body does not have to be anchored to ideals of beauty. It might even be refreshing not to think of the theater at all as a place for universal values or ideals. The performer does not have to be an everyman, a repository of projections, or carry a message like a spear.
To create really alive unexpected public experience, instead of just provoking the viewer it might be more interesting to evade the audience’s search for illusory content – rather than attempt to attract it. The viewer is then not able to rest on his or her assumptions about the artist or the art. The performer’s challenge can be keeping the body anonymous but somehow specific. This anonymous body would not then be some neutral representative of order.
In fact performers are free to act as if it is the audience who is the tabula rasa. There are opportunities in sustaining suspense, refreshing a situation by sidetracking the interpretive mind of the viewer, and propelling the work forward in a rhythmic and unexpected way. Performing is then about remaining alert to the vicissitudes of the moment – what comes up. Engagement rather than display can become the hallmark of good performance.