Jonathan Burrows
On audience - an extract from
A Choreographer’s Handbook by Jonathan Burrows
Published by Routledge, an imprint of the Taylor and Francis Group, 2010
Audience / Facing the front / Confrontation / Humour / Failure


There are a number of possible relations you could establish with your audience. Thinking about how you want to look and be looked at can help clarify why you might want to perform in the first place. It's worth not taking this for granted.

Let’s be honest, when we talk about audience we’re talking about ourselves. I am often an audience member, so anything I think or say about audience has to include me as a likely candidate. I can be difficult to please and I hate being patronised.

Sometimes I like to be pressed back into my seat by the sheer force of the thing unfolding in front of me, open-mouthed and emptied of thought. Baroque churches do this, also Pina Bausch performances and anything involving explosives.

On the other hand, sometimes I prefer to be invited, to be included and nudged into thought.

The relation with audience is a circular thing: I give the audience clues as to how they might sit and they, in turn, give me permission to relax and do best what I’ve come to do. Sometimes that permission is slow in coming and sometimes, on rare occasions and for reasons beyond anyone’s control, the permission never arrives. In those rare cases the audience is grateful to you if you fake it. It makes them feel less uncomfortable about what’s going on (see also ‘Contract’).

It is, of course, possible to use the situation of the unreality of a theatrical stage to become something extraordinary. This is one of the greatest pleasures of performing or watching performance - to be invited to suspend doubt. It is also and equally valid and desirable though, to choose sometimes for the ordinary. The audience likes to see themselves up there. It is a pleasure equal to that of witnessing magic.

(See also ‘Contract’.)

Facing the front:

Our thinking about direction is in constant negotiation with compass points and square rooms. Is there another way we could orientate ourselves in relation to the room we are in and the people who are watching?

The audience are usually in front of you and facing them is one possibility. It isn't, however, the only option, and it isn't a guarantee of communication.

The theatre director Jan Ritsema said this: ‘You know if you dare to turn around and dance away from us we love to follow you.’
From a conversation with the author, 2001.


Another way to meet the audience is to confront them.

Many performances veer intentionally or unintentionally towards this kind of face-off with the crowd.

When could it be useful to confront the audience and how might you understand best what is happening when a confrontation occurs, and why?

The strongest confrontation is gently conscious of its purpose.

It doesn’t guarantee communication any more than facing the front.


Laughter is the most obvious pleasurable response you can elicit from an audience; there’s no mistaking it. You may have noticed, however, that in the inevitable human search for meaning a dance audience will latch on to anything humorous. It’s a blessing and a curse.

For the performer the difficulty is in gauging what’s happening when the laughter subsides. Are they still with you or not?

The writer Adrian Heathfield said this: ‘The important thing is to find a balance between allowing the humour, and at the same time letting us know that underlying it there remains a serious proposition.’
From a conversation with the author, 2006.

The test is whether, in the wake of a laugh, you can dare to walk away from the audience and trust they’ll still be there when you come back?

They want you to walk away: they need the space (see also ‘Facing the front’).

Here is the painter Philip Guston, meditating upon an unexpected response to his paintings: ‘When I show these, people laugh and I always wonder what laughter is. I suppose Baudelaire’s definition is still valid, it’s the collision of two contrary feelings.’
Quoted in ‘Guston’, by Robert Storr, Abbeville Press Publishers, 1986, p. 54.

‘Laughter is the expression of a double, or contradictory, feeling; and that is the reason why a convulsion occurs.’
Charles Baudelaire, ‘On The Essence Of Laughter’, from ‘The Painter Of Modern Life And Other Essays’, translated and edited by Jonathan Mayne, Da Capo Press, 1986 (Phaidon Press Ltd, 1964), p. 156.

The laughter of a dance performance is a contrary thing, born out of a collision between the tension that arises in the absence of language and the release that comes with anything graspable.

Some dance pieces are funny, though laughter is not necessarily proof.


It is often the attempt to do what you're doing which makes us intrigued; your occasional failure to achieve this goal simply keeps the stakes high.

We say, “Raising the problem to the level of the subject”: this is a thought from the theatre director Tim Etchells.
From ‘Parallel Voices’ talk, Siobhan Davies Studios, London, February 2007.

Audiences like failure, so long as they know that you know you’re failing. It allows an act of human recognition and empathy. Conversely, if you are uncomfortable with your failure, then we are likely to feel uncomfortable too.

Or perhaps discomfort is an important part of what you're doing?

Sometimes if you start out with the premise that you’re allowed to fail, it actually helps you to succeed. This is another of the paradoxes of performing: by allowing for what might go wrong, you include and conquer it.

‘There are no mistakes’ is a useful starting point. It doesn’t mean you will make mistakes.

Or this: ‘If you feel self-conscious allow yourself to feel self-conscious’. Accepting self-consciousness is one possible alternative to putting on a cool look like a new set of clothes. Of course I'm frightened, there are two hundred people out there and adrenalin is pumping round my body.

(See also ‘Principles’, ‘Virtuosity’, ‘Ballet’ and ‘Facing the front’.)


The gentle aim of the following principles, written by the composer Christian Wolff, is to liberate both audience and performers alike:

- A composition must make possible the freedom and dignity of the performer.

- It should allow both concentration and release.

- No sound or noise is preferable to any other sound or noise.

- Listeners should be as free as the players.
Christian Wolff, quoted in ‘Audio Culture - Readings In Modern Music’, edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004, p. 163.


It should allow both concentration and release.

© Jonathan Burrows, 2010