My seven year old daughter and I attended the premiere of the Arch Contemporary Ballet's "Château", choreographed by Sheena Annalise. This contemporary ballet work danced en pointe was built on innovative staging.
The set consisted of a set of long, ornate, heavy fabric drapes. The dancers' costumes used the same material. At the start of the first act, the dancers' costumes were attached to the set, so that the set moved with the dancers. I thought that was a very cool idea. It looked like the company has made a major investment in this fabric set, so they should capitalize on this good idea and experiment with more works that use it, and should make more use of the movement potential of the set and costumes, some of which were made of a lighter lace material that echoed the heavier drape fabric. The square skirt dresses sometimes became shawls.
In this age of digital this and digital that, the live music in the show, including two violins, a viola and a cello, was a high quality luxury, composed by Concetta Abbate. The musicians started the first act hidden behind the curtains, but soon the curtains were pulled away. Sometimes the musicians were arranged in a line in the center of the stage from front to back, around and through which the dancers danced.
There was a full house at the Manhattan Movement and Arts Center (MMAC), so there is clearly an appreciative adult audience for Arch Contemporary Ballet, at least for a few performances per year or season. My main question here though, especially since I brought my daughter to the show, was whether "Château" is a show to which you can bring a young child, and thus as a corollary, whether "Château" can be used, as is or adapted, to help grow the dance community?
To be Brechtian, the short answer is Yes.
At multiple points during the show, my daughter moved her arms, mimicking the dancers on stage. I have taken her to quite a few shows, and this kind of in-seat movement is always a good sign. She also wanted to talk about the show while it was happening, which is a good sign too, except that it might disturb other audience members.
When asked what she liked about the show, she said "There were cool dancers. It was a great show." She liked "that there were boy dancers."
She wanted to dance on the stage during intermission. I told her she shouldn't do that, although, in truth, in my book, a dance show should make the audience want to dance. She practiced her ribbon arms standing in front of her seat instead (it is a Duncan thing).
If you want an honest opinion, ask a child and s/he will tell you. My daughter's reaction to the show was partly negative. She felt the dancers did not smile, or only rarely smiled. She said "You should smile in a show." She didn't like the tall green girl because she "had a frown like she was angry." She felt "the purple [dancer] was the only one who smiled."
There is a tradition in the dance world, especially in the post-Modern or "downtown" style, where dancers are not supposed to smile, but I couldn't explain this to her, both because she is seven years old, and because I don't understand or much like it myself. Where I come from, as a social dancer, you are supposed to smile. Except, maybe, if you are feeling serious and sad, and dancing Argentine Tango. Dance is supposed to make you feel happy, even if the reality, even in social dance, can be equal parts transcendent joy and agony. But still, most of the time, if the dance is working, it should transport you out of the everyday, so you should smile. Not that it is easy. I will admit that I am sometimes guilty of not smiling while dancing too. You are concentrating so hard that, even though you are having a great time, you forget to reflect that in your smile.
In the second act, my daughter was moving her arms and hands again. Sometimes her legs and feet were moving too, stamping her seat in time and response to the music. She was moving with enough force that I could feel the seating vibrate a little. This was, needless to say, not appropriate live theatre behavior, even if it was a sign of the show's positive impact. Still, what would it look like if the whole audience reacted that way? There is precedent. In some cultures, a very vocal call and response to a show or a sermon is considered normal. As an experiment, I suggest that Arch Contemporary Ballet do a five minute piece where the audience is given explicit permission and encouragement to stamp their feet in time to the music and wave their arms in the air along with the dancers. Who knows what might happen, but I suspect it would be liberating for both the company and the audience.
At one point, my daughter said, out loud during the second act, "WOWWWW!!! Excellent job!!" I think she was reacting to some very nice leg extensions. She wanted to make sure I got the point, so she said "I want to write something down.", grabbed my note pad and pen, and carefully wrote down, in the dark, "WOW!", with the "WOW!" circled, and then wrote her name with an arrow pointing to the "WOW!" I was so happy to see her practicing her writing. The next time I take her to a show, I will have to take two note pads and two pens.
Her other negative reaction, towards the end of the second act, was "It is taking a while." She did stay to the end, though.
At the end of the show, she clapped loudly and cheered "Whoo!!"
After the curtain call, she said "I'm so proud of her" [Emily McNeely, one of the dancers in the show, who sometimes babysits for her].
There were a couple of other kids, who looked younger than my daughter, at the show. And the show did start at 7:00 pm, which is much more kid friendly than an 8:00 pm curtain, even if it still isn't ideal.
To reach more kids and help grow the dance community, while also giving themselves an artistic challenge, I would suggest Arch Contemporary Ballet should try to create a one act, compressed, version of "Château". I would present the one act "Château" as a matinee on a weekend day, followed by a dance party. With cupcakes. Or chef-prepared fruit and vegetable dishes, or both, depending on your food politics and preferences. Create a kid-friendly printed program. And for a real challenge, try explaining "Château" as a five to nine page coloring book. Try smiling. Give the audience explicit permission to dance in their seats and cry out "Whoo!!"
In NYC, you can often spend all week alone in a crowd getting from place A to B on the subway. If you need a weekend show that can get you to "Whoo!!" with your kid, among a community of people who care about dance, you should consider Arch Contemporary Ballet's "Château".