The Ignorant Dramaturg

Maska 2010English
maska, vol. 16 no. 131-132 (Summer 2010), pages 40-53

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It comes as no surprise to me that we’ve congregated here to speak about dance (and) dramaturgy.(1) We all can proudly attest to having behind us quite a few seminars, workshops, and all sorts of meetings about “dance dramaturgy”. Why the topic draws so much curatorial attention today, however, has less to do with an entirely new practice than with a recently more accredited practice, and perhaps even a profession whose role in the creation of dance hasn’t yet been sufficiently reflected upon. Another approach would demand inquiring how “dance dramaturgy” follows in a line with other curated concepts in dance since 2000, such as “research”, “collaboration”, "theory", "education and learning", the concerns of which it might actually reformulate and then why. I came here resolved not to pursue the matters like “why dance dramaturgy now?”, “why only now?”, and other such questions, because they would inevitably lead me to deconstruct the subject and the whole debate, so that we could go home with a little more skeptical and cynical faces than usual. Instead, I accept this as an invitation to think about "What is dance dramaturgy?". However, my kneejerk reflex is to deviate from the essentialist "what" to more than one question. "Dance dramaturgy"? Yes, but by who? For whom? With whom? Where and when? How, in which case, and how much? Multiplying questions makes dance dramaturgy a minor – of a minority (minoritaire) – and, hence, a plural affair. Studying many cases one by one, we would discover how the work of dramaturgy reinvents itself; it is always different, whenever it is truly a matter of a new creation as opposed to repeating a "success-formula". The temptation of unfolding the many dramaturgies hides the danger of arbitrary relativization – everything and nothing is or can be (considered) dramaturgy – and one loses a position to defend. Therefore, I'll promptly set out my position and task here: I will contest dance dramaturgy in a specific condition of projectbased freelance work – something we used to refer to as "independent". If there should be a dramaturg, she isn't a staff member of a company or a repertoire theater – someone who occupies a position of know-how, craft, or métier dramaturg (the bright example of Marianne Van Kerkhoven comes to remind us of the 1980s-1990s). The appearance of dramaturg in contemporary dance from 2000 on is all the more curious for the fact that choreographers themselves have never been more articulate and self-reflexive about their working methods and concepts. So, why then a dramaturg? My assumption is that we can begin to talk about dance dramaturgy, and try to make this notion more substantial, only when we accept that it isn't a necessity, that a dance dramaturg isn't necessary. Rather than establish a normative definition, I would like here to explore functions, roles and activities of dramaturgy in experiment, how dramaturg becomes the constitutive supplement in a method of experimental creation – a co-creator of a problem.

But before I proceed with that, one more question from my own confusion: how do you write and pronounce this word in English – "dramaturg" or "dramaturge"? Adding an "e" appears as a feminine ending – a playful warning against the feminization of work. Gendering the profession doesn't have to reveal a woman-dramaturge sitting next to a man-choreographer; feminization, according to Toni Negri and Michael Hardt (2), presupposes a transformation of labor from manufacturing objects to producing services. In order to clear the ground of norm and necessity, let me unsettle a few assumptions about the services dance-dramaturg is to provide.
The dance-dramaturg has the linguistic skills that place her on the reflexive pole of the tedious mind-body split. This assumption entails a binary division of labor by faculties: choreographers are mute doers, and dramaturgs bodiless thinkers and writers. I will show how the boundaries of these faculties are blurred and constantly shifting.
The dance-dramaturg observes the process from the distance of an outside perspective. She is expected to keep a critical eye against the self-indulgence or solipsism of choreographer. But what if the job of choreographer, as Jonathan Burrows recently wrote, is to "stay close enough to what we're doing to feel it, and at the same time use strategies to distance ourselves enough to grasp momentarily what someone else might perceive."He goes on to confer that choreography might be "something that helps you step back for a moment, (long) enough to see what someone else might see.(3) So again, the division between doers and observers won't do when choreographer and dramaturg both exercise the outside-eye. My task will be to discern the more subtle nature of this complicity and affinity in the shared faculty of seeing and reflecting.
The previous might be argued against with the following point: the special duty of the dramaturg's critical eye is to go-between the choreographer and the audience, so as to mediate and make sure that communication works on both sides. But this turns dramaturgy into a pedagogy, where dramaturg puts herself in the priestly or masterly position of the one who knows better, who can predict what the audience members see, think, feel, like or dislike. We, makers and theorists alike, are all obsessing far too much about spectatorship, instead of wisely relaxing, as Jacques Rancière wrote in "The Emancipated Spectator" (4), and trusting that spectators are more active and smart than we allow ourselves to admit. My position would be to fiercely object to stultification of this kind, the patronizing presupposition that audience will not understand if they aren't properly – dramaturgically – guided. Instead of giving in to the pressure of accessibility were living in this neoliberal age, dramaturgs could be concerned about how the performance is made public. This is to do with more than just publicity; it is an effort to articulate, find new appropriate formats, in order to make public, indeed, the specific ideas, processes and practices – the immaterial envelope of labor and knowledge sustaining the very work. I'm not saying that we need dramaturgs to sensibilize those hostile and ignorant spectators… it's more a challenge to combat hermiticism, to think how to make knowledge about performancemaking available and perhaps, even interesting – outside of its own discipline.
The last hurdle to overcome is the notorious function of dramaturg aka “company psychotherapist”. This dark and shameful side of dramaturgy is worth mentioning only to make crystal clear that the moment that dramaturg is relegated to the role of a "caretaker" of the moods and tensions in a working process – a filter between choreographer, performers and other collaborators, for instance – she has lost the power of creation, and perhaps, even joy. We dramaturgs probably recall having one such dark experience we'd soon rather forget.

Now that we've relieved our dance-dramaturg from these (traditional) services, are our hands free enough for another undertaking?
When asked to define what a dramaturg is, the Dutch theatermaker Jan Ritsema’s statement appears non-specific: a co-thinker in the process. I choose to depart from this, albeit, generic, view, to inquire if dramaturg is the sparring partner in thought, is she then as little or as much as a collaborator? Yes, but a very special collaborator, dramaturg is the friend of a problem. Or more precisely, she is the choreographer's closest friend in producing a problem,a friend in advocating an experiment, and an enemy of complacency. The dramaturg is there to make sure that the process doesn't compromise in experiment. What makes her a friend is proximity in being with and standing under (which isn't always also understanding) the drama of ideas. Giorgio Agamben recently wrote, "calling someone 'friend' is not the same as calling him 'white', 'Italian', or 'hot', since friendship is neither a property nor a quality of a subject…To recognize someone as a friend means not being able to recognize him as something.” (5)
I'm engaging with the figure of the friend so as to do away with instrumentality and specialization of the role and relationship of dramaturg with the choreographer. The kind of friendship I'm invoking here begins with ignorance – not about what the two can exchange between each other or be useful for, because there must already be some shared affinity to even contemplate working together – but ignorance about the work to be made. Hereby, I'm referring to "ignorance" in Jacques Rancière’s parable The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation.(6) Emancipation is the pedagogy that Rancière opposes to instruction, because it's a situation of learning something about which both master and student are ignorant. Learning then rests on the assumption of equality of intelligence, as well as on the existence of a third mediating term between master and student, which isrepresented in Rancière by the book that master and student read in two different languages. Dramaturg and choreographer establish a relationship of equals similar to the relation between two ignorant people confronting the book they don’t know how to read. The "book" is the work of research, that something, bound by a radical form of effort that both invest into the process of defining what is at stake and how. The work is the thing, the "book" that choreographer and dramaturg won't read but write together, that third link which guarantees the rule of materiality. Whatever is done, thought, or felt can be shown, discussed, and confronted on the work itself with two pairs of eyes or more.

Now that we've placed dramaturg on a par with choreographer, we have to ask: what does this work of construction they are both dedicated to have to do with producing a problem? When I say a problem, I in fact mean an approach or a method which forces the work on a performance to deviate from the possible, i.e. familiar, operations with: "theme" or what the work claims to be about, "language" or expression means, signature or aesthetic preferences, process or the dynamic in which the work develops, "dispositif""or that which composes the attention of spectators. Listing all these categories already shows a certain stability in a pool of options, possibilities recognizable because: "we know what works, and what doesn't." The production of a problem doesn't begin with possibilities, since they are a matter of knowledge that we account for as the limits to be pushed,but with ideas that diverge and differentiate the conditions of the new. Gilles Deleuze qualifies creation as virtual. To explain the notion of the virtual, he often cites Proust’s description of his states of experience: "real without being actual, ideal without being abstract".(7) The content of an idea is virtual, because it is differentiation, a differential relation between elements drawn by a problem, a question. The problem lies in the idea itself, or rather, the idea exists only in the form of questions. As questioning nowadays is a domesticated and worn out truism about almost any intellectual activity, questions by which a problem is posed are distinguished by the answers that they give rise to. So the problem is measured by the solution it merits – if this solution is an invention that gives being to something new, to what did not exist or what might never have happened. Stating a problem isn't about uncovering an already existing question or concern, something that was certain to emerge sooner or later, a problem is not a rhetorical question that can't be answered. On the contrary, to raise a problem implies constructing terms in which it will be stated, and conditions it will be solved in. The solution entails a construction of procedure and working situation. To orchestrate in practical terms what I coin here as methodology of problem, I will take up the dramaturgy of the performance And then (2007) by Eszter Salamon. (Frankly, I would much prefer to unravel a variety of cases and not to risk to idealize one self-congratulating example, but time presses me to choose only one case to illustrate my view, and so it will be one from my own dramaturgical practice).

The project began with a discovery of homonymy, with hundreds of women all over Europe and the U.S. having what the choreographer – and eventually her homonyms as well – considered a rare and unusual name because it comes from the relatively small culture of Hungary. After Magyar Tancók (2006), a lecture performance about her own experience of becoming a dancer in Hungary, Salamon was interested to further pursue the relationship between cultural contingency and individual agency in her own biography. But after considering how arbitrary and insignificant the results of exploring the fact of having a name were, "what's in a name?" appeared a trivial question, a pseudo-problem. Interviewing more than a dozen of Eszter Salamons, the choreographer Salamon and Iwere facing a myriad of stories from and about ordinary people – : individual, singular, and incomparable. Our initial speculation, that this material could feed yet another solo that voids the identity of a singular by multiple subjects,proved uninteresting, it meant stating the obvious knowledge about identity construction and performative self-determination. The question shifted to challenging the concept of self-identification itself. What does it mean to meet another person whose being doesn’t concern you in any particular way? Isn’t it strange, and rather uncanny, to peer into another person’s life when one has come across evidence of it by pure chance? What makes these women speak like everyone else, as a singular but not a particular person? What makes the expression of each one seem “whatever”, and yet such that it always matters ? Our documentary departure gave way to fabulation, using the trigger of homonymy as the minimum criterion for the choice, the connection, and the confrontation of exactly those different life experiences. “What’s in a name?” became a matter of arbitrariness and coincidence that conditioned the performance, while the name “Eszter Salamon” functioned metonymically – not as a sign of the congruence of the Salamons, but exactly as a sign for individuation among singular homonyms.(8)
A considerable part of the solution consisted of constructing a procedure which would choreograph the fabulation of singularities. And the methodology of the problem involves exactly that, an invention of constraints that would act as enabling conditions. As hiring dozens of Salamons from all over the world to perform on stage wasn't an option, we decided to ask them to re-enact their spontaneous answers, gestures and presence from the interviews. Then we filmed their "restored behavior" (R. Schechner) in a particular studio setting, a mise-en-cadre, in which they moved in a space the audience sees in total, while the camera shoots the figures off center in provisional shots, simulating the gaze of the theatre viewer (9), thus the screen could extend into the stage, and vice versa, blurring their boundaries. Performers – Eszter-Salamons, the homonyms by name and their doubles as a kind of visual homonyms – circulated between the screen and the stage as in one continuous space, split between past and present, documentary and fiction, original statement and self-reflexive comment, non-theatrical imaginary space and bare theater stage. It should be mentioned that apart from the assistance of a professional film-maker (10), the choreographer and the dramaturg were dilettantes of the medium that they hijacked into the performance. Constructing such a hybrid between theater and cinema meant questioning choreography as well, and when I say that it could have been done only by dilettantes, I'm rhetorically distinguishing a dilettante approach that contests and strives to expand its discipline and medium from an essentialist view on professional craftsmanship. Dilettantes are those who ask questions beyond the specialist truth about the medium.
Discerning dramaturgy from choreography would be difficult here, because they both mutated into a composition of movement in text, in camera shots, light simulating cinema, montage between screen and stage, soundtrack, performing modes, gestures and the least of all, dance. A composition of each of these elements, and moreover of their relations, Vujanovic called a choreography of the Deleuzian "concept of difference which through repetition transforms the elements introduced into a process of abolishing self-identity."(11)

So what does the methodology of problem generate? Questions that will clear the ground and slowly eliminate the known possibilities to enable the production of a qualitatively new problem. This could be compared with the freeing of hands that I mentioned before. Burrows laconically calls it “relaxing one's grip” (12) and I would say letting go of habits that make the mind lazy and the hands routine. The problem will distinguish itself insofar as it demands constructing its own – different, singular or new, but impure and heterogeneous perhaps even hybrid – operation. The operation is defined by the specific constraints that secure its consistency. The result is a new dispositif – not an architectural arrangement but a reconfiguration of attention, meaning that spectators will also have to experience how differently they see, think, feel, instead of leaning back into recognition. The problem will also have the consequence of problematizing or unsettling views and opinions about either what's being represented or how dance, choreography or performance is treated. Now it will be the spectators who will no longer ask themselves the essentialist question "what is this?" but will, like we did in the beginning with dramaturgy, receive the gift of a problem in a plural of minoritarian questions "who, how, when, where and in which case" isthis about? Is this a performance? etc.

The next series of points concerns the dramaturg in the type of dramaturgy that I conceive as the methodology of problem. How does the dramaturg implicate herself in the production of a problem, and since she is such a close friend of it, how can her position be discerned from that of choreographer? It's important that dramaturg doesn't enter the process because the process is in need of a dramaturg; problems can be created only out of desire without need, duty or obligation. For a friendship of problem two notions need to marry. Affinity will not just mean being close, similar, akin, fond or understanding of something, but having this feeling move forward or toward an end – I'm here deploying the French etymology à fin as a sense of finality. So affinity in a desiring production will provide a built-in constraint – limiting the amount of choice – and will drive the process with a "terminus" which doesn't however pre-determine the process entirely from the beginning.
If affinity is what dramaturg and choreographer share, what is it that they don't share? The motivation of choreographer that might be personal – the place where the work affects the maker. But this place isn't essentially the origin of the work, however often it is so claimed. Affinity can help choreographer abandon the personal as a source of solipsistic defense reflected in statements "because I think so, I like it, it means to me personally…" and take an external, constitutive of the work of performance itself, social, political or conceptual, but in all cases, self-reflected position. Affinity then grows into affiliation – connecting both choreographer and dramaturg to a framework of meanings larger than the individual artistic fantasy and achievement. Friends of problem are also allies who don't defend a personal ego or mythology of the great artist but certain views, assumptions, questions and criteria. These (views, assumptions, questions and criteria) make them partial and hence, complicit – sharing responsibility about affecting a context always larger than the performance only. Again the personal aspect of the relationship is evacuated to make place for a commitment to certain politics, so we can never speak of the dramaturg's loyalty to her choreographer, but rather of fidelity to a position.
What about the criticality and critical distance considered as that which makes dramaturg relatively autonomous in her work? Indeed, we now have to reverse the question, what is it that the dramaturg doesn't share with the choreographer? What motivates her, apart from interest in the specific problematic of the work? To observe how thought arises in expression and becomes its material act. This is quite different from the common assumption that dramaturgs come with their concepts and theories and then seek ways to smuggle them in a material form. The problems I'm talking about here do not represent pre-formed concepts, they create concepts in expression, which cannot be separated from the situation in which they occur. Concepts born in expression do not pre-exist and transcend their objects. Instead of the identity of object, concept has for its objective to articulate a multiplicity - the elements which are variable and reciprocally determined by relations. One such expressive concept that developed in the making of And then was "third space", a space which doesn't exist literally, but rather virtually between screen and stage.
Marked by various cuts between memory and present, and by voices whose bodies disappear or sounds that come outside of the field (hors-champ) where what can be heard exceeds what can be seen either on stage or screen-image, the third space became a black zone maneuvering between a missing context and the reality of theater. We began to think of it as a construction site for the imaginary, as if it swallowed all the blackouts in a theater where spectators continue to edit the film. I now risk slipping into poetry, but what I'm getting at here is a conceptual imagination that performance theory, when practiced only in cabinets, is dry and begins to lack. We shouldn't forget that many powerful concepts in philosophy were abducted from the non-philosophical hands of eloquent artists who reflected their own poetics, for instance, the infamous body without organs that Deleuze & Guattari revamped from Antonin Artaud.
Whether dramaturgs are praised for smuggling ideas and concepts from performances into other discursive sites – books, journals, classrooms, and hopefully, other fields of knowledge – or they are considered as cheats, because they are always already sitting on more than one chair, occupying several positions through various activities ( teachers, critics, programmers, performers) depends on the ethics of the choreographer. More and more today, choreographers acknowledge the "opensource" model for how ideas and performance materials are created and circulated. Two years ago, Xavier Le Roy, with whom I worked as a dramaturg on several performances, and I initiated a project that gathered a number of choreographers and performers to work in social and economic conditions drastically different from our habitual mode of freelance nomadic work and lifestyle. These conditions were reflected somewhat in the project title: Six Months One Location (6M1L)(13) One other proposition was that each one of us, apart from our own project, would engage ourselves in the projects of two other participants. We were to choose or define what role we would play, not just performing in it, but being the dramaturg or advisor or writer or singer or light or sound designer.
The rotation in function reflected the sense of flexibility, a readiness to "stand in""other roles, that for most of these artists is the everyday reality of independent, self-organized work; so it was only a matter of formalizing it and giving it a name. Le Roy then found the notion of "intercessors" or "mediators" (French intercesseurs) in an interview with Deleuze. Deleuze introduces the figure of intercessor describing his collaboration with Félix Guattari. He writes:

“Mediators are fundamental. Creation’s all about mediators. Without them nothing happens. They can be people – for a philosopher, artists or scientists; for a scientist, philosophers or artists – but things too, even plants or animals, as in Castaneda. Whether they’re real or imaginary, animate or inanimate, you have to form your mediators. It’s a series. If you’re not in some series, even a completely imaginary one, you’re lost. I need my mediators to express myself, and they’d never express themselves without me: you’re always working in a group, even when you seem to be on your own. ...There’s no truth that doesn’t "falsify" established ideas. To say that "truth is created" implies that the production of truth involves a series of operations that amount to working on a material - strictly speaking, a series of falsifications. When I work with Guattari each of us falsifies the other, which is to say that each of us understands in his own way notions put forward by the other. A reflective series with two terms takes shape. And there can be series with several terms, or complicated branching series. These capacities of falsity to produce truth, that’s what mediators are about…” (14)

There are two points that I would like to draw from this notion. Firstly, dramaturgy tends to normativize collaboration in dual terms where the dramaturg is expected to act as an analyst, to make sense of it all. However, as Deleuze says, there's always more than one difference, and it's a series, a multiplicity of voices, those often-unrecognized mediators whose voices we borrow. The other point is to see dramaturgy against the truth of one, as a path of falsification of the many; sometimes, even literally, to have the luxury of two dramaturgs. Three is merrier than two, because ideas and energy are no longer mirror-bounced, seeking confirmation or receiving doubt, but they begin to circulate, proliferate, and have a life of their own.
A lot could be said about the practice of dramaturgy and its various technologies, but one characteristic seems to me to never be stressed enough: the importance of taking time. If something different or new is to happen, the working process has to be attended in its duration, and this then enables the perception of change. By contrast, our production time is driven by efficiency. Therefore, dramaturgs are often asked to act as consultants – to drop into the rehearsal once or twice and give their expert opinion. This occurs at a late stage, when most of the research time is over, and dramaturg's job falls under the "fine-tuning" of a composition, attitude, and/or performing style. Hence, the dramaturg is relegated to the role of a mentor who comes to supervise the work according to a standard of success. In my own experience, I have struggled against the question I hear every so often, "Do you think it works?"I would answer, "What do you mean – works? My car works, for instance, yes… but could we, please, talk about the performance in other, non-normative terms?"
And if we are going to talk about it as a production of problem, then success cannot be the measure of dramaturgy. As a practice, dramaturgy can, at best, be speculative. I developed the thesis about speculative as opposed to normative practices from the Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers, who discusses Nobel-prize winning physics experiments next to American witchfeminists as equally valuable practices.(15) To speculate means to place thought as belief or faith in a certain outcome without having firm evidence. For instance, one speculates on outcomes of one’s application for a subsidy or investment in stocks, or any other venture in the hope of gain with the risk of loss. As a researcher, whenever you coin or decide to apply a method, you speculate whether it will lead to the desired result, or if it will refute a hypothesis, or produce anything at all. The key words to extract from speculation are “uncertainty”, “risk”, “daring”. But to speculate pragmatically is to add not just caution against illusions or wishful thoughts, but a perspective on a situation, a set of constraints by posing a problem, and an obligation to assess the effects of a speculation, a thought, a decision, a method, will have had, in the future-perfect tense of this performance. In dramaturgy, we practice speculation. We practice "standing-under"(support) before we "under-stand". We learn to do and say, “let's think again”, because we don't know now, but we will have known by then.


Notes and References

(1) The text was originally written for a lecture for Danswerkplatz Amsterdam, Forum on Dramaturgy on 4 December 2009

(2) Negri, Antonio and Hardt, Michael. "Postmodernization, or The Informatization of Production". Empire. Cambridge, MA & London, England : Harvard University Press, 2000, pp. 280-303.

(3) Burrows, Jonathan. A Choreographer's Handbook. London : Routledge, 2010, p. 33.

(4) Rancière, Jacques. "The Emancipated Spectator". Manuscript from a lecture held at the opening of the International Theatre Academy in Mousonturm, Frankfurt, 2004, courtesy of the author.

(5) Agamben, Giorgio: "The Friend", What is an Apparatus? And Other Essays. Kishik, D. and Pedatella, S. (tr.). Stanford, California: Stanford California Press, 2009, p. 31.

(6) Rancière, Jacques, The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Ross, K. (tr.). Stanford, California: Stanford California Press, 1991.

(7) Deleuze, Gilles, "The Method of Dramatization". Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974. Los Angeles and New York: Semiotext(e), 2004, p. 101.

(8) Vujanović, Ana. »The Choreography of Singularity and Difference. And Then by Eszter Salamon«. Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, let 1., št. 13, , 2008, pp. 123–130.

(9) Ibid.

(10) The filmmaker Minze Tummescheit was responsible for the cinematography  and camerawork in And Then.

(11) Vujanović, Ana. »The Choreography of Singularity and Difference. And Then by Eszter Salamon«. Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, let 1., st. 13, , 2008, pp. 123–130

(12) Burrows, Johnatan. A Choreographer's Handbook. London: Routledge, 2010, p. 81

(13) Cf. 6M1L Lulu Online Publishing, 2009: Everybodys.

(14) Deleuze, Gilles. Negotiations. Joughin, M. (tr.) New York: Columbia University Press, 1990, p. 125.

(15) Stengers, Isabelle. "Including Non-Humans into Political Theory". Manuscript, 2008, courtesy of the author