Dances of Future Past

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SARA du JOUR meets Merce Cunningham.
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A couple weeks ago, I was invited by the University of Houston to lecture on the recent history and near future of American dance. I talked about the still-stinging loss of Joyce SoHo (among other stages for contemporary movement in this country), the ongoing devolution of institutionalized dance companies into ad hoc groups, and how technologies like the Microsoft Kinect and massive, curved HD televisions are functionally replacing theaters with virtual proscenium stages in our living rooms. Institutions optimized for a previous era of dance-making, I argued, will diminish in relevance now that I can summon the totality of archived dance history on my cell phone in more pixels than the human eye can perceive. The inevitable question broached by my audience was, where is all this crazy-making nonsense going?

SARA du JOUR meets Merce Cunningham.
SARA du JOUR meets Merce Cunningham.

My bet is that the near future of American dance looks an awful lot like the near past, only more so. Back in 2009, when I started live streaming skybetter & associates’ studio rehearsals, two interesting things happened: more people saw the live stream than bought tickets to my sold-out, extended-run season at Joyce SoHo, and people donated money. Now, of course, live streaming is no longer an avant-garde mode of audience engagement, and the novelty of the thing is long gone. But back in 2009, there was a brief astronomical alignment between a new, consumer technology (the iPhone) and a novel content distribution platform (Qik, later purchased by Skype) that made live streaming the artistic process cheap and exciting. The problem was that within a few years, Apple sold nearly a billion iPhones, literally, and live streaming technology has became so ubiquitous as to be basically blasé. Audiences can access the rehearsals and performances of so many dance companies that accessing mine — as interesting as I surely am — is no longer as compelling as it once was. Increased access, over time, reduces value.

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Supply-side dancernomics become even more consequential when you consider how, in a few years, you will have online access to the “Nutcrackers” of any major ballet company on the planet. Audiences will be able to choose from dozens of “Nutcrackers” all available instantly, placing the Oklahoma City Ballet and Mark Morris Dance Group in competition with The Royal Ballet and The Bolshoi. Consider how much of American dance is underwritten by annual productions of The Nutcracker. Consider what happens to American ballet when The Nutcracker is effectively commoditized, and audiences stop valuing local productions over more easily accessible versions that they can pause whenever they want to grab a Schlitz. Increased access, over time, reduces value.

Relative to the viewership of the Internet, theatrical stages for dance serve to limit the number of people that can see a show at any given time. Only so many folks can see a given stage at any given moment, and so we have developed technologies like “ticketing” to set the monetary value for this limited supply of seats. We deploy technologies of “marketing” to drive demand, thereby commanding the largest price for an artificially limited supply of tickets. Dances have thus been a historically triply scarce commodity: they disappear the moment they come into existence; access to performances are constrained by the size of performance spaces; and dance notation is so historically poor that the teaching of dances amounts to an oral history. Given our current zeitgeist of always-on and instant-access, a key value proposition for live dance (“see it before it’s gone”) has flipped, and such needlessly imposed scarcity is now a driver of consumer frustration. What do you mean I have to go to a specific place, at a specific time, to do a specific thing? What a pain in the ass. What if I’d rather play Candy Crush in my underwear at that moment?

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At this point, I can imagine the most fervid of dance lovers pushing back: the experience of dance in a theater will never be rivaled by a computer in your living room, and you just can’t get the “true” experience of dance unless you see it live. Ultimately, I agree. The relevant question is not, ultimately, if technology can reproduce the experience of being in a theater. The question is, when will the technology be good enough for a sufficient number of people to prefer the online experience over the theatrical one, thus collapsing the market for live dance? I bet that there are plenty of folks who aren’t attuned to the “true” experience of dance (Dance Moms, hello), and will have no compunction opting for a cheaper, easier substitute to the increasingly expensive, decreasingly convenient “authentic” experience. The result is a self-reinforcing disruptive spiral: fewer and fewer people attend live dance, so the price of attendance increases, thus fewer people attend, thus the price increases, and so on (New York City Ballet, hello).

Who among us envisions a near future with more stages for dance, not fewer? Who among us argues that dance will be less dependent on the Internet, not more? How long before the dance world is filled with brilliant, successful choreographers without a compulsion to ever perform in front of a live audience? (Celia Rowlson Hall and SARA du JOUR, hello.) In this vein, I see choreography becoming less about real bodies in actual space and time and more about moving kinesthetic ideas through platforms on the Internet. If current trends continue, our dance future then will depend ever-more on consumer-facing platforms like youtube.com, and ever-less on private, institutional platforms like theaters. Vestigial semblances to dances of old will remain — the use of music and the primacy of the body perhaps — but the context will be necessarily quite different, or even antithetical to what came before. Audiences will “discover” dances online through technologies of search engine optimization and online social content distribution, thus necessitating dance artists to understand things like search engine optimization and online social content distribution. In this worldview, a “good” dance is one that is watched online from beginning to end. A “bad” dance is one that is never found.

Within the last decade, for the first time, ever, in the history of everything, the means of production necessary to reach billions of people has been made accessible for basically free, using your grandma’s iPhone. There are more users of Facebook than there were people alive on the planet for the entirety of the 18th century. Writers like Horace Dediu and Clayton Christensen have rendered the term “disruption” common management jargon, yet the unprecedented nature of our technologic reality has yet to force a reconsideration of legacy technologies in the dance field. Let’s stop misconstruing the Internet as a means to bolster calcified, obviously failing business models. The Internet is not a supplement to classical dancernomics, with its predication on exclusivity and limited access. The Internet is the destroyer of such scarcity, as evidenced by everything from the obliteration of print media and journalism to the upending of higher education. Those of us who love dance must not be so naïve as to think the form immune to abrupt technologic evolution.

We are at an odd moment. We understand vastly more about what won’t work than what will. This is awkward, but let’s take stock of what we know: going forward, dance-makers that find and maintain audiences will be accessible on the audiences’ terms; they will continually create interesting content consumed by way of the Internet. No matter how historically titanic, technically virtuosic or aggressively self-righteous dance-makers have been in choreographing for the stage, if a dance isn’t “good” enough to be online, it will be functionally indistinguishable from not having been danced at all. Paradoxically, to ensure the relevance of dance into the future, we must deploy technologies that do away with the very scarcity that sustained dance performance for centuries.

[Endnote: I’m indebted to Marc Kirschner of tendu.tv for the thrust of my argument about the commodification of dance online. He’s been yelling about this for many years, more frequently, ferociously and elegantly than I do here.]