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Developing and engaging audiences for contemporary dance is important to dance artists, companies and venues alike. It’s also a significant challenge.

There is a preconception that dance is difficult to understand; indeed, often the lack of obvious narrative or verbal communication means that interpreting movement can be a challenge for audiences, particularly those new to the art form. In turn, it can be intimidating or off-putting.

TaikaBox is a Cardiff based dance company that fuses technology and dance to create work for stage screen and site. They collaborated with technical partner, Moon; a Cardiff based company specialising in the design and development of interactive digital experiences, to develop their new project Please Switch On Your Mobile Phone.

Please Switch On Your Mobile Phone explored the idea of integrating an audience into the creative process of a piece of dance either when present in an auditorium or engaging remotely via web streaming. The partners set out to explore whether an immersive experience that invited the audience to co-create dance with performers could engage new audiences as well as demystify the art form.

The project

TaikaBox wanted to explore whether a web-based application could enable a meaningful co-creation experience between audience, choreographer and performer. With Moon, they set out to create a digital and choreographic tool that invited audiences to collaborate with dancers to create a piece of live dance.

The team recognised that to place live audience participation central to the purpose of the software, the audience should be at the heart of its design and creation. They chose an iterative Action Research approach – a known method using action, evaluation and critical reflection to develop and adapt a product – as a means to engage a live audience with the software as early as possible.

Moon developed a simple CMS that would allow stories to be submitted by audience members via a digital device, moderated by an editor and put back out to audience vote. The chosen story was brought to life by the dancers, with members of the audience continuing to use the app to contribute further choreographic choices as well as some decisions around lighting and sound.

The software was honed and adapted through a series of live performance tests across Wales in Cardiff, Llanelli and Aberystwyth. A considerable number of people made up the audiences including academics, dance performers, students and the general public.

Audiences used a range of digital devices to participate and provided feedback about their experience to inform the development of the software into its next phase. This engagement and feedback proved essential in reviewing the software’s purpose and development, and provided valuable learning for the project team.

The results

The significant results of the Please Switch On Your Mobile Phone project were to be found in the learning gained through failures within the live test phases.

The first live test failed on many levels to provide an audience experience that could be developed. A lack of focused audience communication led to confusion around what was expected of them and combined with a various array of connectivity issues, audiences were left frustrated and polarized about the value of the experience.

This was a brutal but positive learning experience for the team. This failure was embraced as a highly valuable insight into what it really means to invite your audience in as collaborators, forcing an examination of the assumptions that had been made about how people engage with dance, and how they need to be communicated with.

The team adapted the approach for the remaining tests; downscaling to more intimate studio spaces with Tanja (choreographer) guiding the audience verbally throughout. These changes produced far more positive and productive responses from audiences which were then channelled into developing the technology further.

By the end of the live test phases a digital tool was created that successfully placed the audience as spectator / choreographers in a collective, creative experience.

PSOYMP is a combined digital and performance event that can work independently in-house, live-streamed (or both at the same time). It has capacity for use across multi-art forms or disciplines as a potentially powerful engagement tool to involve audiences in the creative process of artistic work.

Key insights

Key insights from the process include:

  • Failure will move you forward: The project’s failures were the most valuable and formative in its development. A cyclical creative approach meant that failure was embraced as an essential part of the process – giving the team freedom to adapt and change.
  • Understand your audience: Don’t make untested assumptions about your audience. Understand who they are and what they need; and that they often see things differently to you.
  • Know what you want from them, and tell them: To co-create with an audience they need to understand themselves as collaborators and the expectations on them. Clear, focused communication and briefings at all points of contact is essential to their ability to engage.
  • Use technology to solve problems not create them: Poor connectivity and technical set up put a dangerous distance between the digital product and the audience, blocking engagement and ruining the experience. Frustration is a creativity killer.
  • Never lose the human touch: The addition of human interaction within the performance significantly increased the audience’s ability to engage with the purpose of the digital tool, producing far more positive responses and feedback.