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Responsibility of the Audience

Last weekend I saw a visual and auditory representation of the online drama that encompassed the hacktivist group, Anonymous.

The People Movers Dance Company perform what they called “a new ballet set in cyberspace.” The live music was conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya. The music was composed by Peter Van Zandt Lane and consisted of electronically processed sounds weaved seamlessly into sounds produced by a band of traditional, live instruments.

The movement was choreographed by Kate Ladenheim, a dance choreographer who aims to exclusively work with new music. In the post show discussion following the performance she specified that, in her opinion, while using new and live music is accompanied with a slew of extra complications, choreographing new movement to old music is somewhat nonsensical and artistically unproductive. The dancers wore face paint that harkened to the iconic Guy Fawkes mask, a symbol of subversion as well as anonymity that the Anonymous group adopted as their own. 
Each dancer portrayed a specific person involved in the online allegiance’s 2010-2011 drama. Each section of movement portrayed a specific chapter in interwoven lives of the the vibrant online personalities.

Our programs consisted of a list of scenes. Each scene was given a title like, “The donning of masks,” or “Sabu’s Betrayal” and was accompanied with a short description of the events its movement and music aimed to abstractly depict. For example, the description of, “Sabu’s Betrayal,” read, “Identified by the FBI, Sabu is given a choice between facing the most extreme punitive action the law can provide, or turning informant. Sabu grapples with his dilemma, and ultimately betray his past collaborateors. He is left alone, plaintive and undignified.”

Despite the annoying fact that the last sentence of that scene description reads like a prescriptive and unhelpful stage direction in a script, this summarizing section of the program aided in turning an abstracted series of movements into an distinguishable narrative.

As a student of dramaturgy with a new appreciation for program notes I read the entire program, cover to cover, prior to the start of the show. This included the scene descriptions, a more general synopsis, and a note from the composer. However, it was made clear to me during the post show discussion that I was among the minority.

Four audience members (all clearly over the age of 50) raised their hands to comment on the frustration they felt because of their inability to follow the plot. One woman even had the audacity to suggest that the company use projection on the back-wall of the theater space to provide subtitles, translating the incomprehensible language of dance and music into the more digestible form of narrative text.

In keeping with the rant-loving college art student that I am, I must first express my aversion to those who feel that post show discussions are an appropriate place to tell artists how to do their jobs better. Second, I must express my aversion to those who neglect to read the provided pre-show materials and then proceed to complain about what they therefore missed. Third, I must express my aversion to those who cannot enjoy and extrapolate a valuable meaning from an abstract form of art.

In keeping with the potential dramaturge that I am, I must ask what the responsibility of the audience at any given performance is. My answer: the audience has no responsibility. They didn’t have to buy a ticket and come. They didn’t have to pick up a program. They don’t have to read it. They don’t have to stay awake during the performance. They don’t even have to stay until the end.

If that is the case than the responsibilities of the artists are great. The artists are responsible for keeping their audience engaged and entertained. If the information provided in the program notes is essential to the piece as a whole than it is the artists job to make it not only engaging, but also incapable of being missed. However if that information is not essential to the piece as whole perhaps it is better to let it go completely unmentioned.

Perhaps if the collaborators of the ballet had used the story of the Anonymous group as their inspiration and artistic container but advertised the piece as simply an exploration of movement and music, the audience would have been contented with the abstract characters, their relationships, and the tones depicted.

The abstract can often be made universal and the old art school mantra, “specificity through universality,” certainly rings true. It seems that it is the grey area in between that audiences have trouble relating to.


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