Minnesota Fringe Festival: A PSA for Dancers

Hey there, dancers! How’s it been going? How’s the Festival treating you?

Rough, huh? Yeah, I hear that. I’ve had the pleasure of working with a number of dancers over the years, and I know that the audience challenges that we playwrights and storytellers face often pale next to yours. There’s that dance stigma at the Festival, that tendency to regard your work warily as opaque or inaccessible before even getting in the door. It’s not fair, really, and for the most part you don’t have any control over it.

Here’s the thing, though. There is one thing that you can control: if you’re not a writer, hire one.

I mean, I get it, I believe in the auteur system as much as anybody. And, yeah, I’ve got some movement background and if I’m directing a musical I can technically cobble a dance together, but the results are going to be much stronger if I hire someone who specializes in that discipline.

Here’s what I’m talking about. Pull up the modern dance shows on the website. Click through to read the descriptions. In more than half of the cases, I have no idea what this show is about or what I will be seeing. Some of those descriptions will rattle off a resume. Some will speculate on vague and grandiose goals (e.g. “these whirling limbs will unlock a spiritual experience and connect you to a higher consciousness”). Few of them give me information that tells me what I will be looking at for an hour, and in this respect one becomes impossible to distinguish from another.

I’m going to pull an example from a programme. I won’t say what show it belongs to, because

1) there’s no point in embarrassing one company, and
2) this isn’t about one company. This bit of text could come from any number of programmes, descriptions, or press releases, from any number of dance companies, in any number of cities.

“Through the exquisite physicality of his dancers, these works are at once abstract and dramatic, leading the audience into uncharted emotional regions of the human experience.”

…buh? What the hell does this mean? Doesn’t most art try to do this? What is happening in this show? This was someone’s best effort.

It’s failing to give me the information I need to evaluate what this show is and do I want to see it. Instead, it’s free-associating a series of clichés that I have to assume are endemic to dance training, because they show up in the text for every dance show in every damn city I tour to.

The reason this matters is because your potential audience will most likely read your show description, read what is sampled from your press release, and read your programme long before they see you take a single step or make a single gesture. Text is almost always the beginning of your relationship with your audience. You fumble it at your peril.

Here’s the thing. For the most part, we non-dancers like you! We really do! We’re amazed by your grace and physical prowess. Most of us would enjoy sitting through most of your shows! But that potential audience is terrified of ending up in a room and being confused for an hour, and throwing a wall of vague and confusing text at them is a big red flashing “KEEP OUT” sign.

We want to love you. Help us!

Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!

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