Safety Dance

Performers Preparing for PEM PM - Free Form

Photos by Allison White/PEM

Working at an art museum has many perks. In the year since I started at PEM I’ve had the opportunity to meet artists, learn from curators and work with a seemingly endless stream of interesting people.  All these great things pale in comparison to what I experienced last Thursday night. That was that night that Nick Cave and his Soundsuits invaded PEM. It was the night I became a dancer.

When I first saw Nick’s work I was immediately drawn to his suits in the same way that I was drawn to Big Foot and Nessy as a child. They appeared to me as mythical creatures existing within a world that didn’t know what to make of them. By their very nature they disrupt the expectations of a space simply by occupying it. When Nick suggested an invasion at last week’s PEM/PM two things became clear to me; we would need to recruit local dancers and, improbably, I might have the opportunity to wear a Soundsuit.
David in a soundsuit

The open call read like this: “Dancers can be trained in any technique and should have an awareness of their body, high energy and excellent improvisation and collaboration skills.” Dancer is a term that I would use only in the loosest sense to describe myself. Sure, I’ve done some theatrical dancing (I peaked as ‘Bobby’ in A Chorus Line during my sophomore year in high school), but I don’t have any formal training at all. Luckily for me, the second half about body awareness and energy are right up my alley! That was enough for me to throw in my hat and to get the gig.

The day of the performance was an all day training session. Imagine a Soundsuit boot camp. The dancers gathered early in the morning for an introduction to the exhibition from Trevor Smith, PEM’s curator of contemporary art, and then Soundsuit 101 with Nick Cave. At this point we were quite familiar with Nick’s work but this was our introduction to the man behind the suits.

Nick Cave is one of the most gracious people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. Not only is he extremely passionate about his work, he was open to the performance ideas of all of his dancers. For Nick, it’s less about executing his vision and more about each dancer creating a unique character of their own. The idea of “creating unique moments” was one we kept returning to throughout the day and, in the end, I think we created one.

David jump in soundsuitIt was almost noon before we saw the suits that we would inhabit that evening. The colorful garments were spread out all around the room; some draped over tabletops and others in neat piles on the floor. Even when static, the suits have the energy of hibernating animals waiting to spring to life. Nick assigned me to a two-piece suit made entirely of colorful raffia. The yellow pants were easy enough to put on, but the black pullover took a little maneuvering to find the opening. Eventually I made my way inside and was enveloped by darkness.

If the initial shock of losing 75%+ of my visual capability wasn’t enough, each piece of the suit also weighed between ten and twenty pounds and I found myself occupying a lot more space than I was used to. It really was like inhabiting a completely different body. Do you remember what it felt like being inside a pillow fort as a kid? Being inside a Soundsuit is like wearing a pillow fort. I slowly recalibrated the use of each appendage as my fellow dancers transformed around me. Once I knew where and how I was it came time to ask myself what I was. I stood still and considered the implications of my question and suddenly I was my suit. I began rolling around on the floor like a giant koosh ball. I jumped, spun, marched, shimmied and shook until Nick told us it was time for a break.

Inside my new body, I lost all sense of time. Later, removing the furry suit was like being born again, the harsh sunlight stung my eyes as I struggled to re-adjust to reality. This proved to be impossible because the previous reality no longer existed. What before was a room with nine nervous strangers was now a group of old friends excited to share a common experience. When we put on the suits we became Nick’s team.

I could go on and on about how it feels to wear a Soundsuit in a crowd of 800 people, what it’s like to be bigger, in both size and physical presence, than I’ve ever been or about the rush of dancing with a community spanning the entire age spectrum, but to me this wasn’t as important as the personal journey we took that day. Through our communal experience with Nick’s work, nine strangers became brothers.

We had about an hour of down time before dinner that night to collect ourselves before the performance. Nick had rolled his ankle earlier in the day and was receiving a Reiki offering from a dancer who happened to be a Reiki master. It was from this position of vulnerability that Nick began asking us about our dreams. We each shared not only our personal dreams, but also those for a better world. It was then that Nick had completed what he set out to that day. Together, we created a unique moment that will never be duplicated and will never be forgotten. In that moment we were a family. In that moment I was a dancer.

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