Who is the dance audience? You might think immediately of the dedicated dancegores, the fans, the camp followers, the cognoscenti. But what about that much larger group of people who are uncommitted, people who wouldn’t necessarily choose to see dance, but who wouldn’t object to it either? They are less commonly written about, or for. So I arranged a kind of blind date experiment. I paired three such uncommitted people with three different dance events, and then asked: how was it for you? Here are their stories.
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‘It’s my favourite track from body combat class’
Poonam Joshi works for an international human rights organisation, and is a mother of two. Birmingham Royal Ballet performed George Balanchine’s Serenade (1934) and David Bintley’s Carmina Burana (1995) at the London Coliseum.
From the get-go, it’s clear that Poonam is agog to hear Carmina Burana’s famous ‘O Fortuna’ sung live. ‘My absolute favourite track from body combat class,’ she explains happily, tightening her belt. But first, Serenade. ‘They all look very white, and have that pubescent girl physique. I guess Japanese or Chinese women also fit the image. But I was wondering,’ she asks genuinely, ‘are there any black ballet dancers?’ Old, ongoing question, I say, but let’s stick with Serenade for now. ‘Okay. So there is this woman who sort of collapses after every interaction with the man, and then some man or other has to pick her up. She just keeps on collapsing! I think I preferred the sections without the men.’ In two minutes Poonam has covered the perennial issues of race and gender in ballet. Shall we move on?
In two minutes Poonam has covered the perennial issues of race and gender in ballet. Shall we move on?
If Poonam had a problem with the white virgins of Serenade, I dreaded what she would make of the scarlet whores of Carmina Burana. ‘I’ve seen a lot worse!’ she laughs. ‘Honestly, they weren’t that whoreish. Maybe compared with the first piece, but these were more like real women to me, with real emotions.’ Realness of character and emotion are key to why she likes Carmina Burana so much more than Serenade. ‘I suppose the dancers seemed closer to my world,’ says Poonam. ‘There was more diversity – and some black dancers! There was more character and more discordant emotion – like avarice and greed. I enjoyed that more than watching idealised and uniform women who I have no connection with.’
‘I guess,’ she continues, ‘that the women do come out fairly negatively: flirty, or barefoot and pregnant, or objects of desire or victims of gluttony. In that way maybe it’s not so different from the first piece, because they have no indiviudality. But by far the most charismatic and sensuous character is actually a woman [Celine Gittens, former Gené gold medallist]. At the end when she’s backed by the men in high heels it’s like: ok, maybe that’s supposed to be a vision of hell, but you’d definitely rather hang out with her than anyone else!’
There’s one more reason Poonam liked Carmina Burana so much. ‘There were parts that reminded me of Sweet Charity, and Cabaret and West Side Story. It brought ballet closer to the kind of dance that I really enjoy in musicals. And so it made me realise how much those films borrow from ballet.’
‘It feels phoney. And earnest.’
Roger Taylor, a special educational needs teacher, has a background as a singer and songwriter; he also teaches salsa. Vincent Dance Theatre celebrated its 21st anniversary with an event featuring performances, a film installation and an ‘archive and engagement’ room.
Roger feels instantly at ease in the elegant but welcoming marbled rooms of Shoreditch Town Hall. ‘Will there be chairs in the performance,’ he asks mischievously, ‘like in French and Saunders?’ He’s referring to the now legendary skit on modern dance in which comedy duo Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders hurtle meaningfully around an onstage chair. I shrug, and we enter an auditorium with a stage set with… more than 100 chairs. Roger is delighted.
Underworld is a durational piece and we stay as long as we can (70 minutes) before leaving, slightly sheepishly. ‘It’s amazing,’ Roger says, ‘that it ticked all the boxes of what I thought I was going to see. The chairs. The walking around, the stopping and looking. The pile up.’ He found the performance big on atmosphere, but overstretched. ‘Loved the soundtrack, though. Bells and choirs. A bit like The Omen.’
some of the audience responses are worthy of French and Saunders
We drop in on Look At Me Now, Mummy, in which a woman frantically multitasks at a kitchen table: mixing ingredients, pinning a kitchen towel to her hair, cradling a baby made of scrunched newspaper before flinging it in the microwave. ‘Is this “dance”?’ whispers Roger. ‘Per… for… mance,’ I mouth back, making airquotes with my fingers. He nods sagely. He is rather impressed with Vincent’s unsettling film installation Glasshouse, but the ‘archive and engagement room’, a kind of playschool table set out with drawing and writing activities relating to the company’s work, is the one part of the evening that actually annoys Roger: ‘It feels phoney. And earnest.’ He’s clearly not the only one who thinks so: some of the audience responses are worthy of French and Saunders. Replies to a question about what boys and men find easier to do than girls and women include ‘talking about masturbation’ and ‘peeing up a wall’. A blackboard wishlist of what people would like to see more of in the shows has so far chalked up ‘NAKEDNESS’ and ‘RAY CHARLES’. Roger (okay, egged on by me) goes over and adds: ‘CHAIRS’.
‘Having my eyes opened by pure dance was briliant’
Matt Trueman is Chief London Critic for Variety, theatre critic for WhatsOnStage, and has written for many publications including the Guardian and Daily Telegraph. English National Ballet’s Modern Masters programme at Sadler’s Wells comprised Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort, John Neumeier’s Spring and Fall and William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated.
Theatre critic Matt Trueman notices the audience first: their poise and presentation make him think ‘how shambling theatre people can sometimes be’. It’s the start of an evening of very mixed feelings. Kylián’s Petite Mort makes him realise ‘how little beauty there is in theatre, beauty for its own sake. But so… what? It didn’t feel very profound. I guess I go to theatre for it to mean something, and this was more like a treat. A bit chocolate-boxy.’ He’s not keen on curtain-call etiquette either – ‘all that bowing is a bit overdone and alienating’ – and yet the experience still intrigues his theatre-saturated brain.
By the second interval, his brain is fed up. ‘Very twee, very flimsy’ is his verdict on Spring and Fall. ‘That tiptoe run they do, chest forward, arms back – it’s ludicrous! The first piece felt etched, but this was so… watercolour. There I could see bodies working, here I see dresses floating. The audience seemed to like it,’ he admits, ‘but I don’t know why it exists.’
Impressively, Matt seems to have acquired a whole new skill-set
So Matt hates the Neumeier. And he loves the Forsythe. ‘It made me really feel something. I was clenching my jaw. It was so machine-like but I also got a real sense of the dancers’ personalities.’ Impressively, he also seems to have acquired a whole new skill-set. ‘I suddenly clocked that it was about composition,’ he enthuses. ‘The piece draws your gaze around really cleverly, so you watch it very dynamically. It taught me how to watch it. I’m more familiar with dance-theatre, so having my eyes opened by pure dance – that was brilliant!’ It’s good to end on a high, and Matt leaves with the conviction that the occasional dance performance might well freshen up his theatre-going habit.
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Who needs dance?
In dance insiders’ terms, I’m not sure any of my dates would be counted a resounding success. There was no love at first sight. Interest, yes, even intimacy. Long-term commitment? I don’t think so. They engaged with dance, but I wouldn’t say they fell or it. But you know, I feel rather proud of my dance dates. They stayed true to themselves, trusted their memories and motivations, whether those included a comedy sketch or a combat class.
For dance-going is only partly about dance: it is also about the people going, the going out itself. One of the things I, for instance, enjoyed most about these evenings was my free-form chats with my companions; and I realised that I hadn’t simply set up people on dates with dance, but on dates with me. Dance is after all a social as well as an artistic occasion, which audiences – in-betweeners especially, I think – attend to connect not just with dance but with each other. All of which might be condensed into a single, salutary lesson for any audience development programme: audiences need dance less than dance needs them.
Here are some more pics of my “dance date” with Roger Taylor, with Vincent Dance Theatre at Shoreditch Town Hall, London. All pics by ace photographer Ed Thompson, commissioned by the original publisher of this article, Dance Gazette magazine. With thanks to both photographer and publisher. All photos © Ed Thompson.