by Lucy Vurusic Riner
My husband took me to see the Chicago Moving Company on our first date back in 1996. A smart, and thoughtful, move on his part because eleven years and two kids later, we are going strong.
But when we look back on that first date now, Jim often reminds me how that first experience watching modern dance was very alienating for him. Of course, I didn’t know any of this at the time so I continued to drag him from one modern dance concert to another. It wasn’t until many years later that we candidly talked about how audience members can easily be disconnected from modern dance; especially if they walk in trying too hard to understand from the get go.
Historically, the novice dance audience member has obsessively tried to understand everything that is happening on stage. Ballet generally tells a narrative story with some pantomime and lots of theatrical elements that help guide the story. The program generally has some sort of director’s notes to give a brief synopsis of what the inspiration behind the ballet is and so the audience member is able to sit back and enjoy watching some beautiful dancing. The general public also has a perception of ballet dance and what it is. Even if it might not always correct, most people can conjure some sort of image of what they believe they might see if at the ballet.
Jazz dance provides audience members with excitement and particularly in America, it is one of the oldest forms of dance entertainment. There is precision, technical feats and a lot of flash to keep the audience engaged. So how do we entice the non-dancer to experience modern dance and “learn” how to watch it?
Theoretically, it hasn’t been around nearly as long as its counterparts. Every time I begin a new quarter of dance at school I have at least one student ask me what modern dance is. I have never had anyone ask me that about ballet or jazz. So after many years of performing, choreographing and most importantly, watching modern dance, here’s what I think (and sometimes don’t think) when I’m watching it:
1. You know when a student asks a teacher what something means and the teacher says, “What do YOU think it means?” Well, the same rule applies when watching modern dance. Yes, there are a lot of dances out there that might have been choreographed with a specific intention in mind but I have never met a dance artist that hasn’t been interested in hearing other interpretations of their work. Art is meant to make people think. So rather then sit and wonder what someone else was trying to say, ask yourself how the piece speaks to you.
2. Trust that you actually might know what is going on! Many of us hit the nail on the head right away but then we question ourselves. Modern dance isn’t meant to trick you. You may actually be watching exactly what you think you are watching.
3. Not everything means something. And even when it does, it’s still OK to watch something and just enjoy the DANCING. There have been plenty of times where I have left a theater and not been moved by the message a dance had but instead by the people performing it. Plenty of modern dances are made simply so that people can look beautiful while executing it.
4. Leaving with questions isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, as a choreographer if I know you have left the theater pondering something about what I’ve shown you, then I’ve done a good job. It’s why people have book clubs; so they can continue a discussion about what their experiences were while reading a book. I love going out for dinner or drinks after a show and talking about what I did or didn’t get out of a performance.
5. Modern dance is ever evolving. Styles, people and techniques are always changing. This can be frustrating for the audience member. Audience members make expectations centered around a performance (there are some solid assumptions in seeing an opera, musical or ballet) but modern dance changes from one company to the next, one city to the next and one decade to the next. If you are the type of audience member that always needs to “get it,” this can be frustrating. OR it could be the best thing about modern dance….if you continue to open yourself to new experiences!
I once had an artistic director tell me that a dance should be longer than 6 minutes. When I asked why, she told me that she had read somewhere that the human brain begins to disassociate after that amount of time; that we no longer have the capacity to remain interested or entertained. I was dumbfounded. What about a movie? Aren’t those roughly two hours? What about the average class period in high school? Roughly 50 minutes?
As someone with a human brain I was offended that someone was creating dances based on how much they thought I could “handle” watching. What if as an artist I’m trying to say more than what can be bundled into six minutes? What about stretching people to experience something new and different? Can modern dance still be interesting to watch if it’s longer than 6 minutes? My answer would be the same no matter the dance form: YES…..if it’s good. And good is subjective.
After eleven years, not only has my husband really learned to enjoy modern dance, he’s become quite the educated critic. I’m glad he wasn’t scared off. He’s seen plenty of good and bad dance (in every form out there) and when we leave a show we look forward to the discussions we’ll have about it in the car on the way home, the next day at breakfast, and months later when an image or situation reminds us of it and we think back to what we experienced.
As a modern dance advocate I encourage you to become frequent modern dance audience members. As dancers, we love performing for you, as choreographers we love sharing our vision with you, and as people we love to embrace art…..and it’s just more fun to do it with you.
Contributor Lucy Vurusic Riner is a native Chicagoan who has been supporting and contributing to the dance community for over twenty years. She received her BS Degree in dance and dance education from Illinois State University. Lucy has been a member of Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak Dance Company, RTG Dance Company and Matthew Hollis’ “The Power of Cheer.” She has also had the opportunity to be part of the community cast of White Oak Dance Project and David Dorfman Dance.
Lucy has taught modern, hip hop, and jazz at numerous studios and high schools in the Chicagoland area. She has been the Director of Dance at Oak Park and River Forest High School since 1999. In 2005, Lucy completed her Masters Degree in Education from National Louis University and also received the Midwest Dance Teacher of the Year award and was the youngest of four finalists in the running for the National Dance Teacher of the Year award. Lucy and artistic partner, Michael Estanich, formed RE|Dance in 2010. This dancer theater company investigates humanity in movement through long distance collaboration. Lucy has also begun work on a long-term project entitled, “The Moving Vessel” which explores the impact of motherhood on the professional dancer. When Lucy is not working with independent choreographers and producing her own shows, she is at home with her two great kids, Margie and Luka, and her very supportive husband, Jim.