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The ‘authentic dancer’ as a tool for audience engagement

clare dyson


Dance Dialogues : Conversations Across Culture, Artforms and Practices : Refereed Proceedings of the World Dance Alliance Global Summit 2008, 13-18 July 2008, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Queensland.

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The ‘authentic dancer’ as a tool for audience engagement

Engagement with performance is an experiential event. To have a lived-experience within the performance construct, infers that the engagement is somehow ‘more live’. Central to this paper is whether audience connection is via the traditional Western model of ‘passive’ viewing [1] , or via a more phenomenological pathway of experiencing the work via the senses and the tools utilised for this connection.

  Most contemporary dance works throughout the world, are currently created for, and then presented within, the traditional presentation dance paradigm: 60-90 minutes in length, seated or fixed ‘passive’ audience, created tour ready and presented within a proscenium/single front theatre format with a separation between audience and performer. While every country includes cultural variations, ‘contemporary dance’ is often made without questioning this traditional Western ‘presentation paradigm’, which does not privilege the experiential, or the audience, except from a single viewing point. As such, the majority of contemporary dance currently being created is a form of Western contemporary dance. While many choreographers from non-Western countries who are creating work within that paradigm (i.e. with similar vocabularies, conventions and presentation format), choose to localise their work with geographic and cultural concerns outside it, they usually create and then present work within the standard paradigm: while the movement styles may vary, the way in which the audience engages with it does not. For example, indigenous choreographers in Australia are creating works with specific cultural concerns and innovative choreography drawing on their specific history of dance, but they are, more often than not, creating the works to be performed within the Western traditional presentational paradigm. This format is replicated by contemporary (and ballet) choreographers throughout Asia, South America and Africa.

  But what happens when a contemporary dance work is specifically designed to be ‘experienced’ by the audience? Privileging the ‘experiential’ via subtle shifts in this traditional dance paradigm? Can variations of the Western presentational paradigm change how audiences engage with dance?

  Work of this kind is integrally co-dependent on an audience, and allows the concept to reveal how best the audience can experience it: Will the audience understand the concept of choice if they have choice? Will the audience remember childhood fun if they play on swings during the performance? Will an audience understand that they are voyeurs if they watch through peepholes?  This research looks at how changes in the Western presentational paradigm alters how audiences engage with dance. Along with the tools of audience agency, liminality, variations of site, ritual and audience proximity – tools that that invert the traditional presentation paradigm and create engagement via physical interactions with the audience – the current question for this paper is: can ‘performer authenticity’ also be used as a tool of connection with the audience?

  When a work is specifically designed to be experienced by the audience, then the role of the performer, the actual performance, changes the experiential possibilities for that audience. With historical precedents in theatre and post-modern dance, the ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ dancer is a performer who is able to connect via immediacy, engaging their audience not by illusion, but through a visceral connection of the everyday.


  Engagement tools – why do we want to engage more?

  Although the traditional Western dance presentation format isn’t a bad model per se – we have all had profoundly engaging experiences within it – it has to be acknowledged that this strict paradigm rarely allows for deviation, is enforced by 19th Century architecture, touring agencies, funding authorities and history, rather than the needs of a particular work, concept, or audience. Wilhelm Dilthey who wrote extensively about the lived-experience remarks that  ‘one cannot “think” a poem. One experiences it with all one's faculties’ (Fehling, 1943, pp. 15-16) . But within the Western presentation paradigm, experiencing dance ‘with all one’s faculties’, is near impossible.

  Heidegger talks of experience and says that as Dasein (nature of Being) we have two potentials: one that is situated in the world of social constructs and constraints (work, domestic, children etc.) requiring us to perform socially constructed functions where ‘we must draw a horizon around ourselves in order to be able to focus on our daily affairs’ blinding us to our ‘ownmost possibility’. The other is situated in the knowledge that our lives are finite - that we will die and once we live in that knowledge (Being-toward-the-end) we then have active choices about what we will do with our lives: The Authentic self is one that is Being-in-the world, but particular to the world - one that makes decisions (or non-decisions) about how he will go forward towards his death (Guignon, 1983, pp. 132-138) .

  What ramifications do these philosophical views of the world have within the constructed world of performance? Is there a responsibility toward the audience to create an environment, an experience, which asks them to Be-in-the world, even if it is only for the duration of the performance?

  And what of the performers? As Fraleigh says, ‘my dance cannot exist without me: I exist my dance’ (Flanagan, 2004, p. xvi) .  Is this also an opportunity for them to reveal themselves as authentic? This question poses more difficulty in terms of the function of art and the role of art as therapy. The role of art (as opposed to therapy) is to communicate: but by what means is the communication most effective? Returning to the question of the authentic performer: can performer authenticity be used as a tool that facilitates the audience's Being-in-the-world?


  Authenticity in performance

  Authenticity, when connected with dance, connotes a long history of therapeutic usage. While the processes of ‘Authentic Movement’ are interesting and have wide appeal, they have little impact on the role of authenticity within the presentation paradigm. So what word should we use when talking about ideas of authenticity in performance? Improviser Andrew Morrish [2] , thinks that performers are always authentic if they are working within a relational paradigm: I’m in relation to you as the audience and once I acknowledge that, anything I do is authentic. In terms of his improvisational form, he prefers the word ‘present’ to ‘authentic’ as there is less judgement. What I’m interested in however, is how audiences feel about that: do audiences engage more if they perceive a dancer is being present, authentic or real?

  This was an initial research question during the development of a new contemporary dance work titled Being There (2007). Audience feedback from this work indicated that the performers’ realness made them engage with the dancers more: ‘we really felt them fall and cry and hurt themselves’. Other feedback supported this: it was suggested that when the performers spoke text they didn’t write, the connection was broken – because ‘they weren’t as believable as when they were just being themselves’. In other words, they were not authentic.

  What has to be acknowledged when looking at this area is that however real or authentic a performer is at any given moment on stage, she is still on stage and within a constructed environment. Dance works are not performance art: The paradigm is different. In dance there isn’t an assumption that the dancer is the work of art herself, even if it is a solo. Rather, that she is revealing the work of art and is part of the work of art. But those expectation boundaries can be blurred. If there is a blurring, then is that process one of connection for the audience? Dance researcher and theorist Ryod Climenhaga believes this to be the case. He believes Pina Bausch’s attention to performer presence creates ‘a world of immediate presence that directly engages the audience, rather than a re-presented world that comes from a constructed idea of time and space’ (Climenhaga, 2009, p. 100) .


  Why authenticity? How might it be engaging in onstage?

  Heidegger's use of the word authentic ‘brings with it a more sharply defined sense of what it is to be human.’  As an authentic, transparent self, we know ourselves, our social requirements, our finite time as a living being and the impact of choice on our life. All of our decisions, once seen and taken responsibility for, are what make us authentic: make us Be-in-the-world. It is that understanding which makes us unique. We are no longer just ‘Anyone’, although we can be throughout our lives, we now have choice. This pathway of transparency and authenticity, ‘as the “art of existing” points to a capacity for grasping life in a different way’ (Guignon, 1983, p. 136) .

  The assumption here, however, is that to Be-in-the-world, is better than being inauthentic. And that authenticity and experiencing are nourishing ways not only of living, but also of engaging with live art. Anthropologist Charles Lindholm says that while this search for authenticity is a current concern, it has been since the 18th Century and that ‘the quest for authenticity touches and transforms a vast range of human experience today… authentic art, authentic music, authentic food, authentic dance, authentic people….’ (Lindholm, 2008, p. 1) . But where has this desire for authenticity come from?

  The breakup of feudal relationships in 16th Century Europe changed established societal positions and brought into question an individual’s sincerity and broader issues of authenticity (Lindholm, 2008, p. 3) .  By the late 18th Century, Rousseau’s Confessions had been published, shockingly revealing his ‘true’ person, and in the process becoming the ‘harbinger of a new ideal in which exploring and revealing one's essential nature was taken as an absolute good, even if this meant flying in the face of the moral standards of society.’ This attitude, according to Rousseau, was about ‘directly experiencing authentic feeling. Only then could a person be said to have a real existence,’ (Lindholm, 2008, p. 8)  which is central to the modern quest for authenticity – both individually and collectively.

  But as Lindholm points out: ‘if a Rembrandt can be called authentic, so can Coca Cola’ because ‘authenticity can be ratified by experts who prove provenance and origin, or by the evocation of feelings that are immediate and irrefutable’ (2008, p. 1) .

  So does our wider desire for authentic experiences include a desire for it within the arts? In her 1983 article, Carter discusses the German word Erlebnis used in phenomenology as knowing or understanding a work via a ‘lived-experience’. It is, she says, ‘akin to knowing an object in nature directly through the senses, as opposed to knowing the object through the words that label or describe it’ (1983, p. 66) . Carter’s focus is on how we experience dance and she expands the notion of Erlebnis (lived-experience) and its ramifications within performance, to also include the experience of the performer: ‘The dancer brings to the performance a substantial knowledge about dance (Erkenntnis), including a system of formalised training, and, at the same time, he discovers and discloses to the audience an individualised presence that can only be experienced at a particular moment of performance (Erlebnis)’ (1983, p. 62) . Although relevant to the understanding of how knowledge can manifest, the experiential and Erlebnis, is focused here solely on how audience experience the performance – but the question central to this paper is whether the experience (Erkenntnis) of the performer deepens the audience’s connection to the overall work.

  What does the industry think?

  This presentation paradigm although currently popular, has, in the past, not only been challenged, but been completely inverted. The 1960s saw many countries experiencing unrest, revolution, empowering political movements and overhauling established governments. The arts were not immune to these changes – feminism, socialism, black rights and anti war movements flourished through the arts and there are myriad examples of audience interaction, audience participation and audience manipulation works from this time – all of which challenged what dance (and performance) could be and what roles audience and performer played in these constructs. But much of the revolutions of that time looking at form over content have since gone out of fashion and we are currently back in theatres telling stories that suit the world-wide presentation paradigm. Within this presentation paradigm there are inherent priorities that affect making – namely that the audience, while considered, is not prioritised, that there is usually a fixed distance between audience and performer and that the audience is usually seated and passive (as opposed to with agency).

  While there are many ways in which this presentation paradigm can be challenged (and is so), can the role of dancers and conventions of how to ‘dance’ within this paradigm be modified to vary how audiences engage?

  Pina Bausch has been using the idea of the present or authentic performer as an integral part of her choreographic style since the 1980s. There are numerous other choreographers who also work in this way, but her work has been a major influence in the world of Western choreography for over three decades and is worth highlighting. Bausch’s use of authenticity is vastly different to the use of ‘the everyday’ in the 1960s Post-Modern choreographic movement in the US, where the everyday was utilised to highlight the form of the work and the body used as an everyday instrument, often in everyday situations. Bausch takes a different standpoint in her work: she utilises theatricality but asks her performers to undergo often difficult situations on stage, so we see how they reveal themselves as people – thus forming an unexpected and individual connection with the audience.

  In his 2009 book about Bausch, Climenhaga discusses his audience experience of the work Kontakhoff:

For the moment sitting there in the dark I am stunned, oddly uncovered, and exhausted. Bausch has made us all work hard, and the penultimate image of that woman lingers. I see her in my mind and carry the image with me as I head back out into the lobby. Despite the artifice of the situation, the woman goes through a very real event, and her presence on stage is a product of both her actual existence in this moment, and the long and dense collage of images that lead up to it. The moment has power, in part, to the degree that we are able to see the woman as a real person enduring a real as well as a metaphoric trial, and Bausch has supplied a context that demands our attention to her subjectivity as expressed in bodily terms. She incorporates, or makes body, the underlying feeling structure of the image because it is enacted on her and expressed with the real presence of her body in the moment (Climenhaga, 2009, p. 87) .

  This calls into question the role of performer within the conceptual framework of creation: If she is a performer, what does that authenticity mean to her within the profession? How can she ever ‘perform’ authentically? For Bausch and her dancers, part of the process in this work was utilising ‘the real presence of the performer’s body, without attempting to push his or her body through an objective technique, and without trying to make his or her body stand for something else in the presentation of character within a dramatic story’ (Climenhaga, 2009, p. 33) .

  But can a dancer ever find the authentic within the construction of a disciplined and bespoke art form? Can a dancer ever ‘dance’ and be authentic?

  Classical ballet and Western contemporary dance are art forms that are taught on the body. Separating the self from the body allows the body to be trained more easily: changes, criticisms and discussions are about the body and its facility or limitation and not about the person. The student is taught this from a very young age. Invariably there is a student to whom this has not been made clear and she is, usually in her teens, devastated by criticism that challenges her self worth. This is a high drop out age for young dancers. But those who continue eventually find ways (some successfully) to hear discussion and criticism of their bodies, their body's movement and their performance skills, as 'part of the job' and not as a personal attack. Those who survive most successfully in this industry have professional skills in detachment and in leaving the personal and the emotional out of the studio. Even when asked to bring these elements into the studio, this requires maturity and additional skills from both the performer and the creator, skills that are not inherently part of dance training.

  When a dancer is asked to 'be herself' on stage, what does that mean? How does she go about looking at this question? Her training, often from the age of six, has been designed to train her body as an instrument and to separate herself from that process, although not entirely - choreographers still want 'emotion' or sometimes 'rawness' or, in rare cases, 'reality'. But what they are asking for is a pre-conceived construct of these things or for a dancer to draw on real life to expand a character – much like an actor might. If they had really wanted those things on stage the choreographer could have worked with an untrained performer, entirely removing the virtuosic training and its resultant ‘performance’. As one dancer said to me: ‘it’s hard to be ‘angry’ or ‘sad’ when you are doing an attitude turn.’ [3]

  The dance profession has embedded conventions about how to perform, how to teach, create and also how to watch dance: Audiences expect that a 'dancer' will 'dance'. The question of authenticity is most often discussed in terms of interpretation: ‘She dances that role so well, she is so believable....’ But the question of her authenticity is shrouded in the expectations of the profession. There is no discussion of her authenticity in terms of who she is as a person, unless she is a dancer first, and then a person. The assumption is that ‘the skills, intuition, and genius of the interpreter were all that was necessary to present a piece with authenticity and conviction’ (Lindholm, 2008, p. 26) .

  Leading Australian choreographer Meryl Tankard auditioned for Bausch’s company while on tour as a member of The Australian Ballet. She recounts her audition process: ‘It was the first time a director had encouraged me to project my own personality on the stage, and it opened a whole new world. I had nothing against being a sylph in a tutu and toe-shoes, but the whole classical repertory suddenly seemed like a museum’ (Climenhaga, 2009, pp. 13-14) .

  What do performers think?

  Gadamer reminds us here that the ‘question of how truth is revealed or disclosed by art also suggest how art conceals and hides truth’ (2003, p. 141) .

  Andrew Morrish’s [4] form is improvisation and so he is constantly required to be in-the-moment or authentic. He is therefore an excellent person with whom to discuss ideas of performer authenticity. One of his expectations of himself as an experienced performer is ‘to walk in front of the audience and say: ”We’ve all just arrived and this is the only chance we’ll have to have this moment”. As if there is no tomorrow. I’m trying to give myself that much courage and that much permission to be who I have to be in that moment’ (Dyson, 2008, p. 3) .

  But he doesn’t believe that a performer, no matter what they do, can be inauthentic. This is contrary to my belief that authenticity is something different to ‘performing’ and because of that difference, it could be utilised as a tool for engagement. Morrish says of his own practice that he doesn’t know how to be inauthentic and doesn’t use the terminology because ‘authentic’ ‘implies that there is something deep, and something superficial (on top) and it creates a separateness’ (Dyson, 2008, p. 22) and judgement of performers. The form of improvisation, however, is one that requires a performer to be-in-the-moment because material is not pre-made. What do dancers, who work in environments where a performance is set and have seasons of up to several weeks, think of performer authenticity?

  I undertook a focus group (Dyson, 2009) to ask dancers this very question. The group consisted of five professional dancers who have been working in a variety of large to medium dance companies [5] for their entire professional lives. These dancers represent the established core of the profession: they have worked with numerous innovative and avant-garde choreographers, but they have done so within company structures which means they were usually on full time contracts, were expected to be at the height of their profession, have toured nationally and internationally and have an intimate knowledge of choreography, performing and performance.

  The focus group came together informally to discuss ideas of performer-presence and authenticity in their profession. The general consensus of the discussion was that as professional ballet and contemporary dancers, part of their profession was to ‘be whatever was required’ by the choreographer. In other words: as dancers, their job was to be great technicians but also to embody whatever ideas, personas or characters the choreographer wanted. This wasn’t considered a positive or a negative aspect of their job, but one that was required in all professional situations they had worked in.

  George [6] , now 43, spent 17 years dancing professionally and questioned what authenticity was in this context and whether ‘dancing’ is now part of that, saying that after dancing since he was six, ‘authenticity’ on stage would require a level of ‘de-coding’ of the body. ‘And if that’s what you want’ he added, ‘then why use dancers at all? Why not use untrained people on stage?’

  Christian, 39, said that ‘our profession is about getting away from yourself – about being able to leave some things out of the studio’ which involves a series of professional skills that are learned over time and not easily shed. In his 19 years working as a professional dancer he said that he was only ever asked to ‘be himself’ once on stage, by an independent artist and never while he was working in a main-house company, but that the choreographer only asked for it while he was doing a pedestrian task. [7]

  David, 36, with 16 years dancing professionally said that ‘it actually really depends on the choreographer and what they think is authentic. They can see something you do and believe it’s authentic or ask to you to change something to fit their version of authentic.’ Tony added to this by saying that ‘if you are presenting something in a proscenium arch – how can it ever be authentic?’ because you are presenting it in a ‘performance’ paradigm and repeating it each night.

  When I asked the focus group what would happen if they were required ‘just to be themselves’ on stage, Mimi said that if she were asked to be herself on stage then ‘you’d still be an actor – you’d be clever and work out what bit of you works.’  David agreed saying that ‘you can certainly act being authentic.’

  While philosophically, Andrew’s responses are different to those from my focus group, what all the performers suggested is that they are rarely required by their profession to ‘be authentic’ when they are onstage because it isn’t part of the profession unless it’s improvised, even if there are choreographers who want to work with it. As such, if they are required to be authentic on stage, it’s an inversion of a major performance code and one that often unsettles an audience into a different kind of interaction with the form:


Bausch is not the first to engage this type of presentation and expression, but she is the first to place that bodily presence at the centre of her presentational praxis. Rather than for a constructed present, the performer is present, and that presence both creates and addresses our own sense of self intertwined with others. Our own connection to the world is shown as a bodily process, necessarily fractured, but what is important is not so much the gaps created between ourselves and others, but the persistence with which we try to bridge those gaps (Climenhaga, 2009, p. 67) .


  Does this use authenticity in performance make audience engage more?

  While Morrish believes that everything on stage is authentic, he does feel that there are elements of ‘being in the moment’ that change how an audience connects with you. He also acknowledges that when an audience knows that what you are doing is ‘real’, they connect more:

You are in survival mode and that’s what we do when we perform. It doesn’t get more authentic or honest than that. It’s also clear that audiences love that. This honesty thing is part of this too. Sometimes people are very disappointed if they feel that the performer is pretending. For me it’s clear that the performer is the kind of person who, when they’re under stress, they pretend. It doesn’t get more authentic than that. It is completely authentic all the time. You can’t be dishonest as a performer. You can pretend and cheat as much as you like and the audience sees you pretending and cheating. They know you are a pretender and a cheater. It’s always authentic in that sense, in that survival paradigm (Dyson, 2008, p. 24) .

  The difference between authenticity and inauthenticity ‘lies not in what possibilities are available, then, but in how those possibilities are heard and taken up’ (Guignon, 1983, p. 140) . According to Bausch, she utilises these tools because they are interesting to audiences, which infers they are being used as a tools for engagement – and consciously at that.


  What do audiences think?

‘As early as 1908 ads for Coke earnestly exhorted consumers to “get the genuine.” This is only one example of manufacturers’ efforts to persuade buyers that their brand was more natural, more located in history, or more pure, or more real, that anything their competitors had to offer’ (Lindholm, 2008, pp. 55-56) .

  But does this translate to audiences or consumers of contemporary dance? Bruce’s answer, one of the participants of a recent audience focus group, was an unequivocal Yes: ‘Of course if I see someone on stage really telling their story I will connect with them more.’ But his assertion was that it would have to be really ‘real’ and not a constructed real. A point, he said, that made a difference.

  Climenhaga believes that the ‘performer's presences strongly engages the audience's attention and cultivates the audience’s own sense of presence - a sense of the importance of being in the moment at that event’ (Allain & Harvie, 2006, p. 193) . After each of my performances I ask for feedback about audience experience. The questions for Being There (2007) were about proximity to the dancers, and there was a specific question about whether the performance quality/authenticity of the performers made the work more engaging. The majority of the feedback said that the authenticity of the performers engaged them in unexpected ways: ‘With the intensity of the performers I couldn't help but be engaged.’ ‘The emotional honesty of the dancers drew me in.’  ‘It broke my heart’  ‘The dancers’ performance quality - particularly their ability to cross performance genres was far more engaging that any work I've seen.’ [She] ‘drew me in with her groundedness and the ‘genuineness’ of her emotion.’

  What is interesting to note about the reactions to these particular performers, in this particular work, is that the ‘engaged’ responses [8] were centred around the audiences’ proximity to the dancers: the audience was asked to sit in an ellipse on stage and the dancers were often performing quite close to them. While the audience didn’t move once the work began, the proximity to the dancers allowed them an unusual opportunity to see these dancers deconstructing their own profession and their own world of performance in an intimate environment. This was done for, and with the audience, and for some, it connected them deeply with the performers.

  For Georg Simmel, an early 20th Century sociologist, ‘the eye of a person discloses his own soul when he seeks to uncover that of another. What occurs in this direct mutual reciprocity is the entire field of human relationships’ (Flanagan, 2004, p. 109) . It seems from feedback over the last three years that audiences do engage when elements of the traditional performance paradigm are inverted or consciously manipulated by choreographers. What is interesting to observe however, is that while some inversions are gimmicks and done without thought or intent, those artists specifically wanting to engage their audiences via shifts in this paradigm, usually end up making works that connect on deeply experiential levels.

  Performer authenticity, while utilised often in film and theatre, is not common in the form of dance. Because society desires authenticity, and its uncommon usage in dance, an inversion of this convention is one of the many tools that is available to choreographers to form deep connections with their audience and is gaining popularity throughout the world as a form of connection via reality and the immediacy of live performance.



[1] A ‘passive audience’ in this context means ‘without agency’. This is the standard kind of audience within the  traditional 19th Century theatre model of presentation for theatrical performances. Within this model the dance work is usually made for the seated audience to ‘receive’. ‘Passive’ refers to this ‘receiving’, as well as the lack of physical and active choices available to the audience within this context.

[2] Andrew Morrish has been working in the form of dance and performance improvisation for over 26 years as a solo artist and as part of Trotnam and Morrish.

[3] ‘Mimi’ from the focus group discussion.

[4] See previous note about Morrish

[5] Dance Companies represented: Australian Ballet, Australian Dance Theatre, Dance North, Expressions Dance Company, Queensland Ballet, RamebertDance Co. (London), Random Dance (London), Sydney Dance Company

Independents/Project Companies: Attik Dance (UK), Bunty Mathias & Co. (London), Clare Dyson, Dance Encore, Gender M Production Inc., David Massingmay Dance (London), Olivia Millard, Sue Peacock, Emily Urns & Co. (London)

[6] All names are pseudonyms

[7] Lighting a match

[8] While there were some audience members who were not engaged, none cited performer authenticity or proximity as the reasons for this.




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