Dramaturgy for dance and a thought on an all-female performance night by Marie Yan

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I arrived in Berlin in January 2016, after graduating in Playwriting and Dramaturgy at the University of Glasgow. To bridge the gap between a theoretical training and the work of a dramaturge, I will keep track of the projects I work on and how my practice evolves, what works and what doesn’t.

The rehearsal process

I met Natalie Riedelsheimer and Caroline Alves, two dancers from the Grupo Oito dance company in late May. The two of them were creating a solo for Caroline, Natalie choreographing for the first time. It was to be part of a regular event organised by the company and called Solos +1, where several dancers from the company present their individual work and invite a 5th artist to perform. This time it happened that only females members from the company were taking part. It was then decided this coincidence would be the directing theme of the evening. The dancers would be looking for the “female perspective”, for want of a better term.

I came into the rehearsal process about a quarter in. Caroline and Natalie had already been producing material and researching a lot on their own. On the first rehearsal I attended, Natalie threw at me references ranging from antique mythology to contemporary philosophy. It was the first time for me to work as a dramaturge for a dance production. I wanted to both help with a frame without just bringing in more reading, and both react to what I was watching by trusting my sensiblity as an audience. I reproduce here a part of the email I sent to Natalie.

Hi Natalie,

That was good seeing you and Caroline at the rehearsal yesterday (…) I thought I’d take the time to write down and clarify a bit a couple of things I thought during the rehearsal (…):

– What I get from your different questions is that from a conceptual point of view you have started to explore different directions:

how a woman’s body is over-sexualised

how a woman’s body is trapped in clichés and expectations of shapes/attitudes

how a woman is often refered to using diminishing/ridiculous nicknames, often with names of animals

how a woman’s struggle is at the same time the pressure imposed on her by societal norms and the pressures she puts on herself to fit into those norms or to escape them

– From this, I wonder, is there one question that matters more to you than another one? I also notice that, although you told me that the initial question was something more like “What is a woman?”, which is very wide and essentialising, you have in fact, through your exercises, tried to answer questions that start more with “how”, “How does a woman do something/exist in a particular setting?”.

In the second part, I was detailing some of my reactions to their physical research, for instance:

The breathing exercises I found were very striking, they parallel very well visually this constant struggle, this repetition of trying to attain something (a perfect shape, an expected attitude) = the body breathes in, grows in a particular direction, while doing so reluctantly = the body breathes out, is discouraged. (…)

Natalie answered me with a round of questions she had in mind about the theme of the piece and after this email we set the time for the second rehearsal I was going to attend.

A week later, I found both of them paradoxically a bit detterred while having apparently found a new theoretical basis to work with. They were now drawing on the concept of devenir (becoming) developped by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. It meant moving away from trying to define shapes to match representations of femininity, to find a format in which the accent would be on the impossibility of fixing anything. They were working with improvisation only and starting to worry that if everything had to be choreographed now, time was going to be short. Always proceeding with questions I left open, I articulated some of the options they could have. Could the show be only partly choreographed? With anchors in-between improvised sequences for instance? I also offered impressions I had on the narrative of the piece.

When I came in the next rehearsal, they had decided to stick with improvisation and were playing with words association. The audience would present Caroline with words throughout the performance and she would react to it. But they thought it was slowing down the pace of the piece. My help became more technical: what if Natalie would present the words? Who should give the signal for a new word? I scribbled down the text Caroline was going to say at the beginning of the piece, then agreed to write a few lines for the programme.

The première arrived, on the 1st of July, and after it, Natalie and Caroline were feeling unsure about the audience’s participation and how to use it. I would have preferred it out of the equation, but with only one performance left, it made sense to go for more experimentation. They changed how Natalie was taking part in the piece and the second performance turned out better than the first one.

Reflecting on this first project, I thought mainly that the dramaturgy of the piece would have needed more time to move the piece away from its experimental format for something smoother. I, would need more time to figure out how to work on this exercise-like improvised format, which I find both fascinating, because it feels closer to performance art than dance and both rougher. The use of text was a challenge as well: how to not make it look like a crutch for the dancer?

About the dramaturgy of the event

During the post-show discussion, someone in the audience asked: “What happened to the gender perspective?” and added “Unless it was just about the fact that all the dancers were female?”

There, I realised the question brought to light a bit of a weakness in the dramaturgy of the event. It was stressing a redundance. The event was presented as female practitioners reflecting upon “a female perspective”. The dance company had wanted to promote their female members and there laid already their political statement. But, doubling it with a “female perspective” somehow restrained the expectations of the audience to a sort of theoretical circle: How do women dance about women? If we accept that any piece of art is to an extent a reflection of the artist about herself, then the “female perspective” was maybe an unnecessary theme: with only female practitioners, the audience was going to get this “female perspective” anyway.

And so it did. Despite the pieces being choreographed independently from one another, they all ended up developping vocabularies which struck us by their similarities. The dancers and choreographers had all picked images of interrupted, tortured, somewhat unformed bodies. Bodies going through a crisis, some determined by invisible stimuli that suggested an external pressure – such as the one that Caroline and Natalie’s piece was stressing. The remark I had made to Natalie at the very beginning of the rehearsal process came back to my mind: this slide between “What” and “How”. The practitioners had fixed through their practice the dramaturgical issue: they had moved from “What is a female perspective?” to “How does a woman – me – dance?”, all ending up exploring themes relevant to them individually, exploding the initial constraint they were given.

The practical conclusion I drew for myself was then simple. Putting together a series of pieces by practitioners from, for instance, a minority or an underrepresented gender group, you need to consider how to treat the practitioners like any other group. Meaning by that, making sure you are giving them just as much freedom. For now it seems to me that you either limit yourself to a clear political statement, stressing why the artists have been brought together, explaining the point of your platform, then let them present what they want – which is the same model as inviting artists based on their nationality, something of a catalogue. Or, once you have recruited the artists, based on concerns of visibility or representativity, you pick a theme for them to reflect upon, that you hope will bring up their common ground or their differences, but in general will challenge them like it would any other group, while avoiding clichés and redundance.

To be continued

Carolin_Alves Martina_Garbelli

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