Festivals need gateway arts drugs
There are two festivals on the near and not so distant horizon that are offering niche events that should appeal to a wider audience: the 12 Points jazz festival (which kicks off tomorrow and will be covered on this blog) and the Dublin Dance Festival (which starts on May 13th).
Now there are two words that will jump out at people from that line, and immediately have them feverishly clicking the back button on their browser, or perhaps blissfully drifting into a somnambulant state: jazz and dance. But bear with us for a paragraph or two.
People are a strange sack of nerve endings and muscles, and trying to get Irish people in particular to go to events outside their comfort zone is like trying to herd cats. The range of what’s on offer here seems to have widened considerably in direct proportion to our national debt (and probably every arts writer in the country has had to do a piece on how as we’ve got less cash, we’ve gotten more cultural). This is terrific, but trying to get people to go to an event in a genre they are not overly familiar with is still a very hard sell. Indeed, just the other evening at Banter in Dublin’s Mindfield, Jim Carroll fessed up that he hated theatre, was dragged along to I’m a HomeBird in the Project kicking and screaming, and then loved every minute of it. Likewise, I can’t tell how many times I’ve had spare tickets to a theatre show that have gone a-begging because its, y’know, theatre.
Gateway acts are crucial. There are some shows, bands or performances that have audience delight written all over them. There are plenty of shows that appeal to a wide fanbase, but it is rare that you get an act who will keep the hardcore fans happy, while drawing in a new audience. For example, Raoul, which recently had the Abbey stuffed to the gills, was one of those shows you couldn’t not enjoy. Theatre novices were astounded that this spectacular form of entertainment could be delivered on the stage, while those for whom opening nights are an essential ritual were equally blown away by the performances – I saw it and recommended it to at least eight people, all of whom thought it terrific. The only problem with the show was that if this was your first dose of theatre, you could spend a long time scouring the streets before you get a similar high.
Dance, though, is a trickier beast, and one that has not always won me to its charms. I’ve been at dance shows scratching my head, and then heard those more in the know praise it to the hilt – one show that did leave me spellbound, though, was the opening show in the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2007. This bizarre, unsettling show by celebrated Russian group Derevo took place in George’s Dock in the IFSC. It had little narrative for the audience to follow, and it was eerie and astounding. You can get a flavour of the show on this episode of The Bubble or read my review from that night here (subscription required).
I remember asking several people their opinions afterwards. A bunch of locals from Sheriff Street who stuck their head in on the way home said they hadn’t a clue what was going on, but that they loved it, and thought that it was definitely the kind of thing the city should put on more. Another group criticised it, said they didn’t understand it, and couldn’t follow it. They told me they were artists, and when they saw me writing down their quotes (I had told them I was a journalist, but they hadn’t heard me), they demanded that I immediately cross out what they said and stormed off.
But I digress – the point is that a very different, challenging show can draw in a new audience, and identifying these gateway shows are crucial for niche festivals. The Dublin Dance Festival might have one such show on its books, in the form of Songs of the Wanderer, which is set to be a big stage spectacular event in Grand Canal Dock.
The 12 Points festival also made a very smart move when it booked London-based jazz group Phronesis for tomorrow night’s opening session. They have a reputation as the most exciting live young jazz band in Europe, and if their last album Alive is anything to go by, the hype is justified. I interviewed band lead Jasper Høiby in last Saturday’s Magazine, and I’ve been pushing their album on anyone silly enough to listen to me for more than 10 minutes.
Of course, they are not the first band to appeal to a wider base: Esbjörn Svensson Trio have a substantial fanbase outside of jazz, and although some purists unjustifiably turn their noses up at The Bad Plus, they are the first band I tell anyone wanting to give the genre a go to listen to.
If you have any further cultural gateway drugs, I’d love to hear them. There’s nothing like an act that finally lights up a whole new avenue of the arts for you.