Dallas — March: the month of festivals. Locally, the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival just wrapped up, and in Austin, SXSW is running concurrent with the South-Central regional conference of the American College Dance Festival. In northern California, the Rogue Fringe Festival has just completed its run in Fresno. I’m sure many more are happening, but these are the ones that I have a direct connection to.
One year ago, I was traveling with my partner, Justin Locklear, to present our first festival work, Pizzicato Porno, at the Rogue Fringe Festival. Amy Querin, the artistic director of FresNO Dance COllective (NoCo), invited us to be guest artists at the Festival. The entire process was foreign to us, from creating an original work for a space we had never seen before, for being guest artists in a city that we knew one person in, and performing for an audience that had no idea who we were. We were going in blind and did not know how our “wonderfully weird” and “gratifyingly strange” work would be received.
Because what we were creating was not dance and was not theatre. It was something in-between. Always in flux, constantly changing every time we perform it, and it was dependent upon the space. The work consisted of installing five-feet in diameter weather balloons on which we projected a series of four films that I produced in 2012. The films bookended vignettes of live music and movement that Justin and I created. Justin also developed a loose script that provided a complimentary narrative to the work, which solidified its existence as a mixed-media performance piece. We made it in the effort to push each other past our limits of performance experience: to have a dancer act, and to have an actor dance. And to create a piece of work that referenced back to our influences from the 1960s and 1970s like Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman and Laurie Anderson, while contemporizing it.
We were extremely lucky that the piece was well-received and that we were able to start conversations about our work and our creative process, which is what festivals are intended to do. They exist to function as a method of enriching the cultural landscape by providing their local creative community a place to produce work and by inviting groups from other cultural communities, and fostering a dialogue of new and innovative approaches to the development and creation of artistic work.
There are festivals specific to dance, such as the nationally recognized American Dance Festival, its sister organization the aforementioned American College Dance Festival, and Jacob’s Pillow, to name a few, and locally, we have Dance for the Planet and the newly reinstated Dallas DanceFest (to take place Labor Day Weekend 2014). And while these festivals are important institutions that serve the needs of dance, dancers, choreographers, and professionals in dance-related fields, they can potentially distance dance from the public. Dance festivals are not always on the top of people’s to-go lists. Because, more often than not, the only people who know about them are dancers. The main mission of most festivals is to build a wider audience base for the artists they show and the type of work presented, to enhance public understanding and appreciation of the chosen art form and its cultural and historical significance, and to create a forum for discussing where visual and performing arts is headed.
For that reason, I encourage dance companies, specifically small, emerging ones and individual dance artists, to actively pursue presenting work at fringe festivals and contemporary theater festivals. From my experience at Rogue and as a performer at other festivals, I’ve witnessed how powerful it can be to expose dance to a non-traditional dance audience.
To give a more concrete example, I’ll frame my discussion around my experience at the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival. Since its inception 13 years ago, Loop, as it is fondly referred to, has become nationally recognized as one of the most important fringe festivals in the country. It has been instrumental in providing a forum for new works, new artists, and emerging voices in the arts. The festival and the host theatre, WaterTower Theatre, have provided platforms for more than 100 artists and companies, and attract artists from all over the US. This year’s festival staged seven world premieres and welcomed 12 new artists and companies, including three local dance companies and one work that combined theater and dance.
Loop pulls in a large number of people who are festival regulars, traditional theatergoers, and people who are just looking for something to do on the weekend that is different from their normal TV watching, couch sitting routine. So, you have to think about the audience to which you are now presenting dance. Don’t assume that just because your music is sad sounding or that that your title is equally as sad sounding, that the piece will be received as being about something sad. You have to allow all the elements to come together to get the unifying theme across. You have to think about the story, because that is what dance is meant to do: tell a story. But sometime we, dance artists, forget that. We want to show off the technical ability of our dancers so much that we lose track of the theme, or we go too far into the conceptual that we get lost ourselves. When we are presenting our shows in our own houses, or are presenting the work to an audience filled with our fans and fellow dance goers, we have a built-in comfort zone; a common ground of dance appreciation and knowledge.
The fringe festival takes that all away. Especially, when you travel out of your hometown. There is no guarantee that you will have a friendly face in the crowd, someone who is there that inherently understands you. You are facing a crowd of strangers, a non-dance-trained audience. And that is one of the biggest obstacles facing dance companies on the fringe circuit. How can they pull in a non-dance audience into their world? What is this new audience expecting? What are they not expecting? How can you, in just an hour, help people to understand what to do at a dance show? How can you help them to be an active dance audience member?
It is perhaps more simple in writing than in practice, but it is a straightforward concept.
Approach it just as seriously and technically as you would a longer run or a tour. You never know whom you will be affecting, whom you will meet and form a lasting connection with, and who will become your next biggest fan. Dance companies are responsible for one another, especially in a festival setting. There is a shared responsibility to produce high quality work and portray dance as professionally as possible. It is task of the dance artists to create performances that engage, enlighten, and entertain.
If you keep that in mind, your show will be successful. Dance is one of the hardest art forms to approach in any setting that it is placed at, as it unintentionally separates itself from the audience. The task of a dancer is to make dance look easy. But in doing so, it creates a distance between the audience viewing it because they immediately think they can’t do what they are watching on the stage. But that’s not true, and not what dance should be setting out to do. It should be creating a pathway into the art form, a way for a non-dance educated audience to say, “That’s really something special, and I want to see more, and I want to try this out.”
Festivals allow dance companies to create connections. They grant the chance for artistic directors to craft a show that challenges both their aesthetic and their choreographers and dancers to push past the fourth wall that generally exists for traditional dance shows. How can the theme that is chosen, the plot of the show, be crafted to involve an audience that has maybe never seen dance before, has more than likely never seen your company before, and is the most diverse audience to which you have ever been exposed? Artistic directors have the task of considering this question when structuring the show and inspiring their choreographers to do the same. They are also able to monitor the work being produced so that the shape is staying consistent with the theme.
The most successful works at festivals are those based on one concept or idea and tell a fully realized story. Because of festival time constraints, you need to be concise, direct, and honest with your work. Anyone can go online and watch a ballet dancer perform an across-the-floor and satisfy their craving for technical proficiency, but a performance is a unique opportunity to give an audience a lasting and memorable experience. Because, let’s be frank, if it looks like a recital, people are going to be bored. That’s not to say that the production presented has to be one seamless, continuous piece. While it can be, it can also be broken up into different pieces, sections, or “acts.” Whatever the format, everything should relate to the theme—there should be an easily identified and unifying thread.
Fostering an environment that creates a connection between the dancers and the audience gives a sense of freedom that we don’t normally have when producing traditional dance shows. But maybe taking the fringe benefits that the festival circuit creates will change the way dance is construct.
» Danielle Georgiou is a dance education, critic and writer. She is the Founder and Choreographer of DGDG (Danielle Georgiou Dance Group) and performance artist. Her column Sixth Position appears the third Sunday of the month on TheaterJones.com.
Previous columns are:
- February 2014: Cash Choreography