Crowd-sourced Choreography

Ever wanted to be a choreographer? #instaballet lets the audience determine the dance.

Story, video and photos by GARY FERRINGTON

As the 2013 Eugene Ballet Company season was ending, Suzanne Haag, Antonio Anacan and other EBC dancers gathered at Brails’ Espresso! (a favorite hang out for dancers near their Midtown Arts Center rehearsal studio) and began brainstorming how to stay artistically active during the off-season. We could share an open ballet rehearsal with an audience during a Lane Arts Council First Friday ArtWalk, one suggested. Been done, another replied. They wanted to do something new and different, something that would grab the interest of younger people accustomed to instant information and sharing art and ideas over the Internet.

An audience member suggests a dance sequence to #instaballet dancers Antonio Anacan and Suzanne Haag. Photo: #instaballet.

An audience member suggests a dance sequence to #instaballet dancers Antonio Anacan and Suzanne Haag. Photo: #instaballet.

A few weeks later, the product of that brainstorming session, #instaballet, appeared at the June edition of Eugene’s monthly First Friday ArtWalk. Created by Haag and Anacan, #instaballet hosts audience-choreographed dance workshops throughout late spring and summer during the ArtWalks. This Friday, August 7, marks its twelfth session of audience-choreographed ballet from 5-8 pm at Eugene’s Oregon Contemporary Theatre in Eugene.  Think of it as crowdsourced choreography, but at these sessions, #instaballet wants the public to contribute moves, not money.

As a seasonal pick-up company, #instaballet strives to provide off-season jobs for professional ballet dancers in the spring and summer — and to keep the community interested in the Eugene Ballet Company (EBC). Most professional US ballet companies don’t perform off season and #instaballet hopes to keep its regional audiences invested in ballet year round. The ensemble’s goal is to enrich audience knowledge and appreciation of classical ballet by engaging participants in the creative process of choreography. Executive Director Haag hopes that this audience/dancer interaction results in “a more educated, artistically literate community,” she told ArtsWatch in an email interview. “Our events are free and the final performance is a gift from the public to the public.” A video introduction to #instaballet is available on YouTube.

Planning an #instaballet session begins early on when the music and theme for the evening is selected by Artistic Director Anacan. He and participating dancers choreograph the first 30 seconds of the piece that the audience will take and transform into a short 4-6 minute ballet. They also prepare a few written phrases of suggested movements that dancers know like “traveling phrase” or “partnering phrase,” which can be plucked from a “pick a phrase” jar if a participant has a general idea of what he/she wants the dancers to do, but has no specific steps in mind. There is also an “idea jump-start” jar with suggestions such as “slow-motion,” “interact with audience,”or “change direction” that give guidance when audience members aren’t sure how to articulate an idea.

#instaballet Dancers Danielle Tolmie, Isaac Jones, Antonio Anacan and Cory Betts “mark” audience suggested movements. 

A typical three hour session involves a drop-in audience that comes and goes throughout the evening, a facilitator, and a cadre of two or more dancers. The facilitator engages audience members by asking for suggested dancer movements and interactions focused around the evening’s theme like “chance” or “adventure.” The dancers transpose those suggestions into dance sequences. The ballet evolves over the course of the evening and everyone is encouraged to return at 8pm to see the completed work.

Facilitator Suzanne Haag and dancers Antonio Anacan and Victoria Harvey discuss an audience member’s suggested movement.

Facilitator Suzanne Haag and dancers Antonio Anacan and Victoria Harvey discuss an audience member’s suggested movement.

Giving up some artistic control to an audience untrained in choreography does pose unique problems, but “some of the challenges are the same that we face as dancers working with professional choreographers.” Haag explains. “Often, when someone has an idea but can’t fully articulate how they want that idea integrated into the routine, it is up to the dancers to interpret those ideas. The translation sometimes misses if dancer and creator aren’t on the same page. We’ve had a few times where the audience will suggest something specific, like a lift, that just doesn’t work for the dancers, perhaps because the two dancers’ proportions won’t allow the action, or the movement is just not physically possible. This is challenging, but also creates a unique experience for the audience as they are forced to collectively problem-solve to achieve the vision in a realistic way or come up with a completely different approach.”

Another challenge: how do dancers remember so many numerous suggested movements over the course of a single evening? “#instaballet is a mental challenge for the dancers since it happens so fast,” Haag writes. “Usually we have weeks to memorize a new ballet, not just hours. But, as dancers, we are trained from a young age to pick up choreography very quickly. There is no truly effective way of notating dance, so all the work is just stored in the dancer’s memory. Repetition is typically the best way to make the choreography stick. You’ll see the dancers “mark” the movements over and over to create the muscle memory needed to do the dance without thinking too hard.”

#instaballet Dancers Suzanne Haag and Beth Ann Maslinoff take a moment to “mark” a movement to muscle memory.

#instaballet dancers Suzanne Haag and Beth Ann Maslinoff “mark” a movement to muscle memory.

#instaballet was incorporated in August of 2014 as a non profit corporation in the state of Oregon and is currently seeking federal 501(c)(3) status. In the meantime, it is under the fiscal sponsorship of the Lane Arts Council, which allows sponsors to donate and receive a tax deduction and for the ensemble to apply for grants reserved for 501(c)(3) organizations under LAC’s umbrella.

Expanding Vision

Although #instaballet seemed “a really whacky idea and risk” at first, it has worked better than imagined. “At first, we were just happy that people showed up to our events and were brave enough to offer suggestions,” Haag remembers. But from the first session on, “the energy in the room was tangible and the sense of community and satisfaction was more than we had hoped for. We then knew we had created something special that needed to be repeated. Now that the word is getting out, the company has expanded #instaballet to events beyond the First Friday ArtWalk.”

The ensemble has been invited to conduct workshops with Springfield’s Academy of Arts and Academics, danced with a string quartet from OrchestraNEXT at the Oregon Community Foundation’s Studio to School Convening, performed at Springfield’s Second Friday Art Walk, held a session for the children of the Relief Nursery and was invited to participate at the Walla Walla Dance Festival. In September, it will hold a closed performance for the students at Bridgeway House, a facility serving the needs of children with autism and related disabilities. Though these extra events are shorter in length than the three-hour First Friday ArtWalk sessions,the audience interaction and creativity is are still an integral part of each.

“We find that #instaballet works well in a variety of settings with a whole spectrum of audiences and we can tailor the degree of participation to the needs / age / abilities of our audiences,” Haag notes. “In the future, we’d love to be more involved with children (we are in talks about live-streaming our performances to hospitals, so children can view our events and interact with us virtually). And yes, as we gain more support, we’d love to take #instaballet outside of Eugene to more audiences and events.”

The most recent audience choreographed ballet performance (Number 11) recorded on July 3 at the Oregon Contemporary Theatre, Eugene. Video: Antonio Anacan.

#instaballet dance company hosts its next audience-choreography session and performance Friday, August 7  from 5-8 pm at Eugene’s Oregon Contemporary Theatre

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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