If an artist creates a piece of art and there’s no audience, does it exist as art?
Artistic Director Jill Schinberg brazenly pulls this old philosophical conundrum out of the back of the closet, gives it a good dusting and then utilizes it as a loose jumping-off point for an evening of contemporary dance—Audience: sine qua non (without which nothing).
“You know, if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, did it make a sound?” queries Schinberg. “Choreographers, like other artists, often say the same thing in the form of, ‘I don’t care if the audience doesn’t get what I’m doing, I’m still doing it anyway.’ To me, as an artist, it is still art, but I think the two sides are mutually intertwined. So for me, Audience became about educating both the artist and those sitting out in the house, making both parties aware of the other.”
Schinberg wanted to challenge the choreographers by dictating, albeit loosely, an underlying subject matter. But she notes the potential problem with doing so was getting a half dozen identical pieces in response. So she counterbalanced by pulling talent from both sides of the country—New York and San Francisco—while mixing in a few local choreographers, and keeping the hands-on direction to a minimum.
“I got the feeling through my conversations with the choreographers that telling them what to make a dance about is a pretty challenging notion,” says Schinberg. “Some of them initially wanted me to give them more direction on how to use the audience. I just told them they were free to interpret it however they chose to. And the results have been really interesting.”
Take Guillermo Asca’s “Orchestra Row E, Seat 5678.” Asca took the direction literally and put four dancers on the stage sitting in theater seats facing the audience. As a faux or mirror audience, the dancers move through the experience of sitting in a house watching a performance. Another great example is Chelsea Ellis’ “The Valadon Myth.” According to Schinberg, Ellis did some research into Bohemian culture and discovered that Bohemian artworks are only successful if the audience doesn’t actually understand the piece.
Taking Schinberg’s direction in an entirely different direction, Mark Drahozal decided to implicate the audience’s passivity with his politically charged, “My Lie”—a modern dance exploration of the My Lai massacre of Vietnam. “Mark’s piece was a tough one for me because it is so politically charged,” says Schinberg. “There are two things about the piece that Mark felt made it relevant to what I was trying to do. The first thing is that his political views come out strongly in the piece and secondly he directly challenges the audience to be anything but stagnant participants.”
The other half of the program is filled out by even more pieces that deal in varying ways with Schinberg’s “Without Which Nothing” theme: Benjamin Levy’s “pOrtal;” “hypoTHERMIA” by Antonietta Vicario; and “Middlesex: Life Is Random” by Natosha Washington and Nicholas Cendese. But even though Schinberg as the artistic director has put most of the weight of the dilemma on these choreographers’ backs, she acknowledges that the audience shoulders some responsibility, too.
“Especially with contemporary dance, where our audiences are dwindling and the most common thing you hear during intermission is, ‘Umm, I didn’t get it,’ it means that we as artists need to communicate our art better,” she concludes. “And for us, as artists, that’s the frustrating thing. Not when people don’t get it, but that people don’t know that it’s OK not to get it.”
But then, according to Schinberg’s Audience: sine qua non, the question ultimately becomes: If an artist creates a piece of art and the audience doesn’t get it, does it matter? And if so, who’s to blame for the ignorance? The Bohemians? AUDIENCE: SINE QUA NON
U of U Marriot Center for Dance, Studio Theater Room 240 Aug. 26-28 8 p.m. $5 students and seniors $8 general admission 918-7858