This collection of essays has emerged at a time at which the term dramaturgy is increasingly heard and used within dance disciplines, particularly in the UK. Whilst, as the preface says, dramaturgy has been included in the choreographic process since the 1970s, it is still very much a term that has many different meanings and connotations within dance practice today, with artists and scholars often aware of the term but little else about the practice. This book’s contributors approach dramaturgy for dance from a number of different directions, and as a whole the book illuminates quite how diverse the practice of dance dramaturgy is, highlighting this very diversity as a strength of the practice of dramaturgy.

The book is divided into three sections, ‘Agency’, ‘Awareness’, and ‘Engagement’, with a mixture of theoretical essays, case studies and reflections on experiences written by dance scholars, dance artists and dramaturgs.

As Pil Hansen writes in her introduction, the contributions deal with three broad areas of dramaturgical thinking: the dramaturg as a repository of knowledge, an ‘agent of dramaturgy’ perhaps; then the dramaturg as a facilitator, working ‘between creators’ to facilitate dramaturgical thinking; finally, the concept of dramaturgical thinking of process residing within the performers themselves and other collaborators.

Hansen’s introduction is not only an excellent overview of the contributions to the volume, but also sets these out within the context of earlier seminal writing on dance dramaturgy. She summarises the ‘tropes of anxiety’ first brought into discussion by Myriam van Imschoot. As an emerging dance dramaturg myself, I find this discussion of the different anxieties rings very true for me, from the question about where the knowledge comes from, to whether a dramaturg ought to possess knowledge, or possess the skills with which to generate knowledge amongst creative collaborators.

As Hansen outlines, the term dramaturgy holds a background of an academic profession concerned with interpreting theatre for audiences, or ‘enlightening’ them as Hansen puts it, implying a hierarchical role of knowledge being handed from one in possession of that knowledge, to one who does not yet possess it. Skipping forward to today’s understanding of dramaturgy within dance practice, this is generally not how dramaturgs see their role, since in contemporary practice there is rarely a sense of a piece having a message that requires translation to an ignorant audience. However, the anxiety of a dramaturg having such hierarchical authority still lingers in the minds of those who hear the term dramaturgy without having experienced its practice.

The three essays of the ‘Agency’ section deal mostly with some theoretical points of departure discussing the nature of dramaturgy within choreographic practice. Bojana Bauer’s Propensity: Pragmatics and Functions of Dramaturgy in Contemporary Dance addresses the anxieties outlined in the introduction, about the resurgence of a theory versus practice debate in which the dramaturg is a mediator between theory and practice. Bauer instead looks to the dramaturg as a subject within the creative process, introducing the idea of a dramaturg defined by their action within the creative process, rather than by some predefinition of their role as a holder of theoretical knowledge that can be translated into creative practice by the artist.

Bauer writes about the metaphorical location of the dance dramaturg, exploring how the dramaturg can be more or less close to the creative process depending on the context and the project at hand – from observer to collaborator. She uses several examples of creative processes to unpack the idea of the dramaturg’s varying role within the process, concluding that the dramaturg is not a necessity for creative process in that it does not ‘fix problems, fill gaps, or remedy instances of lack in the work’. As I read her conclusion, the dramaturg’s function within a creative process is simply defined by their actions, which are dependent on and formed by the process within which they are working.

Andre Lepecki’s essay Errancy as Work: Seven Strewn Notes for Dance Dramaturgy continues on the question of the role and purpose of the dramaturg. His writing, more engagingly than Bauer’s, follows some examples of his own experience, describing how he organised placements for students taking his Experimental Dramaturgy course at NYU. Responses to his call-out for companies or artists who might want a dramaturg highlighted the idea from artists that they couldn’t use a dramaturg until their work was at a more fixed stage, at which point, implicitly, the dramaturg could help fix any problems or at least would have concrete material to work with.

In Lepecki’s view, this represented a lack of understanding of how the dramaturg can (and should) work with artists – he asks ‘When is one ever ready for the dramaturg’? He then goes on to explore ideas about the nature of errancy, that is, not knowing what you are doing, but not-knowing together within a creative capacity, which is where the dramaturg’s work can take place. He describes an interesting example of one of his student’s placements, in which she decided to ‘only give bad advice throughout the first part of the process’. She was deliberately trying to sabotage the creative process, with a view to equalising everyone in the creative process to a point of not knowing what they were doing. In this story, they continued working together in this darkness of erring around, they came up with something completely different from the initial ideas, at which point the dramaturg decided to stop sabotaging.

I find this a very intriguing provocation about the role of the dramaturg, which brings up questions about the allegiance of the dramaturg – is it with the work being created or with the artist(s) creating it? How much ‘interference’ should the dramaturg undertake – if not enough, does that merit their existence; if too much, could they take over the creative process or worse, destroy the collaboration?

The final essay in this section is Maaike Bleeker’s Thinking No-One’s Thought, which begins with (in my experience) the ever-pertinent question ‘What is it that dramaturgs do?’ Bleeker uses a theory proposed by the philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, which posits the idea of thinking as a ‘process that transpires between people rather than an individual action’, translating this idea to the creative process. Here, the idea of thinking as a separate process happening in between two or more people is a way of describing the contribution of a dramaturg to the creative process, and the thinking that the dramaturg does (or generates) – ‘thinking in-between’. Thus Bleeker comes to the idea that there is a thought that emerges in the confluence of creators, work and audience, which is ‘no-one’s thought and yet it is the concern of all’.

The second part of the book, ‘Awareness’, begins with Freya Vass-Rhee’s Distributed Dramaturgies: Navigating with Boundary Objects. Vass-Rhee discusses her experience of being a dramaturg for William Forsythe company, outlining how she began her relationship with the company as a doctoral researcher, and describing in detail how her role developed and what she did within it. This is a useful overview of one dramaturg’s experience, in which she discusses the idea of dramaturgy as a distributed system, essentially a system in which all the players are considered to be contributing dramaturgically (all the performers as well as the creative collaborators), with herself as dramaturg inhabiting a role as ‘navigator’. Vass-Rhee writes an account of one method, as it were, of creating work (William Forsythe’s very specific method of working), and how she found herself operating within that method as a dramaturg.

Similarly, Vida Midgelow’s Improvisation Practices and Dramaturgical Consciousness: A Workshop describes a particular method of working and explores the implications of this method for dramaturgy. Here, she wonders how dramaturgy could fit into a context of improvisatory creation. The term ‘embodied dramaturgy’ is used to describe how a dancer, within the moment of dancing (improvising) may also be carrying out dramaturgical work.  I feel that the discussion of dramaturgy within the dance improvisation workshop she describes is a little forced, and whilst there are some very pertinent ideas about developing a dancer’s awareness and self-reflexiveness within their working, I am not sure on finishing the article quite how this illuminates my understanding of the dramaturgical process or the role of the dramaturg.

Pil Hansen’s The Dramaturgy of Performance Generation Systems is the final chapter of this section, in which she continues themes introduced by Midgelow, proposing that anyone within the creative process can be a dramaturgical agent (not just the dramaturg). She writes about performance generating systems, or task-based creation methods, in which dancers are given parameters and tasks by a creator through which they create the work in an improvisatory manner. Hansen uses Deborah Hay’s and William Forsythe’s work as an example, then exploring more fully a case study of Ame Henderson’s work, which Hansen became involved with as a researcher.

This complex section discusses the concept of ‘futuring memory’ used by Henderson, where dancers rely on their own spatial, bodily memories of choreographies danced in the past to create responses to choreographic tasks. Hansen describes in detail the research undertaken on this form of creating work. Once again in this article I struggle to gain further insight into the relevance of dramaturgy as a useful concept, or into the role of the dramaturg. It appears to me that dramaturgy is a term whose diversity in its usage and meaning can occasionally lead to a lack of meaning altogether. For example, Hansen’s phrase ‘the strategic dramaturgies of performance generation’ poses a real problem to me as a reader without a background in the academic disciplines of performance arts.

The third section, ‘Engagement’, begins with Field Notes: In the Studio with Ralph Lemon and Donald Byrd, co-written by Katherine Profeta and Thomas F. DeFrantz. Appropriately engagingly written, each author describes their relationship as a dramaturg with one artist, from initial meeting (describing the ‘simpatico moment’) to honest accounts of how the relationship developed in to something longer-term.  This chapter for me elucidates the importance within a discussion of dance dramaturgy of the individual collaboration – not just the way any one dramaturg or choreographer works, but how one dramaturg and one choreographer specifically work together. As a dramaturg (and not a scholar), I find the approach of this chapter very useful in its close description of the work actually carried out by dramaturgs.  Profeta writes honestly about the difficulties in her relationship with Lemon, when disagreements between the two of them ‘became uncomfortable’. The example she chooses to write about gives clarity to some of the theory that previous chapters cover. Her concept of the ‘oscillating dramaturg – shifting roles to meet the demands of the process’ is a theme that occurs throughout the book, and pinning this concept to a real example is very helpful.

Nanako Nakajima’s article Dance Dramaturgy as a Process of Learning: koosil-ja’s mech[a]OUTPUT similarly describes her involvement as a dance dramaturg with a particular piece of work created by artist koosil-ja. Nakajima was brought on board as a dance dramaturg and movement coach for this work which sought to open the door of Japanese Noh theatre to non-traditional audiences. Her role as a dramaturg is centred on her expertise, as a Japanese traditional dance master and researcher into Noh theatre and specifically the Noh legend on which the new piece of work is based.

Nakajima mainly discusses how, in her role as dramaturg, she was mediating between the traditional dance and theatre forms of Japan and the ‘postmodern choreographer’, specifically working on how it would be possible to open up and make accessible Noh theatre traditions to a contemporary audience, without offending these traditions or ‘blasphem[ing] the tradition under the globalised colonial power’. This article provides a useful perspective of a dance dramaturg working, as it happens, in a fairly traditional role of expert, holder of knowledge, and someone who can help bring that knowledge appropriately and meaningfully to a new audience.

The final chapter of this section, and the book, is Bonnie Brooks’ Dance Presenting and Dramaturgy, in which she explores the dramaturgical nature of presenting (or curating or programming, depending on where you come from). She talks about ‘audience dramaturgy’ as separate from ‘production dramaturgy’, where audience dramaturgy is about the production of meaning for an audience, usually through an ‘interlocutor’ who, in this case, is a dance presenter, whose activities in this matter, according to Brooks, are dramaturgical.

Brooks describes a project she was involved with which brought Merce Cunningham Dance Company to Jerusalem for an extended residency which included not only performances but also workshops, lectures, exhibitions, installations, and other elements which altogether introduced Cunningham’s oeuvre to Israeli audiences. For Brooks, all these additional items on the itinerary of the residency formed a dramaturgical way of engaging with audiences, by helping them to create meaning from the performance of the works of art.  She goes on to introduce an interesting parallel between dramaturgical practice within the context of one work, and the practice of curating a season of work for a performance venue, describing as she does the way in which programmers (presenters, curators) form a relationship with their audiences and seek to shape their audience’s cultural experience through the forming of a programme at the venue.

The chapter usefully points to areas of creative practice that may be dramaturgical, although they may not be specifically in the context of creating or producing new work. I find the concept of ‘creating meaning’ for audiences to be potentially implicit of a hierarchical relationship where there is existent knowledge (the ‘meaning(s)’ of a particular piece) that is held by someone (a dramaturg) that must be translated for an audience to understand. This idea, to me, returns us to some of the anxieties about dance dramaturgy discussed by Hansen in the introduction to this book – that the dance dramaturg is a repository of knowledge, and therefore figures of authority; that they are needed to ensure that esoteric works of art are mediated to an audience; and that without them, artists and audiences would not easily be able to interact.

In my limited experience as a practising dramaturg, much of the discussion within the contributions to this volume is relevant to my everyday practice: what does a dramaturg do, and, although this isn’t articulated anywhere specifically, what use is what the dramaturg does? It is evident that it is difficult to talk and write about the specifics of dramaturgical practice in the field of dance, and the contributors all reach to different terminology and theories to attempt to describe what it is that a dramaturg (usefully) does or what it means to the work of art.

As one might expect from such a diverse area of practice, there are some ways of looking at dramaturgy described in this book that resonate with me and others which I find to be less reflective of my own experience, or what I understand to be the importance of my role. There are some cases in which the term ‘dramaturgy’ or ‘dramaturgical’ appears to be used to disguise a lack of clarity in the ideas being presented. On reading all the chapters in the book, the reader gains an appreciation of the fluidity of these terms, which can help explain how their use can also obscure meaning – ironically, where dramaturgy is often described to be concerned with facilitating and clarifying meaning.

Dance Dramaturgy is a scholarly publication and as such there are chapters which are difficult for a reader outside the academe (such as myself) to access. I am not sure how far this volume will go directly to impact the thinking and working of dance artists and dramaturgs; however, the discussions that it covers and the threads of inquiry that emerge throughout the volume are relevant to the practising sector, not just the academe. I hope that it will inspire further debate and discussion that will trickle through many areas of dance practice and research.

As a first significant publication bringing together a range of approaches to dance dramaturgy, I think this volume usefully enacts one problem of dramaturgy for dance, which is that its meaning is so multifaceted that one might almost say we couldn’t usefully talk about a single practice of dance dramaturgy. However, this term is in use and there are people (such as myself) calling themselves dance dramaturgs, so all that can be done is to show the real diversity of what dramaturgy means to different actors, and how as a philosophical concept it can enter into so many different debates within the world of dance.

Miranda Laurence

29th August 2016

Dance Dramaturgy – Modes of Agency, Awareness and Engagement: Pil Hansen and Darcey Callison (eds). New World Choreographies, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke 2015

You can purchase this book here

Miranda Laurence – Dramaturg

As an emerging dance dramaturg, Miranda has worked with Justice in Motion on Poverty on the Table and Bound. She has also worked with Paulette Mae, Joelle Pappas, Noelia Tajes, Ana Barbour, and Cecilia Macfarlane. She has recently chaired two performance platforms as a dramaturg, Oxford Dance Forum’s Dance Scratch and Junction Dance’s JUMP in Reading. Over the past year she has received support from South East Dance, with a Flourish award for mentoring sessions with dance dramaturg Chris Fogg, a place on the TEST workshop for artists and emerging dramaturgs, and through Collaborate, to work with Anja Meinhardt with the support of South East Dance dramaturg-in-residence Lou Cope. She was also part of the working group for the Dramaturgy at Work London workshop.

Miranda supplements her work as a dramaturg with a freelance arts consultancy role, working with companies and artists to facilitate business growth and artistic development. She is also the Arts Development Officer for South Oxfordshire District Council, based at Cornerstone arts centre in Didcot.