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‘Collective Dreaming’ in the Time of COVID-19

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The scene is dark, and when the stage lights come on, the performers are silent, somehow spectral even though most of them appear collapsed in sleep. They are dressed in otherworldly attire that spans the spectrum of green: olive, emerald, seafoam, sage, mint, chartreuse, shamrock, fern. We know we are in unfamiliar territory. A woman in the center of the stage serves as an ethereal conductor, her dress split vertically below the bust with folds of fabric that appear vaginal, suggesting creation, birth, and motherhood. A rhythmic percussion stirs the dreamers. Slowly they rise to stand, zombie-like, an ominous chorus line.

If a good performance is one that resonates, then Collective Dreaming at MICA’s BBOX theater March 6 and 7, was spectacular, as the COVID-19 pandemic has made the performance unexpectedly relevant and poignant. Director Joy Li drew her inspiration from the short story “The Circular Ruins,” by Argentinian writer Jorges Luis Borges. In the fantastical story, a man spends years constructing a boy, body part by body part, hair by hair, inside of his dreams. Once the boy is complete, he comes to life in the man’s reality.

Collective Dreaming, presented by the artist collective Cliff Banquet, modifies this narrative so that rather than a single person dreaming another into reality, a group of people collectively creates a new person. This modification makes a significant change in the narrative’s implications, and speaks to the power of collective consciousness: that what we envision, as a group, has both muscle and durability. That what we envision as a group can create solidarity, turn the abstract and the yet-to-be-imagined solid.

How has collective consciousness been shaping our reality since the COVID-19 pandemic began? I don’t have a definitive answer to that question, but it’s a question that has been on my mind. Along with: What does it mean for different countries to be treating a pandemic with varying degrees of severity? What does it mean for one country to be “ahead” of another in terms of responsiveness and preparedness? What does it mean, in America, to have a divisive, two-party political system attempt to dream up solutions and procedures for all of us?

As is often the case, the local and personal spheres feel more tangible. Community support has been heartening to see. Theaters and museums, like all public venues, have been forced to close, but people are creating innovative ways to continue performing and engaging with the arts. Communities that often operate with precarious finances under normal circumstances have seen the generosity of those who dream that these venues and collectives will weather this pandemic together.

The performers of Collective Dreaming sang using Pin Yin, a fundamental pronunciation system for Mandarin, to verbally represent the act of dreaming. A woman dressed in a shapeless white garment—a blank canvas—represented the dream the dreamers conjure. Then the performers began to knot rope around this woman’s body, slowly giving shape to her limbs. She was sung into being, sculpted arm by arm, leg by leg, the dreamers pulling on her like a marionette. Think of language as puppet strings; words give shape to, animate our circumstances. Language is quite a power to hold on to when little else seems within our control.

The dreamed woman did manage to unknot herself from the collective in an attempt at escape. There was a long stretch of time when she tried to keep smoke-filled bubbles, blown by the conductor, afloat in the air, though each time they would break and evaporate, the woman would fall to the ground in a soft faint.

Only during a performance do we attune to the dream of those on stage. We can view a painting with a group of people, but the painting cannot view us back. We can watch a film in a theater, laughing or crying with strangers, but the actors are in another place and time.

This second half of the performance was inspired by Yukio Mishima’s poem “Icarus,” itself a lyric interpretation of the old Greek myth in which a boy tries to escape a prison with wings of wax and feathers that fail as he flies too close to the sun. The wax melts; gravity pulls him down; the laws of nature exert their force. To fall, not to fly, is the natural order of things. Icarus is not an uplifting tale and the end of Borges’s short story is rather bleak, as the dreamer realizes that he is also a dream. But if all of humanity is a dream that has become reality over time, if a hope can indeed shape and birth a future, that seems as good a reason as any to come together and keep dreaming. Even if what we collectively dream is delicate, tenuous.

The performing arts offer something unique that feels all the more powerful in a time when we are practicing social distancing. Only during a performance do we attune to the dream of those on stage. We can view a painting with a group of people, but the painting cannot view us back. We can watch a film in a theater, laughing or crying with strangers, but the actors are in another place and time. The performing arts are singularly present. In the audience, we feel a connection not only with other audience members but with the performers themselves. An exchange takes place—one that is valuable and difficult to replicate. An exchange for which we find ourselves increasingly longing. In the absence of reality, we turn to virtual reality, aiming to diminish—while simultaneously maintaining—distance. We FaceTime, we livestream, and we Zoom. We broadcast and we tune in. We buffer. We wait.

At the end of Collective Dreaming, each performer slowly walked toward the front row and handed a flower, cut out of fabric and dip-dyed green, to a member of the audience. The young man who walked up to me wore ballooning, richly textured pants adorned with dangling ornaments, juxtaposed with a shibari-style harness knotted on his torso and head. His costume spoke volumes, as he was free yet bound, foreboding but beautiful, restrained though still thoughtfully deliberate in action—a state of being that resonates profoundly during a time when many of us are spending an unprecedented amount of time inside our own homes, alone. I’m looking forward to the time when we can liberally share with one another without the need for a screen, when we can welcome each other once again into our personal space, when we can revel in the bonds of communal gathering. In the meantime, we will continue to create and dream of the day when our creations will be walking around, real, thrilled by the crowds, all the more touching.

Photos by Yuhan Shen

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