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.
Apollinaire responds:
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.
Apollinaire responds:
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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  1. says

    Apollinaire, I would love to take you up on that offer! What’s your fee and availability?! Now I am only half-joking. When CRS moves to a larger space and can be home to full-size dance classes and a larger theatre, we fully intend to place clarity of intention, mentoring and composition at the center of our pedagogy. I have long thought that professional mentoring is precisely what is largely lacking in dance. We want to help people grow as artists and not simply learn to control their muscles better.
    Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to be simply from a lack of resources though. Writers and theatre artists and musicians, etc. are often very broke much of the time, too, but that does not stop many of them from eagerly absorbing every bit of feedback and analysis that they can. Dance artists, on the other hand, in my experience, tend to be rather more fragile and wary of exposing themselves or their work to critique and editing. I’m guessing it’s because in part many choreographers lack confidence, in themselves as well as in potential mentors, and many may lack confidence in their ability to engage in verbal analysis of their work and ideas. Obviously, their are some very verbal, intellectual and eloquent dancemakers, but then my own experience is that many people who are drawn into dance are drawn there precisely because they don’t have to talk, don’t have to answer to anyone. They can just channel their feeling into moving.
    I’d like to add another thought: what is art but a self-conscious attempt to communicate? One cannot communicate without a) having a purpose, b) having a message, c) having a medium for the message, and d) having someone with whom to communicate.
    So if there is no attempt at communication going on, then it’s not art. It’s exercise, it’s exploration, it’s meditation or masturbation, but it’s not art. So many people want to think of themselves as artists and be able to say to their friends that they are making pieces, so they think of some superficial concept and slap together a combination of movements that feel good to them or that they know from class or that just came up while moving around in the studio, and then they show it with no thought at all about engaging the deepest truth of their being or trying to communicate anything or to create a profound, beautiful, honest, or life-changing experience for the audience. Just moving around instinctively, or worse, habitually, is not art unless there is a purpose and a desire to communicate something: for instance, notice how connected, unpredictable, alive and out of time we become when we truly dwell in the moment. If only that happened more often during improvisational performances!
    But all this criticism is only meant to point the way toward a more honest and satisfying art. I don’t know if we can all be great artists, but we can all strive to have our minds in order, to possess a clear idea of who we are and what we want to do and why, and that at least is a start.

  2. says

    I think I’d better mention a couple of other thoughts. First, I apologize for not thanking the various participants in this wonderful discussion. I have appreciated too many points to enumerate.
    Second, I hope I haven’t given the impression that I think that each dance because it should have a purpose, should boil down to a coded message. I don’t mean that at all. Perhaps, most if not all art has as its ultimate purpose to (re-)awaken us to the beauty of the moment experientially, so that we ourselves become more aware and awake and connected, but the specific themes, subject matter, style, medium, etc. of a work of art are not engineered like a chemical formula.
    How the artist gets where he is going and serves his purpose is usually more intuitive and mystical. So I don’t mean to dismiss intuitive work in and of itself as immature, or to dismiss intellectual work as inevitably lifeless. I want to see and experience purpose and intuition working hand in hand. I want intuition and creativity serving a higher purpose and I want that higher purpose to inspire and set free the artist’s creative energies. If the artist is truly inspired, literally in spirit, and if we the audience and the artist meet, as Apollinaire said, half way, than we, too, should be inspired. And that’s the only thing for which we should ever ask.
    Apollinaire responds: Yes, the distinction you’re making is a good one. Thank you for writing, Chris.

  3. Abigail says

    Hello all,
    I have been reading this blog for about a month now and find it extremely intriguing. I will spare you my self- indulgent autobiography and cut to the chase.
    I see the key to clear choreography as a matter of intent. Often, I feel that the choreographers themselves are pulled between whether to create a ballet for the audience, the dancers, or their own personal message. This causes confusion for all involved.
    My personal opinion is that all art should be made with the audience/reader/viewer in mind. This does not mean that the art should be made to impress or please the spectator in question. However, a successful artist will at least be aware of how the work could be received and should make educated decisions based on this knowledge.
    I hate to sound cynical, but our education system, which stresses grades and test scores over an emotional, complex, and original understanding of any art form, requires that artists save our own art forms. Whether we choose to print program notes, create less abstract ballets, or invite the public into our creative process is up to us.
    I hope that my comments do not imply that I am against abstract or unconventional dance. I strongly appreciate all dance forms and see each one as crucial to the robust nature of the field.
    What is important is that the audience feels that the choreographer has a clear intent; this will lead the spectator to a clear interpretation of their own even if it differs from the original “theme” of the choreographer.
    Apollinaire responds: Thank you, Abigail, for writing–and your own clarity and nuance. I think most people would agree with you: It’s CRAZY to be working in a performing art, with the audience built into the structure, and not include them in your consideration (even if that means goading them, defying their expectations, etc.).

  4. says

    Has dance become so snobbish and elitist that we are afraid to express our opinion of some choreography we are “supposed” to like as balletomanes?
    Sometimes, dance is simply dance…we don’t have to know who did the backdrops, we don’t have to know the choreographer’s bio, who’s the star onstage, etc. I think I forget sometimes that dance is sometimes as simple as whether we are emotionally touched or moved by the movements onstage…
    Apollinaire responds: A good reminder! Thanks for writing, Jennifer!

  5. says

    Hi everyone, I’m a little embarrassed that I started this whole tirade through a flippant ending to a comment that I made. The discussion, though, has been fascinating.
    Apollinaire, you totally hit the mark with your statement, “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.”
    My instinct when watching the two pieces was complete confusion as to what the choreographers were trying to say. My gut reaction also knew that these pieces were not the genuine thing. When I watched Wheeldon’s “Continuum” with SF Ballet, I could see how Wheeldon was experimenting and working through the piece, but it was genuine and cohesive. It kept me engaged and thinking about the piece, and it made sense, in addition to convincing me that I didn’t hate all contemporary ballets!
    I like the literature metaphor as well. In English class, we all learn that we need a thesis and details to support this thesis. This makes for good communication, and in my mind, dance is a form of expression and communication.
    Perhaps some choreographers think that catering to an audience is selling out to appease the masses, at the expense of their high art. But you need audiences to keep coming back because ultimately, like it or not, it is a business. And I like to think that today’s dance audiences are smart, educated, well-read, and savvy – we enjoy being engaged, being challenged, being surprised, having fun, and able to understand metaphors, historical significance, and relevance to today’s society. Keeping us in mind, great dances and high art can still be made.
    Apollinaire responds: Hi, Jolene! If it’s a business, it’s going bankrupt (hehe)-but I get the point!

  6. says

    Even if one wants to really challenge the audience, that still necessitates having an audience and communicating with the audience. And communicating with the audience, it should be needless to say, does not automatically necessitate creating work that merely tries to please the audience. Moreover, looking at it like a business does not make it dirty. Business just means that there is an exchange, an exchange of time, attention and the price of admission for the experience of being in communication with the artist via his creative work. If more artists required of their work that it be of value to others, that it actually be a worthwhile experience, then fewer artists would be complaining about the “business.” I don’t say that financial profit and worthy art strictly correlate, but they do correlate to some degree!

  7. Antonia Small says

    Hello All,
    I have completely fallen into this blog by chance …however, I am so thrilled to find this discussion happening. I am on the East Coast…in midcoast Maine, no dance here to speak of, except the Salsa class I am happily attending.
    I grew up studying ballet, my dance teacher had been with the Royal Ballet in London, but stage fright cured her of performing. My education in dance had stressed performance/dramaturgy as part and parcel of dance as an expression…And to me it was always exciting feeling the relationship between performers and audience. A real spark of communication and a sense of aliveness in the dance and in the reception of the dance.
    Then, I moved to NYC, by way of Paris where I studied with Marcel Marceau (speaking of silent drama), got more involved in modern dance and began taking stock of all the many forms of dance happening in the “dance capital” of the world…and imagine my dismay when I realized it was not “cool” to communicate to the audience – my “inner working” was meant to be enough and sporting the neutral face was au courant.
    Even Bessie Schonberg reprimanded me in a choreography workshop for tapping into my mime training :”Mime and dance are two separate art forms and shouldn’t be pursued together” or words close to that effect.
    Correct me if I’ve not got this right, but I do believe it was George Balanchine who set us all down this merry road of neutrality and the 60/70s New Age Dance movement which was about experimentation and chance and was born of a rebellion against Modernity. I am quite sure that at the time, it was all a very exciting movement – rising up against traditional storytelling in any form (yes, this happened in other art forms – not just dance).
    My joy in finding your conversation this morning is relief at knowing the conversation is swinging back to some kind of middle ground – experimentation and communication surely are our oldest human instincts. You take one away at the expense of the other.
    I salute you all for trying to sort through these questions. I’ve turned to photography, where yes, I get a lot more feedback from colleagues and there is lots of competition, but that somehow also translates into camaraderie, which dance is sorely lacking.
    Last night in salsa I noted how relieved I was to find myself dancing AND connecting – and the gestures are a language.
    Apollinaire responds:Thank you for writing, Antonia. And I’m happy to hear that the discussion has been a balm.
    I DO think there are different ways of communicating and the storytelling of mime is definitely one of them. (I LOVE it, by the way–love seeing ballet companies that still have that skill.)
    I should say, though, that dramaturgy isn’t just for explicitly dramatic dance. The work of Emio Greco that I mention in the post above [?] has no story–and the faces are the usual dance face. It’s more to help shape the piece, whatever kind and shape it has.

  8. arts enthusiast says

    one of my biggest issues with modern dance, and most other forms of art, is that the audience is comprised mainly of… Artists. How unfortunate that we are not attempting to reach out to a larger base, not attempting to change lives or feelings with our work! And I don’t think this must be done at the expense of meaning, or of aesthetics. Indeed, to suggest such an idea seems insulting to me- that appealing to more people means to “dumb down” your art. People in general are smarter than many choreographers and directors give them credit for- and if they aren’t, they certainly at least have the capacity to FEEL. So make art that elicits thoughts, or feelings, or (dare i say it?) BOTH, in an audience of non-artists. If you’re making dance for the audience of dancers, it’s almost entirely a pointless enterprise. Get a construction worker, an IT guy, a housekeeper to come and enjoy your work. Then i’ll be impressed.

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