Saturday, February 11, 2012


Once again, here's someone tackling artists' depths of abstraction and the audience's craving for "meaning" in what they've seen. Or really, a storyline is mostly what "non-dancers" crave, isn't it? Narrative. So here are thoughts from another dance blogger out there: Success and Housewives.
Along those lines, one of the You've Cott Mail missives (for those of you who aren't arts marketers, Thomas Cott is the Alvin Ailey Amer. Dance Theater marketing guru) this week included some articles on elitism and art, which is sort of along the same lines, really, thoughts about how much you should cater to your audience when you chose/create your programming. From Artsjournal Funny, Catching and Not too Challenging. It's a constant challenge in "contemporary dance," or making any type of art, really. Artists sometimes being sort of like twins who have their own language, how much do you need the rest of the world to understand? Or how much of it really does come across to at least some of the audience even if they don't know the exact language? I guess the question is what percentage of your audience do you want to understand, clearly, what's going on in the performance?
A story that comes to mind is a piece I saw years ago where they had a table downstage where they were eating a meal. Or well, they had abstracted it because they weren't actually eating food onstage. Nor did they have fake food. But they did have forks and plates on the table. This struck me as a very strange place to stop the abstraction. Eating, we all do it and it's pretty recognizable. Really just move your hand to your open mouth and I would guess a lot of people watching will get "eat" from it in a charades sort of symbolic way. So how much more of the extra stuff do you need to represent the act of eating? Other concepts, ones that are more abstract already, are certainly harder to communicate. But for the people who like dance, I think there's a general feeling that movement does have the capacity to communicate some abstract things better than words do. And people who don't "get it" just don't communicate that way. The interesting question is whether the capacity to "understand" movement is somehow innate or something learned very early on, or if it's possible to actually teach people to see what they at first are blind to. Any anecdotes of "converts" out there?


  1. One of my favourite quotes from Picasso:

    ‎"Everyone wants to understand painting. Why don’t they try to understand the song of the birds? Why do they love a night, a flower, everything which surrounds man, without attempting to understand them? Whereas where painting is concerned, they want to understand."

    Artists do, usually, make deliberate decisions that we should ponder. For example the piece you reference (qualified that I have not seen this work), maybe it wasn't so much a general abstract of eating. The table and plates and forks put a particular way of eating into perspective. Even just miming eating with hands and gestures to the mouth can evoke a primitive form of eating, rather than a more formal form.

    "Abstract art" usually is abstracted from something. Sometimes the more appropriate term is non-representational, although we usually also mean non-representational when we use the term "abstract". Music is more often non-representational than it is abstract.

    I think any artist, particularly those drawn to abstract art would benefit seeing the play _Red_ at Theatrical Outfit (and not just because I lit the show!). Rothko and his assistant compare non-representational vs representational where abstract expressionism requires the viewer to give the work life. Where as representational does not require the viewer. As a friend of mine put it, representational "lectures" the viewer.

    At what point is needing to clearly communicate something in particular essentially telling the viewer they are not needed?


  2. Thanks for the link to the post on my site.

    I'm a dancer (not anymore, but when I was younger), and I don't necessarily need a storyline, but I do crave to connect with any movement work I see. I struggle with much of modern dance and that is why I loved Lauren's post "Success and Housewives". I related to much of what she was saying as an audience member. I don't think dance has to have a story, but I do prefer it when it has some meaning that I can discern...even if it might not be what the choreographer intended. :)

    Great post. Thanks!

  3. "Seeing a dance concert should be a relaxing and enjoyable experience that is accessible to everyone"

    What is interesting about this view is we don't put this burden on pretty much anything else in life, especially art. I am not sure why anyone feels the need to put this burden on dance. Some people don't get country music, some people don't get jazz, some people don't get classical or even just Stravinsky. Some people don't get poetry or Shakespeare.

    Why should we feel the need as artists to make sure everyone gets modern dance? As artists we should make sure we are creating exactly what we have the drive and audacity to create, to be honest as artists and as humans—to our craft, to ourselves, to each other. That is the only chance we have of being accessible to anyone, but don't think you are or need to be accessible to anyone. Then you are not creating honestly. And quite honestly there is no such thing as accessible to _everyone_.


  4. "but don't think you are or need to be accessible to anyone"

    Sorry, this should read:

    "but don't think you are or need to be accessible to everyone"