Over the course of the past month, I have attended an intensive workshop with theater-makers from all over the country; I have attended the annual DanceUSA Conference to discuss the state of dance in our nation with professionals on both the artistic and business side of dance; and I have participated in an international dance festival with performers from over 15 countries, representing nearly every continent. It would be impossible to distill these experiences into one a page-long reflection, however a few common questions continually surfaced: How do we view dance? How do we get others to view dance? And, how do we increase dance viewership in general?
On my last night in Poland, this conversation sparked an even more fundamental query:
Is the viewing of dance important?
[Important, noun, of great significance or value, likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being.]
Based on this definition, I could potentially find arguments for the value of entertainment (in regard to particular styles of dance such as Broadway or music video) or for the witnessing of physical virtuosity and pushing the limits of the human body (as with Ballet or breakdancing), so for the sake of this reflection I’d like to specifically consider the importance of spectatorship when it comes to contemporary concert dance.
For me, as a maker of dance, seeing the work of others is absolutely crucial to determine where my own work falls within the context of today’s artistic landscape and to be inspired (or repelled) by the practices of like-minded artists. More so, one could argue, it is the contemporary choreographers that are actively researching and propelling the art form forward and the sharing of this evolution should be of value and interest, especially to those closely linked with the dance community. However, dancers making dances for other dancers is not a very sustainable model and completely disregards the role of dance within a larger ecosystem. So, again, is it important for contemporary dance to be seen by a broad audience?
For my fellow creators, let’s go through a little thought experiment by asking ourselves honestly: Why do people need to see my work? If the answer is “because it’s enjoyable!” we risk the criticism of academics, cultural elites, and other dance “gate-keepers” who potentially have the power to end our careers before they’ve even started. If the answer is “because it will make audiences feel something or think something new” we must then follow up by asking: is dance the only possible way to share these perspectives? (Writing a blog would sure as hell be way less time and money). If the answer is “because without an audience the dance doesn’t exist” well, then, should it?
As I am now in the process of developing a new show (and will very shortly begin the push for ticket sales), going through this thought experiment myself was a hard pill to swallow. But there’s one other definition of “important” that I’ve come across, specifically in regard to an artistic work:
[Important, noun, significantly original or influential.]
As with artwork itself, this is a much more subjective definition. What does it mean to influence and who are we trying to influence? It is these questions that will start to give us the framework with which to assess our work, and the future of our work. I think if we interrogate our choreography with a desire to create influential work of significance for a specified audience (which ideally extends beyond just our colleagues) we’re more likely to produce richer, more thoughtful contributions to the contemporary dance landscape (and maybe not have to work so hard to get butts in the seats). Of course, this “solution” takes no consideration for problems surrounding accessibility (whether that be financial or locational), so I don’t intend to suggest it’s as simple as "just define your audience". What I am suggesting, however, is that the formula for a symbiotic audience-to-artist relationship might start with identifying the meeting point of two respective definitions of “important”: That of the artist, and that of the hearts, minds, and souls of a population in need.