Beyond Talkbacks: What Audience Engagement Looks Like in 2019
What happens during a performance is the product of the painstaking process of realizing an artistic vision. Whether held beforehand, afterward, offsite or online, audience discussions tend not to be so preordained, easily thrown off track without a skilled moderator at the helm.
"I'm someone who dreaded talkbacks and Q&As," admits Bill Bragin, former director of public programming at Lincoln Center. "While I was in New York, a lot of the time it was just audience members trying to show off how smart they were."
These events present a pile of difficult questions: How much do you reveal about a piece before it's shown? How can a conversation designed to hit key points feel casual and spontaneous? How do you cater to the needs of diverse attendees, from novice dancegoers to lifelong fans to scholars and critics? And how do you avoid smothering dance with language, flattening all its complexity?
Before a performance, "I don't discuss what the work is about, ever," says Melanie George, dramaturg and audience educator at the Lumberyard Center for Film and Performing Arts. "Instead, I might say, 'Here are the things this artist values. Here are some of the questions they're asking.' And, 'Hey, audience: We also have a job to do—here's what our role is, what our responsibilities are.' "
Melanie George facilitating a talkback.
Jeff Watts, Courtesy George
Norton Owen takes a similar tack as director of preservation at Jacob's Pillow, where preshow prompts might include "Watch how the dancers relate to each other," or "You might want to pay close attention to the text."
"We aim to empower the viewer to make discoveries on their own," Owen says, "by offering tools that will allow them to get the most out of what they're about to see." Setting too many expectations narrows the viewer's field of vision. "And I make sure to have the artist tell me if anything is off-limits," George adds.
A PillowTalk at Jacob's Pillow
Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow
While there's seldom time after performances to employ the entire Critical Response Process pioneered by dancemaker Liz Lerman, George often borrows prompts from it: " 'What do you remember? What are you feeling?' Questions like those are useful because they focus everyone on the work, as opposed to the people making it."
Choreographer Camille A. Brown offers conversations that function almost like epilogues. "I never said my work can't speak for itself," she says, but certain reactions, especially to her BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play, revealed just how many prejudices Brown has to confront. "People saw the white chalk and thought it was cocaine. How do I make that a teaching moment without shaming the person? Especially with work created by people of color, there can be issues in terms of how it gets translated."
Camille A. Brown at a post-show conversation
Peter Smith, courtesy of University Musical Society
Relocating to the Middle East to help launch The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi as its executive artistic director was a chance for Bragin to cultivate new methods. For one, he and his team tapped into the food-centered hospitality so integral to life on the Arabian Gulf, bringing performers, students and the public together around meals where open-ended prompts keep conversations connected to the work. While hosting Wayne McGregor's Autobiography, based on the sequencing of the choreographer's genome, Bragin reached out to biology faculty and students. Ragamala Dance Company's visit helped the Center to build relationships with South Asian residents in the city. Traditional talkbacks, sometimes comoderated by students, are regularly on the menu too.
The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi dinner with artists from Compagnie Käfig
Courtesy of The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi
Lectures and artist talks have been part of the Pillow since it began in the 1930s, says Owen: "Those early presentations began with Ted Shawn talking to the audience." Recently, the festival has moved nearly everything online, with program notes emailed in advance, postshow talks uploaded to YouTube and the extensive archives accessible at archives.jacobspillow.org. "When we have a company who's been to the Pillow multiple times, we can show videos from prior appearances, talks and anything else that brings context to what our visitors are about to see. We want to offer as many types of engagement as possible, as nonjudgmentally as possible. 'Let the information in however is most comfortable to you.' That's both powerful and empowering."
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.