Heterogeneous Dramaturgies

Maska 1 Sep 2010English
Maska 131-132, Summer 2010, pp. 17-27 (theme issue on 'Practical Dramaturgy')

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Asked to share some thoughts about dance dramaturgy, I will not provide you with a history of it, nor with an attempt at an encompassing definition – I think it is difficult and somewhat problematic to speak about ‘dramaturgy at large’. I would like to speak from practice and from my own experience with dance dramaturgy, both within artistic projects and as a teacher of ‘physical dramaturgy’ in art schools and workshops for dancers and choreographers. This entails a fragmentary and specific view, one that even harbours conflicting views or practices. Yet I hope to propose a few statements that exceed the scope of particular processes and give a sense of what dance dramaturgy is or can be – a dramaturgy that is already happening as much as it is one that I’m hoping for and trying to contribute to.

Dramaturgical activity doesn’t always involve the actual position of a dramaturge: therefore I will address not so much the function of the dramaturge but dramaturgy as an activity pertaining to artistic processes.(1) Dramaturgy concerns the development of a common ground for the production of meaning, which I’d like to regard as a shared responsibility of all the collaborators. Moreover, dramaturgy pervades all aspects of the artistic creation process and ties itself to materials and media, bodies and space. How to develop a method that is singular to the piece to come? How to create a shared ground where experimentation and exploration, desire and doubt have a place? And how do these elements transpire once the piece is being performed on stage?


Folding in: context – process – material

Let me start with a few lines by choreographer Boris Charmatz and dance scholar Isabelle Launay, a reflection that has profoundly marked my understanding of dramaturgy: “The scenographic and dramaturgical context is not elaborated alongside dance. In this sense it is not what one would normally call a ‘context’. So the light and the music do not ‘colour’ a dance that remains both fulfilled and itself. The ‘context’ is not around, it is not an addition, even less surroundings for the movement. It changes its meaning, it is inside of it.”(2) In an interview Charmatz elaborates on this: “Things that go beyond the mere image of a moving body are constantly drawn upon: it is all about the whole history attached to a gesture, its cultural embeddedness, and its reception in the theatre. As a dancer you are permanently organizing your inner space, by incorporating the space, the light, the cultural framework, and so on; it is therefore not a feeling that adds itself to the gesture, but on the contrary it changes everything you do internally, and at the very moment itself. So the dramaturgy and the whole meaning potential are already contained in the gesture, the whole time.”(3)

For Charmatz, dramaturgy is intertwined with the body, meaning is a matter of embodiment and embeddedness. His is a truly physical dramaturgy that remains active on stage and incorporates the viewers’ projections, but it also works in an archaeological sense. The whole meaning potential is already there in the material from the very start; all one needs to do is look closer into it, exhaust the lingering meanings and make them explicit. Here, dramaturgy is a process of close-reading.

The claim that context is not around but inside also twists a traditional notion of dramaturgy, understood as producing meaning by framing the movement material, by contextualizing it, by colouring it with discourse. Such a view tends to reproduce the practice/theory divide, a modernist specialisation and distribution of knowledge (and hence of power) as underpinning of clear roles for the choreographer and the dramaturge.(4) Yet from Charmatz’ view I’d like to retain another element: he focuses on the exploration of the material itself – and only via that way of the arguments, frames, canons, institutions, etc. that grant it intelligibility. It therefore resists dramaturgy as a didactic tool reaching out towards the viewer, it thwarts meaning as something fixed and clear. Some questions arise. How can one, through the analysis of culture at work within the material, discover the inner logic of the piece in the making? Can material have a right in itself, and if yes, how to turn that into a dramaturgical strategy? And what is this notion of ‘material’ actually?


Over the years I’ve developed a host of practices in collaboration with choreographer Martin Nachbar under the banner of ‘physical dramaturgy’, both in artistic and pedagogical contexts. Many of these relate to ‘reading’, such as exhausting the meaning that is already there, which can be applied to movement material or bodies engaged in choreographic activity. A few years ago we taught a workshop, Backtracking,(5) that departed from the standing and the lying body, as two poles framing movements such as falling or stumbling, which in turn can be regarded as choreographic operations deconstructing this frame. To simply exhaust this point of departure could have taken forever and took up most of the workshop. A standing body hosts a whole array of quotidian associations, but it also plays a central role in Western art: it is the position of a viewer in a museum; it is a bodily stance that resists gravitation and relates in a certain tradition to an ideal viewing position; it functions as an analogue for the image, refers to architecture, verticality and the proscenium frame of the theatre, and so on. A lying body can be associated with rest, sleep or death, but also with gravitation and the horizontal plane of the dance floor, perhaps with the horizontality of the drawing board and an equal distribution of signs, and so on. The literature on these topics is endless, and so are the ingrained associations and viewing habits – they all resonate along, even before the first movement in the studio or on stage takes place.

While Charmatz speaks about an archaeological reading of bodies and gestures in the first place, I feel the need to extend the notion of ‘material’ to source materials, and the exhaustive reading to the analysis of texts and images. In order to surpass the approach of discourse framing movement material, we’d also need to address philosophical texts, theory or concepts as material, that is as something to work and tinker with, as something that can be used as a choreographic score – and not only as something to construct an argument with. Exercises we do address literary and theoretical texts on three different levels: first a reading of the text’s argument or narrative (if needed with clarification of terms and of the discursive context); second a literal reading: a focus on the language used, especially the spatial and corporeal metaphors; and third: a physical reading, which takes the literal reading onto the dance floor. Reading the work of philosophers like Bataille, Deleuze or Sloterdijk one comes across a great deal of writing about the body, yet developed at a writer’s desk: putting their metaphors and thoughts to a physical test is an interesting strategy to develop movement material – and more messy and exploratory than attempts to illustrate or stage theory.

Now, through these various reading procedures there is already some traffic going on between different materials, between theory and practice, between producing movement and reading movement. The dramaturgical process is situated in this back and forth, embedded in the very choreography. And it gains a life of its own, which also moves beyond archaeology into the imaginary and into new meanings, to be sure. Exhaustive reading leads to various ways of digesting, unfolding and articulating material (conceptually, formally, spatially). It also means that one takes things seriously, even the stupid ideas – it is research-driven and grants a certain autonomy to the artistic process, even independent of the piece that will be its outcome. I believe that folding in the process and following its meandering course yields specificity and clarity. Yet for this, time is needed: if we dispense with the idea of dramaturgy as applying knowledge or concepts, then allowing for a process is a prerequisite and a challenge. The process has a right in itself – it has an internal logic that helps one move beyond the canon, habits and fixed positions, beyond what one already knows.


An open question is the key for reading and for collecting, selecting and developing material: dramaturgy is also related to thematic research, which requires that one symbolically marks a theme. Reading keys might be partly intrinsic to the material, but even then they will be combined with the thematic and formal interests of the process. The point I’d like to make is that material also has a right in itself, which gives us perhaps a clue about what is peculiar to how dance and choreography can function dramaturgically. The word ‘material’, omnipresent in dancers’ jargon, subverts what is usually understood as ‘subject matter’: not the construction of an argument is what constitutes a dramaturgy, but a shared fiction or concept as sedimented in particular images or movements. Moreover, material stands in opposition to the notion of the ‘ideal piece’, the spectre of a material-blind dramaturgy that is obsessed with projecting meaning from an outsider’s ideal viewing position.

Reflecting on his work with choreographer Meg Stuart, dramaturge Bart Vanden Eynde points to a third position – besides framing material dramaturgically and considering material as something with a right in itself – pertaining to the process-internal dynamics and how it transpires on stage: “This brings us to a third element that complicates the organisation of material. When you are looking at a piece as a spectator, you are an outsider confronted with a result, uninformed about the history of the creative process. Certain scenes are in a strict sense not necessary for the dramaturgical unfolding of a piece, yet they might have been vital for the creative process. A performance is always the result of a process, which means it contains scenes that derive their necessity from that history, which is something other than a dramaturgical or a formal, choreographic urgency. To take out those scenes would restrain both the creative process and the eventual performance.”(6)

Note that Vanden Eynde says ‘performance’, not ‘piece’ – pointing towards the imaginary space of the performer on stage. When brought to the stage this third kind of material can be a burden – often it concerns scenes that spectators regard as superfluous, too long, etc – but it also has potential: this material includes the performer’s perspective and history with a creative process in a piece and therefore embraces a heterogeneity that questions the allegedly ‘ideal’ viewing position of the spectator – and hence of the first spectators as well: the choreographer and the dramaturge. Here we’re close to a paradoxical idea of a ‘self-resisting dramaturgy’, a strategy I see for instance at work in pieces like It’s not funny (2006) by Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods, or Les assistantes (2008) by Jennifer Lacey and Nadia Lauro, in which process and material play an active, recalcitrant role in the resulting piece.


A shared ground, familiar yet foreign

How to discover things one doesn’t know yet? How to create a space for that? When working in a collaborative manner, which is common in today’s performing arts, the question of defining or discovering the method proper to the desire of making a particular piece is a collective one. The collaborator’s intuitive knowledge and embodied poetics that guide this process, have to be shared. The availability of all the materials to all the collaborators has a practical aspect to it: scraps, books, texts, video tapes and photographs lingering in the studio are material traces at hand for everyone, they constitute an embodied archive of the process itself. All the rest is memory, individual processing, mutual witnessing and continuous exchange. Harder to grasp is precisely the ‘shared dramaturgy’, that sense of a large area, disparate and excessive yet nevertheless shared, upon which the process thrives.

Dramaturgy and the production of meaning require multiple symbolical markings: next to the theme (which can be a formal interest), there is also bringing together a group of collaborators, and there is the development of an imaginary space, a common ground. This process of constructing a ‘dramaturgical object’ by all the collaborators exceeds the perspective of the materials and also of the method. It demands a space in which everyone can construct their ‘private dramaturgy’, that is their own understanding of how to create dance material and deliver it in performance, or the inner logic of a light design, a set design or the music. This shared ground is both familiar to the collaborators and foreign to them – it affords to move beyond habitual choices and taste in order to discover unknown things, it is at once a space of exploration and of clear decisions within that. I call it a ‘dramaturgical object’ to point out its foreign character, that it concerns a third element the collaborators have to relate to and negotiate with. Perhaps we could say that, just like the process and the material, this imaginary space or object that shelters the piece in the making also has a right in itself. While the material acts on a micro-level, the shared common ground acts on a more global level – and both are crucial for making and performing a piece, for keeping the process alive in either of them. These levels of the material and the shared ground are to a large extent intertwined, yet they don’t coincide. I give two examples.


Working in 2007 with Martin Nachbar on Repeater, a duet with his retired father, a man of 68 without experience with making art or performing, we had several questions on the table: how to avoid a psychological or confessional approach? How to create a space in which an amateur performer would be at ease without diminishing complexity? How to structure the materials at hand? Almost by coincidence I came across a paragraph in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise (1984) that provided us with a ‘dramaturgical map’ and helped us to clarify our intentions throughout the process, so over time. Precisely because it was a foreign element, it would also perform a certain resistance, and insist that we keep questioning things.

“This was the night the insane asylum burned down. Heinrich and I got in the car and went to watch. There were other men at the scene with their adolescent boys. Evidently fathers and sons seek fellowship at such events. Fires help draw them closer, provide a conversational wedge. There is equipment to appraise, the technique of firemen to discuss and criticize. The manliness of firefighting – the virility of fires, one might say – suits the kind of laconic dialogue that fathers and sons can undertake without awkwardness or embarrassment.”(7)

The words ‘laconic dialogue’ became a key for reflecting upon the relation between a father and son and how to stage it. It is an interesting case because we found our ‘dramaturgical map’ as a kind of readymade to which we could relate most of the other materials we had gathered or developed. I would like to call this paragraph a ‘conceptual scene’ – and in the case of a process in which this scene takes on a more heterogeneous, composite form and the dramaturgical object is more complex, a ‘conceptual landscape’. Concepts have physical, spatial and dynamic features, so material qualities, which come to the fore by considering them a space. A conceptual landscape is a space of thought in which one can take a walk – not just any walk, but along certain pathways afforded by the particular concepts at work.


In creations and workshops, the choreographers deufert + plischke have developed during the past years a working method they call ‘formulating and reformulating’. Over a long time, notebooks circulate in the studio, with their text always being reformulated by someone else. For the directory trilogy (2003-06), personal memories were the point of departure, which after repeated rewriting got removed from the original and gained a more accurate, fictional form. Being created in this collective practice is a shared diary or archive of the process itself – which as a medium contains the notebooks, writing and the intervention of other people. It is a way to construct an imaginary space with a group of people, share responsibility and authorship, and keep track of it. The notebooks yield stories and performance texts, but also movement descriptions and choreographic scores.

Equally important is the radical perspective upon choreography: deufert + plischke don’t develop movement material through video, nor via showing and imitating, but only through a collective writing process. In that respect, the notebook opposes also the use of media, which by their technological nature strongly influence the result. In deufert + plischke’s words: “There is no visual regime of imitation in our work. For us, choreography is not a reconstruction of an original (as it is the case with video), but a process in which response is central, and hence responsibility and subjectification. How can you avoid the way you are conditioned to present your likes, dislikes, and the image you have of yourself?”(8) The inner logic of deufert + plischke’s work is anti-visual, which allows them to renegotiate the visual regime of the theatre and the ideal viewing position it presupposes. The common ground carried by the notebooks is foreign as well as heterogeneous, in that it didn’t come into being through discussion and striving for consensus. All the efforts of negotiating one’s place in that foreign world is processed through writing.


Shared responsibility

Dramaturgy as a common ground for the production of meaning should be a shared responsibility of all the collaborators – so not only of the dramaturge and/or the choreographer. This doesn’t mean that the process has to become necessarily collective in the final decision-making. Endless negotiation is highly impractical in large-scale group processes, just like democracy and consensus are not always the best tools to spur on creativity. Authorship in a more traditional sense still plays a role in creating a particular view and making radical artistic choices.

It is also not my interest to fire the dramaturge right away, but rather to deconstruct the dramaturge’s position as one of knowledge and overview. Philosophically speaking this means moving away from the position of the enlightened subject of knowledge, self-fulfilment and transparency. If dance and choreography today seek to question such a view of man on stage, that is on a representational level, then the question is how to be consistent with this on the level of method, process and production? Does it make sense to hold on to the dramaturge’s as a disinterested outsider’s position within a creation process? How can dramaturgy remain at work on stage in order to arrive at a complex, heterogeneous view? I’ll juxtapose some of the elements I’ve laid out and see whether my insistence upon material, process and a shared yet foreign ground as the elements constitutive of dramaturgy contains perhaps an answer.

As the carrier of a truly physical dramaturgy, material has a history that lives inside of culture, but equally reflects the intuition, desire and history of the performers and the collaborators – material has an opaque aspect that resists legibility. As such, material becomes a space of negotiation for the performer: it is at once familiar and foreign, it affords a reconsideration of the common imaginary space.

Brought onto a wider plan, material becomes a space for negotiation that resists the ideal viewing position of the dramaturge or spectator and claims space for the perspective of the performer, who also plays an active part in the production of meaning – by ‘working’ on stage rather than delivering and serving the projection of an ideal piece. Making the production a shared responsibility indeed entails redistributing knowledge and validating other positions as well, including the ‘limited insider’s view’ of the performer. This will require a conceptual mobility of the dramaturge – and ultimately of the spectator.

In both cases the material acts as a third party, displacing the process of negotiation from quarrels over likes or dislikes, or power games between collaborators defending their place in the work, to a negotiation with culture at large and with the specific inner logic of the piece. How to avoid that performers become self-indulgent and forget to ‘work’ with the material?

Equally important as a third object of negotiation is the shared ground. It functions on a more global level as a filter that guides the decision-making in the studio and on stage – it encompasses the questions and the ‘why’ of a process. It is a conceptual landscape, at once familiar and foreign: it isn’t flat or fixed, but invites to take a walk, to work with one’s imagination and keep the production of meaning alive.

A piece combines both material and a conceptual landscape. By insisting on process as that upon which the inner logic of a piece thrives, it is clear that it is infused with time – time of digestion, articulation and unfolding, but also time that still continues on stage. The internal logic and the realm of meaning are temporary and unstable, they never crystallize into something like a fixed, ideal piece. A piece only comes alive in the performance, a social event in which the imagination and the production of meaning are at work. The shared responsibility makes this a collective undertaking and imbues it with the multiple views that come with collaboration. And all of this makes the spectators active co-producers that are also negotiating the realm of meaning and take up their part of the responsibility – instead of passively consuming an ‘ideal piece’.



(1) Myriam Van Imschoot discusses this shift from the dramaturge to the ‘dramaturgical’ in ‘Anxious Dramaturgy’, Women & Performance, no. 26, 2003, pp. 62-65
(2) Boris Charmatz and Isabelle Launay: Entretenir: A propos d’une danse contemporaine, Paris: Centre national de la danse / Les presses du réel, 2002, pp.158
(3) Interview with the author, Paris, September 2004
(4) Cf. André Lepecki: ‘Dance without distance’, Ballet International, Febr. 2001, pp. 29-31
(5) Backtracking, a workshop organized by the festival Tanz im August and the Co-operative Dance Education Centre Berlin, which took place in Berlin from 21 August to 1 September 2006.
(6) See Jeroen Peeters (ed.): Are we here yet? Damaged Goods / Meg Stuart, Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2010, pp. 140-141
(7) Don DeLillo: White Noise, London: Picador, 1999, p. 239
(8) From a public discussion after a performance of deufert + plischke’s Reportable Portraits at the Steirischer Herbst festival in Graz on 24 September 2007.