Why isn’t dance more accessible to the layman? Modern and Contemporary dance seem to have trouble alienating its viewers and scaring off potential fans.
Let’s start – like we always do, I know, I know, and I’m sorry – with ballet.
Non-dancers generally like to watch ballet. The Nutcracker is the best selling dance show ever, probably, followed by Swan Lake, probably.
These are accessible to the non-dancer for a variety of reasons.
1. It’s pretty to look at
Just like with anything else, we like to look at pretty things. There’s a reason you can buy a poster of Chris Evans in his Captain America outfit but you won’t find one of me in my alma mater sweatpants. People keep vases of tulips on their kitchen table, not vases of crumpled soda cans and beer bottle caps. And if you do have that in your house, you should take out your garbage.
2. They like to watch something they couldn’t do
Look at that extension. People like watching the Olympics, the circus, and James Bond for a reason: they could never accomplish any of those things. There’s a fascination in seeing what others can do with their bodies, whether it’s contortion or cold blooded assassin shit.
Just like people like to read thrillers and watch rom-coms, people like being able to follow along with a story that they probably can guess the ending to. The Nutcracker and Swan Lake are spectacles with a story so even if they don’t get the dancing, they don’t feel stupid because they know that Odette is locked in a closet while Odile makes out with Sigfried (or whatever the program notes say).
4. The potential for disaster/Risk
We like to look at things almost go wrong, or that could go wrong. We like danger. Most people have those intruding thoughts when they’re up high on a building – what if I just jumped? in a totally non-suicidal way. Ballet has a lot of risk and potential for disaster. Doing all those fouettes is dangerous, partnering looks risky, and the dancers are doing big and violent movement near other bodies. It’s the same reason we like to watch cliff divers or watch documentaries about the people who climb Mount Everest (or its less known but more evil cousin K2).
So ballet, at least is pretty accessible to at least look at. Most people are too intimidated to try it, because ballet is pretty inaccessible for the vast majority of the population: your femur literally has to be at a perfect and specific point in your hip socket, or you won’t get hired by the Bolshoi. You can’t help something like that no matter how much you stretch.
But what about modern dance and contemporary dance? Why isn’t Batsheva routinely selling out like ABT’s Nutcracker?
Here’s why. Prepare for another list.
1.It’s Not Always Pretty
Sometimes it’s just plain interesting. We said “no” to stereotypical beauty. Modern dance values interesting or poignant or tense over pretty.
2. People Think It Looks Easy
Oh, they’re running around the stage, Joe Schmoe thinks, I could do that. No, Joe. No, you couldn’t. Even if a dancer is “only” walking or running or performing some gestural phrase, it makes sense within the context of the work. People watch dance for entertainment, but not everyone is entertained by a piece that builds on abstract ideas or feelings. Some people need diamonds and sparkles AT. ALL. TIMES.
3. There’s Not Always a Narrative
BUT THEN WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN? Joe screams. Well, maybe it doesn’t mean anything. Some people just aren’t comfortable with that. It’s the same reason everyone got mad at Christopher Nolan at the end of Inception; they aren’t comfortable operating in ambiguity.
Dance can have whatever meaning you impart upon it. But some people aren’t comfortable with that. Some people need a lesson or a moral. Some people aren’t keen to experience tension or discomfort or pleasure in an abstract way.
4. It’s Abstract
We come back to Joe screaming about what it all means. The abstract is scary for plenty of people. How can something have meaning if I can’t recognize it, they think.
Ultimately, I think this is the most damning culprit of the inaccessibility of modern dance. It’s scary to look at something and not understand it. That’s why people think ghosts exist.
So when a person goes to a dance show and sees something abstract, it blurs their judgment. They don’t really care about how the movement looks unless it’s contortion because they can’t understand what they’re seeing. They won’t understand that staying in that deep second position plie is an athletic feat in and of itself if you weren’t born with good birthing hips.
All right, so this is all putting the blame on poor Joe off the street. But what responsibility do we as dancers and choreographers have to making dance accessible?
Dance will not survive without its benefactors, and those are dwindling. I think that sometimes, we as artists are so determined not to sacrifice our vision or our quest for the truth so much that we end up alienating the public or the community that we need to support us.
While some people will say damn with the critics, do what you want, I would – in all of my moral and artistic superiority *cough* – I would caution against this.
I’m also a novelist. A self-published novelist. So like with dance, I’ve gone through writing workshops and I’ve gotten critique and criticism. I’ve heard the platitude that you should write the novel you want to write and worry about the rest later.
Well, now it’s later, and you should worry about the rest. If you write your novel in your own made up language and then are disappointed that nobody buys or reads or likes it on facebook, what did you really expect? There has to be a line between the self-indulgent artist and the artist who gives back to their community.
Dance is a more visible and active (literally) community than book fans, and part of cultivating the community is giving. Your work ought to give something, not just take time from the viewers to be indulged in your version of the truth.
This isn’t to say that we should only make dance that other people will like. If everything was like So You Think You Can Dance, I’d die on the inside and ceremoniously burn my kneepads. And that isn’t to say that Robert Joffrey should have laid down and given Rebecca Harkness control of his company.
But surely there must be some middle ground between opening up our work and being true to ourselves as artists? What does it mean to be a community member in the dance world – does it only mean to create art that you and your like-minded compatriots will enjoy? How do we challenge our audience and our community without scaring them away?
This is part of the reason I really appreciate and love when choreographers use their dancers to generate movement through scores and improvisation. That way, the collective sort of takes over and it no longer becomes about the one true God-like choreographer.
If we are going to survive, we have to stop getting so wrapped up in our version of the truth that we are unable to consider anyone else’s.