Sophiensaele, Berlin as part of Tanz im August festival, August 27, 2022
I have to admit, I’ve been putting off writing this review for quite a while. I’ve tried multiple times, but each attempt has only resulted in me staring at the blank, white expanse of my Google document, failing to figure out how to put the experience of watching American choreographer Faye Driscoll’s “Thank You For Coming: Space” into words. Even straight after the show, its intense absurdity still fresh in my mind, I had to try very hard to refrain from resorting to the phrase no critic should ever use—“you just had to be there”—when my boyfriend asked me what it was like.
I first heard of Driscoll’s work two years ago at Tanz im August’s online and outdoor edition. Conceived to comply with Covid-19 restrictions, Driscoll presented her pre-recorded audio piece, “Guided Choreography for the Living and Dead,” which encouraged audience members to focus on their internal sensations and reactions to a carefully sculpted text. Ever since, I’ve been determined to see Driscoll’s work live, not only because of her long list of accolades—she is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, a Bessie award, and the Jacob’s Pillow Artist Award—but also due to her unique approach to audience participation and kinship with the visual art world.
This kinship could be felt upon entering Sophiensaele for “Thank You For Coming: Space,” the third and final instalment of her “Thank You For Coming” trilogy. Print outs featuring images ranging from religious paintings to anatomical diagrams and documentary photography of dead bodies are collaged on the floor either side of a walkway that leads to a clean, white, in-the-round auditorium. There, an intricate network of ropes, pulleys, and weights that could be a visual art installation in itself has been strung up above the audience’s heads. A bizarre collection of unrelated articles hang from each rope, including a lemon, a bunch of green-leaved branches, and rusted, metal object shaped like a bell or a grenade. Other items, such as two grey breeze blocks, are dotted across the stage floor.
After the audience have settled into their seats, Driscoll enters and stands on the side of the stage wearing a casual combination of a grey t-shirt and jeans. With a friendly smile on her face she starts delivering an informal opening speech. “We went for the less expensive seats, so I hope you’re all comfortable,” she jokes nervously, before starting to hypothesise about how the audience arrived at the theatre. “Maybe you planned this for a long time . . . you’re all wearing clothes, you look good . . . I don’t know what else you’re going through today,” she adds in a soothing, calm tone. The gaps between her sentences become longer and her speech more affected until it becomes clear that this isn’t a casual introduction to the piece, but part of the piece itself.
Slowly, Driscoll makes her way into the performance space and takes hold of the rope attached to the bell-shaped item. Holding it in her hand, she walks around in a large circle, presenting it to the audience. When back at her starting position, she suddenly throws it to one side so that it swings around the space, emulating the pathway she just outlined. This is the first of many interactions Driscoll has with her unique surroundings, which are like her personal experimental playground. She sings and makes heavy breathing sounds into suspended microphones that she records on a loop pedal, bites into a hanging lemon that drips all over her face and the floor beneath her, and dons heavy boots that, hooked up to a sound system, make loud electronic noises as she marches around in them, tangling herself up in the attached cables in the process.
Driscoll engineers interactions with her audience as well as her environment, simply asking people to hold her hand or her head before doling out more complex tasks. She whispers intimately to individuals instructing them to stomp their feet, spray her with water, and pull ropes and leveys. While many of her requests are odd and surprising, the audience seem to be happy to assist Driscoll in her activities. An earnest and relatable performer, she earns their trust through the gentle and gradual escalation of her actions. As the performance progresses, the spectators appear to be in the palm of her hand: Driscoll can get her “assistants” to perform their duties without any words at all. By merely nodding her head or raising an eyebrow, she elicits the reactions she requires, directing them like the conductor of an orchestra.
Overtime, Driscoll becomes increasingly manic, and the performance space becomes more akin to a perverse self-torture chamber than the amusement park it once was. In a memorable moment, she lies on the floor, the two breeze blocks laid on her torso. Popping her chest upwards at infrequent intervals, she jumps them up and down as if winding herself, letting out noises that at times sound like pained wheezes, at other deranged laughter. Recorded and replayed on a loop, this noise becomes the soundtrack of the section, a backdrop against which Driscoll dances dementedly, popping out her eyes and jaw, laughing a silent psychotic laugh, and jerking her limbs disjointedly so she appears like a crazed Commedia dell’Arte character. When she flings her body towards the seating, rather than recoil, members of her loyal audience caringly reach out to grab her hands and support her neck without even being asked.
After collapsing on the floor in a heap, Driscoll rises to perform an ending section where she sings about death and decay, and presents the audience with silicone organs that slip through her fingers and splat on the floor in front of her. Thematically, it comes a little out of the blue. I find it hard to focus on: I’m still reeling from Driscoll’s uncanny ability to bewitch and control an audience—creating a sense of collectivity and teamwork in the process—and her gradual transformation from dedicated avant garde performer—her sincerity comparable to that of John Cage performing his experimental composition Water Walk on American television in 1960—to maniacal mess. To me, “Thank You For Coming: Space” speaks to the plight of performers and joys and hardships of the theatrical profession. I think I will continue to reel for quite some time.
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