The Butterfly Effect

Estela Merlos and Thomasin Gülgeç warming up at Swindon Dance

I’m sitting in the faded splendour of Swindon Dance’s main studio, which is adorned with huge vintage mirrors, curlicued window frames and chunky old-fashioned radiators. As usual, I’m tucked away in a corner, sitting on the floor, taking in the size, shape, feel and details of the space around. Out on the floor, two dancers (Thomasin Gülgeç and Estela Merlos) undergo their warm-up, twisting and weaving fluidly through the space, mirroring each other or going off on tangents. I think: “am I earning my money as a dramaturg by watching these dancers warm up? How should I warm myself up?”

As I consider this question about how I might ‘warm up’, I begin to reflect on the ‘butterfly’ nature I can sometimes inhabit as a dramaturg. I have always enjoyed moving between projects, being in a role where I can accompany many artistic journeys simultaneously within a given time frame, but own none of them. But I do sometimes question how this impacts my own integrity with regard to each of those processes.

Artists I work with are, of course, usually deeply immersed in their developing work (even though more often than not, they are also flitting between many projects). As owner and instigator of the creative process, they are living and breathing it, not just inside the rehearsal studio.

As a dramaturg, I try to be completely committed to that process while I am in the room, or in conversation, with the artist; but once I move away and on to the next project, I have to be able to shed that commitment in order to be able to assume the same mantle with the next collaboration, the next rehearsal or meeting.

Does this make me less able to connect with each work, each artist? There are times when I feel that I haven’t had the brain space to think about a particular process I’m in until the moment I am in next together with that artist. With the complexity of questions that we ask during the creative process, it can take time to find my feet within a given work.

But then again, questions arising from artists’ processes do accompany me beyond each specified meeting, even if this may not be during dedicated time, and though it may not be directly related to one project. Each project and each meeting throws into the mix a number of new thoughts, ideas, questions and concepts that keep whirling around in my brain whatever I am doing. Time to mull and time to live with concepts can happen as I’m staring out of the train window, or even when I’m having an informal conversation about something else with a colleague or collaborator. Some of the most fruitful connections are made laterally, accidentally, unexpectedly.

I’ve always thought of myself as a good multi-tasker, but the flip-side of this is that sometimes my attention can jump rapidly between one task and another. Taken to its extreme, sometimes I struggle to follow through a thought process before something takes me in a different direction.

On the other hand, I have found that this way of thinking can come into its own in the rehearsal room. I often make odd connections, memories and associations are brought up by conversation or by movement that I see. A creating group can have a tendency to get stuck in a web of associations or a set of methodologies within a given process, which can be difficult to break out of. In the best of situations, I can facilitate a journey beyond this ‘stuckness’, partly by virtue of the fact I am not ‘stuck’ in only one process at a time.

In the many different accounts that exist about the role of the dramaturg, there is often a discussion about ‘where’ (metaphorically) in the creative team the dramaturg’s role, or indeed the person, is placed. Are we inside the process, or an outside eye? Do we have the same ownership of the stuff of creativity or are we mirrors, receding into the nameless plurality that is audience?

The term ‘outside eye’ riles me a bit. I am more than an eye (I’m a brain full of my own associations and histories and ideas); and I’m also not ‘outside’ the process. I learn as much as I can about the project, process and ideas in the work, the way the artist thinks and the things they are preoccupied with. I become committed to it and share in its ups and downs. I develop a personal connection with artists I collaborate with. I am, literally, ‘inside’ the rehearsal room.

But I do have the luxury of leaving the process behind, and returning to it fresh each time, with all the things I have learned and thought about in the meantime making their way into my responses to the artwork, that itself has since developed. Jeroen Peeters’ concept of the shared “dramaturgical object”, where the dramaturg sits somewhere between ‘in’ and ‘out’, is therefore one that resonates with me. (See his fascinating article ‘Heterogeneous Dramaturgies’.)

So: back to me at Swindon Dance, feeling rather lazy as Estela and Tom start to sweat. I’m asking myself: how does a dramaturg warm up? What is it I need in order to make myself ready for the rehearsal or meeting ahead?

I enjoy, and I need, this time to acclimatise – to the space, the visual input, smells and sounds, the process, the feeling and the language that make up the identity of this particular work and process. I tune in to the speed and rhythm of the movement in front of me; I make space in my head for images and ideas, and begin to jot these down to get the ink flowing in my notebook. Thoughts begin to swarm, collide and jostle for attention in my head, firing up the dramaturgy engine for this particular time, space and need.

Perhaps allowing this time for ‘warming up’ is all that I need to enable myself to land delicately but fully back into the environment of each process I’m part of in a given period of time. As a dramaturgical butterfly, I can maintain my fresh thoughts, feelings and associations, at the same time as stoking the fire of my commitment to that artist and their current reality.

This article was originally written for and published on Oxford Dance Writers.

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