Artist and Audience: Who needs who?- Thoughts from Bassano del Grappa

At a round table discussion, moderated by the incredibly gracious and articulate Peggy Olislaegers, a panel of dance goers came together to discuss the impact that being a consistent dance audience has had on their life over the past several months. These individuals, Bassano del Grappa-based business owners and public figures and members of the Italian outpost of Pivot Dance Platform’s “Audience Club”, gathered in front of a packed room of choreographers and attendees of the B Motion Festival to ask and be asked questions about watching dance.

Pivot Dance Platform is an initiative that brings together artists and creative producers from the Netherlands, England and Italy over the course of a three-year production oriented course. A major part of the Pivot Dance belief system is that practical meetings with real audience members is critical for emerging artists. All six of the creative teams presenting work in B Motion.

This meeting was curious and illuminating for me because the contemporary dance audience, as a constantly changing and self-selecting group, is one of the great anomalies of the field. We know so little about these people… why they come to see us, what they think of what we’re doing and if they will come back.

In this panel, the notion of artists changing, educating, healing, tending to, informing and training their audience came up over and again. The audience members themselves, one by one, explained that once they had “trained themselves” to watch dance, they could better enjoy and evaluate the performances they witnessed. They repeatedly hinted at self-blame, that when a show didn’t reach them, they immediately figured that it was their own fault, that they were not smart or sophisticated enough to catch the messages of the performance.

Only one artist spoke up during the session and his message was in line with that of the audience, that if the work didn’t reach them, it was perhaps not geared towards them and they should accept that and move on.

I believe that by reinforcing these ideas, we further alienate our form. If I am told that to enjoy something, I need to train myself first, I will most likely opt out. Take wine, for example. It is true that knowledge of wine enhances the drinking experience. Even if I know absolutely nothing about a certain vintage or winery, region or oaking process, a good glass of wine will give me pleasure. If the case was, however, that without training in wine-drinking, my body would interpret the flavors as vinegar, I think I’d stick to soda.

Peggy spoke of a threshold and asked several times whose responsibility is it to cross that threshold, the artist or the audience.

I believe that the moment the audience crosses the physical threshold of the performance space, their work is complete. Yes, one hopes they will be present. One hopes they will put aside preconceived notions. One hopes they will stay awake, often a challenge even for seasoned viewers. But beyond that, the rest is on the artist.

The artist is the host. As one particularly spicy Clubber said, “it’s like you invited me to a party and you don’t serve me any refreshments!”

When I host someone, I want them to feel welcome, so I offer them things, to sit, a drink, a snack.

If we expect people to come over when we invite them, it is our job to be good hosts and being good hosts means catering to our guests. Or at least being aware of them.

At the end of the day, we need that audience more than they need us. Without us, they will continue to run their businesses and serve their civic duties.

Without an audience, our performance art becomes art. Art done alone in a studio or home. And that is not our medium. Our form requires viewers and artists spend a great deal of time, effort and money attempting to ensure that those people will exist. That they will show up. They make our art come alive.

Without them, we cannot go on.

So, instead of expecting the audience to come to our home and do all the work, let’s invite them in, pour them some wine, usher them over to our most comfortable armchair and ask how their day was.


Ori J. Lenkinski