If a Tree Falls in the Woods | By Julie Potter

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Lemi Ponifasio and MAU

“Are we just passing the same 15 dollars around?!” a visiting dance colleague from Philadelphia questions. She speaks to her frustration regarding the relative insularity of dance audiences she observes in her city of residence. She mentions dancers and choreographers attending each others performances, but voices concern over the comparatively small number of audience from outside the already initiated dance community. She wants to make a bigger impact. For her that goes hand in hand with reach.

Reach and impact, art and commerce, popularity, importance and history. Bringing dance into the world requires the negotiation of all of these components. I think impact can be aligned with reach but is not bound to numbers. Choreographers so often equate performing in larger venues with more success. So many artists want to tour so more people can see the work, the thinking being if more people see the work, it will have a greater impact.

If more people see the work, it will have the potential to impact more people, but that doesn’t mean the work will automatically create a greater impact. If a lot of people see a forgettable work, the dance will not have a greater impact than something at a smaller venue, which leaves people buzzing. Who is the work for? It’s about the relationship of the art to the people in the room. Reach versus impact. We shouldn’t ghettoize the idea of small audience art.

Mary Armentrout. Photo by Ian Winters.

Mary Armentrout. Photo by Ian Winters.

In terms of scale, take, for example, Christy Funsch’s Funsch Solos: One on One  in March 2012 at Z Space, which offered audiences a rare opportunity to view solos up close in private viewing booths. This retrospective placed value on the solitude of watching and spaciousness related to that experience. Mary Armentrout’s The Woman Invisible to Herself  at the Sunshine Biscuit Factory included scenes for as few as five to ten people at a time. The intimacy of watching a performer closely talk to herself in a bathroom mirror elicited a contemplative and charged response from those with whom I attended. Both of these performances reached a limited number of people but offered meaningful art experiences for those in the room.

Comparing responses to the limited audience events with those of last week’s close to sold out run of Prophets of Funk by David Dorfman Dance at YBCA, I assert that reach does not equal impact. Comments from the group with whom I attended Prophets of Funk indicated that people were unimpressed, and some dismissive. A few enjoyed the work lightheartedly because of the memories it conjured of a time and place, but did not report being particularly affected. Once person commented that the dance to familiar funk music seemed “populist” and “lowbrow,” which really warrants a further investigation about what those words mean. As someone who loves the Approval Matrix from New York Magazine which explores the brilliance in the “lowbrow” and the despicable in the “highbrow,” I question use of the complicated and problematic words as they really reflect an individual’s attitudes, beliefs and degree of openness. What does it mean, for example, when we see a dance at a bar? That becomes the context, which may just be more appropriate than a proscenium stage for a particular work, like Kim Epifano’s Solo Lo Que Fue. While longer runs and touring do help a dance to mature, a large audience still does not fully dictate the possibility of impact.

In a conversation with visual art staff at the San Francisco contemporary art center, one administrator maintained that strong artistic integrity of an exhibition and importance to the field does not necessarily result in good admission numbers. Sometimes you do a visionary show ahead of its time and it is not well attended but later recognized as a great contribution. While this later recognition works to a degree for the visual arts as exhibits can be shared and circulated after the fact through catalogues, I am reminded of how the shelf life of a museum exhibition far exceeds that of a dance performance, an ephemeral form.

Writer Deborah Jowitt recently wrote about a dance’s impact as “Everything we saw we no longer see. Except in the mind’s eye, where it’ll glimmer for some time.” Measuring impact by memory is an impossible slippery slope. On the brain, doctor John Ratey writes in his book A Users Guide to the Brain:

“The formation and recall of each memory are influenced by mood, surroundings, and the gestalt at the time the memory is formed or retrieved. That’s why the event can be remembered differently by different people. One person isn’t necessarily “right” and the other “wrong.” Memory also changes over time. New experiences change our attitudes and thus how and what we remember. Memories – two minutes, two years and two decades ago – come and go every waking hour. Each one arises from a vast network of interconnected pieces. The pieces are units of language, emotions, beliefs and actions, and here, right away, comes the first surprising conclusion: because our daily experiences constantly alter these connections, a memory is a tiny bit different every time we remember it.”

Even with science about brain plasticity, and shifting memory, I strongly correlate the stickiness of a work and how long it lingers in my mind with how important I consider the dance. Sticky performances matter. Lemi Ponifasio/Mao’s Tempest Without a Body, Kyle Abraham’s The Radio Show, and the physically theatrical play, La Raison Blindada all strongly remain in my memory months and years later, having perplexed, provoked and moved me. These are experiences that keep me coming back to performance hopeful and curious. What are your sticky performances?

So are we just passing the same 15 dollars around? Maybe some people in the dance community are. But fixation on getting to the incrementally larger venue to continually be reaching more people is missing the point about why the art has been brought into this world.

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One thought on “If a Tree Falls in the Woods | By Julie Potter

  1. I hear the point, and it’s a fair one, that reach doesn’t necessarily equate to impact. The thing that makes me nervous about this is that I think dance and theater frequently fall into the trap of using “experimental / edgy / new / risky” to excuse bad work and small audiences.

    You’re kind of flipping it here with your Funk example. You identify a successful selling show, which I’d say, is the outlier in both dance and theater, but it’s also a show that doesn’t pack a big punch. The weird thing is, for me anyway, I’d say that really insanely successful shows typically are artistically vital and excellent and are successful for that reason – they are awesome and accessible and really impact their audiences.

    Again, I hear your point, but passing the same $15 around is just as valid. I’d like to see more dance companies and more theaters make work that speaks to a wider audience.

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