Dance and Dramaturgy
by Brian Quirt
Dramaturgy is devoted to three tasks: the ideas which underlie a
given piece of performance; the means by which those ideas are communicated
text, structure, image, movement and so on; and the process
established to explore, create and refine the work.
In the theatre world the dramaturg is still a rather shadowy figure,
but one whose role is increasingly accepted and sought after. Lack
of money often makes it impossible for a project to have a full-time
dramaturg, and many dramaturgical tasks are taken on by the director.
In fact, someone always plays the role of the dramaturg. It might
be a friend, lover or colleague who is sufficiently trusted and
articulate to be given a first look at a new script and offer informal
feedback. It might be the director of a play reading, or the actors,
or a family member who says "I got that they were at a gas
station, but the stuff about Nixon and Lester B. Pearson confused
Dramaturgy clearly occurs in the dance world as well. Dancers and
choreographers need to show their work to others and use their responses
to assess and further shape their work. What a dramaturg can offer,
as a separate position within the creative team, is a person whose
energy is completely committed to how the performance will function
in front of an audience.
Let me be more specific. It is my responsibility to uncover the
initial impulse which inspired a given work. From that blossoms
a series of ideas regarding content and performance style. I ask
a lot of questions (every dramaturg does, it's almost a joke how
obsessive we are with questioning). What are you trying to say;
or what feeling inspired the piece as a whole; what is it about
this music that wants to make you move to it; why do you believe
it is a quintet; are there any words associated with what you see;
what do you want the audience to experience? In a text-based play,
I eventually have a script which poses another series of questions:
why does this person do this at this point; tell me again what happens
in this part of the story; what are you trying to say about Pearson
and Nixon; why are they important to you? In a dance work, I respond
With as clear an impression of the ideas as possible, my job is
to then hold the creator (writer, choreographer, dancer, director)
to those ideas. I try to bring every element, every decision back
to the communication of the ideas which inspired the work in the
first place. If, as often happens, the core ideas change as the
piece develops, I expose that fact so that we all know that there
has been a subtle (or not so subtle) shift in the substance of what
is being communicated. And then we work toward expressing that new
set of ideas.
Performance exists to communicate something to an audience. With
a choreographer I observe rehearsals and run-thoughs and articulate
what I see. That is, of course, informed by the previous round of
inquiry. I focus on the gap between what you want to say and what
is being said. The result is a detailed, supportive and aggressive
challenging of the work-in-progress. I have to dance the line between
wanting too much explained and leaving the audience in the dark.
Form, image, pacing, staging, text, music and expression are all
analysed to ensure that the communication of the agreed upon ideas,
in the agreed-upon form, is as clear and as theatrically effective
as possible. I also believe that it is the dramaturg's role to insist
upon the most challenging expression of those ideas. I believe the
audience must work hard when it watches and my job is to ensure
that their hard work is rewarded by intelligent, moving and articulate
ideas and images.
I prefer to enter the process as soon as possible so that I can
be a part of its creative evolution. That's not essential, of course.
With Conrad Alexandrowicz's This is a Dance, I
began work after it had been produced.
Conrad wasn't happy with some elements, so I questioned what he
was exploring and helped him identify moments in the text and in
his dancing which did not contribute to the exploration. We worked
on our feet to refine and edit movement.
With Karen Kaeja's One Tree Hill, I joined the
process after initial movement improvisations had been completed.
Karen asked me to conduct a series of writing workshops with the
dancers in order to explore, through words, the ensemble's feelings
about childhood. I watched runs and served as a mirror, explaining
how certain images struck me, asking how they related to her overall
vision of the piece, and using my theatrical background to address
the structure and pacing of the work.
I have enormously enjoyed working with choreographers since it generally
allows me to not worry about text and narrative and bring my skills
to bear exclusively on ideas and images. I adapted Jane Urquhart's
novel The Whirlpool to the stage, with Julia Sasso
choreographing it. In that case I established the central ideas
and asked Julia to explore them physically. I directed actors and
focused on story and text, while Julia worked on narrative imagery.
In effect, we became each other's dramaturg. She commented on the
emotional and physical communication of the scripted scenes; I addressed
the content and theatricality of her choreography. It was an exciting
and wonderful collaboration, and one which to me only reinforces
the vital role of the dramaturg in any performance.
This article was first published in The
Dance Current magazine Volume
1, Issue 2: June 1998.
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Links of Interest
Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA)
Association for Theatre Research (CATR)
Development Centres of Canada
Guild of Canada
of Canadian Theatres
Atlantic Resource Centre
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