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School of Arts, Languages and Cultures

Turning points in the Manchester dance scene

Using neuroscience and audience feedback to understand how we watch dance opens up new opportunities for choreographers to engage with audiences.

Dancers from the Manchester Dance Consortium
Dancers from the Manchester Dance Consortium.

Our researchers studied responses to watching dance as evidenced by brain activity and verbal expression and used this knowledge to indicate new ways for choreographers to engage with audiences. This has led to initiatives in Manchester that are broadening dance audiences and supporting collaborations between choreographers and audiences.

Despite its many talented choreographers and dancers and a regional organisation that supports dance, the dance community in Manchester is less well served than in many major UK cities. When our researchers met up with choreographers from the region in March 2011, it became clear that the time was right for a new collaborative initiative that would be led by choreographers in Manchester and would have at its core creative interactions between choreographers and audiences.
Manchester Dance Consortium was founded, comprising choreographers, dance spectators and representatives of dance venues and local bodies. We ran three collaborative 'platforms' to trial our ideas. Choreographers were chosen partly on the basis of their interest in audience input and their ability to formulate how this input could benefit their work.

  • Platform 0: a pilot platform where audiences provided feedback on six artistic performances;
  • Platform 0.1: dancers and musicians collaborated; distinguished composer Alan Williams mentored choreographers who received audience feedback after their performances
  • Platform 0.2: built on and expanded the previous collaboration, with choreographers receiving mentoring on theatrical aspects of the performance

The work is raising optimism in the local dance community and inspiring new forms of collaboration and creativity, which are benefiting choreographers, dancers and audiences.

Key benefits:

  • Launch of the Manchester Dance Consortium in 2011 to support and develop the Manchester dance scene and encourage audience input to choreographic practice in light of the research
  • Innovative performance formats that offer new modes of engagement to audiences and new collaborative opportunities for choreographers
  • Changes in creative practice
  • New forms of expression in dance
  • Growing performance opportunities and funding in the city

Our research

Our research began with Professor Dee Reynolds's examination of the impact on dance audiences of rhythms used by choreographers. She argued that kinaesthesia and kinaesthetic empathy (where the spectator feels that they experience movements vicariously) are key to audience’s experience. Professor Reynolds then investigated this further by collaborating with researchers at York St John University, Glasgow University and Imperial College London. The team used qualitative research and neuroscience to study dance audiences in the project 'Watching Dance: Kinaesthetic Empathy'.

This work focused on:

  • Links between kinaesthetic empathy and the pleasure gained from watching dance
  • Differences between audience members who were and were not dancers themselves
  • Impact of music and sound on the experience of watching dance

The researchers used questionnaires, focus groups, fMRI brain scans and TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) to assess motor resonance and kinaesthetic responses, mainly in spectators who were not dancers. The brain scans helped to identify which types of sound-movement relations gave rise to shared responses between spectators.

Lead academics