At the Intersection of Twitter and Art

This blog post is by Emily Schweich, a sophomore Broadcast Journalism major.

Photo courtesy of Erica Bondarev

On January 31, I was selected to participate in a unique arts engagement initiative here at the Clarice Smith Center – live-tweeting the world premiere of David Roussève/REALITY’s Stardust.

Art and Twitter form a curious blend of the nostalgic and millennial, the very blend that Roussève cultivates in Stardust.

As strange as it seemed, live-tweeting seemed appropriate for this performance. The production itself is incredibly millennial, combining dance with text messages projected on a screen to tell the story of an African American gay urban teenager and his desire to know love. The protagonist, never seen onstage, is personified only through his texts to a random phone number, and he finds solace in communicating with “Innernet land peoples.” Aside from his “granpa,” who makes a few appearances via Skype, they’re the only ones who understand his struggles. As choreographer Roussève shared in the Talk Back following the performance, Stardust highlights the tensions between generations, combining hip-hop beats with the nostalgic crooning of Nat King Cole.

As an aspiring journalist, I’m no stranger to live tweeting – we even use Twitter in class – and I recognize the power social media can have. I’ve found it helpful to live-tweet several professional journalism conferences because it feels like I’m taking notes; not just for myself, but for those not at the conference who might like to follow the hashtag.

Art, however, is a different animal. It has a much greater visual component than lectures or speeches do, and it can be difficult to capture this visual aspect in 140 characters. As someone with little dance knowledge, I felt a little nervous sharing my humble commentary about the performance on social media, knowing that it would be seen not only by those in attendance, but for those who weren’t. I began to wonder: Can one truly have the experience of being at a performance simply by following a hashtag on Twitter? Can one be truly engaged in a performance while they’re splitting their attention with a tiny screen?

The evening began with an exclusive backstage look at the dancers warming up and a chance to meet Roussève in person. The “tweet seaters” began sharing close-up photos and videos of the dancers with the hashtag #StardustUMD. When the show was ready to start, we settled in the “tweet seats” at the back of the theatre, where we wouldn’t disturb the rest of the audience with our glowing screens.

At first, I struggled to divide my attention between the texts on the screen, the dancers onstage and my own tweets. I found it easiest and most effective to post photos of the stage combined with my own reactions. The frenetic nature of the piece – switching from a hip-hop dance battle to a lyrical dance to jazz within a matter of seconds – really pushed the live tweeters to keep up. We shared feelings about some impactful moments – a dramatic recitation of “Baby Got Back,” a heartfelt dance under a disco ball, and a moving solo by Roussève. We retweeted each other, followed each other and favorited each other’s tweets, and I liked seeing what other audience members thought, especially those with more extensive dance knowledge.

Yet, toward the end of the performance, my heart grew heavy, and it became harder and harder to tweet. One of my fellow tweeters signed off, going on “Twitter radio silence” toward the end of the show. Another tweeter wrote, “I’m numb.” The thread between the dance and the projected texts grew stronger, and the protagonist’s experiences dealing with abuse and assault felt too dark and complex for 140 characters. The bittersweet ending brought a beautiful realization for the protagonist – he could find the “BFFs” he longed for in artists like Nat King Cole and Vincent Van Gogh. One tweeter admitted to having an “ugly cry,” and I admit I wiped a few tears from my eyes.

Art and Twitter form a curious blend of the nostalgic and millennial, the very blend that Roussève cultivates in Stardust. Live-tweeting performances might not always be effective, practical or even easy, and it might not give people at home a sense of actually being at the performance. But the experience built community among “Innernet land peoples” and provided a new way for audience members to respond to art, and I applaud the Clarice Smith Center for taking risks and embarking on this initiative.

View all #StardustUMD tweets.