Bodies are awkward, difficult things. Even trained dancers struggle with the unpredictability of possessing a body — it can so easily betray us and make us laughable. Jo Fong takes on this most human of conditions in An Invitation, a smart, playful piece which regretfully never quite finds its balance.
An Invitation’s greatest strength is perhaps its willingness to delve into the difficulty and potential embarrassment of movement.
An Invitation is designed to incorporate its audience into the performance — a tall order for what is theoretically a dance piece. Viewers face one another from two long rows of chairs, one on each side of the mirrored, sunlit dance studio. We’re invited to watch ourselves watching each other, and at times the effect is fairly mesmerising. The performers enter with the audience, and only reveal themselves over the course of a protracted question-and-answer session in which viewers are addressed as creators of this work, (“how long have you all been working together?”), which results in nervous laughter. A good deal of the show is taken up with question of beginning: the dancers are unsure how to begin, and they look for guidance from each other and the audience as they devise and reject possible beginnings. An Invitation asks a Prufrockian question: how should we presume? How do we begin? The piece very cleverly explores this uncertainty: the dancers give each other commands to make movements more precise, more free, etc., but they’re never fully satisfied with their choices. At one point, Fong even asks, “Is this the part where I talk about uncertainty?” Dancing, which can seem so precise and so free, is really a very uncertain art. A dancer can’t see what she looks like to the audience. Being watched whilst moving, whether on stage or simply entering a room, is always faintly terrifying. We’re afraid of being misread, or laughed at. An Invitation’s greatest strength is perhaps its willingness to delve into the difficulty and potential embarrassment of movement.
While the performers are fully committed to their own awkwardness, the piece never quite fully addresses the audience’s uncertainty. It invites audience interaction, but it’s never fully clear when the opportunity to join in presents itself, or if the audience is influencing the performance in any tangible way. The piece does raise interesting questions on the nature of watching and the effect of an audience upon a performance, but the barrier between performer and viewer still stands, which is ultimately unsatisfying, (no doubt this element varies with different audiences, however). Certain staged moments of spontaneity can feel a bit disingenuous and at times the awkwardness feels forced. There are some wonderful moments, (Fong recalls watching her father dance at a wedding, a dancer performs a move she made up when she was 13), but the viewer’s role in all of this is left uncertain. At the end, we’re still passively watching a performance.
This performance is an invitation which fails to evoke a response. It’s exceedingly clever, philosophical, and at times funny and warm, but the uncertainty it leaves feels like a dead-end rather than a call to somewhere else. For dancers and others, however, it’s worth watching, and a work certainly worthy of further exploration.