Where is the Why? And other reasons my dream job is to be a Dramaturgist

First off, an introduction:

Hello there to all you in the interwebs! This is Alicia, the other half of Movement Symposium that is finally taking the time to contribute. Expect to hear from me more going forward! I am excited to share my thoughts, musings and rants about the world of dance.

Todays topic is Where the WHY in movement fits into the process of making dance. Lets get started:

I have recently dived back into the world of choreographing on other people, after doing mainly solo and duets with myself and maybe one other person (Mainly Sammy). Getting back to setting group work has been an amazing process, and has reignited my love of making dances. A little background on my approach to choreographing-I firmly believe that the core of the process really comes down to managing the group of people in the room with you, and being a coach/leader guiding the work being done. When I make a dance, my first rule of thumb is best put in the words of the all powerful Tina Fey: ” Hire talented people, then get out of the way.” I put most of my effort into casting dancers that are intelligent, make interesting movement choices, and aren’t afraid to take risks. Having a really good memory is always a plus to me as well, because I wont remember anything that goes on in rehearsal (Thank god for the Iphone camera). My dancers are the ones that carry the piece from day one. Sure, I have the vision, am responsable for the overall crafting, and clearly have the final word, but ownership of the material and the execution of whatever the intent of the work is I leave 100% to the ones that are on the front lines. So, you may be asking, what is my job as the choreographer if the dancers are contributing the movement? Just tell them where to stand and call it a day? Sit there and watch while a dance unfolds before my eyes?

Not exactly. My main responsibility as the dance maker is to figure out the WHY, and how to communicate to an audience using the language of moving bodies. Why should I concern myself with the details of what movement will express the WHY, the intent being communicated, when I wont even be doing that movement at the point of performance? Wouldn’t it serve me best to concentrate my time and energy on connecting content and meaning? (Also remember that I have a group of bad ass talented dancers, and Im getting out of the way) After all, when the audience sees the work I want them to walk away having learned something- whether that be about a specific topic, a reflection about their own lives, or even just questions about what they saw. I believe the best way to get to that place of clear intention, to really see what the root of  a dance is about, comes from asking WHY.

My obsession with WHY started way back when I was just learning the difference between lyrical dance and modern (thats a whole different blog post there). My first semester at RCC (a community college in California where I got my dance start) I had a defining moment that shaped both the way I write, and how I view dance.  I distinctly remember Mark Haines, who was my teacher for a dance appreciation class (and went on to be one of my first mentors/shapers of my artistic voice. Probably my sense of humor too) giving instructions for writing a paper. He said ” After you finish a thought, sentence, paragraph, ask yourself why? if what you wrote can answer that, there is enough detail. If it doesn’t, go back and answer, why?” What was probably meant to be an introduction to a simple writing technique has shaped so many parts of who I am as an artist.

Take for example, my current project. I am working on a dance surrounding our societies obsession with brand, routine, and product, drawing inspiration from my other career working at Starbucks. My first layer was to guide my dancers through creating movement that had roots in the research that I did. If I were to stop with that-give them spacing, throw some music, or sound or even text that talked about or sounded like Starbucks, brands or whatever, call that a dance and walk away, what good would that do? Far too often I see choreographers stop at this point, and it makes me sad. I can see the potential, the tip of a real juicy exploration of an idea, but for whatever reason he or she chose to tie a bow on it all and move on to the next formation of an idea.

The crucial point comes in asking the hard questions. Looking at the movement and asking, WHY. Critically examining the choices you have made, and holding yourself up to that WHY. WHY does that dancer start moving? WHY did she walk over to the other woman and move her hand? WHY are these bodies existing in the same space? WHY did they exit the space? WHY is this music playing?

In these questions, I find the root of what my work is about. I make discoveries that never would have come to be if I didnt ask myself WHY. Sure, this process takes time. Yes, sometimes asking WHY means parting with movement, sections etc that you maybe spent whole rehearsals on. But the process of making dance is just that, a process. A living, breathing moment in time that grows and changes every time you visit. Asking WHY creates uncertainty, not knowing what will be next, and trusting your instincts. The WHY is why I make dance, its the part of the process that I live for.

Now that we are a long academic journal submission into the reasons behind the WHY (kudos to you if you are still with me down here) let me close with my proposal for dramaturgy in our dance community. I get that not everyone can always ask WHY, or make the WHY a priority when choreographing. We all have different priorities, processes and approaches to dance. to be clear, I am in no way asking that everyone come at dance making like I do; the diversity of how dance is created, showcased etc should never be lost (yet another blog post…). What I am proposing is that our community embrace the role of the dramaturg in the creative process. You can read a great writing called Dance Dramaturgy: possible work relations and tools by Pil Hansen  here (its page 124)

I believe that incorporating a person into your process who’s role is to gather you research, critically examine your choices and ask those tough questions to you and your cast is a vital component of getting to that place of WHY. Just as much as a choreographer needs a costume designer, sound designer, lighting designer etc, to make a complete work, he or she needs a collaborator to bring the above qualities to the table.

I understand that there are a lot of opinions on this role, many questions as to what dramaturgy actually is, and if it has a place in the dance community. So lets start a conversation.

-Alicia

Oh, and if you want to explore this whole dramaturgist thing…Im looking to be just that to any choreographer that wants to give it a go.

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