What does it mean to connect with other people?

New York-based choreographer/director Faye Driscoll ponders this question in “Thank You for Coming: Attendance,” which opened Wednesday night at Walker Art Center and runs through Sunday. Her answer draws upon the collective ritual of performance, the universal language of dance, and the willingness to get uncomfortable in order to fully seize the moment.

This sounds lofty but Driscoll’s approach is down to earth. In fact, that’s where the audience begins the evening, sitting on the stage floor with their belongings stashed on the sidelines. After singing a clever ditty asking us to turn off our phones (“We need you all to ourselves”), the five fearless dancers clamber up onto a platform and the (barely) controlled chaos begins.

Giulia Carotenuto, Sean Donovan, Alicia Ohs, Toni Melaas and Brandon Washington pose and then pose some more. Their tableaux become increasingly awkward and kinetically radical but they keep holding hands. The group resembles Henri Matisse’s dance paintings but they let their sweaty effort show while grappling with one another, balancing, but just barely, on the verge of toppling over. Soon enough they’re in the audience, rolling onto people’s laps. The fourth wall collapses entirely.

Driscoll, who at times slips her way into the show, challenges the traditional model of audience participation, a scary idea for those who prefer art from a safe and untouchable distance. But she doesn’t force the concept. Instead, quite matter-of-factly you’re given a gold shower cap and it just makes sense to wear it. Soon you’re holding up part of a makeshift maypole-style set or skipping around the room with everyone else in a postmodern folk dance.

All this would seem forced if Driscoll’s company couldn’t keep the viewer’s attention from wandering into trepidation about the next task. For example, a good part of the work involves the fully committed dancers moving in a stuttering robot like fashion as if in a stop action film, cycling through a range of extreme emotions. They also engage in a call-and-response of audience member names (gathered at the door) and set to a hypnotic live song by sound designer/composer Michael Kelly.

It’s a roll call. Everyone in the room is acknowledged, not just for being there, but for simply being. It’s a gift of affirmation.

 

Caroline Palmer is a Twin Cities dance critic.