Responding to “Your Audience”

Audience200x255.jpgI received some great responses to my rather angry rant on Halloween: “Your Audience, Love ’em or Hate ’em?,” in which I complained about feeling contempt from experimental dance artists towards their audiences.

Levi Gonzalez, a brave soul from the NYC dance scene provided a wonderful counter-comment to my post which challenged me to clarify my thoughts and be more specific about my problems. Now I can condense it to basically this: I don’t feel like experimental artists think about communication enough.

I used to be active in the NYC experimental dance scene as a performer and choreographer. In the past couple of years I have changed course to become a producer and curator of dance for the camera. Now that I’ve gained a bit of distance from the scene, I’m seeing it from the outside and having some different thoughts about experimentalism. Before, when making work, I was more focused on what I was not doing (ie participating in an oppressive, capitalistic, populist culture) rather than what I was doing: performing for an audience and having an exchange with them. I didn’t think about how my work may have been alienating my audience because it never occurred to me to investigate who they were and what they were bringing to the experience.


Despite the many exceptions in the dance community, I do think that
there is something about experimental art scenes that foster a kind of
elitism and snobbery. My personal definition of an experimental art
scene is a group of artists who live on the outer edges of society and
share similar aesthetic and creative ideas that mainly revolve around
critiquing and counterbalancing mainstream culture.  One aspect of
mainstream culture is the “mass audience.” As part of the experimental
dance scene in New York I used to feel that to cater to any audience
beyond our scene would be seen as a sign of selling out or dumbing down
the work. In any case, the work’s status as “experimental” would be put
into question. This could have just been me being oversensitive, and
trying to fit in. But now as an audience member I often feel like if I
didn’t know this scene or come from it, I would feel really out of
place. I get the sense mostly from younger, less mature artists, that
they want me to come to them all the way. There is very little
interplay or reciprocation from the performers towards their audience.
Again, this is getting very general, and I hate to name names in such a
small, fragile community. Perhaps it would be better to illustrate an
example of what I considered to be a good artist/audience exchange that
Levi happened to be a performer in:

 In John Jasperse’s recent piece at BAM, “Misuse liable to prosecution
he addressed the audience directly right at the beginning through a
monologue of economic statistics that laid the groundwork for the rest
of the dance. There was nothing self-indulgent about it. We learned
what the piece was about up-front, and then the abstract dance
vignettes that followed could be fit into a context. Even though the
piece was specifically about the terrible economic state of
experimental modern dance, he did not put a guilt trip on the audience.
In fact his audience was mostly comprised of members of this self-same
community. He may have made us feel uncomfortable, but it was not to
attack us and twist the knife, rather it was to raise awareness and
show a way to empowerment. As an audience member I really appreciated
this work because it voiced the pain and difficulties of being an
experimental dance artist in a way that all people could relate to. The
work was human.

Levi raised a great point in his comment that illuminates another potential pitfall experimental artists run into:

‘Also,
ironically, one could argue that the way artists make a name for
themselves and the way they tend to be marketed in the contemporary
scene is if they are in fact, “shocking” “transgressive” and
“controversial”. As an artist myself I feel pressure from the marketing
point of view to be provocative and polarizing. It sells.’

This
is the dark side of marketing that we must also remain aware of. I
believe there are many other ways of raising ourselves and our
community up without selling out or diluting our message. For me, I had
the realization that I must go out towards my audience and invite them
in, they will not find me on their own. To do this I have embraced the
camera to create and propagate dance in a mediatized form able to be
distributed in many ways. I have made a cable access tv show, produced
screenings and festivals, and now this blog on the internet. There are
many other examples though: Jill Sigman
has done it through secret message campaigns with egg shells and
voicemail messages on little calling cards distributed throughout the
city. Others like fellow Great Dance blogger Tom Pearson with Third Rail Projects
perform in alternative sites out-side the theatre. These may seem like
major undertakings, but the same results can be achieved through even
subtler processes. 

All experimental artists really need to do
is think of their work as a form of communication in addition to being
an artistic exploration. This transmission of messages doesn’t start or
end at the moment of the performative act, it is an ongoing process of
exchange with an audience that will take many forms along the way and
ultimately shape and change both parties. With a little more
consciousness about who we are performing to, we may be able to give
the Mark Morris’ and Twyla Tharp’s of the world a run for their money
and raise the profile of our community to be powerful movers in the
culture at large.

For some other recent discussions about this topic see Lisa Traiger’s post: What’s Wrong With Modern Dance, and Daniel Burkholder’s post: snickered.

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4 Responses to Responding to “Your Audience”

  1. Thank you for this conversation, Anna and Levi!

    I think an important aspect of this discussion is the question about why we make dance. What originally compels us to create movement / performance and share it with other people? Is there a way we can, as a community, keep looking at our own original impulses (which probably vary widely) for creating dance? I am too earnest and too much of an idealist to believe that we do this primarily to make a name for ourselves and to sell our work. Those are helpful tools, but what underlies that impulse? And is it possible that when we are true to our fundamental impulses for making dance that we will then truly connect with audiences, however small?

    I’ve been frustrated, as an audience member, by performances that seem like one big inside joke about the dance community. I feel like there are much more important and interesting human, aesthetic, philosophical, and political issues that we can play with.

    I too wrote a review about John Jasperse’s piece and his amazing performers. While his work sometimes starts with particulars related to the dance world, what makes him a master is that his work hits much broader, and deeper, areas of experience. I left his performance the other night completely inspired about the role of dance-making and performance-going for this age we live in.

  2. Anna Brady Nuse says:

    Aynsley, I love your question “is it possible that when we are true to our fundamental impulses for making dance that we will then truly connect with audiences, however small?” I think that yes, we can if we keep to the integrity of the work. I think that an artist’s best audience meter is their own. What do I like? What do I wish I could see more of? And as you pointed out the most important question of all: Why do I dance? If we answer those questions for ourselves and make sure they are clear and evident in the work, then others will respond.

    I had Wendell Beavers for a comp class at ADF a while ago. One of his big quotes (which I think comes from Mary Overlie originally) is “Do the obvious.” I think that’s the most wise saying I’ve ever gotten from a teacher. Whatever is obvious to you isn’t obvious to anybody else. And if you stick to what seems obvious for the work, you will be communicating the best you can to the audience. It’s the obvious things that connect with people. I think experimental artists are far too afraid of the obvious, and their work falls short because of it.

  3. Alejandra Martorell says:

    Dear Anna,

    I work with Levi Gonzalez as Editors of Critical Correspondence. Late to this thread, I’m compelled to second and highlight Levi’s comment to the effect that it is very hard to talk about work without addressing particular work and workers. As part of this common effort to promote dialogue and discourse, and not been a professional writer by any means, I think I understand the difficulty of engaging a work of art directly. But not to do so, and to speak of “experimental artists” in general leaves me with nothing to grapple with. And I believe perpetuates these division lines that more and more seem to be crying for new definitions or complete disbandment.

  4. Hi Anna,
    Hope you had a good Thanksgiving.

    I’m just looking at these again and want to respond about things being obvious.

    For me, integrity in dance is often the things that are not obvious. I crave connection with people and artists who are looking at subtlety and depth and nuance within life. These things take time to find both as an artist and as an audience member watching any given performance.

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