We Need to Talk About Non-Consensual Audience Participation

Some of my favorite experiences as both an audience member and a dancer have involved audience participation. Artists who cleverly use participatory moments can make bold statements about the boundaries between performer and spectator, onstage and off. And the challenge to be more than a passive viewer can redefine an audience's relationship to what they're watching. But all the experiences I've loved have had something in common: They've given audiences a choice.

A few weeks back, I had a starkly different experience—one that has caused me to think deeply about how consent should play into audience-performer relationships.

The premise for Boris Charmatz's 10000 Gestures is that the dancers literally perform 10,000 gestures, each one distinct and never repeated. About three quarters of the way through the piece, they begin counting in French, loudly and somewhat frantically. This frantic energy then moves offstage, as the dancers begin to infiltrate the audience, crawling into the seats and all over the viewers.

To say nothing of how crawling on top of unexpecting audience members might be violating, it was inarguably dangerous. One dancer, trying to climb from the orchestra seats up to the balcony, shattered a light with her foot and sent shards of glass flying into the audience. The performers, slippery with sweat, haphazardly used audience members as weight-bearing surfaces. One dancer screamed at me to give her my hand to bear down on, as if I owed it to her. Across the orchestra, I saw an audience member being lifted above the heads of several performers. I'm guessing she wasn't asked if that was something she'd be interested in doing.

Having strangers touch you without asking is one thing. But before venturing into the audience, the cast—many of whom were barely clothed—were touching their genitals onstage. This was hard to forget as they put their hands on our bodies, and inadvertently shoved said genitals into our faces.

Full disclosure: This was at the end of a long, difficult week, where I—and many other women in America, and I would assume the audience of this show—had felt violated as I watched the hearings for now–Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. Could that have contributed to why having strange men touch me without asking and put their crotches in my face was so upsetting? Absolutely.

But for many people, these kinds of interactions would be unacceptable regardless of the circumstances. Audience members with disabilities shouldn't have to worry about whether performers are going to put them in danger or force them to do things they aren't able to do. (Especially at a venue that calls itself accessible.) Those who've experienced trauma shouldn't have to relive it by having strangers aggressively invade their personal space. No one should have to dodge getting feet or genitals in their faces. And some people simply don't want to be touched by strangers for reasons they shouldn't have to explain.

I don't write this from a place of prudishness, or from a desire for dance to be less experimental, or take fewer risks. Nor do I dispute that coming into close contact with the performers probably enhanced the experience for some people in the audience. Instead, my problem with 10000 Gestures—and other works that take audience consent for granted—is that I believe theaters should be spaces where people of all physical abilities and backgrounds can feel safe and respected.

It's also a question of why choreographers use audience interaction. What purpose is it serving, and how is it deepening the work? Just like artists might consider whether using violence or nudity is truly necessary and earned, content that puts audiences at physical risk shouldn't be included casually. It especially shouldn't be used as a gimmick.

This doesn't mean audiences shouldn't be challenged or uncomfortable, or that audience participation can only take the often-clunky form of asking for volunteers. In other settings, I've had performers quietly whisper in my ear: "I'm going to sit on your lap, is that okay?" That simple question marked the difference between feeling violated and feeling like I was in on some delightful inside joke. Being explicit about any potentially dangerous or triggering content before audiences commit to attending a show—through marketing materials or the ticket-buying process—is another simple way of gaining consent. There was no mention of this content in any materials for 10000 Gestures, and I'm not sure whether I would have attended it had I been told what it would involve. But I should have been able to make that choice.

Latest Posts

A still from Cats. Universal Pictures

We're Gifting Readers 500 Tickets to Cats

Calling all Cats fans! If you live near Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, Nashville or Greenville, we'd love to treat you to a sneak peak of the Cats feature film. In anticipation of the movie's December 20 nationwide premiere, these five cities are hosting advance screenings on Tuesday, December 17 at 7 pm. We'll get you in—for free!

Julie Lemberger, Courtesy NYPL

The Most Magical Dancing in New York City Last Week Was in a Public Library

Libraries, rightly or not, are frequently designated in the public consciousness as places that are silent, stuffy and still.

This has never really been the case when it comes to the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Last Wednesday, as dance world luminaries and patrons alike gathered to celebrate its 75th anniversary (which we highlighted in a print-exclusive feature in our August issue), this was more apparent than ever as brief dance performances unfolded in unexpected corners of the division's home on the Lincoln Center campus.

Dancer and Ilan Lev practitioner Annie Rigney working with a client. Cristina Crippa, Courtesy Rigney

We've Reached Peak Wellness—and These Savvy Dancers Are Taking Advantage

From barre classes to fitness influencers and athleisure outfits, the concept of "wellness" has fully taken over the cultural zeitgeist—and infiltrated the dance world. But wellness is more than just celery juice and healing crystals. It's a multi-trillion-dollar industry that's helping people live healthier lives, and putting dancers in a unique position to capitalize on their expertise.

Dancers have a deep understanding of the body that can equip them to help others meet their wellness goals, whether they take place inside the studio or out. For many, pursuing a health-related interest is more than just a way to hone their own craft, it's also an opportunity to have a fulfilling side hustle. But it takes creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit to make the hard work pay off.

Enter Our Video Contest