Fostering an Underrepresented Dance Audience: Dancersby Claudia La Rocco, Kathryn Enright, and Jessica Weiss
Six nights, 30 companies, $10 a pop: earlier this year, City Center offered dance lovers a feast with the Fall for Dance Festival. Anyone who has calculated the median age of audience members at the city’s larger dance theaters (or of the reviewers, for that matter) can tell you that the dance world is desperate for new blood. Press conferences abound with talk of making dance “relevant,” and presenters wring their hands over half-empty theaters. Not surprisingly, the sold-out festival had no such problems, as people lined up for the opportunity to see marquee choreographers at movie-house prices. Such an effort should be commended, no matter its aim. But the questions remain—will folks who plunked down $10 to see five companies pay more for nondiscount performances ($42 to see Merce Cunningham at the Joyce, for example, or $25 for terrible rear mezzanine seats to see Alvin Ailey at City Center), or will they simply wait till next fall? Will the experience embolden people to explore less mainstream dance? And what does it say about the art form that choreographers cannot fill theaters in a city where people pay astronomical fees for everything from meals to shoes to closet-sized apartments?
We asked two dancers for their impressions of the festival. While their responses differ in tone and enthusiasm, both focus on their peers’ inability to see work being produced, especially by older, more established companies who rely on steep ticket prices to meet the big theaters’ costly overhead expenses; Ailey orchestra seats start at $75.
The new $20 MoMA entrance fee is an ominous sign, but starving visual artists can still peruse Williamsburg or Chelsea galleries for the cost of a subway ride. Writers have libraries and lots of free readings. Some have bemoaned the exclusive, allusion-laden nature of these arts, but dance runs the risk of creating choreographers with no sense of history. Struggling dancers and choreographers must pay dearly to see even a fraction of performances in this city or settle for the sorry substitute of video. It’s vital that dance expand its audience, but the current state of affairs is rather like a politician trying to build new constituencies, while neglecting to shore up her base.
—Claudia La Rocco
The Fall for Dance Festival started with a boom—that is, with a thunderstorm as well as with a mix of great and mediocre dances. With $10 tickets and a lineup like the Dance Theater of Harlem, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, Streb, David Neumann, and Merce Cunningham (and these just on the first night of the festival), an event like this couldn’t go wrong. Or could it? Intended as a festival that would reach and cultivate a new dance audience and thus a new generation of dance lovers, Fall for Dance may have failed in this respect. On the night I attended the festival, I saw the usual dance audience: a mix of wealthy white patrons in their silver years, along with a slew of dancers and choreographers. The festival did not create a new audience of dance enthusiasts; it allowed those who normally sit front and center at the Metropolitan Opera House an excuse to buy City Center T-shirts for their grandchildren, and it provided affordable tickets for those who normally see performances only if they usher or catch a glimpse from the backstage wings before an entrance.
The fact that so many dancers and choreographers flocked to the Fall for Dance Festival should send a message to Arlene Schuler, president and CEO of City Center. Dancing, after all, is not just about rehearsals and technique classes but also about seeing as much dance as possible. The body hones its talents mentally and emotionally as well as physically. Yes, a large, fresh dance audience is a wonderful and necessary group to court, but are we forgetting about those who create and perform the pieces we love to watch?
As a monsoon flooded the streets of Manhattan, a new type of audience poured into City Center: dancers, usually financially incapable of seeing their favorite companies perform, and people who had simply decided to try something new. There were even those who trekked through the rain in hopes of scoring last-minute tickets to the sold-out performances. As a dancer and regular attendee of dance performances, I hadn’t seen a dance crowd this dedicated since Pina Bausch graced BAM’s stage four years ago. The excitement was palpable, the energy intoxicating. We came for stimulation as well as a little lesson in dance history, and on the first evening (more than any other) we got it. Often, today’s performances are far too long; as ticket prices soar, artists and presenters want to give people their money’s worth. But three hours of the same thing—especially some things—can be painful. The 20 minutes given to each company allowed a glimpse into abilities and sensibilities, from Cunningham’s random exactness and Neumann’s dramatic ability to Streb’s pop-action intensity, Harlem’s history, and Jones’s physical questioning.
Yet, more than the performers, I was astounded by the audience. Artists, like all humans, get caught up in a deadening spiral of criticism and judgment. While I’m sure these thoughts were ticking in the back of people’s minds, a sense of shared community won out: The festival was a celebration, as well as a call to arms. In essence, it was a plea for dance itself.
Jones’s Continuous Replay, an exploration of the naked human body and its ability to move through space, answered. The work gave many of my uninspired friends a reason to go back to class and return to the dance community. Differences in body shapes, ages, and sizes startled less experienced dance-goers; laughter quivered through the audience when a large dancer flew across the stage. But when it was over, people surged to their feet, applauding. Perhaps this type of festival offers one future for the art form. Regardless, I am thankful for the push to reinvigorate a new dance audience.
About the Authors
CLAUDIA LA ROCCO writes about performance for the New York Times and is the founder of thePerformanceClub.org, which won a 2011 Arts Writers Grant. She is a member of Off The Park press, where she is editing an anthology of poems by painters. She is on the faculty of the School of Visual Art's graduate program in Art Criticism and Writing.
Jessica Weiss is a dancer and writer based in New York.