Audience more plugged into dance festivals

Audience more plugged into dance festivals
A Doodle of Impressions, one of the acts at the M1 Contact Contemporary Dance Festival.

The fifth annual M1 Contact Contemporary Dance Festival, presented by Singapore's T.H.E Dance Company, drew to a close last Saturday after more than two weeks of performances, classes, workshops and forums.

The festival, which took place from Nov 27 to Dec 13, achieved average attendance of 72 per cent, slightly more than last year's 69 per cent.

The company attributed the increase in attendance to more technique classes offered to dance students and aficionados - 45 compared to last year's 19 - and more venues for performances. This year's numbers might also have been boosted by telco M1 coming on board as title sponsor for the first time, giving the festival a higher profile.

For the festival's artistic director Kuik Swee Boon, one of the high points for him was seeing an 80 per cent turnout for the technique classes, which cost $25 a session.

But numbers alone do not tell the whole story - to Kuik, they also signify that audiences are engaging more deeply with the artists and the art form.

"People like to get close to the artists instead of just seeing them perform on stage," he says. "A lot of them do not just conduct a single master class, but also a few classes or even week-long workshops, so they develop a very strong connection with the audience."

Artists who conducted technique classes this year include Japan-born Shintaro Oue, who has worked with the Nederlands Dans Theater II, and T.H.E's resident choreographer, Korean artist Kim Jae Duk.

Audience engagement has also been on the rise at the Esplanade's nine-year-old da:ns festival, a major dance festival which ran from Oct 9 to 19. It was headlined by internationally renowned acts such as Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, which featured a non- traditional all-male ballet de corps, and flamenco queen Maria Pages' I, Carmen (right).

Producer of the festival Faith Tan says that she has noticed more people speaking up during post-show dialogues over the last few years.

"I've seen audiences getting more confident and being more comfortable to express their opinion directly to the artist," says Ms Tan, who has been with the festival since it started.

"In the early days of da:ns, people were a bit more shy about expressing their opinions, but now people not only ask questions, they also give comments as well."

It is not only during the ticketed performances that audiences are getting more involved, but also during the free public programmes.

Ms Tan has seen increased participation in What's Your Move?, a series of basic dance-along lessons at the Esplanade waterfront. She says: "At first, people were very shy and would be standing around the waterfront area, seeing who would start dancing first. But now, the whole place is packed."

She adds that the festival's Footwork series of introductory dance classes is well subscribed and has grown from having just "a handful" of classes to more than 60 now, ranging from tango to K-pop.

As the dance audience matures and becomes more active during the festivals, the programming has also grown along with them.

Contact is still a relatively young festival and, last year, it had to work out some kinks in its programming.

Kuik says: "Last year, one of our concerns was that the quality of some of the programmes did not reach the level we wanted. But this year, we paired the artists carefully, gave them more time, resources and investment, so we were able to present the quality of works we want."

One of the works he was particularly pleased with was DiverCity 2014 - Noted With Thanks, a collaboration which brought together four foreign female dancers who are current or former members of local dance companies: Jessica Christina, Sheriden Newman, Wang Wei Wei and Yarra Ileto.

He says: "The quality is there and they managed to bring different styles from different companies together well. I'm happy with that."

Ms Tan says that as the dance audience matures, da:ns festival can programme more daring works. "Because people are now used to watching a wide range of dance, we can push the programming with works which are a little more challenging," she says. She cites this year's Far by Wayne McGregor, a contemporary performance which was inspired by the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment, as one such work.

Both festivals are also looking to the future. Kuik says that his company will be reviewing the festival and will hopefully be able to drive it towards his target of an 80 per cent attendance rate soon.

As for the 10th edition of da:ns next year, Ms Tan says the line-up will feature familiar faces - artists who have performed at da:ns before - although she cannot confirm who they are yet.

"In Singapore, there's always a culture of wanting to see something new," she says. "And while it's good to be curious, there's a real value to following an artist through his development and journey, and seeing him grow from work to work. If you take the time to do that, it can be very rewarding."

This article was first published on December 16, 2014.
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