Drawing Audiences to Dance

The challenge of building a new dance audience lies in presenting, and contextualizing, thought-provoking work.

By Debra Cash

When Anna Kisselgoff stepped down from her position as chief dance critic of the “New York Times” last month, a job she had held since 1977, her valedictory column dismissed the notion that dance boom has ended. Every art form has its eras of ferment and its periods of consolidation, she argued, and the nostalgic always relegate an art’s “golden age” to the past. Nonetheless, the list of dancers and dance-makers she touched on, her recollections of the day in which dance companies enjoyed a rich funding environment, touring opportunities and support for a range of artistic experiments was enough to make any audience member who sat in the theatre during the last three tumultuous decades wistful.

Assessments of the current dance climate routinely leave out discussion of the changing nature of the audience for dance. At different times in history, dance audiences were made up of aristocrats for whom sleeping with the ballerinas was part of the perks; art-world insiders who traded aesthetic manifestos with their dance world buddies; girls who took dance lessons in grade school and gave it up; and weekend joggers waking up to the delights of athleticism.

Dance, even at the height of the boom, has always been a hard sell. Throughout the country, dance producers have dealt with the shrinking box office by relying on name brands, from superstar celebrities (Baryshnikov or Savion Glover) and familiar narratives (Boston Ballet’s “Dracula” or even the benign “Nutcracker” and lovely “Sleeping Beauty”) to well-established companies that pretty much guarantee an accessible good time (Mark Morris, Alvin Ailey or, most seasons, Paul Taylor). The theory is that brands reassure audiences: people know their hard-earned dollars will buy them an enjoyable evening out. Music and theatre producers, not to say museum curators who showcase sports car designs to coax people through the museum’s doors, are in the same boat.

A brand-based strategy depends on familiarity. Companies can earn that familiarity two ways: through saturation marketing or sheer longevity. Dance companies don’t have access to the kind of marketing that drives film or pop or even classical music. Even an artist as attractively branded and important as Merce Cunningham doesn’t necessarily mean audiences won’t leave in the middle of the show. This leaves the not-yet-ready for prime time troupes, the regional efforts, the companies whose vision is conceptual, quiet, or esoteric adrift at the margins.

Encouraging news comes from a fresh look at dance’s potential audiences. Last summer, the Performing Arts Research Coalition, a collaborative project of the American Symphony Orchestra League, Association of Performing Arts Presenters, Dance/USA, OPERA America, and Theatre Communications Group, released a study based on data from ten different metropolitan areas, including Boston. The tidbit from the study that has already been broadly publicized is that in all ten communities more people reported attending a live performing arts event at least once in the past year than reported attending a professional sporting event. The more intriguing discovery was that American audiences like their arts to be thought-provoking.

Granted, the social scientists from the Urban Institute framed some of their questions in a leading manner. Among these were the questions in which respondents were asked to use a five-point scale to agree or disagree with the statements attending live performing arts. The executive summary of the report turned this into an argument that attending live performing arts stimulates critical thinking and increases cultural understanding. That’s a leap that is debatable, even if the outcome would be a desirable one.

Nonetheless, even with a slightly suspect research design, the results are provocative. There is always room for the mainstream. But what would happen if dance presenters acted on the idea that doing challenging work brings in audiences? Merely championing the avant-garde won’t work because that simply maintains a niche audience. Adding one radical work to an accessible program can create confusion or disappointment. Creating an environment where experimentation can flourish requires rethinking dance appreciation from the bottom up. It requires expanded school field trips and in-class curriculum where dance is seen as an integral part of world history, public television broadcasts and dance in other free media, lecture-demonstrations, explanatory pre-concert talks, sophisticated program notes and a return to serious, in-depth arts criticism that recognizes that the arts deliver the news the culture tells about itself — whether that work is presented for one ephemeral night or enjoys a lucrative, year-long run.

It’s a tall order, but as Maguy Marin, a French choreographer who won the 2003 Scripps/American Dance Festival award, pointed out in her acceptance speech, “Dance, like all acts of creation, intensely sets thought in motion, the constant questioning of our joyous presence in the world, in keeping with the fragility of human life, a questioning that fashions us rather than making us forget ourselves.” Audiences exposed to great dance learn that thoughts in motion tend to remain in motion.

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