I recently completed a PhD thesis on the topic of spectator-dancer relationships during open rehearsals (in the mainstream dance company context). Understanding these rehearsal relationships and how they can impact performance relationships can inform audience development, education, and enrichment strategies. This topics falls within the broader research area of audience reception which, in the field of performance, investigates the many ways in which individuals can experience and respond to performers and creative work. This offers new perspectives on variable meanings and relationships within a performance, and subsequent impact on individuals.
The academic literature around the niche topic of rehearsal spectators in dance tends to be based on researcher (often expert) perspectives, as opposed to asking spectators about their experiences. Therefore, a central focus of my doctoral project was to understand this topic from a non-expert spectator perspective. I achieved this through using spectator focus group discussions as the key research data to inform findings. The study’s spectator participants came from diverse professional backgrounds, including canine massage therapy, nursing, mechanical drafting, research science, teaching, and train driving.
While they did not possess technical dance expertise, the spectator participants engaged in articulate and insightful conversations about ballet, contemporary dance, and the creative process; most significantly, they highlighted elements of rehearsals and performances that went unnoticed or were interpreted differently by my more expert perspective. Audiences outside of the artist community can ‘read’ performative events differently to those within it. Perhaps a different meaning of a work emerges without familiarity of the artist or their earlier works? Maybe a somatic audience experience is different between audience members who have and have not done those moves? The more we talk to audience members – not as a homogeneous group, but individuals – the better we will understand the multiplicity in which our work is being experienced, interpreted, and enacted. My doctoral project is one step in this direction.
Dance performances offer audiences opportunities for intellectual and creative stimulation, social and/or family fulfilment, opportunities to see “great works”, and opportunities to “grow closer to one’s own culture, or to learn about cultures other than [one’s] own” (WolfBrown 2011, 1). However, mainstream ballet and contemporary dance performances, within the traditional presentation paradigm, face challenges regarding audience engagement. Ballet faces challenges in regards to perceived elitism (Harlow 2014, 30), while contemporary dance can be perceived as a “complex” and “difficult” art form (Ann Sholem, personal interview, August 30 2013). Dance and theatre audience researcher Lynne Conner (2013, 3) suggests that current audiences, across performing arts, are not readily equipped with the necessary knowledge and analytical skills to engage deeply in performance meaning-making. In some cases, audience members can feel “intimidated because they don’t think they know enough to appreciate the experience and may even feel stupid” (Harlow 2014, 53).
In cross-disciplinary research, audiences have acknowledged performers as the “most helpful aspects in the shows for creating enjoyment” and, more importantly, the “most helpful aspects for creating understanding” (Scollen 2008, 16). This study examines open rehearsals as a point of meeting between spectators and dancers, that has the potential to support and foster audience engagement during subsequent performances.
Specifically, the study presents and trials an open rehearsal model with Sydney Dance Company and The Australian Ballet (Melbourne). This open rehearsal model invites non-expert dance ‘spectators’ (the term used in this study to refer to the open rehearsal attendees) into regular, traditionally closed rehearsals. This study examines how these open rehearsal interactions impact on subsequent performance experiences; specifically, it focuses on spectator-dancer relationships during these open rehearsals, and the spectators’ subsequent relationships with performers, when they take on their role as ‘audiences’ (the term used in this study to refer to the performance audience).
Through analysis of participant observation, focus group discussions, and expert interviews, the study shows that audience-performer relationships during performance are generated and influenced by the (former) spectator-dancer relationships fostered through the open rehearsal experience. This study argues that the open rehearsal event offers the possibility of different, more personal relationships between spectator and dancer, compared to those between audience and dancer during actual performance.
Want more detail? Full thesis here.
Image by anoldent.