Dance Dramaturgy: speculations and reflections

Dance Theatre Journal Apr 2000English
Dance Theatre Journal, vol. 16 no. 1, 2000, pp. 20-25

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The choreographer working with the dramaturge in a creative role is a relatively 'new' phenomenon - something which has been taken up in the last decade firstly by a few and now increasingly more choreographers. This 'newness' and the elusiveness of the definition of the task of the dramaturge (i.e. what are his/ her methods, materials, responsibilities, etc.) bring a sense of instability and intrigue onto the landscape of dance making. The questions are many. Who is qualified to perform this role and why? What is the impact on how and what a choreographer makes? Is dramaturgy interference, intrusion or is it filling in where there is a lack of some kind? Does it perform a need for the market of dance making? Is the dramaturge a translator, interrogator, a 'prober', interpreter or provocateur? Does dramaturgy function as a support in the lonely act of making or does it split the body of the choreographer in two?

These questions are distilled from a discussion in Amsterdam in March 1999 that took place in the context of the first session of “Conversations on Choreography”.(1) The second session, held in Barcelona in November 1999, focussed specifically on relationships between dance and dramaturgy. The following article draws on both of these events.

Introduction: theatre dramaturgy

The dramaturge has not fallen from the sky.
Pablo Ley (Guest participant “Conversations on Choreography” Barcelona session).
In order to better understand the relationship between dance and dramaturgy it is useful to consider the origins of theatre dramaturgy that can be located in the late 1770s with a German critic named Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Pre-Lessing the notion of dramaturgy is attributed to the work of those seeking to elucidate the rules for making theater, the most well known in the west being Aristotle’s “Poetics” (to which Bharata’s Natyasastra and Zeami’s texts on Noh drama are often compared).

Lessing was hired to serve as resident critic at the Hamburg National Theatre in 1776. There he began to write critical and theoretical essays on theatre that were eventually published in his book the Hamburg Dramaturgy. With this publication, Lessing is considered to have introduced dramaturgy as a word and a practice into the world of theatre, and to have generated the beginnings of “a German tradition of theory and practice that precedes and determines the staging of a play”. (Pavis, 122)

Following Lessing, the dramaturgy profession evolved to establish itself as a profession in the state theaters in Germany. The ”classical” or “textual dramaturgy” derived from Lessing did not concern itself directly with the realization of the performance on stage until the 1920s and 30s with the initiatives of Bertolt Brecht. Brecht, a dramaturge, playwright and director himself, moved the dramaturge out of the rooms and libraries where the scripts were read, chosen and edited and into the rehearsal hall where the dramaturge could participate in the entire process of making theatre – this became known as “production dramaturgy”. (Schechter, 22)

Patrice Pavis’ in his “Dictionary of Theatre” summarizes the responsibilities of the theatre dramaturge.

1.    Selecting plays for a program on the basis of a particular issue or objective.
2.    Carrying out documentary research on and about the play.
3.    Translating, adapting or modifying the text, alone or with the director.
4.    Determining how meanings are linked and interpreting the play according to an overall social or    political project.
5.    Intervening from time to time in rehearsals as a critical observer with a fresher pair of eyes than the director.
6.    Looking after relations with a potential audience.

The practice of dramaturgy in the theatre spread in the 19th and 20th century to other countries, including France, England, Spain and America. In the 20th Century, as the privilege of the pre-written text as the primary source of theatre has given way to new forms of theatrical composition and communication, the job of the dramaturge has changed. In particular, there has evolved a rich diversity of ways to work with text that are closely connected to the dimension of the visual – a practice for which Knut Ove Arntzen has coined the phrase “visual dramaturgy”.

Throughout its evolution however, dramaturgy seems to have remained a perplexing practice. Questions about its definition (What is dramaturgy?) and methodologies (What does a dramaturge do?) consistently preface every book, symposium and class on the topic – although it is certainly ‘taught’ in educational institutions in Germany, England and the United States. The remainder of this article will not attempt to directly dispel this perplexity; in fact the same questions are asked of and addressed by our conversation participants in the exchange that follows.

Dance and Dramaturgy

The relationship between dance and dramaturgy originated by most accounts in the well-known collaboration in the early to mid 1980s between choreographer Pina Bausch and dramaturge Raimund Hoghe. Since then, there has been an increasing number of choreographers who have chosen (or have been advised) to work with a dramaturge. Three of these dramaturges were invited for the first session of “Conversations on Choreography” held in March 1999 in Amsterdam – André Lepecki who has worked with Meg Stuart, Francisco Camacho and Vera Mantero, Hildegard de Vuyst who has worked with Alain Platel, and Heidi Gilpin who worked with William Forsythe. As mentioned earlier, the discussion about dance and dramaturgy initiated in Amsterdam was continued at the second session in November 1999 in Barcelona where a series of short experimental working sessions were organized between Lepecki, in the role of dramaturge, and La Caldera choreographers Alexis Eupierre, Sol Picó and Toni Mira.

The remainder of this article has been edited from transcripts and email correspondence to represent an ongoing dialogue about dance and dramaturgy between participants from both of these sessions. The main voices are those of Scott deLahunta (editor), Heidi Gilpin, Isabelle Ginot, Myriam van Imschoot, André Lepecki, Diana Theodores and Hildegard de Vuyst. While the comments and answers are attributed to these individuals, they are in reality often heavily paraphrased.

The Conversation

Diana: I would like to ask the three dance dramaturges with us, André, Heidi and Hildegard to try and tell us what you do in the role of the dance dramaturge and also a bit about how you came to be doing it.

Heidi: Well, I was the editor for a journal of cultural criticism that William Forsythe had read and wanted to discuss along with more theoretical ideas. I watched his work and saw that he was actually trying to manifest some of these ideas on the stage. This initiated the endless conversations that eventually led to my working as a dramaturge for him. What do I do? I feel that I help translate ideas that could be linguistic, mathematical, or scientific into another form and try to create a ground with the choreographer where our mutual obsessions can interact. At times maybe I prepare packets of information (text, images, etc.) for the dancers to look over but not to have to understand in a didactic sense. I’ve also worked with other choreographers, and it is different with each one.

André: I was hanging out in Lisbon and having conversations with people in the dance world who thought I should be more involved somehow. Originally I had a task that had no name. But at a certain moment as it became part of the institution of production, as one is getting a fee, etc., you have to have a name for what you do. In my case, Bruno Verbergt (former director of the Klapstuk Festival in Belgium) was producing Meg Stuart with whom I was working and he said to me, “You are the dramaturge” and I said, “okay, I’m the dramaturge”. What do I do in that role? Well, what Meg asks me to do at the beginning of the process is to be in the studio constantly. After that we talk a great deal. She asks me about what I see happening in a scene, and I come up with what I call “metaphorical explosions” – where I see relations and connections, etc. Towards the latter part of the process we work together to make it more cohesive.

Hildegard: I consider myself the first audience, I ask myself – “what does the work do to me?” I do not go and get my information in the libraries, because it’s not going to be used. But it is as André also says about the process – at first it’s very open with a lot of improvisations and assignments, people are asked to make solos and after that the construction of the whole thing takes place, which we very much do together. I’ve worked with different choreographers and directors and I feel that it works best when I’m not really needed somehow, when I’m not the embodiment of something that is missing. Because if feels like if I’m not necessary in fact then I have a sort of freedom and a playground to stand on.

Scott: That reminds me that in both Amsterdam and Barcelona, we have discussed the difference between a dramaturge and dramaturgy, that there might be a situation where there is dramaturgy, but no dramaturge. This relates to what one of our guest participants in Barcelona, Maria Muñoz from the dance group Mal Pelo, said about the dramaturgical vision of the choreographer becoming clear only after the performer creates the bridge between choreographer and the public.

André: The dancers in most contemporary works today have to produce the material, to think about the scenes, they have to choreograph themselves. So, it ends up that the dancers are also making dramaturgical decisions in a way. They’re making the choreographic decisions and they come up with ideas to solve the scenes sometimes.

Hildegard: Well, in the case of Alain Platel’s work, there is a lot of dramaturgy involved in first choosing the dancers, because he really relies on what the dancers bring in, their personal histories. He works with difference, so he needs people with different natures, different religions, of different colors, different cultural backgrounds, because in that choice he already brings in a lot of material. So, there’s a lot of dramaturgy before the production starts and then gradually there’s different kinds of dramaturgy that get applied.

André: It occurs to me that for the choreographer finding a dramaturge to work with is like the way you choose to work with some dancers and not others. Thinking about what Scott just said, with Meg Stuart’s collaboration with the video artist Gary Hill there was no dramaturge in that collaboration, because there was no need. Gary Hill was the privileged interlocuter, and he was interfering with the making of the choreography in such a way that it was not appropriate for me to collaborate in that process. But each situation is different. Meg worked with another visual artist, Ann Hamilton, in her last work and there was in that situation a space for a dramaturge.

Isabelle: It seems to me that the role of the dramaturge is merely to be some kind of other. Maybe that’s why when there is a visual artist or when there’s a writer or maybe even when there is a text, there’s not that need for a dramaturge. Then you have to ask maybe there is no more room for a dramaturgy? This other may not be called a dramaturge, for example, if the other is a dancer, we may call him assistant choreographer or whatever, but then maybe it’s not dramaturgy anymore?

Myriam: I am thinking about this relationship between a choreographer and a dramaturge and about something we were discussing yesterday, about feeling lonely in the process of making. I can imagine that someone making a work, even though there are plenty of dancers or a set designer or whoever just feels the need to have someone to talk to, whatever this function may be. I would think of this as a social need. Another need might be on the level of skills, that apparently there is a need for some kind of skill, and I think of the traditional dramaturgy that is still linked with some kind of intellectual skill, or intellectual capacity. But this also suggests that there is a skill that exists outside of the body of the choreographer and a division of labor is taking place.

Isabelle: There seems to be this evolving relationship between dance and dramaturgy in Germany and Belgium and maybe elsewhere, but in France this does not seem to be happening, and I am wondering why. Maybe it is because dance in France has been recognized as another way to make theatre, wordless, but fully expressive and carrying something theatre may have been looking for and struggling with because of its traditional link to text. So, as a part of investing in theatre’s space, dancers in France have also had to defend the idea that dance could carry meaning. As a part of this, the choreographer was seen as the author and responsible for the entire work in the style of the « cinéma d'auteur » including responsibility for its meaning. The making of this meaning arrives through association, collage, weaving, contrasting, mixing, etc., and this is what we call, in France, choreography. So far, choreographers there have not asked to have someone else come help them with this job. It seems that in the dance in France this splitting of the choreographer’s labor and body into two as suggested by Myriam has not happened.

André: I’m fascinated with this idea of the choreographer’s body being divided somehow and want to return to that later. While you were speaking, I’ve been thinking about this relationship between the dramaturge and intellect and it made me recall this experience I had as a dramaturge with Meg when she was asked to choreograph for Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Company. This was a very difficult experience and one of the reasons is that there was no intellectual sharing with the dancers. Therefore the intellectual role of the dramaturge was pushed in my direction much more heavily; the performance of being an intellectual – you have to write, you have to research, you have to translate, etc.

Hildegard: In the work of Alain Platel, and from what I understand from you André about Meg Stuart’s work, the intellectual responsibility of a piece is shared with the whole group. It is not singled out into my position and my function.

André: This issue of the intellect and the dramaturge also has a political dimension related to the privileging of knowledge. Several years ago, a consortium of three European producers approached the Portuguese choreographer Vera Mantero about making a group piece. They asked her to work with a dramaturge from the north of Europe. Her question was “why do I need a dramaturge and why should he or she be from the north of Europe”. This was clearly a case where a dramaturge was desired by the producers in order to fill in a lack or a perception of a lack of knowledge or information.

Scott: One can see why it is that the public or even producers accustomed to the idea of a theatre dramaturge might have preconceptions about the role of the dramaturge in a dance project. There was evidence of this in Barcelona when Alexis Eupierre, one of the participating choreographers, was interviewed on a local radio station about the conference. He was asked if the purpose of the dance dramaturge was to “help make the dance more understandable to an audience”. Historically, we can see that this may have been or still might be the role of a theater dramaturge at a particular time and place, but the role of the dance dramaturge as I see it is decidedly not to provide an interpretation or explanation of the dance for the audience.

André: This question of making art readable for an audience is really a complicated one. To polemicise we could evoke people like Walter Benjamin who said that art is never made for the public, and that the power of art is precisely because it’s not made for the audience and therefore the questions of interpretation or explanation are problematized. For the people I work with, Francisco, Meg and Vera, the audience is an invisible ghost. It’s always there and we always keep coming back to asking ourselves is this clear, how might that be interpreted, etc. The problem is that we are all displaced so that the audience, the people are absolutely vague to us. In talking to Myriam the other day, she mentioned that Marianne van Kerkhoven, a dramaturge in Brussels who has worked with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Rosas for instance, has recently written an essay where she compares the mirco dramaturgy in the rehearsal with a need for a macro dramaturgy of the social.

Diana: That is a very expansive idea of the role of the dramaturge. I was just thinking about trying to summarize a bit some of the key points being made here: 1) there is a political dimension to the relationship between dance maker and dramaturge; 2) there is tradition of dramaturgy in the theatre that attaches itself in different ways to the relationship with dance; 3) that the practice of dramaturgy involves seeing and watching, lots of talking and maybe writing – the employment of language and discourse; 4) the dramaturge also helps to organize and order, to structure or weave together the performance. That is a partial summary anyway. What I feel we have not done is discussed whether or not a dance dramaturge enters the rehearsal studio with a particular way of seeing or looking at movement and gestures, stillnesses and physical distortion, in the case of Meg Stuart. Presumably seeing would generally precede talking in the relationship between choreographer and dramaturge wouldn’t it? Is it a special sort of seeing, a new way of looking?

André: This talk about ‘seeing’ bothers me. I deeply believe dance dramaturgy implies the reconfiguration of one’s whole anatomy, not just the eyes. When I enter into the studio to start working on a new piece, the question of anatomy becomes a very important and quite literal question. We talk about the body of the dancer, the body of the choreographer, the body of the piece. But what is the body of the dramaturge? How does the dramaturge adapt his or her body to the dynamics in the studio? First of all I think the body of the dramaturge is not that anatomical monstrosity, the “external eye.” I believe it is crucial to say this. The “external eye,” an expression that so frequently describes the position of the dramaturge in dance (and, quite interestingly for me, is not invoked so much in other dramaturgies) reminds me of Descartes before writing his “Meditations,” experimenting with eyes from corpses, and trying to understand perception through these dead eyes. As if perception was a detachable function, independent from the rest of the body, mind, soul and passion. Now, you could tell me – “Dance is an image-based art form. You must rely on the eye.” And my answer, of course, would be, yes I have to engage my vision. But the question is how I want to engage the senses. If I enter in the studio and the work being done at that moment requires a critique, or an expansion, of the visual field, I obviously have “to enter” with the eye. The thing is that I can reinvent this eye. For instance, I can make it listen. Or I use it to lick and taste the scene. So, to summarize: I enter in the studio as dramaturge by running away from the external eye. Just as the dancers and the choreographer, I enter to find a (new) body. That’s the most important task of the dance dramaturge -- to constantly explore possible sensorial manifestoes.


- Scott deLahunta. “Conversations on Choreography” organiser. Independent researcher and lecturer in performance and member of Writing Research Associates (
-Heidi Gilpin. Guest at the Amsterdam session. Associate Professor/University of Hong Kong, dramaturge for William Forsythe.
- Isabelle Ginot. Core Group Member. Dance writer/ researcher, associate professor at Dance Department of University of Paris VIII.
- Myriam van Imschoot. Core Group Member. Dance critic/ researcher/ theorist, University of Leuven, Belgium.
- André Lepecki. Core Group Member. Dramaturge for Meg Stuart, Vera Mantero among others, dance critic/ theorist, based in the USA.
- Diana Theodores. Core Group Member. Dance writer/ researcher, Reader in Theatre at Dartington College of Arts, UK.
- Hildegard De Vuyst. Guest at the Amsterdam session. Dramaturge for Alain Platel/ Ballet C. de la B.

Citations and Bibliography

Adolphe, Jean-Marc. “Dramaturgy of Movement”. Ballett International/ Tanz Aktuell. 6/98. pp. 26-27.
Arntzen, Knut Ove. “A Visual Dramaturgy: equivalent elements”. European Performance andTheatre Towards the Year 2000. ??, ?? (circa 1990).
Conversations on Choreography. Transcriptions. 27 March 1999 [Amsterdam session] and 19-21 November 1999 [Barcelona session].
Gilpin, Heidi. “Shaping Critical Spaces: issues in the dramaturgy of movement performance”. in Dramaturgy in American Theater: a source book. Eds. Susan Jonas, Geoff Proehl and Michael Lupu. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997. pp. 83-87.
Jonas, Susan, Geoff Proehl and Michael Lupu. Dramaturgy in American Theater: a source book. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997.
Kerkhoven, Marianne van, ed. On Dramaturgy: Theaterschrift. Vol 5-6. 1994.
Lehmann, Hans-Thies. “From Logos to Landscape: Text in Contemporary Dramaturgy”. Performance Reseach. 2(1), 1997. pp. 55-60.
Marinis, Marco de. Dramaturgy of the Spectator. The Drama Review. 31(2), 1987. pp. 100-114.
Pavis, Patrice. Dictionary of the Theatre: terms, concepts and analysis (second edition/ translation). Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1998.
Schechter, Joel. “In the Beginning There Was Lessing… then Brecht, Müller, and Other Dramaturgs”. in Dramaturgy in American Theater: a source book. Eds. Susan Jonas, Geoff Proehl and Michael Lupu. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997. pp. 16-24.
Wesemann, Arnd. “Keeping the World at Arm’s Length”. Ballett International/ Tanz Aktuell. 6/98. p. 25.


The “Conversations on Choreography” is a series of ongoing discussions of contemporary dance making with a focus on European contexts. It does not function in the traditional format of a conference or a symposium, but seeks innovative ways of organising an evolving dialogue and exchange of knowledge related to choreography. Keeping the practice of choreography close to the centre of the discussions and debates is essential to the aims of this extended discussion. Invited contributors are writers, educators, dramaturges, choreographers, performers, critics, organisers and researchers.

The first session of “Conversations on Choreography” was held in March 1999 at the School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam. Presented as an improvised conversation in public, the event lasted for two days and derived its broad thematic foci from other dance related activities (including a workshop on dance and dramaturgy lead by Hildegard de Vuyst) happening at that time in the city. Four guests joined the core group, and several choreographers were invited to make ‘interruptions’ at strategic points throughout.

In November 1999, the second session of “Conversations on Choreography” was held in Barcelona for two days at La Caldera A.C.D.A.C. (Cultural Association for the Development of Choreographic Activities). Artist members of La Caldera and three guests from Spain joined the core group to continue and extend the discussion that began in Amsterdam with a primary focus on the relationship between dance and dramaturgy.

The third session of “Conversations on Choreography” will take place 19-22 October 2000 at the Firkin Crane Choreographic Research Centre, Cork, Ireland.