Hands up if you’ve watched a dance performance and wondered what you should be doing, or what you should be thinking, as you dig your nails into the theatres upholstery and contemplate asking someone in the interval what is actually going on. But wait, you can’t ask someone, because doing that would draw attention to the fact you don’t have a clue; like admitting you can’t put your trousers on, or you don’t know how to work a microwave. It’s embarrassing, right?
It’s rare anyone teaches us how to appreciate art. We go through life looking at art exhibitions; stuffed animals, a messy bed, a Rembrandt, or we see impressive sculptures and modernist carvings; we attend abstract performances, Shakespeare or immersive theatre experiences… and sometimes we silently think what the heck was all that about? We don’t know what to make of it, and therefore we tend not to like it – because generally we like things we know.
I’ve watched performances before with friends and had discussions afterwards at the bar. More often than not, one friend will build up the courage to try and decipher what just took place on stage, then they’ll turn to me wide-eyed and say, “Did I get it?” as if this whole experience were some sort of A-Level exam question.
Dance can often fall into that category of the unknown. Granted, in more classical types of dance there are tools in place which help us; we can measure the dancer’s technique or his or her skills in conveying emotion. We can evaluate and form an opinion. So, what do you do when you watch modern dance and there’s no yardstick to measure by?
The best piece of advice for watching modern dance is to come with an open mind. Don’t think about it or try to understand it; simply feel it. Dance is for the senses. How does it make you feel? Excited, bored, angry or relaxed? Abhinaya is a lovely term used in Indian aesthetics to describe the art of expression. More accurately it means “leading an audience towards” the experience of a sentiment. In contemporary modern dance there’s often little example of dancers pointing us to the answer because the dancers are instruments for the movement. It’s then we can really start to appreciate the dance and choreography.
Let’s place contemporary dance in a little context. It was a form developed as a rebellion against the hierarchy and restrictions of classical dance meaning choreographers could make discoveries about movement and their own bodies. It became a means of exploration and, most importantly, for dancers to find their own way of moving and feeling. This idea, coincidentally, is very much what dance audiences should be able to do. Find your own reaction. There’s no right or wrong answer in an art form that can be all things beautiful, challenging, comforting or forceful to an individual.
Of course, you could always read up on the choreographer, get the programme notes or speak to the company at a post-show chat and ask questions. But, sometimes, it’s enough to leave an auditorium and think that moved me and not necessarily have to ‘get it right’.
“Don’t try to understand everything, just look for evocative moments that inspire you.” — Christopher Wheeldon, Choreographer and Artistic Associate, The Royal Ballet
“You could look for beauty in sculpture that moves, or for an explication of music that might shock you, or for a new paradigm of human athleticism — or you could just observe the effect that the dancing has on your spirit.” — Eliza Gaynor Minden, Head of Design at Gaynor Minden and author of The Ballet Companion
“When I watch dance I look for the athleticism of the dancer as well as what story or emotion they’re trying to portray or make the audience feel.” — Melissa Sandvig, “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 5
By Ryan Grimshaw