I love you, choreographers. Through contemporary dance, you say what cannot be said in words alone. You have the power to bring ideas, feelings and beauty to life in ways that others cannot. Contemporary dance matters; thus, you matter. You are important and worthy of my love because of the potential creativity and cogency that you can manifest on your stages.
Maybe you should know who this man is that loves you all: I’m the guy sitting in section C, row 13, on the aisle. I’m not a trained dancer or dance choreographer, but I’d rather watch the performing arts than the Sunday night football game or summer blockbuster movie. I believe that being entrenched in the performance of theater, music or dance is just as (if not more) important than valuing science, math and engineering. I believe that our culture is richer because of what performing artists create and the qualities that audiences consume. I believe that your work matters, but I also believe that I—even as a lowly audience member who bought that ticket for section C, row 13, on the aisle—matter, too. As I breathe in your art, I am part of your art.
Because I love you, my dear choreographers, I’d like to share with you some thoughts. I do not expect you to mindlessly agree; I do expect you to consider. I do not believe that I hold the only perspective of a thoughtful audience member, but I do believe that you should accept my perspective as one who loves you and wants to be brought into your world. As soon as you open your theater doors and invite me in, you have a responsibility to me—just as I have a responsibility to you as I take my seat in section C, row 13, on the aisle.
I sometimes feel alienated by what you offer me. You regularly seem to cling to a post-modern shriek of “audience be damned.” Perhaps you react to my claim by clinging with revulsion: “I’ve never damned an audience,” you retort. Maybe not overtly in words, but you express it—whether you know it or not—through your programmatic and choreographic choices. You frequently insulate yourself from your audience. Is that what you intend? If so, then why invite us to your theaters in the first place? Keep your self-indulgent efforts within your own studio or living room and let the ghost light shine.
Part of your insulation is the lack of entertainment value that I find on your stages. I want to be entertained. Is that so awful? Is entertainment evil? Your programming often suggests to me that it is. And before you give me your spiel about entertainment being different from substance, I will tell you that I often have contemplated more deeply, been moved more passionately and appreciated beauty more lucidly while watching “So You Think You Can Dance” than I have when sitting in your darkened theaters. I have more intensely experienced adrenal rushes of empowerment and appreciation for people who are unlike me while watching the University of Memphis’ hip-hop team than while watching more “high-minded” and “cultured” modern dance. Yes, substance and entertainment are two different things, but they do not always have to be mutually exclusive. You damage your art and your credibility with those outside the dance community when you treat entertainment value as something of which you are ashamed. Perhaps my desire to be entertained does just make me a simpleton who can’t appreciate modern and contemporary dance, but I’m so appreciative of choreographers who remember that I’m out there in section C, row 13, wanting to love you and be a part of your art. Bring me into your world with patience, care and, yes, entertainment value.
I worry that, so far, this love note to you has suggested that I believe that dance always should amuse us, comfort us and make the audience feel full of fluttering butterflies and sunshine. I don’t believe that. I do believe that you bypass many wonderful opportunities to make me, as an audience member who loves you, feel the positive side of life over the negative. Your choreography nags me and rarely affirms. And the irony is that if you included more that is bright, uplifting and entertaining, you would provide stronger context for us to contemplate your less audience-friendly efforts.
I am pained as an audience member when I see your choreographed compulsories. You might have not yet realized that you have compulsories, but I assure you that you do. You overuse running as a transition, and it often comes to the audience as mere coddiwomple. Dancers being attacked by their own hand and bicycle peddling during lifts have become such a trite meme that audiences joke about them behind your back as they leave your theater. I implore you because I love you: Dig deeper! You have things to say to us through choreographic choice and dynamic expressiveness that you do not yet realize you have to say, and those ideas can be expressed in ways that have yet to be seen on stages. There is a fine line between maintaining the integrity of your motivic and stylistic choreographic voice and being cliché. You cross that line frequently and leave me bored, as I sit in section C wondering who’s winning the football game I’m not watching.
I recognize the value of dancers having strong training in fundamentals and technique. It’s essential. But too many of you have bought into an exclusive lie that the only appropriate basis for technique—even among modern dancers—is ballet. Frankly, I, too, for the past 20 years have bought into this lie, but I’m coming to a new truth. I encourage you to consider that to believe that ballet is “the” fundamental basis of all meaningful technique is inherently an act of cultural exclusion. It defies diversity and equity. It is a view born in imperialism. Show us diversity of technique and fundamental training more broadly on your stages. As a starting point, I suggest you consider integrating the fundamentals of Cuban dance, such as those found in bembé or guaguanco, for example. Doing so will better appeal to a wider audience and deepen the substance of your art, as a broader base of fundamentals and techniques will diversify the look and feel of modern dance.
As an audience member who loves you, I plead with you to recognize that technical flourishes of virtuosity are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end—a tool for meaningful communication. Flourishes of technique have their place, but to showcase virtuosity for its own sake diminishes the cogency of your communication with us. Perhaps 32 fouettés is a perfect number for a ballet-driven technical display. But, after eight, I often want to stand up on my chair in section C and shout, “We get it; she has chops. Now, for the love of God, stop showing off with tricks and move us forward.” Consider that mere exhibition hinders your message, thwarts our appreciation of your created world and breaks the spell of your conjured magic.
I am concerned that you over-value technology. In Twyla Tharp’s amazing book called “The Creative Habit,” she tells a story of instructing the lighting director to kill the lights at a certain point during the production so that the dancer can exit the stage in secret. As I recall the story, the lighting director refused and told Tharp she had to get the dancer off the stage with choreographic vitality, not with technological gimmicks. Bravo to that lighting director. Yes, your lighting matters. Yes, in dance films, camera angles matter. Yes, the digital displays on the back wall of the stage matter. But, when you use technology to do the intellectual, emotional and aesthetic work that should be achieved through the choreography, you diminish the extent to which your work matters. Using technology as a substitute for strong development and motivation is beneath you. I tell you that because I love you and because I am concerned when I sit in the audience watching fantastic digital gimmicks combined with pedestrian choreographic choice. Use lighting and environment to enhance strong choices, not as a substitute.
As a musician, I must talk about your soundtracks. If I watch a 13-minute piece and cannot ever find the unity among what I’m hearing and seeing, I do not think of you as clever and innovative, as this lack of unity is all-too-common in modern dance; instead, I wonder about your artistic sensibilities. Unity is a key characteristic of all art; unity is an axiomatic principle of aesthetics. There are times to work against your soundtrack to violate sight-to-sound unity with your choreography, but what makes such a violation effective is the powerful continuity that surrounds that violation. Listen to your soundtrack and elevate the nuances of what it offers so that your audience both hears and sees in novel ways. I have literally sat in audiences wondering if the production team cued the wrong piece of music. I have asked more than a dozen choreographers, “What is the purpose of the soundtrack?” I am amazed at how often the answer is a blank stare of confusion that I even dare to ask the question. Help us find multisensory unity.
Speaking of unity, I must also talk about unison phrases among your dancers. If you ask your dancers to perform the same choreography at the same time, then know that differences across the ensemble reach me in the audience as slothful. The unity in angle of the arms during gestures matter. Similarities in postural efforts matter. Points of comparison from dancer to dancer that help me see unity are a key means of confirming stylistic integrity. Strong unison provides impact and enhances mood. I have watched some of the greatest dance companies in the world perform unison phrases that were so disparate from performer to performer that it left me cold and wondering if I really was observing a poorly-timed canon, not a unison phrase. It’s painful to watch, and it repels your audience.
I’ve gone on too long; I’ve over counted the ways that I love thee—though it’s a tough love, indeed. Know that I’m not alone in my views. Art curator and critic Henry Geldzahler has noted that art is increasingly becoming an insular concern to artists only and a point of “bafflement” for the public. I ask you to consider what I say and help your audience feel less baffled by the totality of your work. I am out there in section C, row 13, on the aisle waiting for you to acknowledge me and love me back. If you cannot bring yourself to show love for your audience, then perhaps it is an admission to yourself that you just don’t need us. Perhaps, then, it’s time for a breakup. It would be a breakup that I find painful; but if you do not feel that pain, then I only can wish you the best of luck as your audience continues to dwindle and you perform only for yourself in the mirror of your insular and silent studios.
Editor’s note: Opinions presented in columns are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of See Chicago Dance. To learn more about our journalism program, visit this link.
2021 Critical Dance Writing Fellow Dr. David S. Knowlton grew up in the world of marching bands, winter guards, and drum and bugle corps. Over the past thirty-five years, he has worked in eight states as a marching band show designer, choreographer, music arranger, artist-in-residence, and clinician for schools, universities, dance companies, and non-profits. He travels nationally to serve as juror and adjudicator of pageantry arts events. Since 2016, he has served as Program Director for the Briarcrest High School Outdoor Performance Ensemble (Eads, TN). Dr. Knowlton is co-host of The Learning Vibes Podcast (www.learningvibespodcast.weebly.com); Vice President of the Board of Directors at The Jacoby Arts Center, Alton, Illinois (www.jacobyartscenter.org); and professor of education at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he researches and teaches in areas related to Educational Psychology, Design Thinking, and Creativity Theory. In all his efforts, Dr. Knowlton passionately advocates for the transformative power of creativity, the arts, and self-directed learning. Learn more: www.siue.edu/~dknowlt