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Audience Engagement in San Francisco's Contemporary Dance Scene: Forging Connections Through Food


This dissertation looks at critical interventions made by select San Francisco bay area choreographers and dance programmers interested in altering spectatorial norms for contemporary dance. Those selected have strategically employed food themes and materials in and as performance, simultaneously tapping into existing foodie ideology and redressing concerns about dwindling audiences for live dance performance in the twenty-first century. I argue that such efforts 1) bring to light subsumed race, class, and gender politics embedded in the trend towards "audience engagement," espoused by arts funders and dance makers alike as a necessary intervention for the survival of contemporary dance; and 2) open up discursive and experiential realms of possibility by favoring material, associative exchange, (re)awakening synesthetic sensory-perceptive capacities, inviting spectators to refigure themselves as co- creators in performance, and providing opportunities to reckon with exoticizing desires to enrich one's own culture by consuming another's.

In theoretically grouping these choreographies together I illustrate a spectrum of responses that clarify how food-oriented performance gatherings can operate not only as strategies for altering audience relations, but as sites for alternative knowledge production and fruitful commensal exchange. Such research draws from and intervenes in the overlapping fields of food studies, American studies, and performance and dance studies. This analysis is uniquely positioned amongst other work addressing the interstices between food and performance in its emphasis explicitly on Western concert dance. It also contributes significantly to the archives of an often overlooked San Francisco bay area dance community.

Methodologically I take a dance studies approach, generating choreographic analyses enabled through interviews with choreographers and dance programmers, my own work as witness/participant in the selected events, and archival research into feminist theories of performativity, anthropologies of the senses, contemporary theories of embodiment and select dance and theatre scholarship from the 1800s to the present. Throughout I prioritize the embodied experience of spectatorship, highlighting how contemporary corporeality is shaped by shifting inclusions and exclusions of various peoples and practices, capitalist economic models, the pervasive reach of readily-available digitized media, and both dominant and alternative systems of knowledge production.

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