Dramaturgy of and as Collaboration

Maska 2010English
maska, vol. 16 no. 131-132 (2010) pages 28-35

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Contextual note
Martina Ruhsam is working as a choreographer, performer and writer. She studied Movement Studies & Performance at the Anton-Bruckner- University in Linz and Theatre, Film and Media studies at the University of Vienna. From October 2008 to March 2009 she was the head of the theorycenter in Tanzquartier Wien. She is a member of the editorial board of Corpus – Internet Magazine for Dance, Choreography and Performance (http://www.corpusweb.net/).


As the meaning of movements, actions and words fundamentally changes depending on their duration or placement in the time-line of a performance, dramaturgy deals with the (spatio-)temporal evolution of material, in short, with the temporality of events in space. Dramaturgy is structuring time, giving time, squeezing it, dessicating it, stretching it. It is at once endless and abrupt. Dramaturgy suspends time, relates it; it´s the timing of unfolding movements. Let´s imagine that I'd spoken said specific words so slowly now that they wouldn´t have been understandable in their semantics any more. For example uttering the word „movements“ could have lasted for a whole minute; the word would have become a sound, would have fallen apart. You wouldn´t have heared the same text – even if the body of the text hadn´t changed.1 In old theater books, we can read about the „right structure“ or composition of a piece, in terms of upholding the tension or excitement of the spectators. Nothing can be more destructive for a performance than these kinds of “golden rules“ that suggest reliability and are first of all concerned with the question of how the spectators' attention can be choreographed and directed to a climax in the middle or end of the piece. This understanding of the “right dramaturgy“ tries to carefully prevent spectators from either reaching a state of boredom or becoming overwhelmed.

In contemporary performances, linear dramaturgies that direct an event towards a certain climax and thereby categorize (performance-) time into „more important“ and „less important“ segments are evermore superseded by associative forms of dramaturgy that make distinctions in more or less important segments of (performance-)time impossible. In negating the aforementioned classical dramaturgical structure, these relational dramaturgies are not characterised by a succession of events that lead to a certain conclusion or climax but by a lack of causal chains, models of reaction, and narration. Contemporary performances often expose gaps, breaks, contradictions, frictions, and holes in the empire of common knowledge and marketable behaviour. But this is only possible if the performance resists an all too obvious, unequivocal readability and thereby opposes the speed of the global economic logic, of immediate consumption and fast profit, and the omnipresent trend of simplification for the sake of marketing or advertising goods, services, bodies, opinions, actions, animals, plants, practises, medicine, organs, attitudes, social life, places. Permanently exploited by marketing and promotion ideology, the body appears in the media, which is willingly providing its service to support the economic paradigm,as material to be sculpted and as a status symbol offitness. Contemporary dramaturgies therefore shift the focus onto the vulnerability and fragility of bodies – of bodies full of history, full of memory, full of misunderstandings. In the performing arts, interesting dramaturgical practises are not concerned with profoundly grasping performances through semiotic analysis but with inventing methods of staging that produce ambiguous meaning, in which the paradoxical dimension of contemporary reality can reverberate. Dealing with strategies of representation and the discrepancy – in terms of time (economy) – between the working-process and the duration of its representation, performancemaking is connected with condensation and selection and the question as to what extent the preceding process and the conditions of work, as well as the context of the performance can become visible in the performance (representation). In the 19th and 20th century, dramaturges tried to construct or carve out the meaning of a text so as to subsequently bring it into to the current socio-political context. (And there are many dramaturges who still do that today). In so doing, they attempted to erase the rehearsal process from the final representation of the piece. Rehearsals were considered to be inferior to the performance, they simply had the function of necessary preparations, consisting primarily of the internalization of the literary text (or in the dance-context,the internalization of a movement-technique).

Performances without skeletons

Nowadays dramaturgy is busy with translating conceptual concerns to perceptible events and vice versa, but it doesn´t necessarily refer to any dramatic text or action (even if the word “dramaturgy” still suggests a connection with the drama). The challenge is to go beyond theatrical symbolism, metaphorical presentation and realism. The fact that contemporary performances are often hybrid forms of dance, performance, film, exhibition, lecture, media-art, and installation calls out for new strategies of staging and more importantly, for a new aesthetic of connection and relation – or, in other words, for new practices of connecting and relating. Consequently, dramaturgical concepts in the 21st century can in most cases not merely be concerned with the organisation of bodies and movements in time and space but often have to deal with the elaboration and collocation of sounds, discourses, projections, spaces, words, objects, films, media-technology etc. Rather than about being about the manipulation of the audience's gazes to favored directions (usually in order to make them coincide as much as possible with the gazes of the authors) in order to elucidate a certain meaning or way of understanding, it is about potentially enabling the spectators to make decisions in the process of observation and to enhance their awareness of their function as co-producers of the performance-event. The spectator perceives connections, differentiation, and relations that s/he can interweave into the singular texture of sense that s/he is creating with what s/he sees/hears. As Jacques Rancière put it, “It´s not the transmission of the artist´s knowledge or inspiration to the spectator. It is the third thing that is owned by no one, whose meaning is owned by no one, but which subsists between them, excluding any uniform transmission, any identity of cause and effect.”2 Whereas the work of the dramaturge traditionally consisted ofcontending with a preexisting textual skeleton, contemporary performances are often not based on any given “skeleton“ – be it a text, a style or a movement-technique. Contemporary choreographers, directors, dramaturges, and performers (and as we know, often more of these functions are embodied by one person) start from the void, the moment of not knowing and rather create performances without skeletons – : fragile events that interrupt the apparent texture of reality, timezones in which acts/movements/words are held open to the potentiality of stillness/silence. Creating space for certain encounters, for experiencing relations and for testing new ways of communication is in the foreground. And this significant shift also applies to the work of the dramaturge, who no longer embodies the role of a kind of theoretical mastermind watching the performance from afar in order to give feedback about the developed material or scenes and solve some problems in retrospect according to hegemonic performance-theories – like a plumber distinguished by his superior knowledge might come and fix a clogged drain.


The dramaturge finds her/himself in an ambivalent position, constantly oscillating between a position of knowing and an awareness about that which withdraws itself from regimes of knowledge. Hans-Thies Lehmann and Patrick Primavesi wrote: “The dramaturg has to learn that professionalism easily turns into normalization and routine. And that a sort of Heideggerian Gelassenheit may be an essential quality of dramaturgical practise – the calmness to let things happen without imposing one´s own ready-made concepts on a work in progress. In order to handle conceptional knowledge efficiently, you must learn to refrain from concepts."3 The dramaturge acts in the very inside of a group of collaborating people. Dramaturgy is linked with involvement, or at least with a constant movement of involving and distancing. As theoretical knowledge is not superior to the corporeal knowledge or experience of performers and choreographers, dramaturgy is not about correcting or adjusting material but rather about sharing ideas, combining, relating and negotiating different kinds of knowledge, so that something can be created out of the singular encounter between those involved in the working process. The dramaturge (as everyone else in the process) enhances the working process and influences the very core of it, the way of working together, the dramaturgy of the collaboration. Each collaboration – not only between choreographers and performers, but also between spectators, performers, curators, choreographers, programmers, dramaturgs and so on – is based on set rules or agreements and on an attribution of roles that don´t exist as such but are subject to negotiation-processes. If I use the term „collaboration“ here I mean groups (two people or more) in which no fixed and immovable hierarchy predetermines who is able and allowed to make certain proposals and who cannot. I am speaking of people who work together in whichever way without sacrificing the heterogeneity of the people involved in the name of finding the smallest common denominator. I speak about groups that don´t define themselves by their similarities but by their differences, groups that don´t get stuck in the illusion of equality. I don´t mean models in which everyone is free to do whatever he/she wants while everyone hopes for an equality of roles (that usually doesn´t exist). What I've observed in recent years is that innovative performances were often developed by artists who applied methods of collaboration and networking that allowed a circulation of roles within a group, a process that requires a very precise dramaturgy of collaboration.


I remember Frans Poelstra´s performance Frans Poelstra, His Dramaturge and Bach, which premiered in Vienna in 2004, and my surprise when Robert Steijn, Frans Poelstra´s dramaturge in that piece, started to dance on stage with Frans Poelstra. At that time it seemed really subversive to me that the dramaturge was suddenly entering the stage and having an equal role as the performer. In current art-practises, it is no longer exceptional that performers choreograph, choreographers sing, actors film, dramaturgs dance, and dancers write. The role in one project is not necessarily the same in another project. Even if one´s engagement in disciplines or activities outside of the realm in which one is professionally educated or trained is no longer anything new, we shouldn´t downplay the importance of the “amateur” entering a certain field of knowledge or practise with a radical disbelief in virtuosity as the only criteria for professionalism and as the only relevant qualification for creating performances or performing. Artist engagement beyond his/her field of expertise does not diminish the value of specialised knowledge and abilities. I would rather say that a certain specialised form of knowlegde can be tested, applied, or brought into operation in various contexts. And since it has been acknowledged that in a way everyone is a specialist in his/her way of living, working and dealing with everyday-life (of course I am hinting now at the experts of everyday-life that appeared in so many performances of Rimini Protokoll) we can observe a certain democratisation of knowledge and an increasing curiosity about experiences in their diversity. In Paolo Virno´s texts about our Post-Fordist society, he claims that the General Intellect (which is according to his definition first of all: communication, abstraction and self-reflexion) “requires virtuous acts or
political acting in its broadest sense, because for the most part it doesn´t merge in the system of machines, but consists in forms of verbal communication as an immediate activity inside of the work.”4 Intellect and the ability to think use language are, in his opinion, the most important skills on the labour-market today, where they are again and again performed by the Post-fordist virtuosos;here we can recognize a totally different understanding of virtuosity. When Paolo Virno writes about the Post-Fordist virtuosos, he doesn´t mean people with highly specialised knowledge or abilities but quite the opposite: people that are able to make use of language, people with general cognitive and communicational abilities that are capable to think and articulate those thoughts. If several people with General Intellect come together in order to develop something, their first task is to set up the framework for their temporary encounter and modes of communication.


Collaborating is not just about happily being together and finding ways in which everybody can realize or express him/herself or can come to his/her moment in the spotlight – though. That would actually almost describe many of today´s TV-shows, which that satisfy the hunger for selfexpression and the wish to be seen (by the camera) that tortures so many people in our capitalist society. In 1968 Guy Debord, the first major critic of the spectacle of capitalism, had already written that the spectacle is the form of communication that became the product and enabled means of collaboration. How can artists challenge conventional ways of communication and thereby enable new, unspectacular ways of communicating? What is obvious is that the focus is shifting from products to acts of collaboration and communication – in business as well as in art. Working without producing a final product is one of the main characteristics of today´s Post-Fordist labour. As Paolo Virno points out in his book A Grammar of The Multitude, in many professions workers and employees are no longer aiming to attain a certain goal, but are varying and intensifying cooperation through communication.5 The matrix of Post-Fordism is the production of communication via communicating. That has already been significant for the cultural industry, but now it becomes more global. What Virno describes in his analysis of the Post-Fordist multitude is first of all that in many professions work consists more and more of virtuous acts of talking and communicating, in making use of language and the General Intellect. In his opinion, the human drive to communicate is totally contained in the term „cooperation“, and this is especially valid where the cooperation is a specific “product“ of the work, that is to say, something that was developed and refined by a group of people in collaboration.6 In artistic processes of collaboration, the desire to transgress ones own borders of experience and knowledge is in the foreground (which is actually a quite selfcentered goal), and I think this is one main reason why people involve dramaturges. In the context of the performing arts, the dynamic outlined by Virno finds an equivalent in the question of whether artistic collaborations in the field of contemporary dance and performance will still be able to produce something in the future or whether the products will be superseded by an exposition of collaborative practices. It is precisely the collectively produced void, that constitutes the immeasurable and incalculable potential of contemporary collaborations that attempt to oppose the permanent spectacle of communication. Florian Schneider, a filmmaker, author and initiator of various internetplatforms, conferences and festivals, describes artistic collaborations metaphorically as the black holes of our knowledge regimes whose strength is precisely their vacuity.7 Throughout the entire tradition of philosophy, light was associated with the mind or the intellect. Consciousness was imagined to be a ray of light that brings things out of their previous darkness. So collaborations being the black holes of knowledge-regimes that implement vacancies into the light zones of all too logical, established ways of thinking and thereby ways of behaving/acting would be the contra-concept to the traditional idea of the lonely, solipsistic philosopher and his/her ambition to bring things „into light“ with acts of reasoning. But let´s not establish a binary system by pitting one concept against the other one. Florian Schneider probably chose the metaphor of the black hole in consideration of the fact that it is practically impossible to observe black holes. He is encouraging methods of collaboration that are developed by singularities that can hardly be categorised and identified, and he favors complex and inscrutable collaborations between heterogenous singularities in comparison to cooperations of clearly identifiable subjects that usually take place in or between established institutions.8 In this sense I would plead for a certain undoing of the notion of the dramaturge and suggest that we talk rather about dramaturgical practises. André Lepecki has even written about „dramaturging“. I like this twist in the notion of dramaturgy, for it puts the emphasis precisely on the practise. As dramaturgy is a practise that becomes more and more dispersed I find it useful to think about dramaturgy as and of collaboration and to focus on dramaturgical practices that challenge hegemonic ways of production and communication.


1This lecture was held on the 13th of May 2010 in the frame of the festival UKREP in Ljubljana. The extension of the original title ‘Dramaturgy of Collaboration’ was done due to a comment
of Janez Jansa in the discussion that took place after the lecture. Thanks
2Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. Elliott, G. (tr.). London and New York: Verso, 2009, p.15
3Lehmann, Hans-Thies and Primavesi, Patrick. „Dramaturgy On Shifting Grounds“, Performance Research (On Dramaturgy), Vol. 14, Nr. 3, September 2009, p. 6.
4Virno, Paolo. A Grammar of the Multitude. For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), Cambridge, 2004, pp. 138 – 139, p. 88
5Cf. Virno, Paolo. A Grammar of the Multitude. For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), Cambridge, 2004, p. 138 – 139
6Cf. Virno, Paolo. A Grammar of the Multitude For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), Cambridge, 2004, p. 89
7Cf. Schneider, Florian. „Collaboration – 7 notes on new ways of learning and working together“, formatLabor, http://www.formatlabor.net/blog/?p=151 January 2007.
(accessed on the 7th of July 2010).
8Cf. Schneider, Florian. „Collaboration – 7 notes on new ways of learning and working together“, formatLabor, http://www.formatlabor.net/blog/?p=151 January 2007.
(accessed on the 7th of July 2010).