Moving Others

The relationship between audience engagement and attendance By Emma Doran
  • Company 605, presented at CDF 2016 / Photo by David Cooper
  • Noam Gagnon and Ziyian Kwan in The Mars Hotel by Kwan for dumb instrument Dance / Photo by David Cooper
  • Gillian Seaward-Boone and Sara Coffin in standing alone facing you by Coffin / Photo by Michelle Doucette

Shelburne is a small town on the South Shore of Nova Scotia and the location of one of the most enriching performance experiences in the career of Sara Coffin, co-artistic director of Halifax-based Mocean Dance. Some years ago, she and fellow dancers Susanne Chui and Jacinte Armstrong gave a performance there. Poor weather meant that there were only nine audience members in the house. However, after the performance, they hosted a post-show chat during which all of the attendees came onstage to drink beer and discuss the work with the cast. It was one of the most lively talks Coffin remembers. Now, whenever she is faced with a small house, Coffin reminds herself of that show. Instead of filling seats, she often thinks of performing as a chance to reach one person. 

Dance artists and presenters cannot escape the audience conundrum: meaningful artistic experiences can often happen on a small, individual scale, yet fiscal and funding priorities require attracting large and growing audiences. Most dance productions do not attract large enough numbers of attendees to sustain traditional production costs, and they require donors and grants to offset the shortfall. How do dance artists conceptualize their goals in terms of audience? How do they balance the needs of their community for accessible arts with the financial reality of being artists and producing work? How are dance artists in Canada currently navigating these concerns? 

In October 2016, The National Ballet of Canada (NBoC) announced its seventh consecutive surplus (a number that includes donor support), and since then I’ve been wondering about contexts of audience success and what makes ballet so amenable to audiences and patrons. I think the answer is complex. Audiences are drawn to ballet for its virtuosic technical prowess and live symphonic score but, perhaps more significantly, general audiences are comfortable in the familiarity of ballet’s aesthetic offerings. Ballet, suggests Anandam Dance’s Artistic Director Brandy Leary, has a long lineage of audience development corresponding to colonial notions of beauty. These notions include a hierarchical assessment of artistic value in which those associated with the colonial power, British and European, are viewed as providing the viewer with greater advantages and growth. An NBoC performance promises its viewer a certain kind of experience, whether it’s through a classical offering or contemporary work.

Contemporary ballet offerings, traditionally less popular programs for the NBoC, have recently become among the major draws in their season, as outlined in the announcement report and according to Artistic Director Karen Kain. The world premiere of Guillaume Côté’s Le Petit Prince, for example, a narrative ballet that draws movement from a contemporary ballet repertoire, was the first ballet in the company’s history to sell out completely before it opened. For the average dance patron, suggests Jeanne Holmes, artistic director of the Canada Dance Festival (CDF) in Ottawa, making a less traditional dance choice means attending the mixed contemporary program at the ballet, not going to a contemporary dance company show. Thus even for contemporary works, recognition and trust are major determining factors in ticket sales for the NBoC.

Holmes describes the task of attracting new audiences as a challenge when she began as artistic director at CDF in 2012. Audiences and even subscribers had dropped significantly in 2012: long-time patrons were uncertain of what they would get from purchasing tickets and were less willing to take a chance on big-name performances. Holmes wanted to change that dynamic but says that it took time to build trust with CDF’s previous audiences. Offering advanced buying opportunities and familiar companies and choreographies were tactics she used to encourage ticket sales for lesser-known performances. It was important for the CDF to present high-profile works to connect with and maintain audience support and ticket sales. “In the small, regional audience of Ottawa, people have a very particular way that they connect with dance,” she says. “A programmer must bring in top-tier performers because there is the perception that the work in the CDF is not as good as international offerings. A level of excellence is crucial.” Success for Holmes’s model of the CDF is to meet audience expectations with recognizable (or at least recognized) high-profile performances, while offering less familiar works and hoping audiences take risks on them.

Programming decisions for festivals and companies are becoming, according to Holmes, increasingly about funding. Not only is programming a matter of what a festival or presenter can afford, but attracting audiences is gradually becoming more important in securing consistent support. For the CDF, audiences have been the issue of greatest concern for funders. For Holmes, sitting in a full venue is crucial to cultivating the stimulating atmosphere of a festival. Although revenue is important, and ticket sales were up twenty-five per cent in 2016, she maintains that she would rather sell more tickets at a lesser cost than fewer tickets at a high cost. “I present the work because I think it should be seen,” she maintains.


In 2010 the Creative Trust, an organization that supported and strengthened performing arts companies in Toronto until it ceased activity in 2012, published the findings of their Audience Engagement Survey. The survey was, according to their final report, a “collaborative initiative by Toronto’s creative performing arts companies to hear directly from their audiences on what motivates them to attend and what helps them connect more deeply with the work they see on stage.” Over 3600 audience members, who were in the communication lists of twenty small and mid-size companies, including dance, music, opera and theatre, responded. One of the common responses was that arts organizations should make videos to act as trailers or teasers of upcoming works to provide potential audiences with context. As one respondent remarked, “Simply relying on critics and a poster is not enough to attract those outside of your subscription base” (although seventy-four per cent of dance attendees reported high or moderate interest in critics’ responses to work). According to the survey, although many audience members reported that more contextual information like program notes and pre-show discussion made their experience more interesting, others noted that they enjoyed the element of surprise and were not seeking too much additional information prior to performance.

Integral to the survey was Shana Hillman, currently the general manager of Kaeja d’Dance in Toronto and who has previously held positions at Dance Umbrella of Ontario, Toronto Dance Theatre and the Sony Centre, among others. At Kaeja, she identified a drop in attendance at their mainstage performance. In the last two decades, audiences have largely stopped buying subscriptions and instead are purchasing single tickets, often with very little presale. Companies that owned venues were in a good financial spot but couldn’t afford to do maintenance on their venues. She sought to find out what kind of audience engagement activities were effective. The result was Kaeja d’Dance’s Porch View Dances, a community dance festival that engages everyday people as creators and performers in their own stories in their own neighbourhoods, a project initiated in response to the Creative Trust survey findings. Another strategy she uses to broaden audiences involves cross-pollination with other disciplines such as the visual arts. “Because half of the audiences are dancers, our material needs to speak to the other fifty per cent,” she says. She has also worked with The Theatre Centre to collaborate on the Dance Card project, which allows audiences to buy bundles of shows, including a “wild card” option that is selected for the viewer by the theatre for a non-dance performance. “You may not always like what you see,” Hillman says, “but you’ll be challenged.”

One key idea that many presenters mentioned was the ability to understand and speak to different audiences simultaneously. For some attendees, as Hillman explains, context is more important and making sure their needs are met in the form of program notes or pre-show discussion is important. Building marketing according to the specific show has also been successful for Kaeja. For example, they strategically marketed recent performances of lifeDUETS, a show about long-term relationships, to an older set.

Of course, funding is imperative for marketing, and some artists have little or no funds allocated to this job, particularly emerging artists, who typically require much more infrastructure. Cory Philley is the facility and event services coordinator at the Shadbolt Centre in Burnaby, British Columbia, where she programs dance at the theatre and coordinates the City of Burnaby’s Artist-in-Residence Program. She measures success by the long-term connections established with emerging artists in their programs. A good yardstick, she says, is how well the resources offered to artists are used during their tenure in the program. “The problem with funding and being judged by it on a project-to-project basis is that it leaves no room for experimentation,” she explains. “Hitting a home run every time is not the function of an artist.” For Philley, permission to create something different or controversial, without concerns for the financial repercussions is crucial to artistic development.

Understanding resources and budgets is therefore part of the key to setting artistic objectives and achieving goals. In Burnaby, as Philley’s work is supported by the resources of a city department, and consequently larger than average, the goal of the program is to facilitate rather than let the limitations dictate the experience. When I asked Brandy Leary if funding affected her view of audience success, she mentioned the “brutality of statistics,” referring to how attendance is a poor measure of artistic meaning and outreach, while noting that funding from public organizations also entails an accountability to explain what kind of relationships artists are working to cultivate with their viewing publics.

For Joyce Rosario, associate curator of Vancouver’s PuSh Festival, a successful performance is not strictly about numbers and finances and often shifts depending on venue and performance. “As a festival presenter, we’re intermediaries between the artist and the audience,” she explains, “situating the work in the right context, so that it can successfully meet an audience, is paramount.” She describes some of the most successful performances, in terms of audience engagement, as ones that transpose works into the city. For example, PuSh and Urban Crawl co-presented Do You See What I Mean? by Projet in situ (Lyon, France) in 2013. According to Rosario, “The work is an outdoor, site-specific, promenade-style performance for one audience member at a time, who is blindfolded and guided around the city by a volunteer. It’s a two-and-a-half hour blindfolded tour into the streets, storefronts and secret spaces of the city.” Utilizing over 100 volunteers, some trained to be guides, others who opened up their homes or businesses as locations, the performances formed new partnerships with community organizations and those working with the blind and partially sighted. Ultimately, says Rosario, “If you were to determine the success just on the budget, just on numbers, it wouldn’t make any sense at all. But it’s about much more than that, isn’t it? It was a profound, a deeply transformative, work where your everyday worldview is radically repositioned in an emotional and interpersonal manner.” Although it was just for one “audience” at a time, there was a whole new community built, one that allowed participants (whether volunteer or audience or performer) to encounter the familiar with a whole new sense.

Similarly, Sara Coffin says markers of success for her are context-specific. For shows at home, it is the company’s goal not only to see incremental audience growth but also a level of engagement that they measure according to how people reach out afterwards – on social media, via email or by word of mouth. They consider their ideal home audience a mixed one, composed of dance students, visual arts students and long-term older patrons. Currently their local performances are presented on a threeperformance run model, with a total of approximately 300 to 400 attendees. Mocean is working to attract a wider audience and has taken steps such as encouraging the audience members to bring their young children to performances. Other measures include participation in pre- or post-show chats, reception conversations and other opportunities for engagement. Attracting audience members from the “general public” or those less familiar with dance is, for them, a bonus. Like many other Canadian dance companies, Mocean also tours to rural communities and across the country on the festival circuit. In these shows the attendance is variable, with anywhere from twenty to 100 people on average. Mocean also undertakes outreach workshops with adults and youth. The quality of engagement in these scenarios, Coffin says, is more a measure of success than numbers.

In the Summer 2016 issue of Dance International, critic Michael Crabb discusses dance audiences in an interview with choreographer Alexander Ekman, whose work Cacti was one of the contemporary works in a mixed program in the National Ballet’s 2015/16 season. Ekman expressed irritation with contemporary choreography, in Crabb’s words, “what [Ekman] deems to be the alienating, arcane obscurities of contemporary dance.” Seemingly in agreement, Crabb states that “Critics have been saying as much for years. Dwindling audiences tell their own story.” However, for the artists, administrators and presenters with whom I spoke, as well as many respondents to the Creative Trust survey, art has value beyond entertainment and ease of access. In the survey, participants were asked to cite the top three reasons they attended dance. The most common responses were to be inspired or uplifted (more than half of respondents), to engage intellectually with the art and to discover choreographers and companies (both about forty per cent of respondents).

Vancouver-based independent artist Ziyian Kwan balks at audience numbers as a measure of audience engagement. She describes instead a need for re-evaluating how we view success. “In order to promote dance as a vibrant cultural activity,” she says, “we need to reach out to audiences. I notice that community plays a large part and I value the generosity with which people spread the word about work that is current.” “I don’t use the word ‘success,’ ” she explains, “as a measure of audience engagement. In fact, I find the idea of success to be untenable and crude. As an artist, I cannot function with the notion of ‘success’ because it connotes premeditation towards a desired outcome. For me, attachment to a desired outcome is the death of creativity.”


For Leary, the reciprocity and trust between performer and audience is just as important. “I’m interested in the idea of the audience as a relationship,” she explains. She describes the relationship as charged with the potential for great transformation that is not necessarily comfortable. “How are we changing together?” she asks. In terms of providing context for audiences to understand her work, via program notes for example, Leary remarks that the degree to which she provides context for her audience is dependent on the work itself. She says, “I have an incredible trust in my audience to make meaning.” Leary finds success a concept that is not always productive for artistic work but uses it in the sense of “creating qualities of intimacy.” To cultivate this exchange, she says that considering the scale and scope is imperative: for some works, those that are experiments in form, it may actually make sense for the audience to be composed entirely of dancers. But other works can speak and engage with large audiences, for example works Leary has created for Nuit Blanche in Toronto, which have reached tens of thousands of people.

One of the most common responses from audiences in the Creative Trust survey was that getting a glimpse at the process would generate more interest. In that vein, Leary, in her work with Anandam, is in the third year of an audience-in-residence program supported by the Metcalf Foundation. “As I make the works, I actually have audience members participate in the process – rehearsals, feedback,” she explains. This nod to salon culture asks its participants to consider how to be an audience member. In a more traditional model, Hillman says that in marketing and promotion it’s imperative not to fall back on a formula for success. Marketing for content specificity and keeping in mind the evolution of social media platforms means that there is no tried and true model, and flexibility is key. The Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, of which Hillman is a member, published a more recent statistical report on audiences in December 2016.

Both Kwan and Leary, when asked about their ideal audience – what it looked like, sounded like, felt like – articulated the need for openness to the unexpected. “Perhaps an ideal audience to me, would be people who are open to having an experience,” Kwan says, “whether that means ten minutes packed with fantastic ensemble movement, an hour of one dancer standing perfectly still or everything in between and beyond … To me this would be an ideal audience: people who are curious to engage on their own terms, with art.” Kwan also feels responsibility as an audience member herself. “I try to go see work when I’m in a receptive frame of mind and body.” She adds, “I find that when I see dance or theatre and I am tired or distracted, I bring a cloud of judgment to my role as an audience member. This doesn’t support the work that is being shared. It doesn’t serve my learning as an artist. And it doesn’t serve the exchange between audience and performance that I so value.” Leary echoed these sentiments. “My ideal audience,” she says, “is the audience that is in front of me.” She explains that her responsibility as a performer and as an audience member is to cultivate curiosity as a practiced skill from both perspectives and asks, “How do we hold things we don’t know, don’t understand, don’t like? How do we recognize content?”

In November 2016, dance critic Martha Schabas wrote a provocative piece in The Globe and Mail that questioned the relevance of the NBoC’s upcoming season, which she characterized as out of touch with modern audiences. To make her point, Schabas cites the power of historically controversial offerings in ballet, such as Nijinsky’s use of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring score in 1913, which incited riots outside the theatre. Schabas, who championed the NBoC’s latest forays into contemporary work, criticized the new selections as of out of date, claiming that “Toronto audiences are being underestimated” and that the lack of vision exhibited in the new season’s curation is “being blamed on demand.” As was pointed out again and again by those cited in this article, the impact of a meaningful work cannot always be quantified. The difference between ticket sales and meaningful engagement could be likened to the difference between a ‘like’ on Facebook and a mutual exchange of ideas - one that cannot be easily tallied or readily circulated. Ballet companies may be able to rely on performing classic work to maintain a crowd that is already loyal and invested in their aesthetics, but their survival, as with so many of the artists and companies with whom I spoke, will ultimately depend on the degree to which they are able to sustain meaningful discourse with contemporary dance audiences.


En création comme en production, la majorité des artistes et des diffuseurs de danse doivent considérer leurs objectifs artistiques, l’accessibilité de leur travail et les ressources financières nécessaires à la survie de l’artiste et au fonctionnement d’une compagnie. Souvent, les subventionnaires exacerbent la situation en soutenant que le nombre de spectateurs constitue le principal indicateur de réussite artistique. Emma Doran en parle avec des artistes, des organismes et des diffuseurs du pays pour comprendre leurs visions des publics, leurs stratégies pour interpeler les spectateurs et leur évaluation de la réussite artistique. Un constat émerge de ces discussions et des études telles que le sondage des spectateurs du Creative Trust de la Toronto Arts Foundation en 2010 : les créateurs et les spectateurs valorisent avant tout les expériences artistiques qui les mettent au défi et qui les transforment, même à l’échelle individuelle. Et ce malgré une culture qui veut quantifier l’engagement du public par le nombre de spectateurs, de « like » et de contenus virtuels partagés.

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