A couple of years ago I saw the dance-centric immersive show, Here Lies Love. There was a tiny bit of audience participation. We had to follow some simple dance steps, to the left, to the right. I froze””people bumping into me, from the left, from the right. Public dancing gives me massive anxiety. I have no rhythm. I clap off the beat. I was always put in the back row of high school musicals even though I’m very short and would totally be obscured. Unseen dance is my dancing. But despite this challenging personal history, I was eager to get involved in Brian Lobel’s dance-based participatory show Hold My Hand and We’re Halfway There.
It is a durational and involves dancing along to VHS tapes of movie musicals from his childhood. Lobel dances alone or with audience members””in this instance for eight hours over two days. Both Lobel and his dance partner wear headphones to hear the audio from the movie musical and they watch the film and follow along the dance steps as best they can, all the while in a makeshift childhood bedroom. Audience members can come and go. Join or not.
Created after a number of gay adolescents committed suicide in 2008, the piece is inspired by the hours Lobel spent as a child dancing along to the movie Jesus Christ Superstar in his bedroom. This was the first piece Lobel performed with Forest Fringe so he re-created it for the Forest Fringe 10th anniversary season. And that is how I found myself dancing along to Muriel’s Wedding. In public. In front of literal people.
As is often the case with Lobel’s work, his gift is creating a secure bubble around his audience’s experience. Every exposure is cushioned somehow””whether that’s through Lobel’s nature or the design of the show and often a bit of both.
So even if you think you are a helpless, flailing mess clomping off the beat in the middle of the Out of the Blue Drill Hall, you’re not really. With the help of the headphones blocking out the rest of the world and Brian’s focus on you, you are in Brian’s bedroom as he enthusiastically shares his favorite number from the movie musical Newsies and you’re soaring alongside a teenage Christian Bale. Everything is all right. There is no right or wrong step. You are as nimble as a young Newsie and as bubbly as Muriel.
From the outside the work may generate skepticism. I found myself arguing its value to two men in the cafÃ© who just saw a sweaty Lobel silently moving around in front of a TV. Obviously the piece functions best if you dance in it””even for one musical number, being on the inside changes what you see from the outside.
But if you leave it to a purely observational perspective you can appreciate the endurance nature of Lobel dancing for hours with a myriad of dance partners but often on his own. It is the juxtaposition of the time he spends solo pressed up against the time he spends with others that is the heart of the piece. There is a constant shift between community and isolation. When Lobel is dancing with someone, there is a mutuality of purpose and camaraderie. Laughter, smiles, arm-in-arm and back-to-back moves that give you physical contact with one another. Often it does involve some silly dance moves when totally out of context (and maybe even in context). But you can see the joy the dancing creates.
Yet often Lobel is left dancing by himself, surrounded by chatting cafÃ© patrons who are ignoring him. Not looking up at all. It is then that we think about young kids, alone in their rooms, dancing along to movies and longing for a community who never manages to see them.