SPEAK: Beyond Stage Space

By Ishika Seth


When I think of a typical performance experience, I imagine one of the intimate theaters tucked in unlikely locations all over the Bay Area; of being huddled backstage, getting dressed and warming up—performing for an audience that’s a mixture of those familiar with modern dance and friends and families of the performers. I don’t think of getting dressed as the audience is entering, checking the performance space for holes or pebbles, and brushing wet grass off my costume. Even though I’ve previously been involved in site-specific performances, there was something unique about dancing at Tilden Park in Berkeley.

This work, conceptualized and choreographed by Irva Hertz-Picciotto was inspired by the tiniest of life forms: insects. The movement itself came from abstraction of various bug-like activities and rituals and the movement was interspersed with text. The piece was developed at Eighth Street studio in Berkeley and set in Tilden Park on the day of the performance. The ground was grassy, uneven and wet but there was a permeable sense of freedom and abandon once we began rehearsing in the park. We were negotiating with unusual parameters; not the dictates of the stage space but those of nature.

Every performance is different, but this had never been so obvious as when we performed “In Praise of Insects” —three times in one day. During the first show the grass was wet, drenching our costumes and making our feet numb; by the second show the day was glorious and during the final performance the heat was scorching as we dodged pebbles with the blinding sun in our eyes.

I felt a calm transcendence in the natural space, framed by majestic trees and lit by the sun. If the audience was absent it would not have mattered, it was such an enriching experience. And yet we had a special audience filled with toddlers who were fascinated by our performance as giant insects. Perhaps it was the bug costumes that attracted them to us—they sat riveted throughout the performance with spellbound attention. They were curious about which bugs we represented and had various questions about what each of the aspect of the costume meant. Their attention to detail was astounding—unlike any audience that I have ever performed for. The sense of wonder and excitement was a gift.

Performing for people who are unfamiliar with modern dance is interesting because their acute curiosity is seldom displayed by seasoned theater-goers. The feedback we received from people strolling in the park included a Botanist who pointed out that the text might be more accessible if the non-scientific names of the insects were used. It made me realize how important it is to take dance beyond the confines of the proscenium. I wondered why we hadn’t rehearsed in this space all along. We’re fortunate to have access to so many wide, open spaces in the Bay Area. Why not utilize these for rehearsals rather than struggling with studio availability and rent? I’m inspired to use our natural resources as space to rehearse and arouse curiosity in people who wouldn’t usually attend live performance. It serves us to share our art with everyday people, enriching their lives, and our own, through the process.