A New Lens for Dance: Pros and Cons of Live Streaming Performance

CHICAGO — Dance for the camera is nothing new, but with idevices, YouTube and the Internet literally everywhere, broadcasting dance to living room sofas is easier than ever. Chicago companies large and small are trying it out, in different iterations, and for slightly different reasons. The common goal, however, is to access and engage with new audience members. In the past several months, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, The Chicago Dancing Festival, and The Joffrey Ballet have amped up their streaming video efforts, and Margi Cole’s Dance COLEctive is the latest to join in.

Glenn Edgerton, Artistic Director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC)* said, “Let me start by saying that there’s no substitute for live performance — we still want people to experience Hubbard Street in person.” HSDC participated in two simulcasts last season, both broadcast to the lawn of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park during performances at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. “But of course, a well-executed simulcast can do things we simply can’t do indoors. It removes the cost factor for people who want to see our current ensemble performing our latest works. It’s a simple and effective option for those curious about what we do at Hubbard Street. It provides a way for thousands to stumble accidentally upon our work and, hopefully, be compelled enough by what they see to stick around for a while.”

On the heels a successful simulcast of HSDC’s 2014 Summer Series, The Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) broadcast its Harris Theater installment on an evening that included Hubbard Street in a world premiere by Kyle Abraham, in addition to The Juilliard School, Martha Graham Dance Company, Stars of American Ballet and guests from The Joffrey Ballet. Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director Jay Franke felt that simulcast was a perfect model to supplement CDF, and further promote its mission to bring high quality dance programming to Chicago audiences free of cost. “It was a ‘no brainer’ on our end,” said Franke. “The festival typically sells out the 1500 seats of the Harris Theater in a matter of hours, and we felt that this opened the doors for more people, which equals more Festival impact.”

Edgerton and Franke attribute much of the success of both simulcasts to director Bruce Bryant of Staging Solutions. “[He] put in the time and effort to make smart choices about how to translate our choreographers’ visions from the stage to the big screen,” said Edgerton. “There’s obviously no reason to do all the work these projects require if, in the end result, the dancing itself isn’t well-represented.” Franke agreed: “He truly brought the dances to life on the screen while keeping their artistic integrity.”

The Joffrey Ballet took a different approach, live streaming a rehearsal of its most recent production and bringing viewers into the rarely seen rehearsal process for Christopher Wheeldon’s Swan Lake.  The entire rehearsal was live on YouTube, supplemented by interviews with Wheeldon, the dancers, and the artistic staff at The Joffrey. Artistic Director Ashley Wheater weighed in on having a camera crew in the studio:

“We had the rare opportunity to have Christopher Wheeldon in town with us, working on Swan Lake. I have known Chris for many years, and have the highest regard for his work. I thought the live stream was a chance for others in the Joffrey family to get to know him as well…. Chris was very open to the idea. We had a conversation with our dancers to gauge their interest…it is their time in the studio, after all. When they agreed to participate, it was really ‘rehearsal as usual.’ Very few people actually experience what a rehearsal is like. It is not possible to accommodate many guests in the studio, but we can occasionally provide access by way of the Internet. Unlike a performance in the theater, our audience was able to move around the studio along with the camera. I think the camera people did a great job portraying what it feels like to be in a rehearsal setting…I am grateful to our marketing team and the video crew who took care of the logistics.”

In addition to the live stream, Joffrey supplemented the viewer experience with a live social media chat, answering questions and comments offered by viewers. Wheater believes the experience was worthwhile, and, given the right circumstances, will do it again. “The more our audience knows about our company and our art form, the more engaged they will become,” he said. “A little background information makes the experience of seeing a performance on stage even more satisfying.”

Historically, the concern with streaming a performance, whether it be out into cyberspace or onto an open lawn in downtown Chicago, is the risk of losing patrons. Toying with live streaming and simulcast has drawn some criticism, with the argument that patrons will be more reluctant to spend money on tickets and fight traffic to travel across town when they could watch dance for free from their sofas. Universally, the companies surveyed here believe that live performance is still best. But they also recognize that streaming a performance creates opportunities for attracting new and far away audience members.

The Dance COLEctive (TDC) is the latest of Chicago dance companies to add live streaming to its bag of tricks, and Artistic Director Margi Cole sees it as a way to share her work with students and collaborators across the country and the world. As TDC prepares for its first live stream this weekend from Links Hall, Cole “encourage[s] Chicagoans to come to Links to experience the live version, then watch it streaming and compare.”

“Both of these performances presented the public with two options for how to experience them, vastly different in every way,” said Glenn Edgerton of HDSC’s summer simulcasts. “I do not consider them interchangeable, but distinct from one another, and each has its benefits: Inside the theater, you can share space with the dancers and sense their energy in ways that technology simply can’t capture yet. Out in Millennium Park, you can enjoy a fresh-air picnic with friends while you watch our show, even discuss it as a group as it’s happening. The camera team’s choices add another layer of interpretation of the work, which itself can be a topic of interesting conversation.”

Jay Franke adds that viewing dance on screen can engage “in a way that the live on stage performance may not. It allows the intimate moments of a dance to become more intimate through close-ups, and the larger movements more expansive through various camera angles. Plus, I think first-time dance viewers might sometimes relate more closely with the medium.” Cole agrees, though she doesn’t know exactly what to expect from live streaming her performances “…it offers another point of view on the live performance, perhaps even from backstage.  As a choreographer, [live streaming] provides me with a different way to look at my own work and consider how it is viewed. My work is best supported by a smaller, more intimate space. How can I provide the virtual viewer with the same kind of intimate experience? I am not sure what all the answers are exactly but I am interested in exploring the possibilities.”

The future of streaming dance appears bright, and with the topic of audience engagement discussed ad nauseam among dance circles, there doesn’t really appear to be a reason to NOT try it. Franke, Wheater, and Edgerton all remain open to streaming or simulcast again, noting the importance of utilizing combinations of smart technologies with smart people (like Bruce Bryant).

“We have no evidence so far to suggest that, by offering free simulcasts to the public, we were handicapping our efforts to sell tickets indoors,” said Edgerton. “Our mission is to engage people through the experience of dance. The list of possible ways to offer that experience has grown throughout our history and will continue to do so… At Hubbard Street, we’re always excited about and working toward the future of dance, and that future absolutely includes video. The important question for us to ask is, How do we want to make the most of it?​”

The Dance COLEctive presents “Holding Ground,” Oct 31 and Nov 1 – 2 at 7 p.m. at Links Hall at Constellation (3111 N. Western Ave.). Tickets are $15-20 available at linkshall.org. Nov. 2nd’s performance will be live streamed by Nesek Digital at dancecolective.com

* Disclosure: Due to a personal conflict of interest, Art Intercepts will no longer review performances presented by the main company at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Occasionally, preview and news feature articles such as this one may include HSDC and/or its affiliates. See additional disclosures here.

Author: Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter for NPR affiliate station WGLT and freelance arts and culture critic, primarily reviewing dance for the Chicago Tribune. Lauren enjoys cooking, cycling and attempting to grow things in her backyard. She lives in central Illinois.