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Performing Arts Issue: Risk vs. Entertainment

by Charles Santos 11 Feb 2008 12:41 PM

Recently, the issue of presenting “Risk” and “Challenging” work has been the center of much discussion. During the international booking conference in NYC, I was having a discussion with other national presenters about the importance of “RISK.” We were all amazed at how many arts presenters had reverted to presenting more “entertainment” types of performing […]


Recently, the issue of presenting “Risk” and “Challenging” work has been the center of much discussion. During the international booking conference in NYC, I was having a discussion with other national presenters about the importance of “RISK.” We were all amazed at how many arts presenters had reverted to presenting more “entertainment” types of performing arts as opposed to works that challenge audiences. It’s of great concern in terms of growing audiences and developing audiences with appreciation for all types of work.

This past weekend, TITAS presented a terrific new dance company for New York, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet presenting an amazing work by Israel’s famed choreographer Ohad Naharin. It was a great performance but it certainly incited some audience reactions. Though they received standing ovations after both performances, I did receive a couple of emails for audience members that were offended by some of the content and language in the work. The resounding response to Decadance was terrific, but there were interesting dialogues about Risk and the importance of pushing boundaries.

In our current national environment it seems may arts presenters have abandoned “RISK” in favor of safer forms of performing arts presentations. This move is mostly economically driven. This is much discussion on the national and international art world about how important it is to keep Risk in our philosophies as we build our seasons. Are we moving forward as a cultural community?

It is always easy to entertain. We can all certainly do well presenting the most popular, least challenging works. We would all probably have larger audiences with the safe work. But the question is, are we building anything? Are we developing sophisticated audiences? Are we developing a global perspective from a cultural point of view? Are we cultural leaders or followers? Are we entertaining or presenting great art? Is there a difference?

These are difficult questions for those of us how are responsible for developing seasons to present in Dallas, or for that matter anywhere. Personally, I’m a big advocate for pushing the envelope. But it’s a balancing act. They only way to build a sophisticated audience is to be exposed to sophisticated work. And no, sophisticated work is not always offensive or abstract. TITAS has always been committed to excellence and pushing the envelope. We’ve also paid a price for it. It would certainly be easier for us to present a more “mainstream” season of dance and music, but there are other places to see that work. Last night at the theater we had a spirited Q&A about Decadance and the controversy of the work.

I’m interested to hear what KERA patrons feel about RISK and pushing the envelope.

Charles Santos, TITAS Executive Director

  • As Dance Coordinator of Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing & Visual Arts, one of our jobs is to educate a more sophisticated student audience. After discussing the Cedar Lake concert with many of the BTW dance students who attended (from ages 14-18) and their parents, one of the most controversial works of the evening was resoundingly the favorite among students and faculty. I have not heard students and faculty so excited about choreographic and artistic risk- taking and of course exceptionally talented dancers in a long time. I was pleased as an artist and educator that Booker T. Washington is training a more sophisticated eye and that there might be hope for future audiences. Some of the content in art that pushes the envelope is taboo in public education. Therefore, we count on the professional organizations in this city to present a balance but more importantly a range of artists that represents our current cultural landscape. As we prepare to move back to the Arts District next month, I am counting on our neighbors at the three museums, at the Meyerson Symphony Center, and certainly at the Performing Arts Center to commit to bringing a range of artists so that my students will be able to make personal aesthetic judgments about art and creating art. Thank you, TITAS, for bringing Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet to Dallas and the work of Ohad Naharin! As an artist and educator, I hope that you will continue to take the role of leader rather than follower.

  • Here’s what was risky about Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet: no general audience ever heard of them. Coming in, then, their commercial value was nil. Was what they did all that risky? It was fresh, committed, athletic, complicated and unusual — and entertainingly original. And, being a new group, appropriately unexpected. Did they send people scurrying away offended? Well, not at Saturday’s performance I saw. A repeated narrative using the word [expletive deleted – the editors] did, one might expect, elicit knee jerk disapproval from some … but it was this accompanying narrative (not the fascinatingly intricate and repeated dance patterns) that was “risky”, surely. Indeed, Cedar Lake’s company had lots of clowning appeal and in a huge elaboration of social dancing even pulled audience members on stage to participate. Highly entertaining. Unlike my great good friend Charles, I don’t think its “always easy to entertain”. I think it’s infinitely easier to bore. And the fastest way to bore (and irritate) an audience is for them to feel the artists are doing something so esoteric and “serious” that only they can “understand” it. I actually was very proud of the Dallas audience I was in, and proud of TITAS for keeping us so “awake” with such a rippingly good time of dance theatre. I think we could make a mistake getting over-serious about something that came out of so much joy expressed in those astounding bodies. After all, though one of the tracks had that narrative with the word [expletive deleted – the editors], they danced another segment (most spiritedly) to the theme of “Hawaii Five O”. Seems to me thechoreographer and company spirit has some pleasure participating in contemporary culture. As for me, I trust the larger audience response which was, as Charles says, standing ovation approval. I sympathize with those whose rigidity makes them “turn off” when they confront certain anglo saxon words: they’re sure missing some fun.

  • Thank you so much Lily and Jack for your thoughtful comments. I’m hoping more join you.

    The Arts + Culture blog is going to be one of those where “certain anglo saxon words,” as Jack calls them, aren’t going to appear. I’ve deleted them from the above post.

    I’m hoping you’ll stay with us – and that we won’t be missing too much fun — despite our rule against profanity.

  • Charles: Thank you for your thoughtful post. We at Fort Worth Opera have been trying, with some degree of success to mix the traditional with the new and challenging. This season is no exception: Two traditional works, “Turandot” and “Lucia di Lammermoor” and two unfamiliar works: Carlisle Floyd’s “Of Mice and Men” and the new opera by Hungarian composer Peter Eotvos of Kushner’s “Angels in America”. We are committed to performing new works now after sixty years of presenting the war horses. We find that it stretches us artistically and challenges our audiences and our artists. We feel like the opera is a public trust and it is up to us to present all kinds of opera. We point out that there are separate buildings in Fort Worth for visual art. The Modern Art Museum for modern art, the Kimbal for more traditional European art, the Amon Carter for western art, etc. We are but one opera company and it is our duty as a company “owned by the community” to present all of these types of repertoire from the traditional to the electronic to the very new. It takes a while to bring the audience along, which is why donors who believe in this mission are asked to take the lead in financing these things. The safe will always sell more tickets, but the new brings new and wonderful challenges that help you to grow artistically.

  • As the managing director at the Brookyn Center for the performing arts, I found Charles’ comments to be pretty enlightened–particularly when he described the “balancing act” involved in mixing popular events with more risky ventures. The trick is to bring audiences along without alienating them, for sure.

    There are many socioligical factors at play as well… folks want more flexibility in their concert choices, hence the move away from subscriptions towards multi-buys; young people have the attention span of a strobe light these days and loads of other outlets competing for their attention; and concert tickets are expensive enough now to warrant risk-avoidance on the part of the consumer. All of these things make presenting riskier ventures mor difficult.

    Personally, and at the risk of sounding like a Philistine, I understand peoples’ desire to be entertained in the theater rather than challanged. There have been generations of artists now who, with no pressing need to communicate anything at all to an audience, might just as well be masturbating. I think profundity has always been the rarest of commodities among those striving for artistic expression. There must be a reason for this.

  • On this matter, I always thought Jerry Russell, the founder and managing director of Stage West in Fort Worth, had a pithy observation about how to put together a season: You generally know the shows that are going to bring people in. The trick has always been to bring them in — and then get them to stick around to see a show they might not have tried otherwise.

    I don’t begrudge a theater or museum or presenter the need to pay the bills. But we don’t grant them non-profit status so they can just pay the bills.

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  • We embrace the entire spectrum – as long as the audience is happy and fullfilled Bass Performance Hall has achieved one of its objectives.