‘If a tree falls…’ invites audiences into a deep collaboration

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If a tree falls… (a very _______________ collaborative performance)

University of Iowa Space Place Theater — Dec. 5-7 at 8 p.m.

‘If a tree falls …’ collaborative performance runs Dec. 5-7 at the Space Place Theater. — courtesy of ‘If a tree falls …’

One of the University of Iowa’s annual traditions gathers students from the various schools and departments devoted to the performing arts (Dance, Music, Art and Art History, Theatre Arts) and invites them to collaborate. The result, If a tree falls… (a very _______________ collaborative performance), is an interdisciplinary exploration that combines choreography, music, poetry, composition, design and stage management. This free, unique event will occur in the Space Place Theater on Dec. 5, 6 and 7 at 8 p.m. each night.

According to Alex Bush, Instructional Specialist and Recruitment Coordinator for the UI Department of Dance, the blank in the subtitle means “the audience can decide for themselves how this all comes together; what connects all of the ideas.” It is an explicit invitation intended to inspire audiences to reflect as part of their participatory viewing of the event. (In addition, to bring the audience into collaboration, video of audience reactions will be projected on screens during the event (but not recorded).)

This openness is an essential quality in live performance. Many films, for example, offer prepackaged content designed to be watched thoughtlessly — but live performance tends to demand more thoughtful awareness of its participants.

The philosopher Dr. George Berkeley’s famous forest hypothetical, the spring point for the production’s title, gestures to one of the event’s preoccupations: how humans relate to reality. The event will explore our individual experiences of time, memory and place — how we interact with and respond to our environments through our perceptions and expectations.

“Each viewer will have a unique perspective and experience, depending on things like how they enter the building, what time they arrive, where they are sitting in the theater,” Bush said. “[There are] little clues built into the performance that may or may not be noticed; that may or may not direct their attention to something in particular.”

Erica Barnes, a third year MFA student in the directing program, adds that the production team hopes audiences “will find much of the performance relatable in a funny, familiar way that immediately gives way to something a little deeper or profound.” The performances, she said, aim to integrate feelings of “the familiar, funny and sometimes sad” by exchanging a desire for a “single story” for “a series of moments that might seem familiar or important, even if [the audience is] not entirely sure why.”

Bush echoes this in her description of the emotional tenor of the piece: “moments that are delightful and silly, tender, thoughtful, melancholic and triumphant.”

One of the main benefits of live performance is its ability anchor those deep questions we wrestle with in late-night conversations firmly into the body. Much of the work that goes into a performance is translating such questions into movement and form, inviting an experience of the human condition that is concrete and particular.

Barnes’ directing has tended to “explore what aesthetic form consciousness might take,” she said — a fairly abstract intention. But her interest in memory and inner consciousness are also “explored onstage and through movement.”

Bush, too, sees bodies as the hinge that connects the performer and the audience member. “Because dance relies on moving bodies to communicate ideas back to an audience, there’s an immediate point of connection between every performer and every viewer,” she said. “Every viewer has a body, and so does every performer. In this exchange, both the performers’ and the audience members’ bodies know what it is to be in the world and experience the different conditions that we all come up against. This mutual understanding facilitates an empathic exchange that informs how the audience interprets the work.”

Although we naturally perform for each other throughout our daily lives, we very rarely have the opportunity to experience this as an intentional work of collaboration, nor to be invited to collaborate with those who are performing. While every event in our lives is a fleeting combination of the contingent and the planned, very few of them involve this fusion with the air of celebration and exploration promised by the artists involved in If a tree falls….

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“Dance and performance are inherently collaborative, whether we acknowledge it or not, but I think there’s also a lot to be gained by harnessing that power and engaging with it,” Bush said.

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