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Balancing the Needs of Audiences and Artists
– An excerpt from the forum dedicated to the seminal Ballet into the 21st Century retreat

by Emma Pegler

January 2003 – How can we balance the needs of audiences and artists without compromise?

I have no answers. As a director of JazzXchange, an independent dance company who works closely with the Artistic Director, I can only say that the question is constantly addressed and I think we are pretty successful in coming up with the right balance. This is largely because our dance is so music-led: the company always dances to live jazz music. The expression “jazz music” is used in its broadest sense in this context: pure jazz, avant-garde, experimental and modern jazz and Moroccan, Latin and Malian-inspired jazz through to “is this really jazz?” jazz. And jazz, in whatever form, is something that the majority of our audiences will be able to identify with. We have always been “sold-out” but then we have often performed in smaller spaces such as the Clore Studio at the Royal Opera House - which is considerably smaller than the main stage – and The Place. The right balance has clearly been struck when you have a fulfilled Artistic Director and dancers and – forgive my slang – a bum on every seat. But would we be able to say the say the same thing if the Company were to perform at the Royal Albert Hall?

So, breaking down the question into its constituent parts: what do artists want and what do audiences want? I take artists to be artistic directors of dance companies, choreographers and the dancers themselves, and audiences to be those people who buy tickets to watch dance in its many diverse forms more than once a year, bearing in mind that someone who goes to the ballet just once a year would, for the purposes of marketing and publicity departments, be considered a ‘dance-goer.’ The point at which the two naturally converge is the point at which there is no compromise and each ‘team’ is happy. I would say that point is that both teams want a good night out and want cultural and artistic enrichment. However even those concepts mean something different to each team. Dancers will want to dance their hearts out and reach full emotional expression in whatever way is appropriate to the particular piece and the particular piece, if choreographed by someone else should have had significant input from the dancers; choreographers will want to have choreographed will full artistic licence and resources; audiences will want to see something perfectly executed that conforms to their own particular brand of cultural enrichment and which maybe stretches their horizons a little further, but not too far. The teams will be agreed on the fact that a full house is a good thing: it constitutes a verification of the quality of the performance and, whilst dancers do not want to perform to an empty house, audiences like the buzz and energy of the happy punters around them. Of course these are generalisations and there will be some members of the audience who like a skeletal presence in the auditorium since it indicates that they have discovered something new and innovative that is not appreciated nor understood by the mass market. I can’t imagine, however, that too many dancers consider a small audience to be an independent verification of their cutting-edge performance.

JazzXchange has established an audience. Whenever the company performs the auditorium is always full. We know who our audience is: devotees of jazz dance (there is little competition as there are no other significant contenders in the market of jazz-dance companies and so their available pennies will always go into our coffers); followers of Artistic Director, Sheron Wray; and lovers of jazz music because we normally use live music. For each individual performance will be a representation from the following: contemporary dance aficionados since Sheron recruits dancers largely from that world having trained and danced with the Rambert Dance Company; followers of the particular performance space since people will gravitate towards a theatre that is either geographically convenient and/or that has consistently provided them with what they consider to be high-quality performances: and a particular target audience. The latter would encompass salsa or other Latin dance lovers if the piece used Latin music, or lovers of African dance or music if the piece originated from Africa or the African diaspora.

Knowing that your core audience will fill a medium-sized theatre for four consecutive nights of performing the same programme, how will you structure your marketing and publicity to fill a one-off performance in the Royal Albert Hall?

Derek Deane’s production of “Swan Lake” designed for ‘in the round’ demonstrates one of the pitfalls of scaling up and attracting bigger audiences: you have to scale up on the number of swans and the result was the incredible noise of swans thumping across the stage as their toe-shoes hit the deck. Too many swans for the orchestra to drown.

JazzXchange has not been faced with the question of performing in such a large space so I will have to dream up the questions that might face us. The type of question that the Artistic Director would ask herself is – we have a much bigger audience than usual so should we produce a tried and tested work or be experimental? Of course the problem then is, that if a company is heavily reliant on public funding, it is unlikely that it will receive funding to stage an existing work – funding bodies prefer commissions.

Assuming a new work is to be created, would Sheron choose a theme without thinking of her audience and likely reception? No. I don’t think that a company like JazzXchange ever meets the dilemma – we really want to do X but think the audience would prefer Y. JazzXchange has evolved and isn’t known for one signature piece. I can imagine the dilemma for a company like English National Ballet though: wouldn’t it be good to commission more new short works to complement the full story ballets. Yes, but the cost outweighs the practicalities – mixed bills do not sell as well as full evening works. Which is why the triple bill lasts for three days out of a month’s run at the Coliseum. I can also imagine the dilemma for Ross Stretton. He wanted to introduce Nacho Duato in to the repertoire but the initial attempts were met by disdain from certain sectors of the audience and critics. Do you persevere, convinced that tastes will evolve with your vision, or do you give up and stage something you know will be instantly well received. Without doubt the Royal Opera House could be filled most of the year with “Romeo and Juliet.” Even the ‘C team’ would spark more interest than could be mustered for Nacho Duato. The fact that Stretton left under a cloud makes it clear that Artistic Directors will not want to persevere if the first attempt fails. Stretton, (and it may be that his alleged poor management style was the factor that tipped the balance against him in the end), was hardly given a chance to bring the audience with him. Whatever the reasons for his demise, and their proportional weighting against the other factors, the ‘one strike and you’re out’ approach to poor reception of a choice of choreographer will stick in the minds of most new incumbents in the role of Artistic Director of any company.

Compromise is a subtle word. With the best compromises, one doesn’t even know that they have happened. And, if something works for both teams, was there a compromise at all? Putting Swan Lake above a new experimental work is an obvious compromise. How a small company like JazzXchange determines its programming is much more subtle. I suppose it would be better to field a well-known jazz band on a tour rather than a little known one? Should one avoid social issues in a piece of choreography in case they be divisive in the audience – older audiences, generally, are embarrassed by nudity and the portrayal of sex on stage as just one example.

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