“Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” chants the beaming cast of Faye Driscoll‘s Thank You for Coming: Attendance as if greeting party guests. The engrossing and ebullient piece, which premiered in March 2014 and was performed at Danspace Project last week as part of the COIL Festival, is full of such moments of recognition and familiarity. Its most successful passages meld fragments of shared experiences and images, fitted together according to Driscoll’s peculiar logic — looping, splicing, and gradual acceleration are among her favored techniques for defamiliarizing the familiar — and enacted with absolute abandon by her five dancers.
The piece is staged in the round and opens with what feels like a comically overcrowded life-drawing class. Atop a small stage, the dancers — Giulia Carotenuto, Sean Donovan, Alicia Ohs, Brandon Washington, and Nikki Zialcita — cling onto, lean against, and climb up and over each other like some hybrid creature whose many legs and arms are constantly being reconfigured. The precariousness of the torturous poses and slingshot-like roughness of the collective body’s rearrangements are undercut by the performers’ playfulness with the audience and each other. Occasionally they break formation to interject a pirouette or create a shape that fleetingly evokes some famous painting or sculpture before returning to the business of keeping their bodies bundled together. As this first section winds down, so do the dancers, rolling across the stage, floor, and, at the more-than-sold-out performance I attended, audience-members’ laps, soliciting the occasional sip of water or handkerchief while they go.
As Attendance‘s second act begins Driscoll disassembles the stage into benches that she places around the edges of the space, and the performers, still rolling on the floor, change costumes. If the first section was a kind of extreme anatomical study, the second puts social behavior under the microscope. The dancers all perform snippets of archetypal party behavior — kisses, slaps, hysterical laughs, cheerful greetings, fist bumps, butt grabs — with jittery movements that evoke the “robot” dance, skipping records, and animated GIFs, while sound designer Michael Kiley plays a song that incorporates the names of everyone in the audience and involved with the performance. This stylized taking of attendance makes good on the performance’s title and foreshadows the final act.
The piece’s third section builds on the mood of camaraderie that’s fostered from the moment attendees step into the performance space. Furnished (by Driscoll) with props ranging from squares of latex and black fabric to shower caps of golden foil and rope skirts, the audience is drafted into service. But this is also the piece’s least focused and coherent passage. As members of the audience perform appointed tasks, the dancers race about staging brief, pantomimed vignettes that evoke everything from the Bible’s nativity scene to the symmetric and synchronized choreography of pop music videos. After breaking down bodies and boundaries between them in the first act, and then pushing accepted social behaviors to extremes in the second, it’s unclear what ritualized actions, widespread conventions, or shared iconography Driscoll is trying to summon and subvert in this chaotic third chapter.
Luckily, the closing participatory set piece refocuses the performance’s energy and rekindles a mood of optimism and utopianism (one that was especially welcome last week). True to its title, for the piece to succeed it requires more than mere attendance from its spectators, and it repays their efforts generously.