Collective Wisdom

Crowdsourcing can be an art-making tool, too

By Eliza Bent

To reinvigorate the choreography process.

Ask audiences for artistic suggestions in person and via social media.

What Worked
Generating media buzz; deepening audience engagement with the art.

What Didn't
A quick turnaround means limited editing time.

What's Next
Site-specific requests; more use of video.

By now most people are familiar with crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Raising money, on an individual level as an artist, has never been easier. But what about crowdsourcing the actual art-making? 

No, I’m not referring to ensemble creation or devised theatre-making methods. Nor do I mean brainstorming with trusted artistic collaborators. And while projects like the YouTube Symphony Orchestra and Hans Zimmer’s Dark Knight chorus of thousands make hay of crowd talent, these projects don’t quite capitalize on crowd ideas. 

So what about an artistic process that looks to the world, and strangers, for inspiration? Two dance companies—Diablo Ballet in Walnut Creek, Calif., and James Sewell Ballet in Minneapolis—did just that. They made use of the time-tested tradition of an improv show that asks for an audience suggestion—but instead of one idea, they solicited hundreds. These ballet troupes are effectively taking the adage “good artists borrow, great artists steal” to a whole new level. (Incidentally, my requests to crowdsource this article were rejected by the editors.) 

Why crowdsource a dance at all? “I’m pretty sick of how I move,” admits artistic director James Sewell, who has made some 80 ballets over the course of his career. “I’m way more predictable than I’d like to be.” Part of Sewell’s interest in creating Your Move, which bowed in April, was to snatch fresh ideas from interested audience members and use them as source material. “I used to plan out a whole dance, but now I like to start with an idea and see where it goes, even if I’m not sure how it’s going to work out,” Sewell says.

For Diablo Ballet the impetus to create a crowdsourced ballet was tied to social media. “We did a Twitter night last year,” says Dan Meagher, Diablo’s director of marketing. The night proved successful and, according to Meagher, brought in “lots of people who had never seen theatrical dance. Dance is so collaborative; we thought, let’s collaborate with the world.”  

Meagher and his team decided to use Diablo’s active social media presence on Facebook and Twitter (Diablo has upwards of 6,000 Twitter followers). “People sent their dance suggestions via our hashtag #diablowebballet. We had an overwhelming media response, which generated a lot of retweeting,” reports Meagher. Dance suggestions were short and to the point at 140 characters or less. Some 132 ideas were generated for Diablo’s “web ballet,” coming from such far-flung locations as Australia, Japan, Scotland, Russia and Trinidad & Tobago. (Two students in Sweden, at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, even used Diablo’s web ballet in a thesis on the worldwide effects of arts crowdsourcing.) While Meagher was initially concerned that the participants might not understand the project, this worry was unfounded. Ultimately, choreographer Robert Dekkers selected seven ideas. The unedited proposals were:

1. The story of the Dodo Bird, a bird who couldn’t fly and became extinct.
2. Feel of the dance work: deliberately ironic.
3. Include at least one moment that you hope the audience will find hideously ugly…another evoking awesome beauty…investigate their similarities and differences.
4. Setting: insane asylum.
5. Initiate movement from shoulder blades.
6. The color turquoise.
7. “I would love for the dance to be in the safari. The boys will be animals and the girls will be explorers” (from 10-year-old Mia Fuerte).

Dekkers’s The Flight of the Dodo premiered in March.

James Sewell took a decidedly different approach. Instead of reaching out to the World Wide Web and social media followers through tweets and texts, he turned to his live, in-person audience. “At our performances in the fall, we announced the project and invited audiences to give us a ‘move,’” Sewell says. An area was set up in the theatre so that at intermission people could actually demonstrate their dance-move ideas. The sessions were recorded. “There was an amazing variety of movements, from facial expressions to gestural expressions and partnering moves. It became a part of the show. We told people, ‘If you had fun, come back next season and see if your idea made its way into the piece!’”

Sewell estimates his approach yielded somewhere between 150 and 200 moves or gestures and he ultimately used about 75 percent of these ideas as source material for Your Move. In order to keep track of the multitude of ideas, he delegated a series of 20–30 moves to each of his seven dancers. “Sometimes we would do a ‘dancer’ version of a move, but having the dancers responsible for a bunch of phrases made choreographing all the connective tissue for the dance much easier. I could say, ‘Who has facial expressions? Who has a move that travels?’ So it was more efficient that way.”

For both Sewell and Diablo’s Dekkers, the turnaround from idea to choreographed dance was very quick. Dekkers crafted Flight of the Dodo in a mere two weeks. “In the dance world, that’s a very short time period,” Meagher emphasizes. “There was no time to edit.” In fact, when a lead dancer injured himself, Dekker stepped up to the plate, dancing as the lead Dodo.

A challenge Diablo faced was not having a model to look to while making its web ballet. “We didn’t want to create Swan Lake—that already exists,” says Meagher. “We had an opportunity to be bold, daring and creative and our audience came along for the ride. The great thing about Flight of the Dodo was that you wouldn’t know that seven totally different people were a part of its genesis.”

Sewell used silk panels in Your Move for video projections of the original dance gestures. “Sometimes the video would happen before we would enact the dance, and sometimes it was simultaneous,” Sewell says. “I would definitely include video again—it was great to have a kind of call-and-response effect between the video and live dance.” Sewell is also enthusiastic about scouting for location-specific moves, like at grocery stores or the beach—or even partnering with local celebs, such as the Minneapolis Timberwolves basketball team and Mayor R.T. Rybak. “I was surprised how delighted people were by the project,” Sewell says. “It was a chance for them to have fun and be silly.” Meagher is also eager to see what another web ballet might spawn. “It would be fascinating if we added video components—and I’d love for people to submit original music,” he says. 

Both Meagher and Sewell expressed how their respective crowdsourced projects contributed to demystifying the world of dance. “Ballet is mysterious to a lot of people, and doing this project ended up connecting people emotionally to the work in ways I don’t think the audience or I expected,” comments Sewell. For Meagher, the web ballet “allowed people to get an inside look at how we put a dance together and opened up a whole new level of communication. If we want people to become attached to the art, then what could be better than having them be a part of the process?”

But does drawing from the crowd dilute the artistry? “Just because a move is cool doesn’t mean you necessarily end up using it,” says Sewell. “People have been making ballet with the same steps for many years. Sourcing from people was enriching. And the 25 percent that I created was essential for shaping the dance and giving it an emotional arc.” Meagher drives home a point about art and democracy. “Shakespeare didn’t create his plays to be enjoyed by just the royalty and wealthy. They were done for the average person. When did we lose that ideal?”