Dance: Theatrical clap-trap

Lise Smith asks when did UK audiences start walking out?

In an email to choreographer Jonathan Burrows sent in 2009, maverick French dance artist Jerome Bel wrote: ‘The first seven minutes of a performance are for free, the audience can accept anything…you can try to attempt something else, to put the audience on a different track than the usual one for the rest of the performance. It’s after those seven minutes that they start to yell at you.’ Reading this (in Burrows’s excellent A Choreographer’s Handbook) I thought, how charmingly Gallic, and how very un-British, to express one’s disappointment with a performance while it is still taking place. But is that national paradigm still true?

Until recently theatres have been a place where people will – generally – politely accept whatever is put in front of them. I recall attending a horrendous performance by a well-regarded touring dance company five years ago; at curtain call there was an agonising ten-second silence that must have felt like an eternity to the dancers, where I genuinely thought that nobody was going to applaud. But then a polite and respectful clapping rippled across the audience and the dancers took their relieved bows. That was as close as I thought British audiences got to expressing censure.

But in recent months I have noticed an increase in the number of walkouts taking place during performances. The critic Luke Jennings blogged last summer about his displeasure at being spat at by one of Dave St Pierre’s company during Un Peu de Tendresse, Bordel de Merde!, noting that the performance had been met with ‘more walk-outs than I’ve ever seen at Sadler’s Wells’. For what it’s worth I greatly enjoyed St Pierre’s piece, but more to the point I am sure I spotted at least as many walkouts from Anna Teresa De Keersmaker’s Rosas Danst Rosas at the same venue a few weeks earlier.  I sometimes find myself wondering what those leaving had actually expected from the performance – maybe naked Canadians are too much for some patrons, but who on earth buys a ticket for Rosas not knowing that austerity and extended silence are De Keersmaeker’s watchwords?

Perhaps as a nation we are developing a little more assertiveness, like our continental cousins. Or perhaps we now feel too busy and time-poor to stick out a performance that doesn’t entirely please us. Whatever the reason, something has definitely shifted in the way UK audiences receive work. We have a little way to go before we start yelling at the performers, as Bel’s colourful scenario has it. But spectators no longer wait for a friendly break in the programme before upping and leaving to express their discontent.

While audience empowerment may on one hand be a good thing, a growing epidemic of walkouts may also indicate a lack of patience with artistic experiment – a willingness to go, as the other half of Bel’s statement suggests, on a track different from the usual. We might have stopped damning with faint applause, but I hope we haven’t also given up the possibility of participating in an alternative journey.

Lise Smith is a dance writer, manager and teacher, and regularly contributes to

Originally published at ArtsProfessional

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