Apr 9, 2015
Caroline Gravel talks with her hands, her body, her hair. I don’t speak French but when she speaks to me in French I have the illusion of understanding—so convincing is her sense of gesture. When I first saw Gravel’s work (in an evening at Danspace Project curated by Jenn Joy and Noémie Solomon in 2013) I was struck by that sense of conviction in her solo Ma mère est un mâle alpha. The title immediately grabbed its audience with an assertion that needs no translation and Gravel didn’t let that attention go for one moment.
In Gravel’s newest work, Bains Publics, she wants to engage differently with her audience. Her starting point—the concept of a public bath—provides a model for a shared experience without a clearly defined spectator. I was surprised to realize that the aggressive hold Gravel exerted over her audience in Ma mère est un mâle alpha is the very sense of control that she is currently questioning.
We discussed this shift in a recent studio visit and Gravel pointed out that part of this new point of inquiry is around the notion of constraint. Gravel’s movement vocabulary often employs a physical manifestation of constraint: there is a sense of pressure exerted from within her body that must contend with the space outside. In her research for Bains Publics, Gravel told me that she is interested in contending with the constraints of a theater: “How can the public feel free?” she wondered aloud to me.
For a recent studio showing in Studio 4B, Gravel positioned the audience in single chairs scattered throughout the studio with different facings. I was aware of my focus shifting between Gravel and her fellow performer, Laurence Dufour. My other choice as an audience member was to gaze at the mirrored wall where I could see both of the performers, my fellow audience, and myself. I had other choices available to me, of course, that I didn’t take: I could have scooted my chair around, for instance, or walked to a new chair, or left the studio altogether. I began to wonder if what Gravel is most interested in is the choices that we don’t make—the invisible constraints constantly acting on all of us.
One of the first things Gravel told me when I visited her studio was that she looks for authenticity in a dancer’s body. Or, as she explained to me, she doesn’t want to see a dancer moving excitedly, she wants to see excitement. Perhaps in Bains Publics, Gravel is demanding the same standards of her audience. She doesn’t want her audience to perform being present, she wants her audience to be present.
The question is how do you exact that presence from an audience? In a public bath, the heat of the sauna causes the core body temperature to rise, dilating the blood vessels and increasing blood flow to the skin’s surface. I’m not sure what the equivalent experience looks like for an audience but I have no doubt that Gravel will find out.