To Boo or Not to Boo

Le scandale du jour of this week in the festival world took place at the Spoleto Festival — and all from a single “boo!”

The South Carolina, US. festival presented Bill T. Jones’ Blind Date. The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company‘s work has long been noted for its high level of artistic accomplishment and political engagement. Through visceral images, spoken text, and heightened physicality, Bill Jones, the choreographer, has been at the forefront of American dance for thirty years.

At Spoleto, Jones presented Blind Date, which “explores patriotism, honor, sacrifice, and service to a cause larger than oneself - values all but lost in our modern world” (according to Jones). Reports vary as to how supportive the applause was that greeted the performance. What was uncontested was that, as the applause was dying down, there was one loud “boo.”

For a work about politics, for a new piece, and for a large audience (some of whom gave a standing ovation), one little boo from the balcony is not such a big deal, right? Well, it was to Bill T. Jones. Jones became aware of the booing after he left the stage from the curtain call. He rushed back on stage and angrily demanded for the boo-er to present himself, and “come down here and tell me what you did not like.”

The “boo-er” did identify himself, and after some more tense prompting from Jones, reportedly said he thought the performance pretentious, repetitive, and not informative about the issues addressed. Jones’ barked back, “I’ll stay out of your politics if you stay out of my art!”

Nice, huh? Perhaps in the heat of the moment Jones forgot some of the etiquette of a live performance: the man had already paid for his ticket and remained for the whole intermission-less performance — sort of hard to “stay out” of the art. Even more to the point, the work was meant to be challenging — so why jump on a single audience member who reacts honestly to the challenge? Is it now a given that if you present work that is “political,” on the edge, and about current events, the only acceptable reaction is to stand and applaud?

Don’t you think that if you make art that challenges an audience you should embrace pushback, not resent it, or (as happened as the event unfolded) question the viewer’s motive and political affiliation? The boo-er did not interfere with the performance or its acceptance by others. He waited until it was over and booed - for this he was attacked from the stage?

I am certainly not encouraging audiences at festivals to begin to boo at any chance they get; but, I believe that if we create genuine art we want to spark reactions — we want to engage audiences, not attack them for having a different point of view.

At a later public session with Jones at the festival, the boo-er showed up and they engaged in a dialogue about the work and their individual actions. The boo-er is a real dance fan who goes to many events - he just really didn’t like this one. Jones said that he overreacted and everyone made up.

That’s a nice ending, but it still leaves a bitter taste. Maybe it gets too comforting when one only receives accolades for their work. Maybe, it says something about the work itself. Maybe we all need to push ourselves — artists and audiences — to rebel against banal, empty, self-congratulatory, precious and politically correct art. In other words, do the sort of work that earned Bill Jones his reputation.

- Bill Reichblum

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2 Responses to “To Boo or Not to Boo”

  1. Jonathan
    June 13th, 2006 16:31

    Bill’s cantankersness aside, and he is gettinng crouchier as he gets older, this does raise an issue about can americans boo art.

    Obviosly Europeans do, in particular opera. But is it okay for someone to boo after a group of dancers work hard for an hour or so?

    Standing ovations are now standard fare, and I would say at a loss for using them as a judgement of what is truly good. But somewhere in between booing at poor artists making a living by putting their bodies on stage and rewarding every mediocre offering with a standing o just to make you the audience memeber feel that your money was well spend there must be a midde ground. An applause-o-meter.

    Keep up the great work!


  2. Bill
    June 14th, 2006 14:56

    Getting older?! Easiest way to age is to be part of a work that makes us slump back in our chair, and then just shrug when it’s over.
    Don’t you think we can stay young by being completely engaged in work that keeps us on the edge of our seats - to applaud, to boo, to laugh, to argue? At least - that’s my plan for eternal youth.

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