Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Captive Audience: Understanding the "Performing" part of Performing Arts

I'm back from China!  And there was no access to blogger whatsoever while I was there, so I finally now get to post this, which I started on two weeks ago before I left!  Unfortunately, we've also been without power at home, due to Hurricane Irene, so thanks to work for having electricity and the interwebs...

Essentially, there are two kinds of dancing: social dancing - which essentially is dancing with other people and performance - dancing for other people. (And while you can argue while dancing at a club, some folks may be doing both, it's not what we're about to talk about here.)  Bellydance, it's folkloric predecessors/companions/roots and such, are most often done as social dance "over there" - but also has a long history of being a performing art - from the modern day performers in Cairo, leading wedding processions and dancing late nights at hotels and clubs to the historical Ouled Nail in Algeria and Shikhat in Morocco, to cite just a few examples.

Here in the US, we most often are using and considering the dance as a performing art - but it is often passed along to students in a quasi-social dance context.  Meaning, the art and performance aspect of the dance aren't as strongly emphasized as they should be, all the while, students are pushed/encouraged/rush to perform without the proper constructs to benefit both themselves and their potential future audiences.  Or perhaps the constructs are given, but are ignored. 

What am I getting at? It all relates to my frequently-asked-questions to my students worldwide "Why are you performing? What are you saying with your dance?"  It's the next step after you figure out the why and what of YOU and your dance - "What are you saying to your audience? What about THEM?"

Yes, this dance can be amazing vehicle for self-expression and exploration.  It can help you grow in ways you could have never imagined. It can help you figure out things about yourself, your life, your relationships, your health, your family. It can connect you to people and cultures across the world, new and old traditions, beliefs and customs.  It is truly awesome - a gift, and a blessing.

However, this does not mean that an audience must be made to witness every portion of that personal journey in explicit detail. 

Meaning? It's great that the dance can be a vehicle for change, but that doesn't mean that every concept your brain/heart comes up with, is appropriate to share with an audience - or more specifically, just ANY audience.  It doesn't give you the right to hit everyone over the head with your sexuality, relationships, triumphs, and sorrows - especially if they didn't sign up for it.  Don't hold others captive (in the worst way) because you see performing the dance solely as a means to work out your issues. I'm not saying you can't explore these topics in dance, but it's important to consider two things:

"Depth of Detail"
A lot of new performers make the mistake of thinking, in order to get an idea across, they need to be as blatant as possible.  Actually, great pieces are often made up of exactly the opposite - concrete concepts expressed abstractly.  The human mind is greatly capable of taking a few sections of a line or idea, and making the connections without aid.  For example - a dotted line.  It's not a continuous line, it's something made of dots, that is translated into a linear concept by our brain, making it easy to write upon and guide our hands. (And while we're at it, what you're reading right now is made up of dots, but you're not seeing those individual dots are you?  No, your brain is connecting them and making them into recognizable letters.) In my "Dancing on the Right Side of the Brain" workshop, one of the exercises the students do is to perform a story without any props or costuming, all to a set piece of lyric-less music, and they are given very specific concepts they need to get across. It never fails that every time, a lot (if not all) of them panic at the thought, but they ALL manage to pull it off.  So, you don't need everything and the kitchen sink to get a point across - and that props, costuming, and even the music are tools to help expand that concept, but it's the root of your dance movements and personal expression that truly relate what you need to say.  That should be the starting point for all of your performances - at the bare bones, what can you say? What gets the point across most simply and effectively? Everything else is ornamentation. Make the dots, let your audience draw their own lines.

"Venue Appropriateness"
This one is a real biggie. There are many levels of performance options nowadays for bellydance.  Haflas, theatrical shows, restaurants, cafes, clubs, themed events, etc. Nearly all of these things have different audiences. There's the dancers-for-dancers audience (meaning your audience is mainly other dancers), there's the general public audience (made up of non-dancers, who may not have had much exposure to the dance), there's target audiences (audiences who go for a specific theme, culture, or subculture - an art crowd, a mainly Middle Eastern crowd, a Gothic crowd, a Steampunk crowd, a Tribal crowd, an Oriental/Cabaret crowd, etc), and there's the mixed audiences (mixture of dancers, general, family perhaps, etc). 

Your potential audience is a pretty important thing to consider, because they're the ones you're dancing for. If you make the mistake of considering them in a more social context - a sort of strange "I'm dancing with me, and they're along for the ride" - you're disconnecting from your audience and disrespecting the communication that can happen between you and them.  I'm not saying the audience is the master of your performance creation and what you should do entirely, but you do need to consider them, and how you can best relate to each other. Who is your potential audience? What are they expecting? What do they know about dance? If the show is a Gothic-themed show, then the audience is going to be expecting something along those lines, making it a good venue for darker material, but not so good a venue for a typical restaurant set. A hafla that has both dancers and a lot of family members of all ages allows for variety, but should be considerate of all-ages and family-friendly in attire and subject matter. If it's a general public-exposure and they don't know a lot about bellydance, then pulling out your weirdest fusion concept is not a great idea - it not only confuses the audience, but makes a bad/incorrect connection with bellydance in their minds. If you ask yourself these questions, and sense an issue, then a course-correction is generally an excellent idea to allow for the most successful presentation and reception.

When you decide to start performing for audiences, you are taking on multiple responsibilities.  You're representing not only yourself, but your dance genre, community, style, etc.  Any time you dance for others, you're starting off a chain reaction.  You may not think what you do in your town on your local stage may effect dancers outside of it, but it's entirely possible and often does - for better AND for worse.  BELIEVE in this responsibility, because it does affect you, and others. 

Lastly, you're not just dancing with you, you're dancing for them; you're responsible for reaching out and trying to connect with your audience in the best way possible.  Respect them, communicate with them, acknowledge their part in your performance. Otherwise, you would really only be dancing with yourself.

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