Once upon a time, before podcasts, before the Internet, before television, radio, and cameras, all performance was live. Few of us living today remember such a time. For us, a performance that is happening here and now before our eyes is remarkable; it is in real time, and it is live.
Or is it?
When a ballerina pirouettes across the stage, her movements echo the past; her dance is a reproduction of choreography that was set, rehearsed, and perfected long before this moment. Her performance is a kind of deception in which the audience is complicit-everyone agrees to ignore the very stage on which she dances, as if this were reality, and not make-believe.
And then there’s live art.
“We just started,” Joanna Nobbe announced at 8:10 p.m. last Saturday night, looking her audience members straight in the eyes. She stood in a dance studio, wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt and a pair of loose-fitting pants. Her audience sat at the edge of the room in a row of chairs facing her, silent. She began to move, and so did her fellow dancer, Matthew Nelson. As they danced, they chatted. “What are you doing?” Nobbe asked Nelson, who had stopped and was standing on one leg, pressing his hands against his torso. “I’m trying to climb myself,” he told her. A latecomer tiptoed in, and settled himself in the front row. Nelson screamed. “Did you do that because he came in?” Nobbe asked. “No, I did it because you wouldn’t,” he replied.
The name of this piece was “Live.” Later in the program came “Real,” in which Nelson set up a massage table while Nobbe undressed beneath a sheet. Then she lay on the table, face down, while he rubbed her back and talked. “Your back looks looser,” he told her at one point, and turned to address the audience. “I don’t know if anyone watching can tell that.”
In that intimate space, with the lights up, everyone was visible, performers and audience alike. “It’s so quiet in here,” Nelson whispered to his watchers at one point. There were a couple of giggles, a few squirms. But this was real live art, and there was nowhere to hide.