When the traditional roles of performers and audience members are challenged, the balance of power shifts, but then who has the upper hand? In Elephant, a performance art piece choreographed by Kelly Bond and danced by Bond, Lillian Cho, and Melissa Krodman, the performers break the fourth wall of the stage, in this case The Apothecary, and challenge the audience for their space.
There is something quite comfortable about sitting in an audience—we relax in our seats and choose whether or not we want to engage with the performers. But the moment these three dancers remove their clothing, the audience’s role changes. Nudity in performance can be a highly controversial issue in that some find it organic, natural, and beautiful while others find it uncomfortable to watch and even offensive. In this particular performance, it is an acquired taste. The initial shock of the unclothed body in such close proximity is quite pronounced, but as the piece develops, the costumes (or lack thereof) become less alarming, and their purpose in the work becomes more apparent.
The piece opens with all three women in a firm stance with their open palms layered on top of one another. This is an interesting variation on the traditional “united we stand” clasped hand hold as it suggests oneness in a more delicate, nuanced way. As the image begins to resonate, one of the women breaks away from the pose and begins a walking pattern throughout the space. She takes time to stop and look at specific audience members, sometimes for an uncomfortably long period of time. This is an example of the performer addressing audience members and challenging their roles as disconnected bystanders, forcing them to tune in to the work. She walks at a lumbering tempo with a hunched posture and flexed feet, as if deeply rooted in the earth. As she continues to walk across the space, the one image I cannot get out of my mind is that of early man beginning to walk, specifically as depicted in cave drawings.
The second performer then breaks away from rest, but rather than walking, she sinks to the floor in child’s pose. Visually this shows a pattern of degeneration as one performer walks on her feet while the next becomes bound to the floor and can barely crawl. Eventually this performer stands and addresses the audience physically and vocally. She forms the shape of a handgun with her fingers and shouts at the audience to put their hands in the air. When some choose not to listen, she walks to them specifically, even stepping into their personal space. When everyone finally raises their hands, she bursts into laughter and asks why we were all afraid of a finger gun.
When the first two soloists walk upstage to lie against the back wall, the third and final performer drops to her hands and knees, beginning to crawl, but soon falls to her stomach. She struggles to drag her body along the floor and calls for help, even to the point of screaming for someone in the audience to help her. When nobody responds she raises the question, what would we do if she truly were hurt? This engages the audience in a deeper way than simply viewing a performance—it causes us to ask ourselves a serious question and examine how little we interact with strangers.
The message of this piece seems two-fold as the imagery of the movement and the content of the piece suggest two different, yet ultimately related concepts. The first solo of walking, to the second solo of hunching on the floor, to the third solo of crawling, seems to suggest a distorted, out-of-order form of evolution. These three distinct images mirror the stages of life from infant to toddler to adult, but then why do they occur out of order in the context of the performance? This is where the choreography’s specific attention to the audience comes into play. While it is easy for some members of the audience to accept the nudity in the work, for others, it is an elephant in the room, and something they try to ignore but just cannot get over. This is apparent based on the fidgeting and wandering eyes of certain people in the room. Just as species evolve over time and humans develop from babies to adults, it seems that theatergoing audiences should also progress in terms of what they are willing to witness without wincing or grimacing at something unexpected, whether it be coarse language, suggestive subject matter, or simply the human body. But nevertheless, audiences grow at different rates in what they can accept and appreciate, and some even regress.
While Elephant may not be an ideal work for all audience members, this is precisely the point. If everyone in the room is completely open to whatever may happen on the stage, then we miss out on Mr. “I’m going to look at the other side of the room so I don’t feel awkward” or Ms. “is it weird for me to look directly at the performers,” and those reactions are some of the most memorable aspects of the performance.
by Kelly Bond
Running time: 50 minutes
Read all the reviews and check out the full Capital Fringe schedule here.
Did you see the show? What did you think?