Peter Smith, courtesy of University Musical Society

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 sits onstage with two other people, holding a microphone and talking.

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.

Two women sit on an outdoor porch, surrounded by trees. They are surrounded by people sitting around them.

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 sits between two cast members. They are all laughing.

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.

A group of around 30 people huddle together to pose for a picture. A dining room table with a finished meal is visible.

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 "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."

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Clockwise from top left: Photo by Loreto Jamlig, Courtesy Ladies of Hip-Hop; Wikimedia Commons; Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet; Natasha Razina, Courtesy State Academic Mariinsky Theatre; Photo by Will Mayer for Better Half Productions, Courtesy ABT

The 10 Biggest Dance Stories of 2019

What were the dance moments that defined 2019? The stories that kept us talking, week after week? According to our top-clicked articles of the year, they ranged from explorations of dance medicine and dance history, takedowns of Lara Spencer and companies who still charge dancers to audition, and, of course, our list of expert tips on how to succeed in dance today.

We compiled our 10 biggest hits of the year, and broke down why we think they struck a chord:

Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Nichols

I Am a Black Dancer Who Was Dressed Up in Blackface to Perform in La Bayadère

On Instagram this week, Misty Copeland reposted a picture of two Russian ballerinas covered head to toe in black, exposing the Bolshoi's practice of using blackface in the classical ballet La Bayadère. The post has already received over 60,000 likes and 2,000 comments, starting a long overdue conversation.

Comments have been pouring in from every angle imaginable: from history lessons on black face, to people outside of the ballet world expressing disbelief that this happens in 2019, to castigations of Copeland for exposing these young girls to the line of fire for what is ultimately the Bolshoi's costuming choice, to the accusations that the girls—no matter their cultural competence—should have known better.

I am a black dancer, and in 2003, when I was 11 years old, I was dressed up in blackface to perform in the Mariinsky Ballet's production of La Bayadère.


Here's the First Trailer for the "In the Heights" Movie

Lights up on Washington Heights—because the trailer for the movie adaptation of the hit Broadway musical In the Heights has arrived. It's our first look into Lin-Manuel Miranda's latest venture into film—because LMM isn't stopping at three Tony awards, a Grammy award, and an Emmy.

Enter Our Video Contest