CriticalDance Forum

How can we balance the needs of audiences and artists wi
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Author:  Emma Pegler [ Sat Jan 04, 2003 1:51 pm ]
Post subject:  How can we balance the needs of audiences and artists wi

How can we balance the needs of audiences and artists without compromise?

I have no answers. As a director of JazzXchange, an independent dance company who works closely with the Artistic Director, I can only say that the question is constantly addressed and I think we are pretty successful in coming up with the right balance. This is largely because our dance is so music-led: the company always dances to live jazz music. The expression “jazz music” is used in its broadest sense in this context: pure jazz, avant-garde, experimental and modern jazz and Moroccan, Latin and Malian-inspired jazz through to “is this really jazz?” jazz. And jazz, in whatever form, is something that the majority of our audiences will be able to identify with. We have always been “sold-out” but then we have often performed in smaller spaces such as the Clore Studio at the Royal Opera House - which is considerably smaller than the main stage – and The Place. The right balance has clearly been struck when you have a fulfilled Artistic Director and dancers and – forgive my slang – a bum on every seat. But would we be able to say the say the same thing if the Company were to perform at the Royal Albert Hall?

So, breaking down the question into its constituent parts: what do artists want and what do audiences want? I take artists to be artistic directors of dance companies, choreographers and the dancers themselves, and audiences to be those people who buy tickets to watch dance in its many diverse forms more than once a year, bearing in mind that someone who goes to the ballet just once a year would, for the purposes of marketing and publicity departments, be considered a ‘dance-goer.’ The point at which the two naturally converge is the point at which there is no compromise and each ‘team’ is happy. I would say that point is that both teams want a good night out and want cultural and artistic enrichment. However even those concepts mean something different to each team. Dancers will want to dance their hearts out and reach full emotional expression in whatever way is appropriate to the particular piece and the particular piece, if choreographed by someone else should have had significant input from the dancers; choreographers will want to have choreographed will full artistic licence and resources; audiences will want to see something perfectly executed that conforms to their own particular brand of cultural enrichment and which maybe stretches their horizons a little further, but not too far. The teams will be agreed on the fact that a full house is a good thing: it constitutes a verification of the quality of the performance and, whilst dancers do not want to perform to an empty house, audiences like the buzz and energy of the happy punters around them. Of course these are generalisations and there will be some members of the audience who like a skeletal presence in the auditorium since it indicates that they have discovered something new and innovative that is not appreciated nor understood by the mass market. I can’t imagine, however, that too many dancers consider a small audience to be an independent verification of their cutting-edge performance.

JazzXchange has established an audience. Whenever the company performs the auditorium is always full. We know who our audience is: devotees of jazz dance (there is little competition as there are no other significant contenders in the market of jazz-dance companies and so their available pennies will always go into our coffers); followers of Artistic Director, Sheron Wray; and lovers of jazz music because we normally use live music. For each individual performance will be a representation from the following: contemporary dance aficionados since Sheron recruits dancers largely from that world having trained and danced with the Rambert Dance Company; followers of the particular performance space since people will gravitate towards a theatre that is either geographically convenient and/or that has consistently provided them with what they consider to be high-quality performances: and a particular target audience. The latter would encompass salsa or other Latin dance lovers if the piece used Latin music, or lovers of African dance or music if the piece originated from Africa or the African diaspora.

Knowing that your core audience will fill a medium-sized theatre for four consecutive nights of performing the same programme, how will you structure your marketing and publicity to fill a one-off performance in the Royal Albert Hall?

Derek Deane’s production of “Swan Lake” designed for ‘in the round’ demonstrates one of the pitfalls of scaling up and attracting bigger audiences: you have to scale up on the number of swans and the result was the incredible noise of swans thumping across the stage as their toe-shoes hit the deck. Too many swans for the orchestra to drown.

JazzXchange has not been faced with the question of performing in such a large space so I will have to dream up the questions that might face us. The type of question that the Artistic Director would ask herself is – we have a much bigger audience than usual so should we produce a tried and tested work or be experimental? Of course the problem then is, that if a company is heavily reliant on public funding, it is unlikely that it will receive funding to stage an existing work – funding bodies prefer commissions.

Assuming a new work is to be created, would Sheron choose a theme without thinking of her audience and likely reception? No. I don’t think that a company like JazzXchange ever meets the dilemma – we really want to do X but think the audience would prefer Y. JazzXchange has evolved and isn’t known for one signature piece. I can imagine the dilemma for a company like English National Ballet though: wouldn’t it be good to commission more new short works to complement the full story ballets. Yes, but the cost outweighs the practicalities – mixed bills do not sell as well as full evening works. Which is why the triple bill lasts for three days out of a month’s run at the Coliseum. I can also imagine the dilemma for Ross Stretton. He wanted to introduce Nacho Duato in to the repertoire but the initial attempts were met by disdain from certain sectors of the audience and critics. Do you persevere, convinced that tastes will evolve with your vision, or do you give up and stage something you know will be instantly well received. Without doubt the Royal Opera House could be filled most of the year with “Romeo and Juliet.” Even the ‘C team’ would spark more interest than could be mustered for Nacho Duato. The fact that Stretton left under a cloud makes it clear that Artistic Directors will not want to persevere if the first attempt fails. Stretton, (and it may be that his alleged poor management style was the factor that tipped the balance against him in the end), was hardly given a chance to bring the audience with him. Whatever the reasons for his demise, and their proportional weighting against the other factors, the ‘one strike and you’re out’ approach to poor reception of a choice of choreographer will stick in the minds of most new incumbents in the role of Artistic Director of any company.

Compromise is a subtle word. With the best compromises, one doesn’t even know that they have happened. And, if something works for both teams, was there a compromise at all? Putting Swan Lake above a new experimental work is an obvious compromise. How a small company like JazzXchange determines its programming is much more subtle. I suppose it would be better to field a well-known jazz band on a tour rather than a little known one? Should one avoid social issues in a piece of choreography in case they be divisive in the audience – older audiences, generally, are embarrassed by nudity and the portrayal of sex on stage as just one example.

As I said at the outset, I have no answers and on occasions, I even find it hard to formulate the right questions. So please pick up the themes and run with them. I would be interested in the views of those who perform, those who organise and direct performances and those who digest them.

<small>[ 05 January 2003, 09:59 AM: Message edited by: Emma Pegler ]</small>

Author:  ma [ Sat Jan 04, 2003 10:01 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How can we balance the needs of audiences and artists wi

As a marketing person by vocation and dance person by avocation, this was a really intriguing question. I don't think there's enough information to answer it well though -- I would want to know as much as I could about the 'usual' audience, and about the specific program scheduled (if possible).

In general, I'd take an approach similar to the one Sony Classics used with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and tailor my marketing efforts to 'adjacent communities' who might be attracted to some aspect of the program -- the music, dance style, etc. Since I wouldn't have the luxury of advance screenings for 'opinion makers' (what Sony did), I'd try, to whatever extent I could, to discount seats for some of these 'new' viewers. And I'd take advantage of any possible promotional tie-ins I could -- if there's popular music on the program I'd see if I couldn't get the artist's record label to help sponsor the evening, meaning I could provide complimentary tickets to some people who might be interested in future events. And so on, and so on. . . (in the U.S. those kinds of contributions are tax deductible for the donor). If the dance style is particularly athletic and modern I'd look to the hip hop and gymnastics communities. Etc.,

In essence, my agenda is not just to fill the Hall, but seduce these new audience members into caring more about (and hopefully viewing more)dance. To that end, I'd make sure to try and capture an email and/or postal address for every single solitary soul who attends.

This was a long, and not particularly cogent answer to a valuable question, but I hope it helps.

Author:  Emma Pegler [ Sun Jan 05, 2003 8:31 am ]
Post subject:  Re: How can we balance the needs of audiences and artists wi

Interesting points you raise ma, thank you. I've added some more text since last you wrote to illustrate some issues that other companies have met. Your comments on those would be appreciated.

Author:  ma [ Sun Jan 05, 2003 9:54 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How can we balance the needs of audiences and artists wi

Here are some quick answers, or rather responses, to the additional points you've raised. Can I reserve the right to go back and add more if and when I've thought about it a bit and am no longer trying to wrestle my son into bed?

First off, I do think it's crucially important for companies like the Royal Ballet to present varied bills. The tried and true is crucial, but so is the new. You may not sell out the house, but there is a constituency, and these kinds of programs may even be a way in for audiences who have no affinity for traditional, full length ballet.

Speaking specifically to Jazzxchange, you raise a couple of questions. First off, the second you said jazz I immediately said to myself Matthew Bourne and broadway musicals. Those audiences are the kinds of people I would look to to fill my house. I would be somewhat less inclined to reach out to jazz aficionados, simply because these people are already very satisfied by the music itself -- the movement is probably not something that would add a lot to the experience (although I certainly would not ignore this audience, I just would not expect great things from it.)

In that regard the issue of a well known vs. more obscure jazz band may be a less critical issue than you may think. If you have Horace Silver, his fans are not expecting to see dance, they're expecting to see Horace Silver. They could probably care less about the choreographic interpretation. [As always there are exceptions, if you have a musician whose music is linked to dance somehow -- tango, salsa, etc., then it might very well make a difference]

Finally, the issue of social statement or not: if you're doing a one night, roll the dice kind of deal, it's probably better to play it safe. Just don't be SO conservative that you stifle your own energy. But if social commentary is an integral part of who you are and what you stand for, then don't scale it back too much, you do, after all, have to be true to yourselves.

Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Mon Jan 06, 2003 6:59 am ]
Post subject:  Re: How can we balance the needs of audiences and artists wi

Many thanks Emma for this terrific start to this key discussion point and also to ma for bringing your professional perspective to bear on this.

Just a quick plug for JazzXchange and Sheron Wrey, a gifted dancer who graced Rambert for several years before branching out with her own company. When Sheron guested with Rambert a couple of years ago, she stole the show in a work based on Bob Dylan songs. If JazzXchange are dancing in your area, do go and see them.

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For a no-holds barred "I create what I want and do not aim to please the audience" approach. Read the interview with a gifted young Estonian dancer and choreographer Mart Kangro.

<small>[ 06 January 2003, 08:00 AM: Message edited by: Stuart Sweeney ]</small>

Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Tue Jan 07, 2003 9:33 am ]
Post subject:  Re: How can we balance the needs of audiences and artists wi

Most real-life situations are complex with a range of objectives and constraints. The skill is finding solutions with in such a framework and how to relax the constraints, if solutions cannot be found. Mart Kangro above has the luxury of being able to survive the experience of 20 people coming to see him and perhaps leaving unhappy at what they have seen. For a major company with tight financing this luxury is not available.

Finance and the grant systems play a key role in this network of constraints. For many ballet companies, the annual round of “The Nutcracker” is a vital part of the financial balancing act. I see from ksneds review that NYCB are up to 40 performances this year, while English National Ballet have over 60 around the country with the associated risks of artistic staleness and repetitve strain injuries. But this is a sure fire way to please audiences and fill the coffers. ENB receive around £5million pa grant from the Arts Council each year whereas the Royal Ballet (with around 50% more dancers) receives around £10m (assuming just less than half of the total ROH grant goes to ballet), almost double the ENB figure. As a result the RB was able to schedule only 16 “Nutcrackers” although wider audiences would have lapped up more of Sir Peter Wright’s sparkling revised version.

However, in order to achieve artistic objectives it is interesting that ENB had an exemplary triple bill and new and recent commissions for their forthcoming Spring “Tour de Force”. Thus they have balanced the objectives of the accountants and the artistic staff in an imaginative way this year.

Some fine choreographers such as Matthew Bourne seem always work with an audience in mind. He is on record as aiming to have tears in people’s eyes as they leave the theatre and succeeds in this more often than not. Whereas William Forsythe is nearer to the Mart Kangro approach and succeeded in taking the Frankfurt authoities along with him for close to 20 years.

One marketing approach that has paid off is the Dance Umbrella “proms” seasons which filled the 1,500 Sadler’s Wells theatre with modern dance work. The Royal Opera House used to run these until the sponsor withdrew when the elitism stories were at their peak. This was a brilliant piece of marketing an produced the most electrifying atmosphere at the ROH that I can remember.

Sorry this is all a bit scatter gun, but I blame haste in an Internet cafe!

<small>[ 07 January 2003, 10:38 AM: Message edited by: Stuart Sweeney ]</small>

Author:  ma [ Tue Jan 07, 2003 11:22 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How can we balance the needs of audiences and artists wi

I've wrestled with where to put this post, it's a bit off topic everywhere, but closest I think, here. I think that to some extent, in our discussion about developing audiences and filling seats, we are missing the most crucial audience development task and mission of all: that of engaging the young, so that they grow up interested and engaged viewers.

A personal example: I grew up in a household that valued the arts. I grew up going to the ballet, the theatre, symphony, museums and, dare I say it, even opera. I learned alot (not the least of which is that I will never like Wagner). But I also learned that I love art in its myriad forms. A large majority of my peers, deprived of this richness in their youth, do not share my enthusiasm. They go, occasionally, to the most accessible art experiences -- museum shows, plays, musicals -- but have no sense of the pleasure derived from many of the arts.

Audience development starts with the very young. Unfortunately, we live in a cultural climate (at least here in the States) that makes finding these kinds of experiences for our children extremely difficult. But I would argue that the very best way to develop and secure audiences is to develop an appreciation for the arts from childhood.

(Wendy Wasserstein's piece on her love for ballet makes this point far more eloquently than I.)

<small>[ 08 January 2003, 12:44 AM: Message edited by: ma ]</small>

Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Wed Jan 08, 2003 3:28 am ]
Post subject:  Re: How can we balance the needs of audiences and artists wi

Actually ma, I think this is a very good place to discuss the developemnt of young audiences.

Thoughts anyone?

<small>[ 08 January 2003, 04:28 AM: Message edited by: Stuart Sweeney ]</small>

Author:  ma [ Wed Jan 08, 2003 9:27 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How can we balance the needs of audiences and artists wi

Can I continue my little monologue for a second. . . I did not want to imply that it is incumbent on ballet companies, already hard pressed, to assume the responsibility for audience development among the young. I think that many companies already do outreach. Rather, we must somehow encourage a cultural climate that encourages this kind of exploration and participation. That is sort of codespeak perhaps for increased government attention to and support for the arts (at least here in the states). Even jawboning (last I remember was when Joan Mondale made art a priority) would help. It's lovely to have the president throw out the first ball; could we find a cultural equivalent?

Author:  librarian [ Fri Jan 10, 2003 5:55 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How can we balance the needs of audiences and artists wi

Hear, hear! Although I don't expect a ticker-tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes for Suzanne Farrell as for the New York Yankees (though I for one would cheer loudly) I would very much appreciate an atmosphere in which growing up loving the arts were equally as encouraged as attendance at tailgate parties. How can an early love for the arts be encouraged? Is it simply a question of better ticket prices? Is that possible without some government support?

Author:  Toba Singer [ Sat Jan 11, 2003 12:01 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How can we balance the needs of audiences and artists wi

No. It's not.

Author:  Matthew [ Sat Jan 11, 2003 1:30 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How can we balance the needs of audiences and artists wi

I think that for children to love the arts it is necessary for the parents either to love the arts or at least be open to the arts, and I feel that at least in the States this is a tough sell, at least relative to sports, which dominate an inordinate amount of the average americans pleasure time. Although I live in Seattle, and i have my share of urban friends that enjoy the ballet, I work in a smaller town just outside of Seattle - more of a blue collar town - and when I bring up the ballet to my coworkers or patients that look at me like I am from Mars.
Perhaps ballet, and the arts in general, are not suitable for mass appeal ( though I doubt that ), but perhaps we can look at the 'popular 'sports and see what they have that we don't. For example, right or wrong, one thing that Americans seems to love is competition - ie there must nearly always be a winner and a loser. Although at an individual level dance is highly competitive, it is rarely displayed openly. Maybe this is one area to consider. Another would be how ingrained proffessional sports are into the childrens daily life. I am not a big advocate of this by any means, but there may be some take home messages that we can take from professional sports and there marketing machine.

Author:  librarian [ Sat Jan 11, 2003 5:37 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How can we balance the needs of audiences and artists wi

I'll take the question further, then. What reason(s) is/are there to object to government support of the arts if that is the only way to get some things done?

Author:  ma [ Sat Jan 11, 2003 10:03 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How can we balance the needs of audiences and artists wi

I have absolutely no objection to government support for the arts, in fact I encourage it. And I would hope that support includes a program that connects performing arts to schools. It's one way of circumventing the 'don't get it at home' phenomenon. First off, not everyone is going to love dance, or love symphonic music, etc. But the first step in allowing children to decide whether or not they like it is to give them exposure, and to help them learn how to view and appreciate it. Make sure they know it doesn't have to be 'highbrow' -- it's OK if their mind wanders during a concert, help them look for similarities in movements between dance and music videos (I'm thinking off the top of my head, but the point is that we have to provide both access and creative ways to understand and appreciate.

Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Sun Jan 12, 2003 3:50 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How can we balance the needs of audiences and artists wi

Matthew I get some funny looks when I say that I write about dance and ballet. At a party last night in Tallinn, I asked the young woman next to me whether she was interested in ballet, she replied, "Of course!" Small wonder I like cultured Estonia!

In the UK, the Government supports education work in the Arts. It is a condition of much Arts Council funding that the recipient companies have schools and educational programmes and Rambert are exemplary in this respect. It can sometimes mean that you have young people giggling at the men in tights and eating crisps noisily, but I console myself that this is the future of the art form. And when there are school groups the applause levels raise the roof, which must be great for the dancers.

Here is the link to the Education section of Rambert's website.

<small>[ 13 January 2003, 04:04 AM: Message edited by: Stuart Sweeney ]</small>

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