Dance and museums: some works, some doesn’t and how ‘services management’ thinking can help

I’m currently contributing to work by a partnership of museums and dance agencies to develop a project that will test different models for dance residencies in museums. The idea is to compare the approaches that work in two very different localities and to embed good practice.

So, I’m putting some time into supporting the group to shape their project and secure investment in it, and this is prompting me to think about on the dance/museum collaborations I’ve had contact with recently and to reflect on what works and what doesn’t.

In the past year, via events, blog posts and social media, I have showcased a range of dance/museum collaborations in my work to encourage South East museums to work cross-culturally. At the Dance and Museums conversation in Southampton in June 2016 I attempted to classify some of the different opportunities:

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As an audience member I have greatly enjoyed the diversity of approaches. From figurative, accessible interpretation of collections personified by Made by Katie Green’s ‘Imagination Museum’ to more abstract creative responses to collections themes such as Bethan Peters’ and Stacie Lee Bennett’s National Maritime Museum dance film installation  ‘Who is the Land’ or more tangental relationships between museum collections and dance like Akram Khan’s Giselle Takeover of the Whitworth Art Gallery or the ballet Children of the Mantic Stain presented in conjunction with British Art Show 8.

And I loved all of it. In every case, I felt my own experience of the museum was improved and saw evidence of positive engagement from other audience members. I have been utterly convinced by the evidence of audience development benefits generated through museum-dance collaborations.

In short, I’d become a bit of a fanatic.

In my mind, I had framed my weekend visit last November to see the Dancing Museums residency at the National Gallery as a zenith of museum/dance experiences. This is, after all, a major international project of strategic significance. My expectations were high.

I had shared my excitement with others and persuaded family members S and B to come along with me. They are lifelong culture vultures, keen supporters of both museums and the performing arts, early investors in what is now one of the leading independent dance companies and former committee members of theatres and museums. So they were bound to love this – weren’t they?

As it turned out, not so much.   And so this Sunday visit to the National Gallery became one of the most valuable lessons in museum/dance partnership working that I’ve had this year.

What became clear to us during the visit was that we were not seeing activity aimed at the visiting museum audience but a piece of research in progress. S and B are intellectually curious (case in point: S’s current bedtime reading is ‘100 Artists’ Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists’) and would probably have entered into the project of observing research being carried out with some enthusiasm, had they understood this to be the situation. However, the understanding that we were watching research, rather than performance, was hard come by.

The web information about the event stated: ‘Following a week of research and workshops at the National Gallery, the Dancing Museums artists share ideas developed during the residency in the gallery spaces.’  On arrival at the museum, on enquiring at the Information Desk staff gladly provided folding stools for S and B and we were helpfully signposted to Gallery 32.

Once there, we saw that there were three people dancing in the gallery. In every day dress, they moved around the space, always connected, one of them always looking at the paintings on the wall. They were discussing and developing the movements as they moved around.

S and B were keen to discern whether there was any link between the poses and shapes being created by the dancers and the paintings in the gallery. Sometimes they thought they saw an echo, sometimes not. I said not all dance/museum collaborations are about that, the approach could be something completely different. ‘Like what?’ asked S. I said I’d go and ask.

At this point, we bumped into C, a museum sector friend and admired colleague who knows her stuff. Also visiting with relatives. I was relieved to find that she was also unclear about what we were seeing. Her teenager was enjoying it very much, and of the opinion that not having context was fine. C was probably at the ‘curious and confused’ stage with me. B and S were beginning to get fed up. B was getting tangled up in his folding stool every time the action moved.

A number of Gallery staff in green tops were around. I asked one of them if there was any information about what was happening. ‘No,’ she said, ‘But there is an evaluation form, please can you fill it in?’ She offered me a pen. It seemed a little early to complete the form, given that I had only just arrived and didn’t know what I was looking at. So I offered to take 3 forms, one for each of us, and promised that we would return them later on.  S, B and I scrutinised the blank evaluation form for clues. There were four questions:

  • Why have you chosen to attend this event today?
  • Can you describe the event for us in three words (just words – not a sentence)?
  • Has the presence of dance artists in the Gallery today changed or enhanced your visit, and if so, how?
  • Do you think that choreography can offer an interesting alternative to written or verbal explanations as a means to engage with a painting?

Now, I know a bit about evaluation and one of the things that I know is that, if it’s done well, it will link strongly to the objectives of the activity being evaluated. This being the case, we considered that that we could take a hint from the form that the presence of dance artists in the Gallery today was intended to change or enhance the visit and to offer an interesting alternative to written or verbal explanations as a means to engage with a painting. Re-energised by this possibility, B and S continued to scrutinise the activity, looking for links to the paintings.

Then something happened that momentarily created a positive buzz. The three dancers moved alongside either side of the row of benches. their arms linked over the seated visitors. Adults and small children moved to accommodate the passing of the dancers, there was laughter.

Then that bit had finished. S was getting more vocal about her fedupness. Not finding the dance satisfying in itself, nor finding that it was shedding any light on the works in the gallery. Didn’t think all of the dancers were actually very good. ‘I think I’ve seen enough,’ she said.

At this point, I noticed that C was chatting to someone with an NG bag. Maybe she could help? We went over and were introduced – and indeed she could. It turned to that this was Gill Hart, the National Gallery’s Head of Education. Gill helpfully and cogently explained what we were watching. Not a performance designed to enrich our experience of the pictures but something more complex. Not a group of three professional dancers. One of the ‘dancers’ was actually a member of the public, she explained. By being involved in the dance, his position and perspective were being changed.

This was an ‘Aha!’ moment for me. I could now understand that what I was observing was an approach not yet captured on my tentative model, nor explored in any of the dance/museum collaborations I had previously showcased. For S, B and me, our position was not as audience members whose experience of the visit was being changed. Rather, we were observing an audience member for whom this was happening.   This was fascinating stuff for me.

And, had it been clear from the outset to S and B it probably would have been fascinating to them too.  But by this point, they had frankly lost the will. A sign was put in place interpreting a dance piece by Lucy Suggate, which she now performed in the gallery. I encouraged S and B to give it one last shot. S read the sign and harrumphed. Reluctantly, they unfolded their stools and sat down to watch. After a few minutes, B was fiddling with his mobile phone. B is not a teenager, he is 88. S said ‘I think I’ve had enough. Can we go now?’

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We walked through to another gallery where we sat down to complete the evaluation forms. ‘I’d rather not fill it in, I don’t want to be unkind to them,’ said S. ‘They are researching,’ I said. ‘It would be unkind not to respond to their request for feedback. Best to be honest.’   If any of the Dancing Museums team read this, please be aware that S is someone of strong opinions, not ashamed of the fact that in her professional life she was more than once referred to as The Dragon. I hope you had a cup of tea to hand when you read the form.

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So, what are my takeaways from this experience, relevant to shaping the residencies project I’m involved in now? Several.

Firstly, it’s reinforced and expanded my understanding that dance/museum collaborations can change perceptions in a range of ways. I’ve now added this one to my model. SEMDPmodel2At the outset of a collaboration, it’s worth the partners bottoming out which of these approaches – or others not yet captured here – are being talked about.

Secondly, that for our professional practice to move forward, we need bold experiments and that these will not be comfortable or enjoyable or interesting to everyone. So we need to consider the impact on other users. Not everybody will want to understand what is going on or to engage with it. But in the right circumstances, an experiment can benefit not just those involved in it, but others who happen to come across it.

Thirdly, that for such experiments to be effective, their interface with the visiting public needs to be carefully managed. The visitor has an active role to play, if only to provide the feedback that will be used in evaluation. The visitor can only play this role if their involvement is suitably structured and supported. When unexpected things are happening in your museum, it’s worth thinking about how these things are explained or illuminated for visitors who might not expect them. There are lots of practical things that museums can do to help visitors to have a positive experience of changes and experiments. Museums can signpost that there is a gallery closed for redevelopment, and provide helpful images or information about the change to come. Likewise, museums can helpfully guide the audience’s expectations of experiments, so that their visit is enhanced.

This third point rang a bell with me, and brought to mind insight from my business school days. To use the management jargon, a museum visit is a ‘Service experience’ – in contrast, for example, to a purchase of tangible goods. It has long been recognised in business schools that service experiences are the result of interactions between the customer and the service organisation, with customers frequently having an active contribution to the success of the interaction. This being the case, a museum should be thinking not just managing the ways that the displays/facilities/volunteers/staff contribute – but also managing the ways that visitors contribute. If you’d like to explore these ideas in more detail, you will find this International Journal of Service Industry Management article from 1997 a good place to start.

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‘The restrictions a site offers are the key to finding original solutions and developing one’s practice in ways we wouldn’t have if they were no constraints.’ Inspiration from Tara D’Arquian’s Quests at Borough Hall, Greenwich – an interview with the choreographer

February 2016

Interested in site specific performance in your museum?

Increasingly, museums are embracing the opportunities of partnership with performing arts – including theatre and dance. Sometimes the partnership projects are fairly simple – for example a theatre company is touring a production and is looking for a venue, the museum can provide a suitable space and facilities. But other projects are more complex and require deep commitment on both sides to collaborative development.

In most cases, site specific performances fit at the latter end of the partnership scale. This is performance (such as dance, theatre, music or opera) that is specifically created to take place in a particular space – a different kind of space from a theatre or performance hall. Typically, this kind of work responds to, exploits and illuminates the physical features, meanings and stories of the site. All kinds of spaces have been used from sports fields to railway stations to factories to prisons. And, of course, museums.

Like many forms of cross-cultural practice, site specific performance offers fantastic opportunities to engage with new audiences as well as to interpret collections and sites in new ways.

My half term family break took me to two very different immersive performance pieces. The first, ‘The Wedding Reception’, performed in a West End hotel, was a light hearted theatre piece by Interactive Theatre International, the Australian company behind ‘Faulty Towers: The Dining Experience.’ It’s immersive (in the sense that you become one of the guests – including being served a 3-course chicken dinner) and site-sensitive in the sense that it works in a place where a wedding might be held. The interaction between the play and its setting is at times hilarious – as when passers by on the street outside started filming on their mobile phones, thinking that they were seeing a real wedding going wrong – but not truly site specific. It’s designed to be performed in any venue that could host a wedding reception and so tours to hotels, social clubs and sporting clubs around the world. It would be great in a museum that hosts weddings.

By contrast, the second piece was serious in intent, truly site specific and created over time in response to a particular venue. This was Quests, the second site sensitive performance in a trilogy of work by Belgian choreographer Tara D’Arquian, performed in . the Borough Hall, Greenwich.

It’s not a museum, it’s a former municipal building with historic features and historic resonance for the local community. Built in 1939 as part of the council headquarters complex that replaced the Victorian Greenwich Town Hall, Borough Hall is Art Deco in style and Grade II listed – described by Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘the only town hall of any London borough to represent the style of our time adequately.’ It was used for municipal purposes until the 1960s when a local government reorganisation moved the headquarters to Woolwich. It’s now home to the Greenwich Dance arts agency. As such, it’s been used in much site specific work.

Experiencing Quests is different to most experience of ‘going to see’ dance. The audience is part of the piece from the beginning and as the story unfolds, we moved from space to space through the building. The rooms of the Borough Hall had each been transformed by the production designer, so that the spaces told part of the story. The piece built on the features of the original building but also changed them. The company included both professional performers and community members, who formed a bridge between the professional cast and the audience.

Reflecting on the experience of Quests, I was keen to help museums considering a site-specific performance project to understand the creator’s perspective on the experience of bringing the piece to reality. I was also interested in giving museums a picture of some of the practical considerations involved. Choreographer Tara was generous in her time in responding to my questions and I am reproducing our email interview here, so that museums can learn about the performing artist’s perspective on the process:

LM: How did the project come about?

TA: Quests was the second site-specific piece of a trilogy which was initiated by In Situ, a Greenwich Dance & Trinity Laban Partnership Compass Commission.

Quests revolves around the second state of consciousness in Nietzsche’s Three Metamorphoses, the state of the lion who deconstructs all truths that he has been inculcated.

In order to support this theme and to transmit it to the audience, I wanted for it to be performed in a site which possessed a timeless feel and which could be transformed and made multiple, passing from the inside of a boat to a hotel lobby for example.

I thought of the Borough Hall of Greenwich and when I approached Greenwich Dance, they didn’t hesitate and embraced the project.

LM: How was the project funded?

TA: Quests was commissioned by Greenwich Dance and supported by Arts Council England, Trinity Laban and Dance East. In addition, I raised a part of the fund through a Kickstarter campaign and also invested in the project myself.

LM: What is special to you about developing site-specific work?

TA: I am very sensitive to space, places, buildings. I am moved by how light and textures meet to structure the space. I am the daughter of two architects and I grew up in an old water bottle factory which they transformed into our home. So I guess I understand space by creatively interacting with it. As an artist today, I like to share this with an audience and highlight the multiplicity of perception of Space. I am interested in using the identity of a site as a metaphor for human identity. It’s a sort of personification of the site.

LM: How did the setting influence this piece and the trilogy as a whole?

TA: The composers, Bruno Humberto and Philippe Lenzini, one of the performers Anne-Gaëlle Thiriot and myself carried out a few weeks of research and development at the Borough Hall of Greenwich before the beginning of rehearsals. During these weeks of R&D we did a lot of improvisations and worked a lot with memory. The simple fact of being on site for this phase of the process hugely influenced us on a subconscious level. The outcome of these R&D weeks established the mood and tone of the piece.

As for how this site influenced the trilogy as a whole… I am not sure yet. It is still a bit early to say.

LM: How do you feel Quests acts to reinterpret/bring new audiences to appreciate the historic building?

TA: I think Quests did bring quite a lot of new audience members at the Borough Hall of Greenwich. I must say that Yann Seabra, the set designer, did such a wonderful work that it was difficult for people who had never been on site before to actually experience the “real” site. What they experienced rather is the “fictive” site. The character we superimposed on the site. It might be quite an interesting experience for someone who had not been at The Borough Hall of Greenwich to return on site. I am not sure they would recognize it!

LM: What (if any) have been the challenges of working in a Grade II listed building?

TA: The challenges were technical ones such as the limitations with power for example. Lighting the many spaces demanded to be creative and Genevieve Giron, the lighting designer, did a fantastic work. This is another parameter of site-specific performance making which I love. The restrictions a site offers are the key to finding original solutions and developing one’s practice in ways we wouldn’t have if they were no constraints.

Dance and Museums

September 2015

This month I took part in a fascinating event ‘Dance and Museums: A Conversation.’ I was accompanied by Charlotte Slinger, Youth Arts Officer from Hampshire Cultural Trust, who had secured a South East Museum Development Programme-funded place and travel grant that we offered through our newsletter.

Hosted by MShed, Bristol, it was designed as an opportunity for dance and museum workers to meet each other, hear about a variety of dance/museum projects and their outcomes and explore ideas for work that we could make happen in the future.

The event was organised by Pavilion Dance South West, the National Dance Development Organisation for the South West of England. In keeping with the cross-cultural spirit of the day, our MCs for the day were PDSW’s  Zannah Doan and Bristol Museums’ Ruth Hecht.

In setting the scene, three sector leaders talked about the relevance now of museum/dance partnerships.

Bristol City Council’s Head of Culture, Laura Pye highlighted that recent  reorganisations have created new opportunities for closer working where, as has happened in Bristol, arts and museums have been brought together. This certainly rang a bell with Charlotte and I, as these opportunities are very much being opened up in Hampshire Cultural Trust.

Pavilion Dance South West’s Artistic Director Deryck Newland spoke about the diversity of ways that dance and museums can work together – from presenting the moving body as a project in its own right, to employing dance as a methodology to reinterpret collections or sites kinaesthetically. He pointed to the leap of faith needed for museum/dance partnerships to flourish. Whilst some museum people still instinctively reacted to the idea of dance in museums with ‘but it might break something’ many more were willing to trust, explore and gain from the fast track that dance can offer to enhancing visitors’ understanding of museum collections. The dance community, in return, can learn from museums how to make things relevant, connect and give people something to take away. Deryck encouraged us to explore a recent symposium report from Trinity Laban and the Horniman that discusses the challenges and opportunities in detail.

Arts Council England’s Director of Museums John Orna-Ornstein discussed the potential of dance to enable people to experience museums in new ways, to have fun and find museums more interesting. Museums’ place is to help people to understand who they are – and to explore identity, conversations in museums are as important as the objects. Dance in museums is a highly effective way to trigger those conversations.

We then heard an illuminating range of diverse practitioner presentations, highlighting the variety of practice that Deryck had commented on.

Katie Green shared valuable learning about building relationships between museums and the dance community, drawn from her experience of projects like ‘Dancing in Museums.’  She highlighted the need to be conscious, when presenting dance, that museum users see it as ‘their’ space, their needs and sensitivities need to be taken into account. Katie also showed research figures demonstrating how both museums and dance can gain new audiences from collaboration. Going deeper, Katie shared her fascination with storytelling, its role in understanding what it means to be human and the way that objects can be used, through dance, as a portal on the past.

Kate Coyne from Siobhan Davies Dance spoke about the EU-funded Dancing Museums research project and advocated for the importance of artist-led dance work in museums. Kate discussed the rich potential for dance to inspire museum curation, giving the example of works of art displayed at the Whitworth Art Gallery selected from the collections in response to new dance work.

Veronica Jobbins from Trinity Laban talked about their longstanding partnership with the Horniman. She explored the basis of the partnership in shared values and aspirations, in a common focus in local community engagement. Veronica showcased a variety of projects that have grown from this collaboration, encompassing both professional and participatory work and reflecting the museum’s eclecticism. A frequent feature was the creation of new music, craft and visual art as part of the projects. Veronica highlighted the benefits of building on both organisations’s existing participation groups as a starting point to wider engagement. She then commented on the potential for future collaborations to go much further to bring artists and curators together.

In the afternoon we undertook group work to plan how the benefits of dance-museum collaboration can be spread more widely. It was an energising conversation and I look forward to being involved in the next steps. All in all it was an energising day, illuminating the vast potential of museum/dance collaboration adn providing me with really valuable contacts for the future.

Most powerfully, it demonstrated how museums working with dance can act as a vehicle for much wider cross-cultural collaboration, incorporating many other art forms and cross-fertilising audiences for all.