As with any performance venue, the Place in London recognises the need to appeal to audiences – but as a venue dedicated to artist development, says senior producer Christina Elliot, “the vast majority of what we do is responsive to artists’ ideas. The impetus for the work is a real need from an artist to make a particular show,” far more than “audience demand”. And yet, she is hardly dismissive of audience viewpoints, seeing dialogue with non-dance practitioners as potentially vital to the progression of emerging choreographers. In particular, she suggests that: “the opportunity to share during the making process with a more diverse group of non-professionals might make stronger, more robust work”.
This thinking contributed to the shape of Pivot Dance, a three-year artist development project funded by Creative Europe, and designed and executed by the Place in collaboration with Nederlands Dansdagen festival in Maastricht and the Centro per la Scena Contemporanea in Bassano, Italy. Integral to the project in all three countries was an Audience Club: a group of people enthusiastic but not necessarily knowledgeable about dance, who would spend time with the choreographers over the course of the project, giving feedback on their work in progress and committing to watching the final performances.
The person charged with executing this plan in London was Peter Laycock, creative learning producer at the Place. He immediately saw a problem: since the gestation and creation process of dance is long, he wondered, “how are we going to have any Audience Club left by the time the pieces are finished, when there’s so much to do in London and people come and go quite regularly?” But he also saw a wonderful opportunity to test a long-held idea. His programme of audience activities at the Place had always been tailored to suit individual productions: people might be offered “a workshop making things with your hands on the theme of the piece, a practical movement workshop, a pre-show lecture from academics…”. But what he wanted to create was: “a contextual programme that wasn’t directly linked to a specific performance: something where we just bring people together to talk about dance”.
He expected a handful of people to respond to the open call for Audience Club participants; in fact he received some 300 applications, from which 38 people were chosen to gather in February 2016 for the first meeting. Susie Williams, one of the most committed attendees, describes the group as both “a complete mix of people that you may never have met in other circumstances” and “a clever mix of people – that showed itself in how people responded to work, with older people responding differently to the younger people”. Since the callout was “a bit ambiguous”, says another regular attendee, Jackie Richards, no one really knew what to expect. But Richard Arendse, another regular, speaks for all of them when he says that: “it sounded like a very rare opportunity to be somehow creatively involved with the making of some new pieces of dance”.
The design of the Pivot project specified that there would be two points of interaction between the choreographers and Audience Club prior to the final showings, says Catherine Greenwood, artist development manager at the Place. Very quickly, however, it developed into its own entity: “We met them every month, we put more resources into our Audience Club, and as a result it’s become a core area of our activity and our broader artist development strategy.” A trained educator, Laycock shaped a curriculum of workshops, discussions and lectures, through which participants could “learn different ways of watching and responding to performance”. For Arendse this was all “a real eye-opener”: although a long-time dance fan, he came to Audience Club feeling that “I don’t really understand dance, unless it has an obvious narrative”, so he welcomed being encouraged by Laycock to “let your mind wander” and give more precedence to “how it makes you feel rather than what it makes you think”.
The Audience Club were also invited to see other performances at the Place, and for Richards that similarly was “an eye-opener. I’ve had the opportunity to see performances that I would never have gone to see, and different kinds of choreography.” Even better, says Williams, were the opportunities to sit in on work-in-progress performances, particularly of interactive or intimate work. She recalls with delight her interaction with James Finnemore and his producer Jo Mackie following a sharing at the Place: “We were asked to speak immediately afterwards with the dancers, then had drinks upstairs where we were able to go into more depth, which you wouldn’t want to do in a whole group session.” Arendse says one of his favourite activities was attending a workshop with dancers from Candoco, and then seeing the same trio perform at the Place soon after, where: “I could see the connections between what we’d done in the session and what they were doing in the performance space.”
Unexpectedly, the Audience Club regulars don’t talk with quite the same enthusiasm about the Pivot choreographers, Sivan Rubinstein and Joseph Toonga – not because they disliked their work, but because they felt frustrated by the lack of interaction with them. As specified in the design of Pivot, the group did meet twice with each choreographer before the final shows: both times with Toonga in a rehearsal room, with the Audience Club invited to watch discuss Toonga’s ideas for the show and watch movement already made; once with Rubinstein in an early workshop, where the Audience Club were able to play with some of the materials used in the show, and once following a public preview of her work Maps at the London venue JW3. For Williams, this wasn’t enough for a sense of connection or shared communication to form, and Arendse agrees. “The first time you meet the choreographers you’re very open-minded because you don’t know what to expect,” he says, “but the second time one feels it should have gone a bit deeper.” And the gap between the two dialogues with Rubinstein was so large, says Williams, that it was hard to tell “whether anything any of us had to say would have any bearing” on the progress of the work.
From the choreographer’s perspective, Toonga also wanted more access to the Audience Club – because he found their points of view “really helpful. Their opinion wasn’t arty-farty, I didn’t feel like they were watching me as a critic, or thinking I’m not going to fund you: it felt like they were just telling me what they saw, and that’s fresh to hear, it felt supportive.” And Rubinstein shares that positivity. Whereas Arendse echoes Williams in feeling that Rubinstein “was quite clear how she wanted to proceed from the first meeting, so I don’t think feedback went very far there”, Rubinstein herself says that both interactions with the Audience Club were vital to her making process. In fact, holding workshops with audience members was so important to her that she organised additional sessions in venues across England: “I needed to do this in order to create movement,” she says. “It inspired the creation, inspired the design, the styling, the music, the text.” Even having the Audience Club present at the JW3 preview felt invaluable: her finished piece “would be completely different” without the feedback she received there.
The disparity between these perceptions raises fascinating questions about the kinds of involvement in making processes dance fans might want – and the kinds artists are willing to offer. Rubinstein admits that initially she and Toonga “had this fear of showing something we’re not comfortable to show yet – but we passed that bridge”. Because of that, says Richards, the Audience Club got a striking insight into “the amount of research and preparatory work that goes into creating a piece which might last half an hour”. Arendse agrees, adding his surprise at how something as small as “the germ of an idea can be the spark to create a dance piece. I had imagined it was much more literal – this is a dance piece about so and so – but it can be something really abstract that then gets even further abstracted.” He wanted more such insight: “It would be interesting for the choreographers to be open about what they’ve rejected, as much as what they’ve put in. And it would be really interesting to see how a choreographer actually works with their dancers: ‘I asked them to explore this’ – but what does that literally mean? What does it look like when you do that?” Such depth of insight would be hard to achieve in just two sessions.
What the Audience Club experiment has proven to the Place, says Elliot, is that “there’s a real thirst from audiences, who might not normally engage with performance or dance that much, to be involved in some way”. In thinking about how it might continue, she suggests the staff need to reconcile “a tension between our need to create a structured format for members of the public, which is important to galvanise people’s enthusiasm and commitment, versus the need to be different for every choreographer, and responsive to what is happening in each process”. But this is work the Place are keen to do, says Eddie Nixon, the venue’s Director of Theatre and Artist Development, because “the feedback sessions were really rich – not like normal Q&As – and that model of deepening a relationship between a fixed group of people and what we might make here was really valuable and valid”. In fact, despite the “mismatch of expectations”, Nixon sees the Audience Club as “the bit of Pivot that really took off for us as an organisation”, and that will affect how the venue approaches not only audience development but artist development in years to come.