By Debra Cash
Ella Baff, executive director of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, recently shared the revision of an article she wrote for Arts Manager International Magazine last year. Her first tip for audience members: “Relax. Remember that when you travel to a foreign country, you may not know the language, but this does not mean you are an incompetent person. It is possible, even liberating, to enjoy being in an unfamiliar place and still feel secure internally.”
Baff practices what she preaches. In addition to having scholars in residence (full disclosure: I am one) give pre-performance talks, moderate question and answer sessions with the artists and write program notes, Baff welcomes her audiences with friendly “curtain talks” before performances and takes pains to compliment her audience on their adventurousness, especially when the work is likely to be demanding, puzzling or part of a work-in-progress.
Of course, as Baff knows, if presenters in a field are risk-averse, you can hardly expect the audiences to clamor for the new. Mainstream arts can be great, and there is a special urgency about familiarizing the American public to modern dance masterworks created during the past century. Nonetheless, it’s worth remembering that even the mainstream was new, and may have been challenging, in its day.