Friday, May 16, 2014

The Audience

We went, my son and I, to see a performance by Zenon Dance Company, our premier local modern company. My wife and son went last spring, and thought it was fantastic. This time... it was mixed. The single piece in the second half, Danny Buraczeski's Ezekiel's Wheel, was really superb. it had flow, it had depth, it connected with the audience. The other dances... well, they had some lovely phrases, memorable pieces, but it didn't feel lilke they were paying much attention to the audience. 

I was interested to read in a 2003 review of Buraczeski's work:
Ezekiel's Wheel, which he completed in 1999, seems to have been a pivotal work: interviewed shortly after the piece premiered, Buraczeski said, "[That] concert was my most personal yet, my most vulnerable. I don't make dances for audiences any more, I make them to explore my feelings....But I leave the door open so people can bring their own lives in." 
Which is odd given my experience of alienation from the other pieces in the program tonight. Or it seems odd at first. But I think it points to a false way we think of audience, and that audiences think of performance.

In the pub sings I've been involved in the last few years, audience and performer are much closer together than most people are used to, I think. The setting helps: people just get up and lead a song, often from where they are sitting in the bar. There's ambient noise, sometimes annoyingly if there are clueless patrons talking loudly just outside the circle of song (or even, incredibly, right next to the singer). But that noise also serves to ground us: we are not in a temple of perfect sound: we are in the middle of our lives. Our audience are our friends around us. We are all part of the same group, and we are sharing those functions of audience and performer in a way that feels like a deep conversation. 

What Buraczeski I think is talking about, is that he is not saying what he thinks the audience wants. He is not trying to fill their appetite. And because his work is interesting, because the ideas and shapes he presents in "leaving the door open," it's like that part of a conversation. It's something we care about.

Where I think Zenon did a poor job in the first half, is in talking about things the audience just didn't especially care about—at least not the section I was in. It was technically excellent, but it just wasn't interesting.

Artists of all kinds like to guard against "pandering." We don'r want to just spoon-feed the audience. My yearbook quote from college sums it up (it's by Duane Preble): "Aesthetic is the opposite of anaesthetic." Good art in this model has the urgency of gospel: Listen! it says, This is important! We don't have forever to learn this!

Sometimes, though, the desire to not pander means we turn our back as performers on the audience. 
Good evening. Welcome to Difficult Listening Hour. The spot on your dial for that relentless and impenetrable sound of Difficult Music. So sit bolt upright in that straight-backed chair, button that top button, and get set for some difficult music.-Laurie Anderson
Well, OK, if you have a consensual relationship with a particular audience, where they know they are in for a hard grind. Fine. But me, I want art that reaches out not to pluck my heartstrings, but to grab me by the hand, to meet me halfway between the stage and the audience.