Do you recall the last time you connected with a stranger?
I don’t mean accidentally making eye contact before hurriedly looking away; nor brushing a cashier’s hand as they gave you your change; and certainly not that weird little dance we all do when we try to pass someone going the opposite direction in a small space and both people keep stepping awkwardly to the same side until one of them just stops moving.
I mean authentic connection. The kind that comes with deep, intentional gaze; a meaningful exchange of your inner thoughts, ideas, desires and fears; and, perhaps, the feeling that you’ve left yourself a little exposed.
That level of connection is rare; a dwindling delight in a world so connected by wires and wireless, that we’ve become disconnected from other human beings. And that is the level of connection that Dancenorth is out to rediscover through the company’s latest work, Communal Table.
The work is an experience rather than a performance, that fuses together some of the most basic tenets for human connection: food, wine, conversation and dance. How that’s being presented is a closely guarded secret, which I have promised not to spoil. However, I will share (based on my own preview of the work in its early stages), that Dancenorth, led by Artistic Directors Kyle Page and Amber Haines, has certainly taken fascination with the human experience to a new level.
Without giving too much away, Communal Table is dinner with friends you haven’t met yet, and a dance performance that is so close you can almost touch it.
According to Kyle, the work came from several objectives that he, Amber and the Dancers were hoping to achieve.
“[We] were on tour in Darwin last year and we were having this conversation: we’d spent half a day in our little apartment and we were just trying to thrash out a whole bunch of concerns and see how there might be some synergy between them,” said Kyle.
“Firstly, we wanted to give the dancers an opportunity to work with many different choreographers, and many different creative voices. Secondly, we wanted to give a whole bunch of amazing choreographers work because the independent scene in Australia is so rich and diverse and vibrant.
“We were also really curious about two things that felt concerning to us: one was the increasingly depersonalised world in which we live and we were reflecting on the fact that lots of our interactions are mediated through social media or technology and that the idea of sitting with someone face to face and having a conversation is eroding from the cultural fabric of our lives … Then there’s also this sense that people are more disconnected from their bodies than previous generations. There are a whole bunch of reasons why that has emerged in our society, but it feels as though there’s something important there and dancers are kind of an origin point of movement,” Kyle said.
“There wasn’t an immediate suggestion of how [those four ideas] might entwine or how they might emerge into a work. We just continued to dive into each of those moments and then we realised that food is such a beautiful social bonding activity.
“Sharing food with people can enable conversation; wine, of course, was invented to act as a bit of a social lubricant; and some of the most interesting conversations you can have with people are when they are strangers . It feels as though there’s just a little bit less pressure to be a particular manifestation of yourself in a moment as you might feel with a friend or colleague.”
By bringing together all these elements, Kyle, Amber, the Dancers and an impressive team of collaborators have carefully curated a dinner party like no other. The result is a space where people feel open to connecting with others in a way that they mightn’t have since mobile phones rose to popularity.
“There’s a very conscious, deliberate decision-making in the creative process ,” said Kyle. “We want to bring people into this experience whereby they might be able to dissolve some of their self-awareness and just be wholly inhabiting the space.
“If we can get people by that very end moment to have such a sense of connection and security within their table that we can start to expand the experience to connect with [everyone] in the room, that’s a really nice destination.”
Now, I realise this might all sound a bit hocus-pocus. Let me take a moment to assure you that there will be no virgin sacrifices, no bathing naked in the moonlight, no holding hands and singing. You don’t even need to own a crystal to enjoy it!
In fact, a lot of what the Communal Table team has achieved hinges on serious psychology, philosophy and social engineering (although you probably wouldn’t even realise it). The creative team includes John Armstrong, Global Philosopher-in-Chief of The School of Life; who has helped his fellow collaborators to subtly step guests through every moment of the evening to create the desired effect.
“This project, more than any other project, is truly a result of this very deep exchange with all of the collaborators and creative contributors,” said Kyle. “Yes, Amber and I are directing the piece, but we’re just players in this big, collaborative operation; because it’s so far beyond our level of experience or comfort. Only through these many, many minds coming together to problem solve and work really diligently and thoughtfully to find a way through are we realising its potential.”
Every design element of the work has been carefully considered.
“Those transitions between each moment, when someone places a card down or a meal in front of you, contribute to this really seamless thing that you’re kind of swept into; a space where you’re not really consciously aware of what’s happening, you’re just immersed in the moment,” Kyle said.
However, Kyle is also acutely aware of the risk involved in inviting 44 people around for dinner and expecting them all to behave a certain way.
“I would be fooling myself if I was to say that people are predictable enough [to behave the same way every time],” he said.
“Even having conversations with the creatives and the dancers, there’s really polarising perspectives on what would feel good or what might work in that particular moment. So we’re trying to shave off the extreme edges and have a comfortable bandwidth within which – for the most part – people can respond or be present in a way that serves the piece.”
Following Communal Table’s very first test run with an audience back in August, Kyle felt confident he and the team were on the right track.
“We invited a few women along who were dancers and one bought her husband. He was incredibly uncomfortable, he’s not into conversation, he does not dance at all … I spoke to him on the way out and his mind was blown that this progression through the evening had taken him from the guy who didn’t want to be there and who’d rather be at home watching football; to the guy who, by the end of the evening, was experiencing this movement of his own body within this collective experience of a group of people moving. That’s pretty special!”
Dancenorth’s Communal Table will Premiere at Brisbane Festival on 18-21 September 2019. However, a special Preview Season will be held in Townsville on 10-13 September 2019. For details and tickets, click here.