The Red Shoes Project was designed as an artistic and theoretical examination of children’s theatre as a playground and space of connection between relational art and drama-based pedagogy within the field of performative aesthetics. Erika Fisher-Lichte’s theories on co-presence and feedback-loops (Fischer-Lichte, 2008) between the actors and the audience were my theoretical starting point. I developed an understanding of the ‘musical communication’ (Bjørkvold, 2007, Hovik 2011c, Trevarthen & Malloch, 2009) that arises in the mutual exchange of sensory impulses between artists and children. The term musical is used in the sense of the Greek notion of the fine arts (dance, music, and song).
My first research question was:
What happens when we invite small children (1- and 2-year-olds) to freely participate on stage during the performance? How can performative aesthetics inform this kind of art practice?
The Red Shoes production, created and presented by Teater Fot, where I was the artistic director, formed the empirical basis for an investigation of interaction and improvisation in children’s theatre. The non-verbal performance, which lasted for approximately 45 minutes, also included a session of free play with a collection of red shoes. The play itself was based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale and explored the movement from bare feet to dancing with red shoes (from nature to culture). The red shoes made the dancers move and dance, and the children were invited to participate whenever they wanted to.
The most exciting part of the project [The Red Shoes] is the way the performance welcomes participation without coercing its audience. Babies feel a freedom to explore the space and the action rather than being accused of ‘stage invasion’; equally, they are perfectly welcome to sit and enjoy the audio-visual elements of the performance if they wish. This is both refreshing and remarkable.
A film presentation of The Red Shoes can be watched in the above-right window.
The performances were thoroughly documented in split screen, featuring wide views and details. Through films, logs, and interviews, the research applied a phenomenological-hermeneutic approach. By interpreting and analysing data from the film files and research conversations with the artists, I was able to categorise different modes of interaction between children and artists (Hovik, 2014 p.118–144). Stated briefly, our experiences from the production process might suggest that many children enjoy and have a need to interact bodily with the performers and in the room. In this regard, the performance succeeded. On the other hand, the theatrical conventions of precisely repeating the event every day restricts the artistic opportunities for free expression. The artists’ need for precision in their scenic work, timing in choreography, and progression in dramaturgy works against open and improvised expression. The long touring period, with approximately 120 performances from 2008 to 2010, also led the production away from an improvisatory framework into a more prescribed and precise form. As the performers became more secure and more precise during this process, they also increased their awareness of the children, whether those children who chose to remain seated as quiet spectators or those who chose to participate in on-stage dance, music, or play. The production thus found a form that worked well in relation to children and adults at the same time as providing sufficient flexibility for improvised events.
Nevertheless, the project had in a sense departed from its original artistic concept, in which improvisation was the mainstay, in favour of a fixed plan. The open communication between the artists was also partly overshadowed by the social interaction of the children with each other on stage. It was artistically interesting to observe the drummer interact with the small, responsive participants at the same time as maintaining contact with the dancers and driving the intensity on the stage. On the other hand it was not altogether as artistically interesting (while perhaps entertaining) to see how he, almost unobserved, prevented small and over-enthusiastic participants from taking over the drum kit. In a research conversation with the performers, it became obvious that the improvisations had been directed more towards the interaction with the children and less towards interaction with each other. Improvisation had developed from artistic interaction into a function for problem-solving, giving rise to new questions: to what extent was this development desirable, or serving the performance? How could the performers better maintain the art of improvisation within this type of interactive and improvised performance, and how could it be achieved?
It seemed necessary to search for a form that enabled active participation from the audience at the same time as maintaining the structural sensitivity of the performers, both in relation to each other and to their own artistic expressions. In this research phase, my intentions as artist-researcher for an open and listening interaction with the children were put to the test.