News, Events & Writing

Reflections on ANON

An article originally published on The Red Line

Johanna Nuutinen and I set each other questions to reflect on the process of working together on ANON: The Act of Waiting, in 2018. Our collaboration was made possible through funding awarded by South East Dance, via the Collaborate programme supported by the Jerwood Foundation.

(Johanna Nuutinen writes:)

ANON premiered on 22.11.2018 in Helsinki at Teater Viirus. Our team consisted of 6 artists: visual designer Joonas Tikkanen, sound designer Tuuli Kyttälä, performers Jenna Broas and Oskari Nyyssölä, I as the choreographer and Miranda Laurence as the dramaturg (supported by a Collaborate award from South East Dance). Jarkko Lehmus offered his help when I was working on the physical themes and tasks in the very beginning of the process.

Miranda and I chose to open up the process by setting each other a set of questions.

J: What did you learn in this process?

M: Your choreographic thinking was very different from that of choreographers I have worked with in the past. You focused very strongly on the detail of movement and how this could bring about an emotional experience in the spectator. Especially after I was able to be in the studio in person, I learned a lot about how you were crafting a movement quality through minutiae, and how this created the tone of the piece beyond simply what it looked like.

I always learn so much when working together with artists; every session, rehearsal, conversation feeds my curiosity and inspires me. I’ve really enjoyed working cross-culturally on this project as well – I have learned about the dance making sector in Finland; your experiences in your performing career with the Finnish National Ballet also informed your process and your vision and taught me a lot about different ways of working and the expectations we have of dance work, and dance performers.

M: What new ideas did you want to explore for your own choreographic practice, in the making of ANON?

J: I wanted to use choreographic tools that activate the performers rather than only using my own body to form the pathway through the piece.

I also set a goal for the whole team to create a piece that would have its premiere in a stage setting with the audience surrounding the performance area, but that could also be modified to be performed in museum and gallery spaces. Where the stage production has the duration of 55 minutes, my question was, can this production work as a durational performance as a part of a contemporary art exhibition. By surrendering to the delay of the motion and expanding each movement section me and the rest of the creative team have become interested in exploring this work in a durational performance context as well.

J: What did you find challenging?

M: At times, it felt like you had such a clear vision of what you were trying to achieve and the way in which you would go about it, that I wasn’t sure what I was able to bring to that process! I was used to working with more stated uncertainty. Some of the issues you were dealing with, such as how to best enable the dancers to achieve your vision of movement quality, wasn’t necessarily something I felt best equipped to help you with, as I do not come from a background of dance technique training. So at times, I did wonder how I was helping in the process.

I was also always aware of my advantage as a native speaker of the language we were using to communicate with – your English is excellent, but at times I felt like it might have been a hindrance to you to have to think about all your concepts and communicate them in a second language so that I could understand what was going on in the process (also during the rehearsals where the normal mode was to work in Finnish).

J: How did you cope with the fact that most of the work was done via Skype?

M: We had Skype sessions over the first six months, after which point I came to Finland for four days of rehearsals in the studio. I hadn’t realised before then quite how much difference it would make to be there in person and watch the work, and be able to respond to it live. However, I think that we made the best use we could of the Skype sessions, as it gave you some space to talk about the processes away from the rehearsal room. The videos you sent me of the work in progress gave me an opportunity to watch the work differently than how I was able to in the rehearsal studio ‘live’, which took away some things, but I think added other advantages.

Our skype conversations after my visit to Finland felt more successful and I think that was partly because we were able to get to know each other better during my stay and just generally during the course of working together. I use Skype with other artists quite a bit, but it has normally been as part of an ongoing mix of meeting in person, and seeing work live in the studio.

M: What contribution did you anticipate that I might bring in the dramaturg role? (What were you curious about when thinking of working with me?)

J: I was looking for a challenge: communication that makes me question the content of the work from new angles. The questions a dramaturg presents force me to articulate my own ideas and thoughts more precisely. These conversations have been for the benefit of the work, for the benefit of the performers and ultimate for the benefit of the audience, as well as my own development as an artist.

M: Which parts of your process do you feel I engaged with most, and did this make a difference to the way you worked?

J: During the Skype sessions I feel the arc of the whole piece was something we were able to get deeper into. We discussed the causal connections within the work and how we want to affect the performer and through the performers the audience. What kind of different states of being do we want to take the audience through? How do we invite them to be a part of this journey? What kind of a state of being do we want to  leave them in?

I loved how you directed your questions also to the performers when you were in the studio with us. I enjoy working on a level where the performers’s physical capacity is so strong that we are able to work on a more delicate levels – to tune where they direct their inner focus and gaze and how they receive the other person in the space or the surfaces around them? What is the fantasy that the performer creates around themselves? The questions you directed to the performers encouraged them to awaken their inner voice. The dialogue made them aware that every thought they go through is visible and carries content.

M: How important was a consideration of audience in this work and in the process?

J: Very important. The work is created to be experienced. From the performers’s point of view and from the audience’s point of view. The audience became the community which gathered together to wait. To experience the time embodied by the performers.

Each of the timings, actions and qualities of the motions need to be questioned from at least two angles: how does this affect the performer and how does the performer’s experience affect the audience?

J: What was different compared to other projects you have been collaborating on?

M: As I mentioned before, your choreographic vision is very unlike anything I had previously worked with. I found it very inspiring to see how you wanted to work so closely and uncompromisingly with movement. The quality you wanted to achieve came from a mixture of the dancers internalising emotions and somatic experiences, together with tightly-controlled choreography. Your vision for the final work felt very strong from the beginning, particularly as the first decision about the piece was about the set (and how it would interact with the lighting design).

I was interested in the way you collaborated with your sound designer Tuuli Kyttälä. She was present during much of the rehearsal period, and was contributing quite a lot to the creative ideas overall. This is less usual in my experience for a UK production. From the little I know of dance creation in Finland, I think sound designers (and lighting designers) are often in a much more creative collaboration with dance makers, than is often the case in the UK.

I am used to working in the abstract, and often I pay attention to narrative structure, thinking about how a structure can affect the audience’s emotional response to the content. With ANON I realised that perhaps the main goal was to engender an emotional response from the audience that came from their experience of the movement, perhaps their kinaesthetic response to it, over and above any of the other elements of the work (although sound, set, lighting and structure were of course important too).

J: What did you find fascinating?

M: I think I probably answered this question already! I am inspired by your single-minded choreographic vision, the strong ethic you have about enabling and encouraging the performers to get into the right mindset for creating the movements and movement quality you want to see. I was fascinated by the way the piece was emerging as a kinaesthetic experience – I was not able to see the premiere in Helsinki this November, but I hope I will get a chance to see the work sometime in the future.

M: What would you ask a dramaturg to bring to your next process?

J: I desire to be challenged so I always welcome questions and constructive dialogue within the team I collaborate with and later on with the audience. I will for sure continue to seek funding and opportunities to bring a dramaturg into the next processes as well.

I enjoy if at some point of the process I can leave the performers in the studio with the dramaturg for one day and step aside myself. This action usually gives space to breath for the performers and it creates a situation where they can strengthen their ownership of the piece.   When I return to the studio the causal connections might have become more clear and the performers in collaboration with the dramaturg might have found content which I didn’t see earlier. I’m able to do this of course only if the dramaturg has been able to attend the process already from the very first rehearsals onwards.

I do hope dramaturgy will be strongly part of the development of the dance field in Finland now and in the future. South East Dance Collaborate Artist program has been an excellent sample by offering support also for the works of foreign artists who team up with dramaturges based in Britain. Together we are stronger.

Credits for ANON:

Choreographer: Johanna Nuutinen.

Performers: Jenna Broas, Oskari Nyyssölä

Light and visual concept design: Joonas Tikkanen

Sound design: Tuuli Kyttälä

Costume design: Erika Turunen

Dramaturg: Miranda Laurence

Dance Dramaturgy by Multiple Choice

What is not doing dramaturgy?

A) Laughing

B) Sitting still

C) Staring out the window

D) Dancing

 

What is being a bad dramaturg?

A) Letting your mind wander

B) Coming with no ideas, and no idea

C) Not seeing the wood for the trees

D) Talking a lot

E) Not talking

 

When is a dramaturg necessary?

A) You are telling a story

B) You are not telling a story

C) You have no idea

D) You have too many ideas

E) You are confident

F) You are unconfident

 

What does the dramaturg need to know?

A) Everything

B) Nothing

C) How to choreograph

D) How to dance

E) How to read

F) What they don’t know

 

When does a dramaturg give the answers?

A) In the middle of the night

B) When everyone is stuck

C) When there are too many ideas

D) Never

E) By stealth

 

What does every dramaturg need?

A) Time

B) A sense of humour

C) To be nice

D) To be detached

E) Knowledge

F) Emotion

Review: Space Shifters

Space Shifters at the Hayward Gallery – Review for The Learned Pig

The smell of engine oil lingers sharply in my nostrils, hours after I have left the vertiginous room of Richard Wilson’s 20:50, the final coup de théâtre in the Hayward Gallery’s Space Shifters exhibition. My mind keeps returning to the glassy, treacherous surface of the oil, which fills the room to half-way up the wall (and even out of a side door), creating in its perfect reflections the impression of a huge space, with me standing precariously on a spur in its very middle, looking into the depths below.

Much of the interpretation which accompanies Space Shifters uses words related to body movement, and it is with my whole body that I experience the 20 or so artworks. As someone who works in and with dance, I expected to notice the way in which my movement affected and was affected by the work; but I didn’t anticipate how even the inside of my body would react to the multiple shifts in perspective elicited as I go around the exhibition.

Read the rest of the review here

Telling a Thai Tale: A Dance Dramaturg’s Take

This article was originally published by The Theatre Times

“When I collaborate, I want to collaborate with the wrong person.” Pichet Klunchun, Thai dancer and director, reveals a glint of mischief behind his earnest and gentle demeanor.

“I am looking for misunderstandings, for opportunities to negotiate. When things are wrong, they are right.”

Pichet Klunchun (image: Oliver Holms)

When I was initially brought as a dramaturg into the Mahajanaka Dance Drama project, directed by composer Sebastian Reynolds and choreographer Adrienne Hart (Neon Dance), in collaboration with Klunchun and Thai musicians Pradit Saengkrai and Great Lekakul, we began by asking “how can we tell a story from the Buddhist mythology using traditional Thai and contemporary Western art forms?”

Mahajanaka Dance Drama is a retelling of one of the Jataka stories, a set of myths about the previous lives of the Buddha. Originally Indian, the stories have different versions across Buddhist traditions, including the Thai tradition.

The catalyst for the collaboration came from Reynolds’ long-standing engagement with Buddhist culture in the UK, and visits to Thailand to learn about the Thai dance and music tradition. Work on Mahajanaka Dance Drama began when Hart and Reynolds traveled to Bangkok to meet Klunchun, Saengkrai, and Lekakul, and initiated the conversations that would lead to this intercultural and multi-artform collaboration.

Photo Credit: Oliver Holms

The story of Prince Mahajanaka is told through Thai dance and music, which is traditionally performed as part of temple rituals to provide an offering of dance and music to the gods. The creative team were interested in how they could use traditional and Western cultural forms to revisit the story and open it to a new audience, or at least within a new context.

But this project is not a simple coming together of two cultural traditions to jointly tell a tale. Reynolds’ prior knowledge of the Thai Buddhist tradition, and engagement with the literature of the Jatakas through collaboration with scholar and Jataka translator Dr. Sarah Shaw, allowed him to bring considerable expertise to the collaboration. Indeed, as the collaboration began, discussion emerged about the existing historical Western (French) influences on the “traditional” Thai forms, complicating a superficially easy-to-tell story about “East meets West.”

Klunchun, who directs not only his own company but also his own theatre in Bangkok, doesn’t exactly toe the Thai traditional dance line himself. He describes his work as speaking the language of traditional dance but with the “wrong grammar.” He wants to move away from dance that describes something (such as the story of Prince Mahajanaka), towards dance that sparks the audience’s imagination.

Similarly, Saengkrai and Lekakul are both interested in working with traditional instruments, but not necessarily using them in the “correct” (traditional, acceptable) way. Reynolds worked with the two musicians to create an electronic score, which is performed live alongside a traditional “Piphat” ensemble of gong circle, Pi (Thai oboe), and other wind and percussion instruments.

In the work, Klunchun dances the role of the Prince Mahajanaka, using elements of the traditional Thai dance in his choreography. This includes the famous “swimming” scene, a seven-minute meditative solo, to represent the seven days and nights Mahajanaka spends in the ocean before being rescued by the goddess Mekele. Tilly Webber, a Western contemporary trained dancer, performs the roles of the Prince’s mother, the goddess Mekele and the Queen Sivali. Each dancer began creating their movement using their own language to explore the emotions of their characters, depicting key scenes and concepts in the story; but in the final choreography these dance forms overlap, intersect, and quote each other throughout the piece.

When I started working on this project, the structure and content of the work were more or less formed. My role was to think alongside Hart and Reynolds about how this piece would be received by an audience. An early question, which accompanied all our discussions, was how an audience’s prior knowledge would change their reception of the work, and how relevant the individual cultural background of an audience member would be.

As a dramaturg, as well as engaging with what goes into a work, I draw a director’s attention to what I see coming out of the work. But I don’t, as a rule, imagine that I can represent the audience–after all, I don’t know how any individual audience member might react to what they see on stage.

However, for this particular project, it was difficult to avoid an engagement with the question of different kinds of audiences. We knew that people who were familiar with Thai dance and music, and/or the story, would almost certainly have quite a different response to the work than an audience with no knowledge of these elements. At the same time, we couldn’t assume that there was one “Thai” or “South Asian” audience, and one “Western” audience. We didn’t want to be limited by this “problem,” but it created a point of focus to which I kept returning.

As a non-Thai, non-Buddhist Western dramaturg trained in contemporary Western art practice, I also needed to ask myself how I could help shape this piece in its preparation for an audience. In the broad tradition of the dramaturg’s work, there can be an expectation of the dramaturgical role as “translating” meaning. For example, Nanako Nakajima describes her role with artist koosil-ja in the framework of her expertise of the Japanese noh tradition. She notes how, as dramaturg, she became a mediator between this traditional Japanese artform and a post-modern contemporary Western art practice. [2]

My role in the Mahajanaka collaborative process was necessarily quite different, as I do not hold cultural knowledge of the subject matter. Neither I nor the collaborators intended my role as dramaturg to include being a mediator or translator of one form of knowledge into a new context.

But I still came back to the question of how I can predict what people in the audience do or don’t know. In what way could this work can have an identity which is a coherent event without specific knowledge of Thai or Buddhist culture?

Klunchun speaks about adding layers to the traditional Thai dance representation of the myth, and for that matter to the story itself. As a dance-maker, he understands himself to be making a new language in dance. He describes dance as having gestural and abstract languages that are present. The gestures have a meaning attached, the abstract language “makes me [the audience member] imagine something.”

By adding the collaborators’ responses to versions of the story, and versions of the language of Thai dance and music, Klunchun implies, we don’t lose the origin of the story within its cultural context, but instead are adding new layers of story, layers of meaning, using new and intersecting languages. It sounds like a continuation to his ongoing practice of re-configuring the grammar of Thai dance.

In rehearsals, we would often have robust discussions about these matters, and questions of representation of the core ideas underlying the story and the work–ideas which stem from a Buddhist tradition. With a range of cultural knowledge, expertise and languages in the room, we liberally skipped past the potentially restrictive angst about who is licensed to play with cultural traditions.

The ethical consideration, for me, was about how and why this work had meaning for the Western directors, and the (predominantly) Western audience that will encounter it at least initially. What I discovered in this process was an environment in which respect for and knowledge of cultural tradition were equally important to each collaborator. Simultaneously, everyone in the room was open to a playfulness, even a sense of mischief, that kept us all interrogating the work and its meaning throughout the layers we were all adding.

The collaboration might be, on paper, “wrong,” but with the depth of understanding and questioning which Klunchun and all the collaborators brought into the process, it definitely felt right to me.

Photo Credit: Oliver Holms

SEPTEMBER 2018

Mahajanaka Dance Drama was supported by Arts Council England, British Council, DanceXchange, Oxford Dance Forum, and Oxford City Council’s Culture Fund and first previewed at Wiltshire Music Centre on 2 April 2018. It is due to tour the UK and Thailand in 2019.

NOTES:

[1] I paraphrase, only slightly

[2] Nanako Nakajima, ‘Dance Dramaturgy as a Process of Learning: koosil-ja’s mech[a]OUTPUT’ in Pil Hansen & Darcey Callison (eds): Dance Dramaturgy – Modes of Agency, Awareness and Engagement(Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

Review: Concert

My review of Colin Dunne’s Concert at Dance Umbrella, for The Theatre Times

 

The important thing about rhythm is not what we do, but what we don’t do.

Standing center stage, leading Irish and contemporary dancer Colin Dunne demonstrates the magical transition from a quotidian jog to an Irish dance step, simply by leaving out every fourth step.

Rhythm is the core idea of his piece, Concert, the dancer’s response to virtuosic Irish fiddler Tommie Potts’ album The Liffey Banks (1972). Movement, music, speech, set, and narrative structure are fragmented, leaving the audience in a constant state of unfulfilled rhythmic desire–to hear the end of the tune, the conversation; to see the end of the dance.

Read the rest of the review here

 

Review: Common Salt

(written for The Learned Pig magazine)

This is an instrument I have never seen before. A slender dark wooden box, one side opening to become a bellow, pushed back and forth in a solemn rhythm by the hand of the performer. It emits an uncompromising, steady monotone drone, which accompanies a sombre and melancholic chant: ‘This is a la……-ment’.

Common Salt is a self-styled ‘show-and-tell’; it moves somewhere between theatre, performance art, and story-telling. Two performers – Sue Palmer and Sheila Ghelani – stand at one end of a table covered in a grey cloth, with audience seated in a semi-circle around the other end. As the performance goes on, the table top becomes gradually covered in objects, precisely (and sometimes playfully imprecisely) added to illustrate a series of interlocking stories.

Read the full review

The Butterfly Effect

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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.

Taking my shoes off: dramaturgy by movement

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I see movement in front of me, usually on a stage or studio floor. Sometimes on a screen. “The Space”.

It stops/the music stops/the dancer stops

Breaking the moment of performance, we might sit together. Or I might talk from my position on the floor (or a chair) while the performer stands on the stage in non-performance mode.

There might be a nose blown, a sip of water taken, a few scribbles made. A phone checked even.

I pause for a moment to let something settle and draw up lots of lines into a point where I can start.

 

There might be a question. Usually, there is not.

 

I respond in language, translating feelings and impressions, images, sounds and traces in my mind’s eye.

There is an impression of an image not just in three dimensions but in four, from beginning to end.

I pick out things that stick. When closing my eyes, what leaps to mind? It could be one static picture. It could a feeling permeating the whole thing

 

Speech flows from my mouth, fluently, usually, verbose, often. I use small words to give space around maybe big things I am saying. It cushions the big things and gives time as well as space for the other ear to hear it, to take it in and turn it around and wonder and ponder.

I can chop and change and go back and forth, I repeat myself a lot, I use words I’m not sure I understand or anyone else. Then I try to be clearer and realise I am saying something different.

 

I gesture and I move. Sometimes, I get up from my floor sitting position, and move into The Space of performance, I try to imitate movement qualities, illustrating my speech. I look around and up and down, I often use my hands to complete my sentences.

I have an odd relationship with writing things down. It feels like a permanent activity and one that can be seen but meaning cannot be derived from just seeing me writing. So it can feel judgmental. Also it can be a screen for giving the impression that I have lots of important and insightful things to say, immediately.

 

I don’t always. There is silence too. I try to make silence though it can feel uncomfortable for both. I try to lengthen pauses to open up a pool into which others can chuck a few pebbles to see what noise they might make, how far they might go.

 

My questions hang there, feeling in need of being answered. Even if I say, “you may not know right now. It’s something you will need to decide. It might be this OR this. Your decision. If it’s this, you’ll be heading off in that direction. It’s up to you.”

It doesn’t always feel ‘up to you’.

 

This is what my dramaturgy looks like (sometimes).

 

So how could I do all of this in movement, with no language, no words articulated by mouth and sound?

What is it that I see and that I reflect?

How might moving as a dramaturg, be different to moving as a choreographer or a dancer?

What would the other person see and how would they turn it over in their mind and how would they respond to it and how would I respond to that?

 

Well, I tried it.

 

It turns out that dramaturgical movement response IS choreography. It creates in me the possibility of opening up my own understanding of what I am doing. It strips back the real and turns it into myth. When dancing together, we can communicate as improvising performers, bouncing ideas back and forth more quickly than I could even think about words.

I let loose those inhibitions of moving my body and occupying The Space. Dancing around is ok. My talking is a dance, it’s just that the words I know I can use and the accent I know I have and the use of a language I know so well clothe the dancing in demure and formal attire. Real dancing doesn’t have so much of that, for me. I don’t have the same fluidity or familiarity with my body’s movement languages, as I do with words.

Collectively we make, dialogue, find out. That’s my role as a dramaturg, to help the other person find out things, move from one place to another. We generate a dramaturgy together, in the space improvising with movement, props and music. We laugh and interact as ourselves but in a different plane.

I make choices.
I think in words in my head
I let my body do some stuff that it wouldn’t habitually do
I let my body loose on a free flow of associations
I am playful, stupid, undecided
I am stilted, unoriginal, hesitant
I let chance take over, because it doesn’t matter
It matters – it makes matter, by mattering. The matter of that matter is probably ultimately the same kind of matter that is created through spoken language, but I got to it through a different path.

Somehow at the end, I know something, though I can’t quite put it into words, and I am scared I’ll lose sight of that knowledge because it wasn’t worded (until now).

While I move, small epiphanies explode around me. Ah, this is what it means to be afraid of The Space and this is what it looks like when I try and organise my thinking and this is how I can jumble it up and this is where I can make a difference and this is what I can offer.

There was something about how I can be in The Space and it’s fine. Something about spoken language- words- and how it’s fine for them to be in The space along with the movement. Doesn’t matter what it looks like from the outside, because the other person is within even if they are observing. Doesn’t matter what the movement is.

 

Now, we stop, and breathe and laugh, and sit and sip. It’s time to ask questions in words.

 

I have noticed that the power dynamics in our relationship have shifted, or rather they shift, they are in the process of shifting throughout our movement and now. As a co-mover I stepped away from the pen and paper and my eyes moved within my body moving so I saw things from within and around about.

How has this experience changed the way I understand my own practice of dramaturgy? Could it be a creative, generative one?

What would happen if the person I am working with is the watcher and I am the mover, instead of us both moving together?

What difference does my moving response make to the next steps of the other person? Because it’s their next steps which are what it’s all about.

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Image: Cecilia Macfarlane

 

This piece describes an experiment made possible by a residency at Pavilion Dance South West in November 2017, together with Cecilia Macfarlane, as part of a professional development project supported using public funding by Arts Council England.

From Votes for Women to Buddhist mythology, via Tango: two months in dramaturgy

One thing I love about my dramaturgy work is the privilege of being able to dip into so many artists’ making processes in quick succession. Each artist gives me the opportunity to learn new things, to get excited about their process and their ideas, and inspires me hugely as I go about my work.

Here are a few things I’ve been splashing about in over the last couple of months:

 

  • I’ve had a crash course in the history of women’s suffrage (courtesy of Reading University’s Dr Jacqui Turner), working alongside Jennifer Stokes and Reside Dance Company to create a new outdoor work. Funded by the Women’s Vote Centenary fund, the piece explores the story of the Representation of the People Act in 1918, which for the first time gave some women the vote. I didn’t ever think that I would be co-imagining ways of showing the so-called ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, which hounded hunger-striking suffrage activists, through the medium of contemporary dance! Jacqui wrote a very insightful write-up of her experience working with us.

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Reside Dance. Photo by Brenda Sandilands

  • I was introduced to the world of storyboards, film stock, voiceovers, shoots and sound mixing when working with Kabecca Films on their short dance film. It tells the story of Lisa Sang’s life through dance, and how she dances through life, and will be released next month. Dramaturgically, I learned that the whole filming process from planning shots to editing footage could have a lot to offer the live performance-making process.

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Who knew dramaturgy involved graphs? #lookslikescience

  • I’ve had the privilege of chairing a panel of extremely knowledgeable people sharing their insights and interests about The Mahajanaka Dance Drama, a collaborative project from composer Sebastian Reynolds‘ and Neon Dance. They are working with a team of dancers and musicians from the UK and Thailand, creating a re-telling of an ancient Buddhist myth through Western contemporary and classical Thai dance and music. Prof Fiona MacintoshProf Jas Elsner and Dr Sarah Shaw, all from Oxford University, wondered about the role of ritual and narrative through ancient and modern performance practice and spirituality at a talk at the Ashmolean museum, during the ‘Imagining the Divine’ exhibition. I’m really looking forward to getting into the studio with choreographer Adrienne Hart and Sebastian Reynolds later in March for the final rehearsals before the piece premieres at Wiltshire Music Centre on 2 April.

 

  • I learned a basic Tango step during my Dance & Academia seminar with Prof Nicky Clayton and Clive Wilkins, who spoke about mental time travel, memory and the ethics of partner dance, amongst other things, as part of the “What is Dance without an Audience?” series. The diverse group of attendees included people from the worlds of ballet, Morris dancing, Salsa, architecture, history of science and law, so we had a very lively discussion.

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Nicky Clayton and Clive Wilkins

Coming up: lots more to learn and to be excited about! On 3 March, I’ve got the luxury of seven fantastic speakers coming for the ‘What is Dance without an Audience’ final conference event. We’ll be taking part in the Visual Matrix Method workshop, learning about Bharatanatyam and clay pot throwing, thinking about viewing dance on screen, asking what role the dance critic plays, and considering how audiences might transform in ritual or ceremonial performances. Still time to book tickets!

I’m hugely excited to have begun working with Johanna Nuutinen, a Helsinki-based dance artist, on a new work which explores ideas, emotions and experiences around waiting. Johanna received South East Dance’s Collaborate award through the Jerwood-funded Dramaturg in Residence scheme to enable her to work with me.

Also, I can’t wait to finally join Estela Merlos and Thomasin Gulgec for a couple of days playing in the studio, as part of their residency at Swindon Dance. I met Estela back in October when I was guest facilitator for the Hatch & Scratch performance at Pavilion Dance South West, and I’m really looking forward to getting to know this duo’s work better.

I have been stimulated in all my thinking through my new post at Reading University, where I have spent the last two months talking to a broad range of academics and professional staff, imagining how creative arts practice might enter the life of this diverse and sometimes overlooked institution. And naturally, creativity forms part of everyday life (especially during mealtimes) when you have a two-year-old running the show.

 

Goodbye 2017…

Alongside the ever-changing experience of parenting a toddler, with its daily doses of hilarity and tests of patience, I have been hugely fortunate this last year to have had some amazing times and met so many inspiring people.

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View of Kaapelitehdas in Helsinki across the frozen Baltic. The old cable factory is now chock full of theatres, studios and arts organisation offices.

  • January began with a chilly arrival in Helsinki (in -24C) for a three-month stint while my partner undertook a research sabbatical at the University of Helsinki. I was able to meet with 20-odd dance artists and cultural professionals working in Finland; organised a pop-up artist residency at Annantalo cultural centre, working with Cecilia Macfarlane on an intergenerational exploration of dance and space; was a visiting dramaturg for the National Theatre of Finland’s community theatre commission Karavaani, with director Jemina Sillanpää; and (somewhat off-piste) I taught a three-day professional writing workshop to 15 molecular biologists at the Finnish Institute for Molecular Medicine!

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Cecilia Macfarlane and Ruth Laurence, dancing together at Annantalo in Helsinki

In one outcome of my meetings in Finland, I can’t wait to work as a dramaturg with the incredibly exciting Finnish dance artist Johanna Nuutinen in 2018, supported by a Collaborate award by South East Dance.

  • In April I co-delivered the paper ‘Dance & Academia in Oxford: an egalitarian grass-roots model’ at the Dance Fields conference at Roehampton University, with Rachel Gildea, and later in the year curated two seminars on the theme ‘What is Dance without at Audience’ in Oxford, with a third seminar and a conference day yet to come in Spring 2018 as part of Dancin’ Oxford 2018.

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Chloe Middleton Metcalfe leads a miniature ceilidh as part of her seminar on English social dancing for Dance & Academia in Oxford

  • I undertook the 8 day training course and achieved accreditation as a Relational Dynamics coach, meeting some amazing people along the way
  • As part of my ongoing dramaturgy training, I undertook observerships with Struan Leslie working with choreographer Stephen Pelton at a residency at DanceBase in Edinburgh, and with Peggy Olislaegers as part of a choregraphic development project with Rambert Dance at The Lowry, Manchester
  • The best news of the year was my successful application to Arts Council England’s grants for the arts programme (using public money through the National Lottery), for funding towards my further professional development as a dramaturg over a year until Autumn 2018. This includes a number of opportunities from working with new artists, to delivering and participating in workshops, culminating in a residency at AMATA (Falmouth University) to research ideas about dramaturgy within community dance practice with Dr Ruth Pethybridge.

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On the train back from Norwich, where I worked with Hayley Matthews

  • In November, I was offered the position of Visual Arts Development Officer at the University of Reading, where from January 2018 I’ll be researching and writing an arts strategy for the whole university, alongside my freelance work.

What a year it’s been! I’ve met so many fantastic people along the way, and have been hugely supported in doing all this by family and friends. So I’ll be raising a glass (or seven) to friends old and new this new year’s eve, and looking with rosy-cheeked excitement to the opportunities and challenges of 2018. See you then!