All my life, I was taught that performance was the culmination of hard work. The fruit of my labor. A time to showcase what I had prepared for them, the audience. As a result, it’s always been polished, clean. Aesthetically and emotionally pleasing. Meant to put a smile on someone’s face, perhaps provoke a thought or two in their head. If it was a job well done, then it would trigger a round of applause and a sense of longing for the next performance, where if accomplished, would do the same. Therefore, you can imagine my surprise when I learned that our performance with Urban Bush Women (UBW) was intentionally not created for an audience, but instead, for us.
As I got on that stage, alongside my fellow dancers, learners, and most importantly, friends, I felt raw and vulnerable. Like a species that has always been in existence but finally made its way to a scientist’s microscope. I felt the need to explain to my friends in the audience what was going on, why we were doing that “ping pong thing”, or why we were shouting out numbers while accelerating across the whole stage, and why some parts of our performance were synchronized, while others weren’t. I wanted them to understand what I had come to learn, how I had grown and why this was important for me, for us. A piece of this desire was satisfied at the end of the first show, when during the question and answer, I sensed the audience’s hunger to learn more. Their curiosity completely energized me, and fueled my desire to keep on performing for the next show. However, looking back at it, I am ashamed of that sentiment, as that spirit of filtered performance is exactly what UBW is not.
Art, at least the art I want to create and be a part of, is not meant for them, the audience. It was never meant for them. As Amanda, our teacher, would say, they chose to come to OUR theatre. They entered OUR haven, which doesn’t come with warnings our apologies.
As an performer, I am unsure if I will ever completely grasp this concept. Undoing a life’s worth of performative perfection is by far no easy task. But I have hope. For the first time ever, I was allowed to focus on the process, rather than the product, and though it was terrifying, I never want to revert from that freedom again. For this boldness allows for the artist to be more creative, to experiment more, and in the end, produce something special because it is ours. As a dancer, I can confidently say that I have not reached this point in my own work, but am so privileged to have been a part of a show and process, that did.