Just who does contemporary dance think I am?

Dazzle me with your work, not your strobe lights!

Dazzle me with your work, not your strobe lights!

Does someone in the audience actually have to die in the context of contemporary dance before the dance establishments take notice of how audiences are being abused?  Or should audiences of a festival like Dance Umbrella be restricted to young academics, who are under 40, physically robust and impervious to anything?

More and more blatantly over the last 16 odd years that I have been writing about the discipline, I have watched some contemporary dance insinuate itself into the audience in a way that not only speaks of lazy choreography and sensationalism, but downright disrespect towards and abuse of Joe Public through either the effects of excessively loud noise; intolerably bright lights, particularly strobes; smoke, either real or artificial that will make anyone feel the urge to get out; or the disregard for one’s personal space in a dark unfamiliar context: all of which are elements that could very easily push a person with sensitivities over the edge.

And my question becomes who is the dance audience supposed to be? Several years ago I angrily lashed out at a work in a review, saying don’t touch me with your fingers: touch me with your work; with your developed intellect, with the beauty of your dance.

And now I say it even louder: enough of the gimmicks and bright lights and technological side shows. Enough of the masturbatory bits of self-reflective self-indulgence. Enough of poorly thought through power plays that make me suffer and feel frightened as an audience member because you deem it so.

When I have to be witness to a murdering of Igor Stravinsky because the sound track of a work is so loud and distorting that I feel that my nose will start bleeding if I remain in that place for one minute longer, that is not a good sign. When a million little lights are shone into my face, supporting a silly tale about rape and drugs, to the point where I go all queasy and feel the urge to vomit, that is not a good sign, either.

If a work features so much digital snow and static dance gestures that you get the urge to stand up and shout “I can’t take it any longer!”, that is also not a good sign.

My question is, has this kind of work forgotten that there is actually an audience? Or should it be framed to only invite the hardy arty lot who are under forty and think that gunshots and strobe lights in a confined space are fun and witty things to experience? My feeling is that dance that relies so heavily on audience participation, on pushing strangers around in the dark in unfamiliar territory is really frightening for an audience. But would the work still exist in the absence of that audience? And if not, what then is the work?

It’s a little like that philosophical question about trees falling in forests, only contemporary dance, unlike trees in forests, is the kind of discipline upon which careers are balanced and funding gets justified. And audiences are entities that comprise adults who have their own powers to respond to this level of abuse – by taking legal action and suing work that has not forewarned them of physiological assault they will be subjected to during a performance – as would be done in many western countries.

While the establishment is very quick to point out the unspeakable horrors of nudity – we as a society have yet to get over nipples, let alone <<Shock! Horror!>> penises in an artwork – or the use of live animals on stage, it doesn’t tell you how offensive the environment will be to you physically or psychologically. From where I sit, it looks like a simple lack of manners: Why are there no disclaimers in programmes and press material explaining the potential ill effects of things like strobe lights and sound that is never reigned in?

As it stands, it seems that Dance Umbrella should stop promoting itself to the general public and only invite the selected few: young people who are mentally, psychologically and physically resilient enough to be willing to sit through rain and muck in the name of art. I resent being pushed around in a dance piece or being told only as I enter the space that strobe lights, burning imphepho and no seating characterise this piece. It’s too late: as Joe Public, I want to be given the chance beforehand to make my own decisions about whether I want to be there or not: I’m not up to be assaulted by your work.

Dear choreographers, the more you try and freak me out, the more you will chase me away. The Dance Umbrella needs audiences. I’m not saying that the work needs to soften into nonentity or pretty nicety. I’m saying choreographers need to take the matter in hand and be responsible. And to take heed of that fourth wall in a theatre. It exists and a paying audience has the right to be respected for who they are and the role they play in the industry.

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8 thoughts on “Just who does contemporary dance think I am?

  1. My goodness… and you are referring to Jay’s piece I gather.. well it is clearly the last straw…and I do remember the other piece you refer to.

    Gillian Anstey
    ansteyg@sundaytimes.co.za
    Phone: 011 2805084

    Architecture is inhabited sculpture – Constantin Brancusi, sculptor (1876-1957)

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  2. I missed Jay Pather’s piece due to illness, but elements of this article resonated with what I felt after opening night on Thursday, when I came away bored, tired and distinctly underwhelmed by a piece that felt like a poorly-edited and self-indulgent debut novel that needed to be cut by 300 pages.

    Ayesha
    Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

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  3. Glad that you have taken the wankers to task. There are way too many of them, in all the performing arts disciplines. As someone once said of being in he audience for a particular director’s long-forgotten production, “He does the wanking and we, the audience, are supposed to have the orgasm.”

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  4. You make a good point. I blame this partially on the rising commercialism in the dance world and the increasing pressure that choreographers feel to have a “wow” factor in their work. However, that wow factor is often more assaulting than it is impressive.
    That said, I do believe there are effective ways to incorporate technology and effects into dance tastefully. I saw an excellent program by Netherlands Dance Theater last spring that used projections and it added quite nicely to the production.
    The most salient point you have here though, is that companies and choreographers need to forewarn audience members of elements like strobe lights, lack of seating or particularly loud music for safety reasons if nothing else. There are many people who could have seizures or other serious reactions to such effects and it is irresponsible to leave audience members in the dark about such things.

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  5. I missed the show so I can’t comment but I do think that you should name it and the choreographer… having been at the receiving end of a nasty backlash from this choreographer for saying something similar, though not about his own work, I think it is important that you be specific. I do know of someone who left the show early, but I also know of a reviewer who thoroughly enjoyed it.

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  6. Thank you for this supportive response. Happily, I have encountered that elusive ‘wow’ factor in several works that have not stooped to technological lows, in this year’s Dance Umbrella.

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