Dancing Blind : Sylvie Cotton

Fortner Anderson
October 13

Each night of the festival, Sylvie Cotton presented a thirty minute participative action as a kind of performance “hors-d’oeuvre” or “tasting” before the evening communal meal and the night’s events. For each of the performances Cotton asked for volunteers, and she could accommodate up to forty participants. Over the four nights, using a simple set of rules and with an economy of means, Cotton took these volunteers though a set of emotional states from quietude to vulnerable to intimate and lastly to joyous.

I chose to participate in all four of Cotton’s actions and so was unable to observe the actions from outside the event. Of course, my participation within the action provided its own point-of-view and shared experience with the other participants.

The first night’s action was a “Blind Choreography”. The forty participants were instructed to don blindfolds and sit together in silence without moving. For the second night, an “Intuitive Choreography”, she again instructed participants to don blindfolds, but now they were told to explore the performance space without speaking. Day three, a collaboration with artist Sonja Slatanova, she and Slatanova asked the group to divide into pairs, each person choosing someone that they did not know as a partner. Standing back-to-back, the newly formed couples tied themselves together at the waist using the blindfolds. Once bound together, the couples were free to explore the space in silence. Day four, the instructions again called for blindfolding and silence, but in this iteration Cotton added a prepared musical dance track, proposing that the participants could dance, if the mood struck them.

The creation and communication of shared states of emotion is an important aspect of many performance actions. To successfully implement this process of creation and communication, the performer oft-times seeks within themselves the appropriate affective state and using that moment of emotion, they then try to communicate it to the public.

There is a delicate balance in this work between one’s attempt to access the interior state and the work to communicate that state to the audience. To much emphasis on the interior search and a performer’s action can fall into solipsisms which remain unintelligible to the public, going to far the other way, the performance can drift into entertainment. This problem is further complicated when active participants are added into the mix. As a spectator to such actions one’s experience is vastly different of that of the participant and that of the artist themselves.

Cotton’s nightly performances created three broad groupings of experience of the events, her own, that of the blindfolded or joined volunteers and another consisting of the remaining public who watched the events unfold as they socialized and waited for dinner.

As a participant, I quickly found a pleasure in the quiet mental focus that her first action induced. After the hubbub and business of the preparations of Viva’s evening’s activities, this quiet time was well-appreciated. Though initially unsettling, I felt there was little risk nor sense a of vulnerability as the group sat together unmoving on a solid wooden bank of seats. Day two, when Cotton introduced movement into the action, my feeling of mental quiet was brusquely overturned by a constant brushing, bumping and caressing of bodies as participants drifted or crawled unseeing through the performance space. Here, separated from the protection of the group, and ambulatory, our collective sense of vulnerability was greatly heightened. Laughter occasionally erupted from the spectators, when some droll collision occurred amongst the blindfolded volunteers.

Day three joined participants together for thirty minutes of intimate physical contact. Though one could see, Cotton again imposed silence on the participants. Learning to walk, sit or dance (or go to the bar) required a negotiation initiated and concluded entirely by a communication between the two bodies. Immediately the participants achieved an intimacy with their new found partners that would have been unthinkable several minutes before. In her last action, Cotton instructed the blindfolded participants to find a comfortable spot, and if they so felt, they could stand and dance (or not) to the pop dance track that had been prepared.

I didn’t dance having found a spot at the back of the Atelier where I could again sit quietly trying to recapture that moment of repose from the first day and the collective power of our silence.