“We invite you to stay for a post-performance conversation”—these are dividing words. After a recent performance, all but one of my seatmates—several friends and acquaintances—decided against staying. I wavered for a minute as I considered keeping my friend company and the possibility of hearing the choreographers and performers discuss their processes, inspirations, and attachments—all interiors that I love. But in the end I joined the exodus, citing my own rule not to attend post-performance talks for shows I am reviewing, in service of my oxymoronic goals of maintaining objectivity and developing a singular, personal response to the work.
A couple of days later, I solicited an email report from my friend who stayed, and it was bleak.
“The talk was lame. . . . [The moderator, who was involved in the creation of one of the works] started by asking the audience: ‘What did you think of the show?’ Awkward silence ensues until [a choreographer’s] mother says something. . . . Then it was stuff like, ‘I’ve never seen dance in socks before.’’
The phenomenon of which this talk, allegedly, was an exemplar—that many post-performance talks are tepid, shallow, and uncomfortable—is perhaps the true underpinning of my skip-the-talks rule. But as an arts journalist focusing on dance, I am desperately interested in conversation that extends and deepens our ability to engage—to cohabitate—with ephemeral art. Why do so many post-performance talks leave so much to be desired, and what can be done about it?
It would seem to be a given that a good moderator is key. The talk my friend didn’t enjoy occurred during the same weekend that Dance/USA, a national service organization, convened in Austin. (I was given a press pass to the conference.) The organization recruited Ron Berry, artistic director of Austin’s multidisciplinary, performance-heavy Fusebox Festival, to moderate the opening and closing plenaries. (A video of the opening plenary is posted on Dance/USA’s website.) These discussions broached the subject of talk as it related to recruiting and maintaining audiences and building equity among artists and audiences—“Who is not here?” was a presiding question, first posed by Dance/USA executive director Amy Fitterer. With an approachable demeanor and wearing characteristic jeans and sneakers, Berry—who has made dialogue an integral part of Fusebox Festival—graciously uncovered common ground and differences among the diverse group of panelists. Quick to express wonder and joy in new developments, he was suggestive rather than decisive, and deft at contextualizing. “The question of what is my social responsibility as an artist is the same as what is my social responsibility as a human being in the world,” he said during the closing talk, applying gravity to the abstraction of social responsibility but also gently nudging the topic forward.
One session of the conference, titled “Fierce Conversations,” focused specifically on how post-performance talks have taken form in dialogue-focused dance work. Indira Goodwine, company manager at Camille A. Brown and Dancers, explained that dialogue about history, culture, and race is not only an intended outcome but also interwoven throughout works like the company’s “Black Girl: Linguistic Play” (2015). Rather than recruit external moderators, Goodwine said, the company presents its own members as dramaturges, positioning dancers as intellectuals who have done their research.
Also on the panel was Thaddeus Davis, co-artistic director, with his wife, Tanya Wideman-Davis, of Wideman/Davis Dance in South Carolina. Davis explained how the intention and tone of post-performance talks about a work exploring the Confederate flag evolved after the 2015 shooting of African Americans in a Charleston church and the state’s subsequent removal of the flag from its capitol building. Although the piece was based in the fear, oppression, and frustration that Davis and Wideman-Davis, both African American, felt at being confronted with the flag on a daily basis, they felt that the mood surrounding the flag and racism had become too tense for direct confrontation. “I realized that this”—Davis made pointing gestures into the air—“wasn’t going to work.” Instead, the choreographers began post-performance talks by merely soliciting observations, which, Davis said, evolved into 90-minute dialogues that spilled over into legislative debate.
In the discussion that followed the panelists’ talks, the focus expanded from post-performance discussion to include talks that occur before and even as integrative parts of shows. There seemed to be a near-consensus that pre-performance talks are helpful for engaging audiences. Debra Cash, a former critic and the current executive director of Boston Dance Alliance, noted that audiences tend to be engaged when they feel that they have prior knowledge of what the performance is, or is about, and that knowledgeable moderators, such as critics, can provide a way into the work. It was evident that many attendees of the session saw “basic” questions like “How long did it take you to make the piece?” as barriers to deeper, more interesting talk. But more interesting for whom? The mood in the room became a bit heated when one member of the audience, who represented a Dallas organization that presents touring shows, proclaimed that the audience’s basic questions are exactly what post-performance talks are intended for, and that when Twyla Tharp told him she didn’t want to do a talk, he told her, “It’s not for you; it’s for the audience.”
All the ways in which audiences desire to engage with the work, to what degree the work necessitates or invites dialogue, to what degree the artists want to talk about it—all of these depend on a unique axis of intention, work, performance, and individual member of the audience. For example, some of us prefer steeping time, while others are ready to engage immediately after a performance. “Personally,” Berry told me when I sat down with him a few weeks after the conference, “I need to get in the car, move through space, maybe have a drink or something before my brain can begin to process.” (In a recent review, I outed myself as being in this camp, too.) Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, arts editor of the Austin-American Statesman, told me that she thinks social media has something to do with why artists are eager for talk—or validation or judgment—so soon: “It’s the immediacy of the digital world that drives some of it: a learned response of liking or commenting on something we see briefly,” she wrote in an email.
How can companies and presenters scaffold opportunities for both kinds of engagement, immediate and reflective? To begin with, there is the talk, or “talk,” that is already happening on social media. As a highly visual and video-friendly art form, dance is poised to be of particular interest to the—also highly visual and video-fluent—current generation of emerging adults. Could we meet people at their impulses to “like” and share and, together, find a way to move toward deeper dialogue? And what about the talk that’s happening at the bar, or the thinking that’s happening in the car or on the walk home from the theater? Could the setting and culture of a talk, and the dedication of a good moderator, persuade some of us to loosen up and engage more quickly?
During Fusebox Festival, I like to attend Waffle Chats, which are noontime gatherings during which actual waffles and coffee are served in casual spaces while the audience, seated in a circle, listens to—and participates in—a conversation among a moderator and a few artists. The intention behind the Waffle Chats, Berry said, “was to connect everyone in the room.” These talks, instigated but not bound by a few provocative questions, are focused less on the immediate work but on uncovering the artists’ perspectives and processes, their common denominators and divisions. (Interestingly, in my experience, people don’t tend to use a lot of social media during these talks, although there isn’t any solid indicate that it is frowned upon.) As an additional, or alternative, way for audiences and artists to come together, Fusebox Festival complements the Waffle Chats with late-night gatherings at festival “hubs”—pop-up clubs where drinks and dim lighting encourage discussions to proliferate.
If there is a golden ticket to an engaging talk—besides recruiting a good moderator—getting out of the theater might be it. What if the talk my friend panned had taken place not in the theater but in the reception room next door, where wine was flowing, or in a bar across the street? Berry, chuckling, told me about a talk he attended by the Swedish choreographer Mårten Spångberg. It took place over two hours, during which the audience (some toweled, some not) followed Spångberg as he moved back and forth between the sauna and the shower, pontificating the entire time. The heat, the immersion in a cultural practice, and the range of topics Spångberg covered congealed into a change process for Berry—“I felt altered afterward.” For Fusebox, Berry said he wants to try to capture the conversations that take place in cars while people carpool from venue to venue.
There is afterward, and then there is the afterword. During the “Fierce Conversations” discussion, I posed a question about extending the dialogue beyond the post-performance discussion; it was a well-received question, gauging by the people nodding, but there weren’t really any answers. The role of critics or the media wasn’t mentioned at all, probably because the number of full-time dance critics in the U.S. can be counted on one hand. Most companies and independent dance artists across the nation get written about rarely or never. Some organizations—such as the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, On the Boards, and Fusebox—have filled this niche by embedding writers into their programming, which is an innovative solution but doesn’t negate the need for writing and conversation from the outside. With the dearth of writers and instigators for longer-term reflection, it’s clear that there are new modes to be explored and that talk can be cultivated. (I can’t imagine anyone complaining that there is too much discussion about dance.)
But while it’s pertinent for companies, artists, and presenters to think beyond calling the choreographer back out onstage and asking audience members to move down to the first few rows, perhaps it’s also worth zooming out, like a good moderator would, to consider how we conceptualize dance and art when we talk about them—as abstractions or preciosities or as integral to our human lives? Perhaps it’s worth borrowing a notion from work that is, itself, the dialogue, like the community ethnography work of Dance Exchange, whose “Bricks and Bones” performance series in Dallas revealed the historically black neighborhood that was nearly leveled to make way for the city’s arts district, or the civic ethnography of Forklift Danceworks, whose “Trash Project” artfully and spectacularly told the stories of Austin’s garbage and recycling collectors, their work, and their machines. If performance is an immersion into a way of being, our talk about dance should be urgent and real. I’m reminded of a place Berry described during the conference: a multipurpose community space combining facilities for athletics, dentistry, and the arts, run by Serviço Social do Comércio (SESC) in Brazil. “It’s kind of ridiculous and kind of profound,” Berry mused, “this idea that the arts are not this thing separate from life but actually the same thing as brushing your teeth, the same thing as going for a walk or a swim.”