Presence is amongst the most basic and, perhaps the hardest attribute of a skilled performer to teach or explain. It has to do with comfort in one’s own skin; with willingness to be seen; with how completely one can participate in the action at hand. Presence is what can make one person standing essentially still more interesting than another doing the most fantastical movements. The performer with cultivated presence needs to do very little to draw in the audience.
In 2007, I assisted Judson Church era veteran dance teacher Nita Little in an improvisational dance class called Mind in Motion at Impulstanz dance festival in Vienna. We spent easily one and a half hours one day of that workshop taking turns watching one person at a time walk a diagonal line across the studio. The task was to begin with a presence that fills the room and gradually shrink in size until you are an inch inside your skin. These sorts of exercises, though seemingly obtuse for a student who just wants to dance, are key for becoming an engaging performer.
Much early training in acting conservatories also addresses the performers ability to come to a sort of unaffected neutral or an empty presence. Freshmen Year of the acting conservatory at Boston University largely entailed discovering, triggering, and deactivating our physical, vocal, and emotional patterns. Indeed, almost every student in the program had an emotional breakthrough or breakdown that year as they were faced with long-standing personal blocks. It was a thin line between voice and speech class and therapy. The thinking, as I understand it, was that as long as we were trapped by our own unconscious physical and vocal habituations, our capacity as shape shifters was limited.
The job of an actor is versatile and fluid shape shifting. The more bound and congested we are with our own patterns, hardened into identities we call personality, the harder it becomes to shape shift. The more we can identify, soften, and find choice in our own patterns the more we expand our moldable, changeable plasticity.
Butoh is another performance form that highly values emptiness training as the groundless ground from which to learn shapeshifting. Butoh is a movement form that arose in Japan after WWII. It was largely a response to the incomprehensible darkness revealed by man’s ability to destroy each other. As the first atomic bombs tore apart matter and transformed it into energy, a generation of artists found themselves faced with a torn apart concept of what it is to be human.
Butoh master Katsura Kan, who I performed with in my early twenties, told me he does not think of himself as human. I interpreted this as a choice to identify with an active unfolding of momentary experience. To be “human” is to be part of the socialized lineage ensconced with all the assumptions and expectations that the word connotes. The word “human” is dense with limitation, leaving little room for direct experience. From an empty center of "becoming," the butoh dancer can transform unimpeded into stone, spider web, slithering snake, hungry ghost, happy god, or whatever other image or state the moment calls for. It is not an act of putting a mask or clothing over the personality, but one of emptying in order to be filled.
Clowning is another form that, at its very human core, works with empty receptivity. In this context it might be called child’s mind or beginner’s mind. From this state, there are no assumptions of how things go together, how they should be. Each object and relationship is experienced new, leaving space for the unexpected. I did a workshop with the Brazilian clown Ricardo Pucetti from the company Lumé. The exercise that remains with me was a multiple hour jaunt into the woods. We began blindfolded in pairs, then everyone was blindfolded, then we remained blindfolded and put our clown noses on. The experience of vulnerability and disorientation turned into an experience of immediacy, curiosity, and wonder. The state we entered was one of complete discovery of the unknown. Each potential hindrance became an epic adventure. We had found child's mind.
An infant has beautiful presence. We watch spellbound as they experience the world of the present moment. Their faces and bodies display an experience unmediated by social navigation. The lag time between experience and expression is essentially zero. I see performance artists of all kinds using various methods to return to, and perhaps bring the audience to, these states of honest, open, presence so the world may have an opening into the performance space.