Kisaeng Becomes You: Taking Risks with Audience Participation

by Nina Simon 

May 7, 2010

Imagine asking audience members to participate in your work. Imagine asking them to do something that isn't supplemental to your process but is instead absolutely necessary to the overall success of your work. Imagine asking perfect strangers to make something, with no prior training or relationship, that will become the most visible part of a project you've been working on for months or years.

Sound scary?

This week, I met New York choreographer Dean Moss and learned about his fascinating contemporary dance piece Kisaeng Becomes You (2009). The piece was developed in collaboration with Yoon Jin Kim, a Korean choreographer based in Seoul, and it uses the centuries-old idea of the kiseang, a geisha-like Korean woman who serves men, as the basis for a radical and provocative program. There are five female dancers, but there are also three audience members pulled up during the show to perform and to become metaphoric kisaeng.

The audience participation was essential, not incidental, to the piece. As New York Times critic Claudio La Rocco put it, "[they] decided to roll the dice every night and gamble the entire show on several dazzling, sophisticated bursts of audience participation... The gamble paid off." Women from the audience were dressed up in costumes. They practiced dances and performed them, slowly. They recited poetry. They were enthusiastically (and somewhat uncomfortably) hugged and praised and videotaped. They pounded down beers. They filmed each other. And at the very end, one stood, alone, facing the audience, waiting for the lights to go down. While it's a bit hard to follow, you can watch some video of the participation here and here, or read one audience member's exhaustive review here to understand more.

Watching video of a performance with Dean narrating, it was immediately apparent how powerful and unusual this audience participation was. The choreographers carefully orchestrated the participation to hover on the line of uncertainty--participants were supported and encouraged, but not always to safe or comfortable ends. Dean noted several elements of how the participation worked:

•Audience participants were selected in the lobby before the show but were not told what would be asked of them.

•The first participant, an older woman, was brought up to the stage in a very gentle, friendly way. She was given lots of instruction and support as she was costumed and asked to help present a slow dance. The later two participants, in contrast, were abruptly thrown onstage in a chaotic, party atmosphere and received much less gentle treatment (pressured to chug beers and join a riotous scene). This distinction in tone made the second participation element stand out rather than being lumped in with the first.

•The dancers frequently touched the participants and cheered for them in various ways. They repeated their actions and instructions over and over. The affirmation was all positive but had a threatening overtone in its screechy energy. Dean noted that the touching was very important and I assume that it provided both comfort and coercion that kept the participants in line.

•Participants were filmed by each other and by dancers as they performed. The film was shown via live feed during the performance, and photos the dancers took of themselves with the participants were later emailed home to them. These tools were clearly part of the conceptual nature of the piece being about entertainers, but they also introduced another level of risk--that participants would use them and respond to them correctly.

•Participants were paid for their work onstage. The first participant was handed money (the price of a ticket), but the later two had money literally stuffed into their clothes by the dancers. Dean noted that in the US performances, the participants always tried to give the money back to the dancers, but in Korea that never happened.

In cultural and educational institutions, we always try to make participation as safe and comfortable as possible. What I saw in Kisaeng Becomes You was an exploration of the dangerous, uneasy side of participation. The artistic power of what I saw came from the palpable sense of risk--for the participants, for the dancers, and for the entire audience in the room. Performative risk elicits emotional response. We feel it every time we see someone onstage doing something difficult or painful. And seeing a fellow audience member in that position only enhances that feeling. The person onstage didn't come to the theater ready to put themselves out there in that way, and that creates a powerful, thrilling tension.

I don't have a prescriptive set of ideas on how to apply this in cultural institutions. But I do know that I was excited and moved by what I saw, and by the reminder that not all participation should be safe and explainable. Particularly in highly facilitated situations, there are wonderful opportunities to use "unsafe" participation as a way to push art and audience experience to a whole new level.