notes on dance performance

I imagine that much of this essay could be about live arts in general, not excluding music, theater, and performance art, because I wrote it to discuss the experience of a total scene in which all these arts might live. That being said, I wrote this specifically about dance performance, with my joint perspective of dance audience member and choreographer alike. I feel most privy to the climate of dance performance today, simply because I do, see, experience, and consider dance more than I do/see/experience/consider those other, equally dynamic, enlivened forms of art.


1. Dance performance as experience

If there is any sort of collaboration, multimedia, or nontraditional structure involved in a dance performance, it becomes something to experience, not just something we go to see. These nontraditional structures include, but are not limited to, audience-created instruction for movement, originally composed sound score, lighting design that establishes an immersive environment, choreographic procedures that allow for the dance to change each night, nakedness, glitter, masks. To recapitulate, if there is any complexity at play within audience participation, sound, light, movement scores, nakedness, glitter, or masks, what we are about to have is a dance experience. This prospect, to me, is quite exciting to look forward to on a Thursday/Friday/Saturday night. (Hell, if you’re going to New York Live Arts or Next Wave at BAM, make it a Wednesday night and paint the town red.)

2. A dance performance is no more expensive than the drink special written on a chalkboard at a bar in East Williamsburg

Let’s get our hands on some student rush tickets, pay our dues when a dance performance suggested donation, and sign up to serve some booze or take tickets at the door to see the damn thing for free. To get student rush tickets, one does not in every case have to be a student. Often, a person with their student ID can purchase two tickets each. I for one just graduated school, so I have a student ID that I guard with my life, and that I will continue to use in this ingloriously expensive city of ours as long as I can. If you have no such ID in your wallet, most of us have friends who are active in some degree-seeking capacity or another. Ballerinas go to college, choreographers enroll in PhD programs, and the city is officially teeming with students. Invite them and their IDs to a dance performance, and the next time you go for dessert or a bite to eat, maybe their fro-yo is on you. Reciprocity is fun.

If a performance is “suggested donation,” for the love of the world: rifle through your 1970’s jacket that you uncovered at a thrift store in Bushwick, and produce a five dollar bill as an offering. If the barista at your neighborhood coffee shop messed up someone’s drink that morning and gave it to you for free, or if happy hour was good to you that evening, make it a ten. Even an established choreographer, who has worked in this city since before Trisha danced on the roof and before Trajal declared that Paris is burning, saves their receipt when they purchase a $4 Hanes t-shirt for a costume. It is not a glamorous pursuit to produce dance performance, it is a pursuit of love that choreographers would not pursue at all if they could simply live without it. The trouble is, they simply can’t.

And there are almost always alternative ways to pay. Email venues with specific artists or performances you want to see, or choose a performance just because, and sign up to be a volunteer. I’ve done this many times. Arrive an hour early to the performance, wear black and take tickets, then sit in the furthest corner of the last row to watch the show. It could be worse. Or, serve your friends drinks in the post-performance reception, and stand behind a table covered with beer caps and wine bottle corks while they mingle. Etcetera. Remember back to when you moved to New York. If your reasons to be here have anything to do with dance: did you come for the sense of belonging you feel when you sip chardonnay after seeing the dance, or did you come for the dance?

3. One dance performance won’t live in the same world as the next dance performance, which is wonderful

Research the kind of dance you’re going to see, or forever hold your peace. That’s not true – if a performance feels like it was a waste of time once it’s finished, it’s okay to feel that. But if you are of the age that you grew up with season passes to American Ballet Theater, and you go to dance performances to see Western theatrical dance working its theatrical magic, don’t go to Movement Research at Judson Church on Monday night unless A. you consciously choose to seek out a different kind of performance, both in terms of movement vocabulary and performance structure, or B. you enjoy surprises.

Conversely, if you would not miss an event with AUNTS, and you plan to see every performance housed in Danspace Project, don’t go to New York City Ballet’s Coppélia at a friend’s urging unless you are ready to surrender to the rules of the ballet. Dancers of ballet are, more often than not, long-legged, muscular, ethereal machines; they are technicians, and they’ve worked hard to be. Whatever innovation there is inside the choreography exists alongside a commitment to tradition, and that means something as much as bold new formats and premises for showing dance mean something.

4. There are many decisions that did or did not go into making a dance performance “work”

The other day I was in Janet Panetta’s ballet class at Gibney Dance Center, and we had just finished a tendu exercise at the barre.

“Well,” Janet said to us, “that could have been a bit more reality-based.”

I imagined, then, that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t extend to the extent of my toes on their way to tendú, or lower my heel all the way when I closed it into fifth position. I was working with the idea of doing a tendú, getting carried away by the idea of it, melting with the music and all of that, then not doing the tendú.

What’s the point of this. If a choreographer works to create a dance performance that sustains its own reality, this doesn’t mean that it works out that way. The performers could be participating in their own idea of the dance. The program notes could veer one direction, but the performance itself could look like another agenda entirely (See Number 5.) The music could be loud enough, soft enough, similar enough to the choreography, or distinct enough, that we simply feel like the sound does not “work.” And we are allowed to experience that. Being a little critical of what happens on stage, and how it does or doesn’t work, is like making notes in the margins of a particularly evocative essay that you enjoy reading because it makes you think, not because it reaffirms every life postulate you hold dear.

5. You can’t unread program notes, so read them decidedly if you do.

Don’t be a snob. If the artist decided to include program notes, that does not (necessarily) mean the dance can’t “speak” for itself. It means that the artist thought her audience’s experience of the movement would be benefited by the kind of information that can be articulated through words. Choreographers have responsibilities when involving themselves in the dance by making it, but then, so do the audience members, when involve themselves by choosing whether, or how, to see it.

6. Mingling

No one is required to mingle after you experience a dance performance. A friend of mine actually said that to me once, very assertively, when I told her I was overwhelmed by how many people there were in a show’s reception area. However, because I neither consider the post-performance mingle to be shmoozing nor do I see it just as mindless small-talk, I personally enjoy this part of the night. Approach people. Get to know them. Feel like you’re at the senior prom, with less fear of breaking curfew or being denied a dance.

7. Potential conversations that might arise in an aforementioned, post-performance mingle

Oscar Wilde said this first, but I encountered it in a book called Art & Fear: “When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss Art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss money.”

I found myself in good humor after reading this, for a couple reasons: first, simply, it means that to discuss money, tactics to earn it, deadlines to ask for it, does not mean that artists or audience members are “selling out.” It means the artist and her community are, to some extent, tethered to the world in which she creates, and would like to remain so in order to keep creating.

Talk of finances and behind-the-scenes this-and-that also gives those of us talking together after a show an anchor around which to make our assertions, and to try to relate to assertions offered by others. The lexicon that supports the world of funding, resources, and day jobs lends us a sense of security, especially when the lexicon of dance performance involves words like “perceptual research gesture struggle somatization aestheticized bodily terrains respect new language method ritual proprioceptive being” which are grouped and regrouped together like Bananagrams.

8. Technology

At this point in time, if an audience member’s iPhone 5C is still going off, making the sound of wind chimes, honking, ringing like an old-fashioned telephone, moo’ing, singing a song by Justin Bieber, beeping or buzzing during a dance performance, they have failed at their role as a modern day consumer of technology, and no person in no audience wants to witness that failure. If the audience member is honest with themselves – and why not be honest with ourselves? – they will either stop coming to dance performances and disrupting them, or they will revoke their smartphone privileges until the end of days, and give the phone away to someone who needs it for reasons other than Snapchat.

9. Unironic sentiment

One is allowed to feel, unironically and unselfconsciously, that a performance of dance is beautiful.

10. Dance is

Just because [INSERT person with whom you have differing opinions on the aesthetics, practices and/or goals of art HERE] would not call a performance dance does not mean it isn’t. Just because [INSERT same person HERE] would call a performance dance still does not mean it isn’t. Let dance be!

11. There are likely entire ways of moving that none of us have ever witnessed before

I’m going to go out on a limb here, as a final note on experiencing dance performance this season as the leaves continue to fall, and say that when considering what is happening in a show, let yourself geek out a little bit. Let yourself become curious.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.