I was invited to write a week’s worth of diary entries for the Dramaturgs’ Network in their ‘Invisible Diaries’ series, from 5- 11 May 2020. In these posts, I reflect on my dramaturgy practice through the lens of my lockdown experience. I use the starting point of noticing my body’s actions in space and time; different rooms of my house are jumping-off points which I use to explore and muse on what dramaturgy for dance means for me, and how the lockdown experience has influenced this.
In darkness, a quiet sobbing, acutely intimate in the vastness of the Barbican main stage. Now crying, now whimpering, the amplified voice grows in aching graduality. I can’t but reflect on the pain that I feel on listening to another human being’s voice of sorrow. It’s uncomfortably long, uncomfortably obvious, and it reels me in.
This is an extraordinary beginning to an extraordinary piece. Gregory Maqoma is a prolific and successful South African choreographer who has a well-known presence in the UK through collaborations with choreographers including Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, as well as a recent high-profile collaboration with Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah in Tree. He founded Vuyani Dance Theatre 20 years ago while undertaking a scholarship at P.A.R.T.S. in Belgium under the direction of Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker.
In Maqoma’s choreography, all the performers exude an assuredness which is completely gripping, whilst presenting theatre that embraces, grapples with, and (oddly) celebrates grief. This is not an easy thing to do in theatre – the obvious pitfall is simply awakening sympathy in spectators or in beating the same drum for a one-dimensional presentation of human experience.
Cion: A Requiem avoids this. Oliver Hauser’s set consists of a number of crosses, suspended from the ceiling and around the edge of the stage evoking the graveyard setting. The theme of death is unavoidable. But as the keening noises of a shuffling, bent-over man turn improbably into melody as the mourner becomes a singer, nothing is quite what it initially seems in this piece.
The ensemble presents a satisfying rendition of Maqoma’s signature choreography: stark, sharp, but hugely detailed. They stand in a menacing group before breaking into poses, then ceaseless movement centering on spinal fluidity, complex hand movements and a connection to the floor. The dancers remind me of zombies, hands outstretched as they rise from the ground; of a congregation witnessing an exorcism; of slaves on a plantation. There is an assured violence about the choreography, more obviously with the floor-slapping, tumultuous moments and the strange, torturous ear-pinching inflicted on the central character by a crazed priest character as the others look on in greedy judgment. But the violence lurks in every thread of this piece.
Maqoma dances a central character, inspired by the figure of Toloki, a professional mourner, from Zakes Mda’s novels Cion and Ways of Dying. Dressed in a blanket-like overcoat, leggings, and shoes, he is an oddly clown-like figure, vulnerable and ridiculous, at times milking the pathos. This is the genius of the piece: it places in a single moment the paradox of a heart-ripping response to the millions of lives lost, black lives in particular, to “greed, power and religion,” (from Maqoma’s program notes) and the humor, beauty, and awkwardness of everyday human life.
The music probably deserves its own review altogether. Astounding in all respects, the continuous score is performed by four singers, under the musical direction of composer Nhlanhla Mahlangu. They do things with their voices that seem impossible. Snakey, slithery clicks, sucks and breaths create a beat-boxing effect, unlike anything I have ever heard. There is rapping, harmonic choruses, sorrowful poetry, and dancing and body percussion. In a demonstration of louche confidence, they also take on Maurice Ravel’s famous Bolero. The sparse snare drum which underpins the very beginning of the piece returns as three singers hold heavy scorebooks, singing the overlaid and repeating melodies in somewhat ironic, though no less accomplished, operatic voices. The fourth singer unapologetically holds a megaphone, and with complete virtuosity, raps out the famous bolero rhythm using words.
Different sections of choreography seem to tell a mixture of personal stories of the Toloki character. At one point, he is held back from a woman, perhaps lover or mother, by a group of people who could be a ship or could be jailers, all wearing white gloves in a strange and angry form of a minstrel show. Later on, there is a pas-de-deux between Toloki and one of the female dancers, who speaks a text about slave mothers learning not to love their children, while evading the overbearing advances of Toloki amongst floods of giggles. It’s an effective and jarring piece of text, but this section sits oddly amongst the rest of the piece, perhaps because it feels like a revealing of an otherwise mysterious hand.
Mannie Manim’s lighting design in conjunction with the set provides a series of otherworldly settings; lit from below with red and orange tonalities, the backdrop gives the sudden feeling of a grisly tomb full of skulls and bones; later, it is a stony rock face, perhaps underground, running with water in Ntuthuko Mbuyazi’s intricate sound design, as the dancers smack the floor with cloth sacking.
At the end of the piece, crosses cover the stage, transporting us right into the graveyard which we have contemplated throughout this cathartic “lament” of a piece (as described by Maqoma in the program). The dancers return to the stage, now dressed outrageously with copious black netting covering their faces, topped with large black Stetsons. They wear tap shoes on their feet. Stalking in, they channel a camp Fosse at the same time as providing a deadly serious comment on the expendability of all the lives brutally ended. We wait for it, and it comes: fully deserving of the clichéd term coup de theatre, the group tap out the rhythm of the Bolero, getting faster and faster as they stamp it out, literally dancing on their graves.
Maqoma writes about the piece as a “catharsis” of “universal grief,” and that “it champions our ability to bend together to share the burden of grief”. In this, I find him hugely generous. The piece is no less angry for being generous, no less outraged for being inclusive, no less sorrowful for being open-armed. In the strength of its own paradox, I find that this piece works on me, continuing to “permeate the living who are plagued by deaths that are not their own.”
My senses are all awakened. It begins in the darkness. A curl of smoke rises from a dimly lit bowl at the front of the stage. The smell of incense hits my nose. Three dark, hooded figures stand around the urn, hands clasped in front of them. Thin, sharp shafts of light gradually appear, a light sense of menace. The vastness of tall, arhythmical bars crossing the front of the stage makes me wonder what lies behind. Three figures warming themselves in the dark.
Then suddenly, my ears come to life. A figure dressed in white thumps loudly to the floor center stage. I hear an unrelenting, persistent song of three female voices intertwined. The rhythms of the Belfast accent awaken the figure on the floor. It’s Oona Doherty, in ‘Lazarus and the Bird of Paradise’, the first of the four parts that make up her work Hard to be Soft, at London’s Dance Umbrella Festival.
Doherty moves through an astonishing set of physicalities, her face and body taking on the characters of the speakers that are heard, muffled, alongside the music, in a ‘soundscape’ by David Holmes. First, a young man, fists thrust into the front of her tracksuit bottoms. Cocksure. An older one, shouting with a twisted leer on her face. She cuts between dizzyingly fluid movements of falling backward, melting, and losing definition and structure before bouncing directly into the next character.
I have the sense of a dream – or possibly nightmare – where the dreamer spools through memories, stories of laughter and violence. I can’t make out much of the words these voices are saying; for my English ears, the Belfast accent is thick, and heavy with political resonance. I wonder whether Doherty has deliberately chosen for me to feel not quite in the know. A Christ-like image recurs, accompanied by a sobbing woman’s voice; Doherty on tiptoes with arms outstretched.
In the dark, again we hear a suddenly clear voiceover: a woman describing how women like to get dressed up and look ‘fabulous’ to cope with the everyday shit of life, and ‘scumbag’ men. Get made up, look amazing, and it’s empowering for women, she says. We hear the swishing sound of sweatpants material as ten young women march on the stage, for ‘The Sugar Army’.
Dressed in sporty, bright clothes, and heavily made-up, they perform an unapologetic routine ironically resonant of dance videos, looking sometimes fierce, sometimes fiercely, disingenuously happy. The odd ballet-inspired moment enhances my feeling that I am witnessing layers of simulation. Are the women empowered, or controlled by the regimental behavior of their compatriots? Occasionally, an individual will break out of the tight group routine to wander, or wonder, before being angrily sanctioned or brought into line by her companions. At the end, they break out into laughing, giggling, and showing an almost childish response, as they walk off stage and leave us wondering whether the whole thing was a joke at our expense.
The third piece, ‘Meat Kaleidoscope’, is a duet between two large, topless men. It is, for me, the least convincing part of the piece, mostly because I am consistently distracted by a projection of close-up shots from the duet we are seeing, employing kaleidoscopic effects to abstract it. The two shuffle slowly, heavily, towards each other from the sides of the stage, accompanied by a backdrop of two men’s voices arguing – perhaps a father and son? Again, I can only make out a limited amount of the content of the language, although I strain to understand. On meeting each other, they hug, unexpectedly and uncomfortably; sure enough, the hug becomes a wrestling grip but a strangely tender one. The piece leaves me needing more: there is something being communicated about two men who can only interact with the language of violence, but I’m not sure what else there is to it.
At the end of the evening, we return to Oona Doherty alone on stage with the solo ‘Helium’. My fellow audience members tangibly recoil as bright lights hit our dark-adjusted eyes. Reprising ideas from ‘Lazarus and the Bird of Paradise’, Doherty portrays a character who has certainty about their movement, a swagger, a march to the side of the space, confident about what is next – only to forget, wonder, or lose track of their line. Here, the cage-like structure of the set (by Ciaran Bagnall) contains the character, leaving me wondering what is on the outside.
Doherty brings back some of the characters from ‘Lazarus’, often employing quite gestural, mime-like movements. She evokes an infant being encouraged to walk, a child told off for something they didn’t do, a woman who’s putting up with life and smoking a cigarette, as well as men full of borrowed confidence. The work ends with a long poem played on voiceover – I wonder if it’s Doherty herself speaking – with what could be a commentary on the work itself. The voice speaks of a ‘black box’ full of emotion, of ‘man, woman, beast, song’.
The work receives rapturous applause, with the performers apparently unexpectedly delighted with the response. I find myself edgy about it. I have been irritated by the feeling that ideas are presented but not developed, especially in the two pieces that are sandwiched by Doherty’s extraordinary solos. Some creative choices, such as the gigantic, overpowering set, indicate a scale of ideas from this choreographer perhaps too big to have been quite formed into a cohesive voice. But there is a voice, coming through loud and clear. I would happily watch Doherty’s own performance for longer, with her blend of silky fluidity that threatens at any turn to jolt into a punched-out, unapologetic statement. Is this the softness and hardness of the title?
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.
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.
“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.”
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. 
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
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.
 I paraphrase, only slightly
 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)
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.
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.
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.