Global Development Opportunities for Leaders Working in Arts, Screen, and Creative Sectors

Taking Contemporary Dance to Public Spaces

Janis Claxton is currently in China on her ICE placement. Before leaving, she wrote this piece for Public Art Scotland – a reflection on leadership and making work for the public realm.


In 2008 over a two week period 36,000 people visited Edinburgh Zoo. A huge proportion of these visitors witnessed a sited dance / performance work Enclosure 44 – Humans.

As the director of, and a performer in this work, the layers, insights and developments have been multifaceted and ongoing. One of the most stimulating experiences of the work and its subsequent follow ups – Human Animal (China/Scotland) and Enclosure 99 – Humans (Edinburgh Zoo 2011) – was the audience-performer relationship and the ‘who’s watching who’ scenario that has become the core of my MPhil research at Edinburgh University.

Enclosure 99 - Humans, 2011 Photo: Zhou Zihan

Enclosure 99 – Humans, 2011 Photo: Zhou Zihan

Taking dance to a public space can incur the potential ‘risk’ of audience involvement. Sometimes audience participation is an artistic objective. But it was serendipitous that making a work exploring human animal behaviour accidentally and effortlessly shattered the 4th wall, and the behaviour of the ‘audience’ became a keystone of the work.

With a zoo having the largest demographic of any public event worldwide, all types of homosapien behaviours have been ‘performed’ by 1000’s of people in the Enclosure series. Human Animal is a work that ‘takes the zoo to you’ and depending on the situ and the ‘audience’ – behaviours as diverse as bullying teenagers, protesting creationists, enraptured pre schoolers and Chinese mothers handing their babies to (and leaving them with) the performers, have been witnessed in this work.

These works began with explorations of the human-animal connection, ignited a passion for researching the audience-performer relationship, and set me on a quest for opening more audiences to the power, pleasure and value of dance. Contemporary dance audiences? We need more, a lot more, to keep the art form alive and watching the joy and revelations of new to dance audiences in the 1000’s, is pretty addictive!

So both as a leader and as an artist I found a challenge – how can we support an increase in contemporary dance audiences? How can we explore a level of audience both in demographics and size anywhere similar to zoo audiences? How can we take pure contemporary dance to a larger public? Will they watch? Will they engage? Will they enjoy it? (The question that I didn’t have is will they ‘get’ it, as I deeply believe and experience that, when it’s good, audiences of all demographics and experiences ‘get’ this most visceral of art forms).

My company’s recent work for gallery spaces, Chaos and Contingency was born out of this dream and in March 2013 about 5000 people experienced this pure dance work performed in public spaces at Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, Aberdeen Art Gallery, Victoria Quay and the National Museum of  Scotland as part of EISF.

The work is based on emergent theories in mathematics and is designed it to be viewed from multiple levels and directions, in spaces with the potential of balcony viewing.

One of my main challenges was that I did not want to adapt the space to us, but I wanted the work to adapt to the space. We were faced with many a presumption that we would bring in a dance floor, lights etc. Myself and the dancers were united in the vision for this work to utilise the beauty and drama of these spaces and the choreography was created and adapted to make that possible.

Chaos and Contingency proved to me again that there are contemporary dance lovers in the thousands, the issue being, most of them don’t know it. As an art form we need to find ways to access them, entice them, seduce them into engagement. Alongside the focus on participation, audience building is crucial.

What if every dance performance in Scotland for the next 5 years came with two essential criteria and receiving funding depended on it?

1. Ticket prices £5 maximum. (Or free?)
2.  A section must be performed in a public space.

If we present good quality well produced work, criteria like this could just help us to keep contemporary dance alive and kicking.

Janis Claxton

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