The Right Combination: Dancers and Audience Share Vault Space

During the performance of her work, “Sensate,” at 14 Wall St., Carrie Ahern attempts to suspend herself by her dress. “It never seems to quite work,” the choreographer says, “but I keep trying.”
Carl Glassman / Tribeca Trib
During the performance of her work, “Sensate,” at 14 Wall St., Carrie Ahern attempts to suspend herself by her dress. “It never seems to quite work,” the choreographer says, “but I keep trying.”

In the subterranean silence of a vast abandoned vault far below the former Bankers Trust building at 14 Wall St., Carrie Ahern staged “Sensate,” her three-hour, energetic dance work. There, beyond massive safe doors, four performers of Carrie Ahern Dance alternately hurled their bodies, spasmodically shook themselves, hugged, fought, crawled and occasionally walked in a dreamlike state. With no stage, the audience followed the performers between two cavernous floors, and were free to stand or sit wherever (and as close as) they liked, coming and going as they pleased. Below, Carrie Ahern discusses the work.

For most people, the moment they enter “Sensate” they feel self-conscious, even uncomfortable. This is true for the performers as well as the audience. That’s because of the freedom that we both have.

As a performer, you always feel the audience intensely. Even in the most formal setting, like the Metropolitan Opera, for example, the audience is influencing the performance. Many audience members don’t have a sense of that. They feel like, “I’m on this side of the line and the performers are on that side of the line and I’m just watching.” But that’s not the case, especially in this piece.

I was interested in allowing complete transparency between the audience and performers. That’s why I wanted the audience to move wherever they wanted—to view the performance from their own perspective, from a place to which they are personally attracted.

Exploring, in director Ahern’s words, “how close is too close,” Jillian Hollis works the edges of an intimate upstairs vault space.
Carl Glassman / Tribeca Trib
Exploring, in director Ahern’s words, “how close is too close,” Jillian Hollis works the edges of an intimate upstairs vault space.

For the performer, that means people are following you around the stage. Some come close to you; others stay away and you can feel their tenseness.

Sometimes, a performer can feel energized by the presence of someone in the audience, or we can feel irritated. Recently we had a young girl who came very close to the performers, even lay down on the floor near them. Although she was obviously enjoying the attention, she was also reacting honestly to the piece. It was such a wonderful surprise.

I encourage the performers to make  eye contact with the audience. Sometimes, we touch audience members and when we do, they have different reactions. People have very different boundaries, and touch is the final boundary.

A lot of issues pop up when people feel discomfort. But that’s where we all begin when we enter the space. Where we go from there is up to us. Are we going to transform any of those boundaries? Are we going to look at them differently? Are they going to stay the same? What do we want from this experience?

More and more, I see people who can’t stop using their iPhones to take pictures or videotape during the performance. I think that is a way of distancing themselves from us and their feelings. The other day, a man opened up his laptop and started working!

Kelly Hayes performs within a vault space beneath 14 Wall Street as part of “Sensate,” a work by Carrie Ahern.
Carl Glassman / Tribeca Trib
Kelly Hayes performs within a vault space beneath 14 Wall Street as part of “Sensate,” a work by Carrie Ahern.

It’s important to me to ask a lot of the performer, but also to ask a lot of the audience. Ideally, we want the audience to get connected to the work by taking their freedom to heart. That means having the patience to spend time with the performers. If you engage deeply with the performers it is going to be the most satisfying experience—for both audience and performer.

Every performer has told me that this piece has changed them in some way. Although the content and directions are mine, the dancers helped create it and they are direct collaborators. That’s because the movement is created organically out of their bodies.

When you’re a performer you have a sense of rationing your energies throughout a performance. This piece lasts for three hours, so it’s difficult to ration. By the third hour, the performers need to look within themselves or the audience or the other performers to help them make it through. This is a very different sensation. It becomes a meditation and a ritual. Things that you thought were important start to fall away.

When we had our first dress rehearsal last year in the Brooklyn Lyceum, I had this moment when I thought, “This was what I have always wanted as a performer—to have all this freedom.”

For me, the freedom was an acknowledgement that every single moment in the piece is new. For example, there are two floors that we perform on in the vault. And, technically, there is repetition, but part of the whole gestalt of the performance is that every moment is different—even if the choreography is the same, what you see will always be different. It’s live, it’s always new. The people who are viewing it are always changing. Our energy is changed. And each time the performer is interpreting it a little differently in terms of timing and quality.

After Sensate’s first run in Brooklyn, my entire life shifted. I began to see that every moment in life is a new one, that we’re always arriving someplace new. We don’t often tap into that. This changed my perspective. Things became a little more balanced.

The final performances of “Sensate” are 10/2, 8–11 p.m., and 10/3, 4–7 p.m. Tickets:  $25; $15 artists and students at carrieahern.com. “Sensate” is presented by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.