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Nancy Bannon's 'The Pod Project'

by Elizabeth McPherson

June 19, 2009 -- Dance New Amsterdam, New York City

I went to this performance not knowing exactly what to expect except that it would be a unique experience, and in that, my expectations were well met. In “The Pod Project,” Nancy Bannon is exploring boundaries and forcing her audience to accept risk as part of the experience.

When I checked in at the box office, I was given a laminated number 12 and told to hold it where it could be seen. I, along with thirteen other people holding numbers, waited for a bit outside the theatre. Shortly after the scheduled start time, the stage manager, Cynthia Baker, announced that we should leave our bags, jackets, etc on the piano outside the theatre so that we would be free to interact with the performance.

Thirteen guides then took each of the thirteen audience members by the shoulders and led us into the theatre. Hung in circles all around were large sheets of plastic, like painters’ drop cloths, stretching from floor almost to ceiling – creating cylindrical spaces or “pods” about 8 feet in diameter and about 5 to 6 feet apart. At the sound of a tone, our guides began moving each of us individually towards a pod. At the sound of another tone, my guide opened the curtain to my first pod and gently ushered me inside. An older man turned to greet me and asked if I would like some Challah bread. I very quickly said no, and then he began a monologue about how Bannon was not doing anything new, that these pods were much like happenings he had seen in the 1970s. It seemed as if he were speaking for Bannon instead of about her, as if through him she was anticipating criticism before it had been levied. I quickly began to wonder what would happen if I started asking him questions, so I tried asking him if he was doing a monologue or if he would respond to me. He paused for a beat and then continued his monologue. At the sound of another tone, my guide opened the curtain and led me to another pod.

This continued on through 12 more experiences including a woman crying in a real shower with water running, a man breastfeeding a goat puppet, a woman dancing in a spirally vegetable peel-like costume, a man in a cocoon with his head resting in what looked like rubber cement, and a woman trying on wigs and explaining how each made her feel. Some characters talked at me; some ignored me completely so that I became a voyeur; and two seemed to take me in on a more personal level (although because I knew both of these actors, this may have affected the interaction).

The scenes where the actors were not actively engaging me were somewhat unnerving because I wondered if they would all of a sudden turn and yell or touch me. There was a fear factor, whether intentional or not. The most intense of these was under a short platform, maybe 4 feet high. My guide directed me to crawl in and sit next to a prone person who appeared to be sleeping. It had the feel of invading someone’s private dwelling, and because this sleeping person did not welcome me, it also felt like I shouldn’t be there. Was he going to turn and attack me for my invasion?

The scenes where the actor was speaking at me but not responding to me made me confront the audience/performer relationship. There usually is not interaction; that is the name of the game. However, in these one-on-one episodes, I felt viscerally that I didn’t like having the person perform sort of at me while sharing close space with me. Given the immediacy, I wanted to have some control over the scene. I wanted to put the actor at some risk by introducing the unexpected and forcing them out of their monologues. This was not generally effective except with the actor in the cocoon, Marc Kennison, who would respond to what I said, and then continue his speech. There was another actor, Risa Steinberg, who inundated me with compliments as well as ideas of how I could change myself for the better. In comparing notes with another audience member, we discovered that she had not said the same things to the two of us. I liked that she was changing her script, in effect introducing more risk for herself by responding on some level to audience members.

Although much of the performance is more drama related than dance, it comes from a dancer’s perspective. (Bannon danced with Doug Varone and other companies for many years). The guides were creating a somewhat improvisational dance through the varied spatial relationships as they moved their audience members from pod to pod. And each pod experience was carefully staged in terms of space – who was standing, who sitting, and who lying down; who turned this way, who that way, and where in the pods was each person situated.

Bannon has an upcoming residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center to create a cornfield. Given the experimental nature of “The Pod Project,” my mind is curiously pondering what direction this new project will take.

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