Audience and performers mix in Luke George's Public Action at Keir Choreographic Award

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How to like dance

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‘Like a human portrayal of a natural distaster.’ Performers and specatators in Luke George’s Public Action at Keir Choreographic Award, Melbourne, Australia. Photo © Gregory Lorenzutti for Dancehouse
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Luke Forbes
Audience clubs are on the increase - why? Luke Forbes on his experience of a new workshop in Melbourne

It’s a Sunday afternoon in Melbourne’s busy inner-northern suburbs and I’m wandering around empty dance studios at Dancehouse. The lights are switched off throughout Carlton Hall, a former community centre-cum-dance hub, and I can’t spot a sign directing me to the first session of the How to Like Dance workshop. I finally find the facilitator, theatre critic and author Alison Croggon, alone in the back-of-house office, sitting at a conference table and unsuccessfully trying to turn up the volume on her PowerPoint slide show. The six remaining participants are yet to arrive.

How to Like Dance (HTLD) is a collaboration between Dancehouse and the Keir Choreographic Award (KCA), facilitated by online theatre magazine Witness Performance. It’s delivered by Witness founders, Croggon and the theatre all-rounder, Robert Reid. The workshop consists of two three-hour, Sunday afternoon dance appreciation workshops, a ticket to each of the KCA’s two weeknight programmes, a further one-hour discussion group after the second programme, and a free glass of wine.

KCA, now in its third edition, is Australia’s most prestigious (and only) contemporary dance prize, and has quickly asserted its place and mission in the Australian dance field by ‘promoting innovation, experimentation and cross-artform practices in contemporary dance’. It biennially commissions eight new works by Australian dancemakers, and the eight finalists vie for a AUD 30,000 grand prize and AUD 10,000 audience prize.

HTLD forms part of a larger public programme accompanying the KCA, including choreographic workshops for the local dance community led by the KCA’s international jury members Meg Stuart and Eszter Salamon; a dance documentation activity, Scribe, for recording audience reactions; and a range of panel discussions on timely, hot-button topics, featuring academics and local and international dance professionals.

There seems to be a growing interest in dance appreciation and audience engagement and development programming worldwide. For example, Springback editor Sanjoy Roy wrote about his ‘dates with dance’ experience, and in 2014 I had the opportunity to tailor dance appreciation activities for the festival temps d’images in Düsseldorf, Germany (as part of a small team of dance researchers). Why might this be? My best bet is that as contemporary dance becomes progressively less like normative ideas about dance – that is, virtuosic, codified movement set to music and presented on stage to an audience – spectators are increasingly pondering how to respond, and whether they’re doing it right.

As I have teased out at length elsewhere, the works presented by the KCA have even left many Australian dance critics scratching their heads. Conventional critical criteria in dance have become obsolete almost across the board in contemporary dance, and spectators and commentators can no longer assess performance quality on the basis of stretched feet, innate musicality, dramatic expression, and so on.


Audience and performers in Branch Nebula’s STOP-GO, at Keir Choreographic Award, Melbourne
Branch Nebula’s STOP-GO, at Keir Choreographic Award. Photo © Gregory Lorenzutti for Dancehouse

Despite the KCA’s prestige and value, anxiety about dance literacy appears to be an ongoing issue for it. In 2018, as in previous editions, some of the works shown challenged theatre conventions, for example, by emphasising the spectators’ role as co-participants in the performance event. Bhenji Ra’s The Wetness projected live video of the audience onto a large, heart-shaped screen. Branch Nebula’s STOP-GO relied on the audience performing a chaotic, chorus-like score, where tasks ranged from banal (clicking fingers) to sadistic (sniffing strangers’ shoes). Luke George’s Public Action featured performers crashing through the seating area in nail-biting slow motion, like a human portrayal of a natural disaster, punctuated by performers politely asking stubborn audience members to clear the quiet storm’s path. With so many questions begged – Who’s the performer? Who’s the audience? Why are we on stage? Why are the performers in the auditorium next to us? – HTLD was presumably programmed to address spectators’ unease.

HTLD’s blurb proposed that:

Every work of art is an invitation, but sometimes we don’t know how to respond. We have expectations about what art is and what it expects from us, often without being conscious of them, that get in the way. Fully responding to work can be a process of unlearning, putting away our expectations so we can get closer to our own experience.

 

HTLD is also an invitation. Unlike the spectacles of contemporary dance themselves, this sounds like a call-out for a formal, instructional, ‘dance for dummies’ lecture series. It leaves me asking if ‘liking’ contemporary dance is the most meaningful way to engage with it. Might that outlook in fact be at the root of disappointment accompanying the realisation that contemporary dance tends to probe and irritate spectators’ sense of time, place, and self? Surely, I think, contemporary dance literacy is a more valuable goal than fandom. So I am relieved to discover early on that the title is just a misfit. Like most recent examples of dance appreciation programming, HTLD allows (dance) writers and dramaturgs to occupy a new space in the borderlands between dance production and reception. It’s a space for mediation between dance makers and spectators, with a helping hand from those ‘in the know’.

As workshop participants arrive one by one and we do a round of introductions, they all seem to be seeking a more extensive and nuanced vocabulary to talk about dance. Many agree that contemporary dance is ‘baffling’ and feel that dance makers ought to put more effort into ‘teaching’ the audience the language used in performance. They have the impression that ‘experimental’ dance doesn’t provide access points and is gratuitously puzzling. ‘I presumed that there was this whole intellectual layer I didn’t have access to,’ is just one of many complaints about not being privy to dance’s insider jokes and allusions.

Perhaps because of the facilitators’ own professional pursuits  – poetry and other literary fiction, theatre making and criticism  – the workshop belies its own instructional title. It ditches dance history and analytical tools, and instead encourages us to draw upon our own experiences and expertise. Trusting our own experience of dance is suggested as the ‘way in’. Over three hours, we chat informally about the meaning of dance and choreography, without being introduced to any technical or theoretical understandings of the terms. We watch some videos and share our impressions of them. Some of the participants describe their best and worst theatre and dance experiences.

Convincing audience members to disregard the traditionally rigid, single-sided ‘sharing of knowledge’ by theatre experts (for example, in artist talks) is often a hard task; here, it was surprisingly easy. Why? I think because the HTLD cohort was primarily, and unexpectedly, made up of theatre (not dance) lovers, doers and makers. The drawcard of Croggon – well known from her Theatre Notes blog – was enough to convince enthusiastic and articulate theatre and Croggon followers to try out a new camp. It’s a form of audience development that poaches from existing communities of theatre goers, much to the benefit of popular dance discourse.


Blue Quote Mark

‘I don’t care if your arm does that,’ she says,
and rolls her eyes.

Blue Quote Mark

While this emphasis on personal experience certainly engages the group, I have to conceal my concern that it sidelines the possibility of ‘unlearning’ commonly held thoughts about contemporary dance. For instance, when participants echo many popular (mis)understandings of dance performance, they remain unremarked and unreflected. At its best dance is said to provide entertainment, have ‘exciting’ movement, emotion, and feature captivating performers, while at its worst, it is described as self-interested. Referring to dancers who languidly move and observe their limbs in the name of performance, one participant comments ‘I don’t care if your arm does that,’ and rolls her eyes.

In counterpoint to the freely structured form of the workshop, we are nevertheless given some guiding questions to redirect focus away from knee-jerk criticism and value judgements: Where and who are you in the space? What do you want? A week later, Reid similarly refers us to theatre scholar Elinor Fuchs’ ‘EF’s Visit to a Small Planet’, a questionnaire for theatre appreciation.

At the end of the workshop, one enthusiastic participant and regular theatre-goer comments:

I came in with the expectation of being schooled on dance history and also given a framework of intellectual ways to look at dance. It was actually surprising and really valuable to be told your reaction is valid. All of us are just having reactions and we can talk about them. I realised I can read work in a way that doesn’t involve huge intellectual outlay or academics or historical awareness.

 

It’s terrific that a few more theatregoers feel at ease watching dance. I’m a firm believer that acknowledging each audience member’s own expertise as a frame for viewing dance is a necessary project.

Still, dance appreciation workshops such as HTLD provide two valuable opportunities to enhance participants’ future encounters with dance. Firstly, to channel their desire to discuss and explicate dance through an appropriate and (gently) moderated frame. On this count: douze points to HTLD. But secondly, to familiarise them with choreographic and dance methods and questions. My own dance background and bias quietly lament the blurred focus on the latter. HTLD rarely broaches conversation about the ways those fleshy bodies on stage occupy space and move through it. Yes, bodies are socially constructed, and dancing bodies are frequently representational. But it appears to me there needs to be an equal emphasis on a dance-specific practice of audience development and engagement. For example, how do the performers dance? What corporal ‘archive’ do they draw upon? Addressing these questions doesn’t negate the importance of an audience’s ability to make sense of it through language and symbolism alone.

Another initial aim of this pilot project, summed up by Reid and paraphrased by me, is to grow theatre foyer conversations by placing them within a more formal and legitimised frame. Through HTLD, Croggon and Reid are giving the dance and theatre-going community permission to discuss works in detail outside of the sensitive public forum of the theatre foyer itself. They’re also binding participants together through an informal contract: you can share thoughts, experiences and associations without any grave repercussions. It appears to me this is where a workshop like HTLD excels. It isn’t overtly instructional, it distances itself from print media performing arts criticism, and supports the idea that the best conversations represent a breadth of voices.

In this spirit, HTLD will live on under the name Live Nights, a series of discussion groups that take place after performances. It’s an ongoing and developing project – and I warmly welcome the change of title.


Photo of Bhenji Ra and audience at Keir Choreographic Award in Melbourne, Australia
Spot the performer? Bhenji Ra's The Wetness at the Keir Choreographic Award in Melbourne, Australia. Photo © Gregory Lorenzutti for Dancehouse
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