Have choreographers forgotten their audience?
Blogger Jolene of Saturday Matinee: Thoughts on Theater in the Bay Area has ignited a small storm of response with her relief that someone could clarify why a couple of ballets were duds: she thought the problem was her.
A whole lot of issues have come up, such as: What responsibility does a choreographer have to the audience? Do certain methods of composition lend themselves to obscurantism? Is choreography more guilty of muddiness than other arts? Is there something to be gained from an artist not worrying about how her work will be received?
The two reader responses were squirreled away in the comments corner, but now that I've received three--and three is company-- I've decided to make a post of them. You might want to read the original post first: here .
I hope more of you join in. I should note that the vast majority of reader responses on Foot are from people I don't know. (A couple of people I've come to know since.) So don't be shy--just civil.
From Christopher Pelham:
It's true that many dance artists have a method to their apparent madness that with some background we can decipher, that is, if we can can indeed get access to that background.
But then there are also a lot of choreographers, probably mostly younger and/or less experienced, whose steps only correspond to or are motivated by some arbitrary meaning or decision or idea that no audience will ever guess in a million years, an idea like, "I'll have my dancers raise their arms a lot because I saw someone do that recently and I kind of liked that..." or ... you get the idea.
I think a lot of dance by inexperienced or unestablished choreographers is wretched, but I do still wonder if maybe I'm just missing something.
But that just makes dance that is clear and purposeful and soulful all the more magical.
Hi, Christopher! Yeah, I agree that intentions and method can be really fuzzy, and that the choreographer has to meet us at least half way. In my experience, choreographers can get extremely self-righteous if they feel you didn't work hard enough to appreciate their genius, which makes me embarrassed for them. We don't owe it to any artist to like their work, though why would we show up if we didn't at least hope we would?
From Tonya Plank (aka Swan Lake Samba Girl):
Thank you thank you thank you, Christopher! I honestly feel that this is a huge problem with dance, that it is in large part why dance is failing. New choreographers don't seem to have any sense of audience. They seem to care only about themselves.
Christopher Wheeldon said he was primarily interested in his dancers' inner lives and experiences and who cares about audience. And then, shock, no one likes Morphoses' first program except people who already knew the dancers and had that to connect with.
All other artists -- novelists, playwrights, visual artists, filmmakers--at least try to make their point accessible on some level to the audience, at least give them clues as to what they are trying to say. From what I hear choreographers say, it is all about experimenting with their dancers, with movement. Then they get all upset because audiences aren't thrilled to sit there watching them experiment.
Ballet choreographer Jorma Elo said at Works & Process at the Guggenheim that he goes to his studio and works with his dancers and lets them grapple with movement, work the movement out. Most dancers are young and lack the artistry necessary to be the one in charge.
What is a choreographer? What do they see their job and their art as being about?
I find that I inherently trust a choreographer, such as Nacho Duato or William Forsythe, who has taken the time to write in his program notes what he is exploring, what he is trying to do in general terms, what he hopes to make an audience think about with his work. At least that shows me that they're outwardly oriented. That they're thinking of us and aren't simply self-absorbed.
Apollinaire responds: Thank you for writing, Tonya. Much food for thought.
I do think that dance, being both silent and inherently theatrical, has to offer us very clear guides to its unfolding--has to have a clear structure of intent. On the other hand, it's a tricky business for any artist to know if his intent is coming across.
Also, I would be wary of assuming that one method--such as experimenting with dancers--leads to obfuscation while another, such as a more dictatorial approach, does not. I think Forsythe, for example, develops the dances with his dancers. To get that to function well, you have to know how to direct them. Perhaps Wheeldon and Elo don't entirely know how to do that yet, but I wouldn't blame the method itself. In fact, for all we know, the source of the problem may have nothing to do with the method. We really can only judge what they've presented, as we don't entirely know their minds, no matter how much explaining they do.
Also, a lot of choreographers lay out their intent in program notes--and it clarifies nothing!! I guess this only goes to show that a choreographer not only has to know what she's doing but how to talk about it.
Finally, I think it's a real question how much an artist should think about the audience--and how she should think about us. To some extent, you don't want artists second-guessing themselves--trying to fashion their work after their expectations of its reception.
Anyway, it's all very befuddling, and I'm glad you've brought all this up.
From blogger Meg of Haul Your Paper Boats:
I don't think I agree that all other artists know that they need to respect their audience or readers.
Certainly there are writers who create their work with little or no thought to their readers for a variety of reasons: they believe they aren't writing for publication, they are trying to experiment with the conventions of storytelling, they are trying to use language in new and different ways, etc. And there are exceptionally difficult writers (particularly poets) who can leave their readers adrift in much the same way as choreographers leave their viewers adrift.
I think there are three major differences that make writers easier to discuss and understand. One is that it's a verbal medium, which makes it easier for us to discuss or write about. Another is that most of us have practice talking about things we have read. After all, it's something we were required to do in school. So we feel more prepared when we need to do so. The third is that more often then not, writers have editors going over their work. I'm very new to dance viewership, so I could be wrong, but it seems to me that choreographers have this sort of outside voice less often. Editors can serve as advocates for future readers by making sure that a work is cohesive, logical, and intelligible.
Moving away from writing to theatrical and visual arts, I think we can again find a lack of concern for the audience.
Certainly there are films or experimental plays that leave audiences befuddled or adrift. But again we have the presence of verbal as well as visual communication to help us.
Viewers of the visual arts are often just as confused as audiences of dance. And the artists generally provide just as little guidance. How many people say they just don't like or understand abstract art? Is the work of painters like Pollack, Rothko, or Twombly really any easier to understand than dance? Were these artists really more respectful of their viewers than many choreographers are of their audiences? I'm not so sure. And I think the same questions could also be applied to many 20th century musical compositions. Not so coincidentally, I think the fear of sounding like a fool is also present when talking about these art forms.
This is all a rather rambling way of saying that I don't think the problem under discussion here--communication with an audience--is actually exclusive to dance. Rather, it seems to me that there is often a divide between the artist and the people taking in the art. The divide may be larger and more problematic in some places than in others, but I don't think it's unique to dance.
That's just an elaboration of a problem as opposed to a suggested solution, though.
But what a great elaboration, Meg. Thanks so much for writing in.
Yes, every art has practitioners who either from incompetence or from a desire to push the form, don't look after their viewers/readers. The problem is: which is it? That's what I think we're grappling with here.
You help explain why Jolene might have hesitated to dismiss the seemingly experimental works of Elo and Millepied: she doesn't want to discourage the experimental impulse, as art depends on it to stay alive. On the other hand, she wants the real turtle soup, not the mock.
And I agree with you that it's harder to tell the one from the other in non-verbal, non-narrative forms: the comparison to visual art and non-vocal music, as opposed to novels or theater, is apt.
I also love your point that we learn how to interpret literature in school, but not how to think about music or visual art. However, I would argue that it's precisely the way literature is taught in school that makes it so hard for people to transition to non-narrative forms.
I spent several years teaching high school. The students mainly hated me, partially because I insisted that they stop treating literature as a puzzle to decode--the rose sym-BO-lizes love, the pearl, faith, blahblahblah. I wanted them to think about the effect the book had on them and how. Don't tell me what it means, I'd repeat, to their chagrin, tell me how. I wanted their learning to abet their natural wonder, not undermine it.
Anyway, the decoding method doesn't get you anywhere with dance. It really doesn't matter what the theme is, it matters how it develops. And nothing one learned in school will help with that.
Finally, yes!! Writers have editors, playwrights have the neverending workshop (which I wouldn't want to wish on anyone), filmmakers have cinematographers and editors and producers and so many auxiliary people, it's amazing that what comes out is ever coherent. And what do choreographers have? Their friends.
It's not that other choreographers can't help a person--a lot--but the difference is that one's peers have the same strengths and weakness of vision as the person who needs guidance, whereas an editor (ideally) really offers another perspective that doesn't compete. (That said, some of my favorite editors have been writers. They've just known how to switch hats.) Also, the choreographers don't have any obligation to take the feedback, which of course is a good thing: it would be terrible if they were dictated to. But it also allows them to mistake lazy habit for individual vision, etc.
I really don't know what the solution is, but I can't tell you how many dances I've seen that could have been brilliant with better editing; instead, they were just okay. It's so maddening, I've been tempted to offer my services in the offchance that we might all be spared that waste of spirit and talent and incredibly hard work.
UPDATE: More readers comment--and readers comment more!! Click here.
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