In the concert dance world, I regularly see the words “audience” and “community” used interchangeably. After years of scratching my head over this seemingly minor dilemma, the practice of exchanging those two words freely still doesn’t sit well with me despite the fact that I’ve been guilty of doing so many times myself. This verbal volley has become a habit and one that I think is sorely misguided. It allows us to easily shirk the responsibility of grappling with whether or not these two monikers are actually synonymous. Referring to an audience as a community provides a heightened assumption of care, verbally identifies some unseen camaraderie, and evokes a sense of warmth. Simply put, that particular verbiage sounds more friendly: but is it true?
The word community is a chameleon, shape shifting fluidly between contexts. In moments of joy, “community” invites along all willing to share in that joy. When financial trouble arises, “community” refers to donors. In times of mutual commiseration, community encompasses other artists undergoing the same struggle.“Community Outreach” often reflects work done that, in some way, involves students, elderly participants, or places alternatively dubbed “underserved” “underprivileged” or “diverse”.
Often, I fear that the language of specifying the “communities that we serve” encourages us to nuzzle dangerously against marginalization. In cases where a particular lens has been integral to an artistic process, recognition is surely in order in the spirit of giving credit appropriately. However, we must beware of operating in tropes both in terms of the content of our work and the way we speak about it.
While I do agree that it is GREAT that dance companies and individual artists alike can be specific about what they do and the kind of work they perform, I am not so certain that this clarity actually derives motivational or background related continuity throughout the audience fabric. At a single concert, viewers may be compelled by the physicality of the movers, the location of the performance, the reputation of the choreographer, design elements, the sound score, or a recommendation from a friend. A reviewer may sit in the audience at the request of a company director. Sustainers of a venue may show up because they hold season tickets. My mom comes to see me dance because she’s my mom.
All of these people showed up in the same room at the same time. Does this mutual attendance suddenly transform that group into a community? Even if it does, do I have the right to bestow that title? Without further analysis, the act of showing up IS the common denominator that unites audiences. If that is enough, then it is essential that we stop the practice of further subdivision, if not, it is unfair to lump our viewers into a conglomerate assumedly united under the premise of a similar goal.
Looking at my own artistic practice, I make, engage with, and attend art that I like and find interesting. For me, some dance specific things I love include: athletic partnering, spinal articulation matched with gestural work, improvisational elements, clean unison, anything choreographed by Crystal Pite, dances by Israeli choreographers that involve chairs, clever humor, and dances that I don’t individually find trite or dumb. Selfishly, I don’t make art FOR anyone. I make art that I find interesting, and make it for the people who might find it interesting along with me. While there are some general factors that may drive this interest, I don’t think that I can assuredly call the people gathered who happen to possess those similar interests a “community” unless those people have specifically identified and assembled among themselves as a direct result of that common thread.
With that sense of agency in mind, I think it’s okay for an audience to be simply that - an audience - with the understanding that points of mutual interest or understanding may, in the future, pave the way for development of authentic, longer lasting connections.