A blog about theatre, new media and games

A blog about theatre, new media and games

Elena Pérez

All a headset can do

Roger Bernat’s The Rite of Spring (2010 and ongoing) is a piece of participatory dance, where members of the audience are given three-channel headphones and are welcomed into the performance space to the sound of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, one of the leading ballets from the last century, of which Pina Bausch made a historic version in 1975. Without any other intervention or guidance, spectators are directed to follow the instructions given to them through their headsets, leading them to personally reenact Pina Bauch´s choreography.


To start the performance, participants are instructed to go towards boards that surround the performance space and write certain words on them. Sunrise, mountains, forest. We are asked to imagine that we are in a field surrounded by these elements, the place where The Rite of Spring is about to begin. Photo: Elena Pérez



It's striking how much is achieved in this performance thanks to a headset. Well, actually it isn't only a headset, it is a computer system developed to send three different instructions simultaneously when pressed through a headset. To clarify: Group 1 is instructed to "raise your arms, clap both hands on your lap, one step forward", while group 2 receives the instructions to "bend to your knees, clap both hands on your lap, one step backwards". Group 3 is told to "stay out of the stage looking in". The director, who is watching Pina Bauch's choreography on a screen while operating the system, sends the appropriate ques to the participants to reenact the choreography, taking the participants rhythm and tempo into consideration. That is, this is a pre-programmed system, but it is run live.


What is the role of the headset in the performance? What is achieved through the headset that could not be achieved without it? The headset addresses each participant individually while still being a group. Even though it is a computer generated voice (she acknowledges it and says that we will get used to it fast), a sense of intimacy and safety is created through it. The voice is talking to me, and for some seconds I think it is only talking to me and not to the others.

Though this feeling of "only me" disappears soon enough (since some people start doing the exact same actions I am), it is substituted by a puzzlement produced by seeing how other participants are performing different actions, and others that are quiet, just looking. Still, the safety experienced by having a voice address me directly feels calming. However confusing the performance is getting, I can always choose to focus on the voice and the instructions.


The struggle of each participant is whether to follow the instructions or not, and when. The voice asks "one of you" to perform certain actions, which may lead to many people performing the same action or only one doing it. Nobody is sure of the rules of this game, so participants have to start deciphering them together and the performance goes along. Does "one of you" mean many of us? Or just one?

This puzzlement become clear the times when group performances alternate with solo performances. On the floor, there is a red silk cloth and the voice asks Aurora to go and take it, and do certain actions with it. But...who is Aurora? Aren't we all Aurora? Still, there is only one cloth. I imagine participants must be doubting whether to do it or not, the same way I hesitated. And since we cannot decide by verbally discussing it, we decide by doing (or not doing it.)


In the last solo, a red silk dress is put onto one participant only, which clearly sends the message that this is to be done by that one person, not by all those hearing the instructions. This moment is crucial for understanding how the system operates: it does not only address you, it addresses may of you. You decide how much of yourself you want to put into this. And this is very refreshing. Though we are following instructions, we are also given the chance to decide if we want to follow them, when and how. The strength of The Rite of Spring's performance system is, in my opinion, how it allows different levels of engagement, from very low -there are some chairs around the stage where people sit at times- to very high -most participants reach the end of the performance  sweating.


In conversation with Bernat, he tells me how it often happens that more than one participant decide to perform the solo. He recalls a performance when two women performed the last solo from beginning to end, even though there was only one red silk dress. When the second performer (the one without the red dress) was asked about why, she said that the voice was talking "to her". "To her" she repeated. Even though lacking the prop was telling her she shouldn't be there, the voice on the headset, the instruction, was so compelling to her that she chose to believe and follow the voice. The relationship between the voice and the participant can be experienced as intimate and powerful.

In this case, it is the voice (the instruction) behind the headphone that compels the participant into action. The headset can then be understood just as a nice safety that blocks outside noise, and also creates an illusion of intimacy with the voice. In other words, the headset makes it more viable to follow the voice instructions: it is persuasive, as if someone was whispering in your ear. On the other hand, It also limits participants from communicating verbally with each other, so that instead of discussing what to do next in plenum, each has to decide individually "by doing". It allows individual interpretation and decision making while simultaneously being part of a collective action.


In trying to answer the question of the role of the headset in The Rite of Spring I have been trying to separate the headset from the voice (also the instruction), and from the computer system running it all. However, it is the combination of these three elements that are fundamental in making this performance happen, not only the headset.  What is clear, is that The Rite of Spring could not happen without the technology. In this sense, the mixing of technology and dance breaks free and creates a new participatory form that brings choreography closer to audiences. It is a new form of engaging with dance by facilitating participants do the job of the professional dancers and thus, get "a sense of" the intricacies of choreography.



The Rite of Spring took place in the Contemporary Art Museum -Artium- in Vitoria on the 13 April 2012. This review is from that orchestration.

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