The Reluctant Dramaturg


Since April, I’ve been travelling regularly down to London to Jacky Lansley’s Dance Research Studio. I’ve been part of the team in an R&D project Jacky has been leading called Crossing Paths. This culminated in the showing at the beginning of November of a work in progress About Us at the Siobhan Davies Studios.


[Fergus Early, Vincent Ibrahimi, Ramsay Burt and Roswitha Cheshire watching film of Ingrid and Max MacKinnon at the Dance Research Studio. Photo Sarah Covington]

I have been involved in a few projects over the last few years where I’ve been an extra eye in the studio, observing new work being made and joining in conversations with dancers and choreographer about what they were doing. This time Jacky wrote me into her project as its dramaturg. I am, I realise, a reluctant dramaturg. Early on, when I was meeting some of the dancers for the first time, I said something about not really knowing what a dramaturg is supposed to do. Lucy Tuck wryly observed that every time she has worked on a project with a dramaturg they have always said that. (I have made a mental note not to say that line again.) And it has made me reflect on why I don’t have very good associations with the title dramaturg.

I should quickly say that I have enormous admiration for some very clever people who have worked as dramaturg on dance projects – including Bojana Cvejic, Bojana Kunst, ‘Funmi Adewole, Myriam van Imschoot, Maaike Bleaker, and André Lepecki. But I’ve nevertheless been disappointed by others who have given this title to what they do.

Several years back, at a time when the idea of a dance dramaturg was almost unknown in the UK, I went to a lecture in Brussels given by one. What he said was, in effect, that while the choreographer worked with movement qualities, steps, and pathways around the performance space, he developed the work’s conceptual basis and its overall structure. I remember thinking that he seemed to see his role as the truly artistic one while the choreographer was more concerned with technical problems. Choreographers, in my experience, were themselves responsible for, and already doing, the kinds of things he seemed to think he was doing. He seemed to me to be trying to make a job for himself that was already well taken care of.

Continental European theatres who commission new dance works, as part of the agreement, sometimes attach their resident dramaturg to the project. On a couple of occasions recently I have felt that he or she was working as a quality controller on behalf of the theatre rather than being genuinely committed to the creative process. At a showing or run through in the theatre of a work which I’d seen parts being created in the studio, I’ve found myself having to help the choreographer defend the work and explain what it was about while the theatre’s dramaturg worked through his notes making one critical comment after another.

I always feel incredibly privileged when I’ve been invited to be in the dance studio and make some contribution to the creative process. But these negative associations around dramaturgy make me hesitant if people give that title to something I might sometimes be offering. Having got that off my chest, here’s some reflections on my very positive experience working on the Crossing Paths R&D project.



This is how I’d explain the project. We’ve been exploring the in-between spaces of dance and theatre, and music, film and other art forms. A central concern is the physicalisation of dramatic material, with experienced performed who have the knowledge of how to emotionally embody movement. Sylvia Hallet is developing pieces of sound from recordings of personal stories participants have shared with Jacky early in the process, and these are also the starting point for movement explorations. Esther Huss, Fergus Early, Ursula Early, Ingrid MacKinnon and Vincent Ibrahimi have all developed particular personas that relate to their individual stories. Maria da Luz Ghoumrassi didn’t have a story, having taken over some of Lucy Tuck’s material when the latter had to leave the group for another commitment, but also developed her own persona.

In rehearsals I’ve attended, Jacky has been bringing together and exploring resonances between different bits of material, often overlaying it with Sylvia’s soundscapes. Roswitha Cheshire has recorded some of the resulting material on film, and in the later stages of the project we were exploring live movement in front of projections of these films.


[Esther Huss, Vincent Ebrahim, Ursula Lansley and Maria da Luz Ghoumrassi. photo Sarah Covington]

So what did I do during the project? I tried to go into it with as few preconceptions as I could manage. And I didn’t want to try to make a job for myself that was already well taken care of. I joined in with the warm-up at the start of the day. I learnt some of the movement material. Occasionally, when needed, I became an extra body during an improvisation, or filled in marking material for someone who was missing that day. I talked to Jacky a lot about what was going on, and posted regularly on a private blog set up for the project. And I ended up in some of the film shown during the showing so that I too had my persona in the piece.


[From the left: Jacky Lansley, Ramsay Burt, Fergus Early, Vincent Ebrahim, Esther Huss, Maria da Luz Ghoumrassi and Sylvia Hallet. photo Sarah Covington]


So, if I have been a dramaturg – malgré moi – maybe that role in the end comes down, in my case at least, to one of writing about the project from the inside, telling its and our story. When we tell personal stories about ourselves, we are talking about what we’ve done, what difference we’ve made through our actions, what traces have been left behind us.

Karen Blixen recounts a story she was told as a child. A man, who lived by a pond, was awakened one night by a great noise. He went out into the night and headed for the pond, but in the darkness, running up and down, back and forth, guided only by the noise, he stumbled and fell repeatedly. At last he found a leak in the dyke, from which water and fish were escaping. He set to work plugging the leak, and only when he had finished went back to bed. The next morning, looking out the window, he saw with surprise that his footprints had traced the figure of a stork on the ground.

By plugging the leak, the man helped everyone who benefitted from the pond. He didn’t think what he was doing, just got on and did it. At the end of the anecdote Karen Blixen asks herself: ‘When the design of my life is complete, will I see or will others see a stork?’. Telling and performing our stories to each other and to others helps us all to see the patterns and shapes that our actions have made and how these have made their own singular contributions. This is how I understand the new title About Us.


[Jacky Lansley, Esther Huss and Vincent Ibrahimi. photo Sarah Covington]

All through the project I’ve been thinking about how what we’re doing relates to the uncertain times we’re living through. As dramaturg I’ve been trying to put some of this into words – in studio discussions, and through writing. Even before the Brexit vote, there’s been a sense that the complex interlocking systems we live in are perilously unstable, and that there are parallels between a need to find new alternative ways of doing things both in the studio and in the wider world. It is about breaking out of the limitations of what is only possible. Are we perhaps choreographing hope when we research new ways of making connections that are interdisciplinary and interpersonal, and that are about not closing down borders and not fearing differences?



Swarm Sculptures

Swarm Sculptures.jpg.jpeg

This beautiful photograph by Mike Huxley is of the second version of Lucy Suggate’s Swarm Sculptures that I’ve seen – this time in the Gallery at the Vijay Patel building at De Montfort University. Last week I stood with a colleague right up close as the performers began to sway slightly and then build up to rocking and then gradually peel off and disperse around the gallery space. Thrilling.

Juncture at Yorkshire Dance, 2: ‘Assembly’

The other piece at Juncture that I want to write about is Nicola Conibere’s Assembly. The best explanation of what happens in this work is on Conibere’s website: ‘Assembly acknowledges each spectator’s unique presence without asking them to do more than watch; each time a spectator enters the gallery a performer will join the performance, leaving it when the same spectator departs the room’  Some weeks ago I had looked at a showreel of Assembly on vimeo  so when I went into it I had some idea about it without knowing all the details. Nevertheless it surprised me and, for reasons I will explain, left me feeling hopeful.

First I waited outside the room. The person who let me in had a radio which she used to let in the door at exactly the same time that a performer came through another door the other side of the performance space. The space itself, in Leeds Central Library, had double doors in the middle of the wall behind the spectators and a matching double door immediately opposite behind the performers. I could therefore see and be seen by my ‘pair’ straight away. I looked for somewhere to sit, spotted the smiling face of a friend I hadn’t seen for months, settled down and then turned to find my ‘pair’ again.


[Assembly Photo: Christian Kipp]

My ‘pair’ and I looked at one another for a long time before I started to take in what else was going on. There were, I think, fourteen of us in the audience and the same number of performers in the space, just sitting there looking out at us. When someone in the audience got up to leave, one of the dancers turned to walk out the door at the back, both remaining connected right up to the moment of passing through their respective doors. After a short pause another performer and spectator entered. And the dancers in Leeds were fairly diverse – young and old, male and female, and with varying degrees of performance experience.

So Assembly is essentially a self-generating machine. It has a finite series of tasks, and as each new dancer enters the space, she or he initiates a new one of these which, without anything being said or any overt sign all the other dancers easily pick up – a kind of hive brain. These are mostly everyday actions executed in silence. They include: standing; lying; walking from one side of the space to the other and back; taking a step to the right then a step to the left back again; swinging the arms from the sides up to shoulder height and then back again; bopping along casually to imagined party music, and so on. These are all done in an easy-going way. The performers know all the tasks and each dancer chooses one as she or he comes in.


[Assembly Photo: Christian Kipp]

How long each activity goes on is, in effect, determined by the audience because it is only when one spectator leaves and another comes in that the new performer will initiate a new task of their choice.

I felt a warm connection with the dancer who was my ‘pair’. From time to time we’d find each other’s gaze again. At one moment, for some reason, we both spontaneously started smiling at one another in a slightly complicitous way. I wasn’t just a passive spectator. I was aware of the small difference I was making to the larger performance event that was unfolding.

At one moment I tried unsuccessfully to work out which dancers were paired with the spectators sitting around me. Someone I spoke to later evidently hadn’t made such a firm connection with their ‘pair’ that I had had.

I noticed in one of the longer passages of repetitive moment how the performers’ mood gradually changed as the task became more automatic and habitual, and the performers somehow less self conscious, more everyday in their manner, present in the hear and now. From my point of view as spectator, I initially took in what they were doing, then after a while became slightly bored. Then I began to notice the small, singular differences between the ways in which my ‘pair’ and the performers around and behind her were executing the task.


[Assembly Photo: Christian Kipp]

I saw Assembly and made some notes about it at the timewhich was before the US elections. I am writing this post when the consequences of the election result is just beginning to sink in. For a session with our MAs this week I’ve been reading an interview with Brian Massumi published in 2003 on the politics of hope, because hope is what I think we need just now. In this Massumi talks about hope and affect. ‘When you affect something, you are at the same time opening yourself up to being affected in turn, and in a slightly different way than you might have been the moment before’. This opening up to a situation and being aware of how one is affecting it corresponds with my experience of Assembly.

Some of the commentary in the British media this week are suggesting there has been a backlash from angry white male working class voters against so-called Washington insiders. Anger is violent but need not necessarily mean a closing down and or becoming impervious. Massumi writes that anger ‘forces the situation to attention, it forces a pause filled with an intensity that is often too extreme to be filled with words’. He goes on to suggest that the consequence of an angry outburst ‘forces the situation to rearrange itself around the irruption, and to deal with the intensity in one way or another. In that sense it’s brought something positive out – a reconfiguration’.

After Brexit everyone in my Facebook feed was shocked, no one had seen it coming, nor I think did many see Trump’s election coming. Facebook creates a bubble in which we are only aware of people who think the same way we do. We really need to open up to what else is going on around us and begin to try and understand what underlies the intensities of affect that the Brexit campaigners and the Trump team are able to generate and channel.

That doesn’t of course mean trying to appease racists, homophobes, mysogynists, islamophobes and others who have been taking the rise of the new right as permission to come out and say in public what they had previously kept to themselves. Ed Milliband’s ‘Immigration Controls’ mug was surely a disaster. There is, however, a need to reconnect and engage with broader communities of people with similar progressive views – not seeing all white male working class voters as an undifferentiated block. The connections performers and spectators in Assembly were making within such a diverse group of performers and spectators seem to me to offer hope that we can make such connections.

[that mug – available from]

I said earlier that when I entered the room in which Assembly was being presented I knew something about what to expect. What I anticipated – and perhaps hoped for – was that I would experience something new that might prompt me to have to respond in the moment to something unexpected so that I wouldn’t be able to fall back on familiar ways of responding.

In dark turbulent times, a facility for responding to new and challenging events in creative, non-habitual ways is increasingly important. Assembly resonated with me because it did just that in such a simple, clear, unpretentious way. It left me feeling optimistic, and this is what I think we need to try and feel at the moment.

Juncture at Yorkshire Dance, 1: ‘Wallflower’.

I only managed to attend one day of Yorkshire Dance’s Juncture festival, curated by Gillie Kleiman. On the Saturday that I was able to get to Leeds, there was a really packed programme. Talking to people who’d been there for a couple of days, I sensed the festival had gathered a momentum – people referring in conversations to pieces they’d seen earlier in the week, or things that had come up during previous talks.

I got to the Yorkshire Dance building by 11am for a talk on dance and politics. Then in the afternoon I saw Nicola Conibere’s Assembly, going on from it to see part of a five hour durational version of Quarantine’s Wallflower, and then, in the evening, I saw Immigrants and Animal’s new Double Penetration version of Laura Laura. I had wanted to see Assembly and Laura Laura, but only booked for Wallflower because it was on. I knew nothing about it and it was a big surprise for me.

I only know about Quarantine from their website. They seem to me to be a project-based theatre or performance company with a northern focus who work on projects in an experimental way but do so in ways that can engage diverse communities (rather than the usual dance or drama audience). Wallflower‘s premise was an attempt by each of the dancers to individually remember every dance they’d ever ance and try, during the run of the piece, to reconstruct it. I’m guessing the Quarantine creative team deliberately chose particular performers for Wallflower and brought them together to create it since they all have such different backgrounds.


[Jo Fong. photo from]

I must have been seeing Jo Fong dancing with various companies – including Extemporary, Rosas, DV8, Rambert – for 25 years or more. The other performers I didn’t know. My guess is that James Monahan comes from a drama background while Nic Green from live art? Sonia Hughes is a writer and dance-floor queen. She was a formidable presence performing while sitting with the audience having got a leg injury dancing the night before. There was one more dancer who I guess was there because Hughes couldn’t dance, but she was not listed in the programme. All the dancers sat in the audience when not actually presenting their memories of a dance or of some other movement event.img_2104-705x400

[Sonia Hughes, James Monahan and Jo Fong in Wallflower. photo from]

A lot of the time I was there, the performers remembered parties and clubbing, so danced to a variety of different kinds of music, including rock, motown, punk, funk, soul, indie. There were also bits of remembered contemporary dance. Jo Fong danced to Steve Reich’s Piano Phase remembering, I assume, a few phrases from De Keersmaeker’s Fase. Sometimes these bits of choreography were performed full on, sometimes marked. Those with some formal dance training remembered ballet and contemporary classes, and there were bits of folk dance and Irish step dancing.

DU16 Quarantine 3 Photo Simon Banham.jpg[Sonia Hughes. photo from]

The music came from a DJ (who changed each hour) who was sitting at a table with laptops and other equipment at one end of the performing space which was arranged in a traverse stage format. Dancers requested tracks, sometimes without remembering their name but just humming them in a way that reminded me of Never Mind the Buzzcocks.

Sometimes performers talked through personal memories – one dancer, as a teenager, had had a television that was right up against the foot of her bed and at night lay watching it with her foot on the ‘off’ button ready to turn if off if her parents peeped in to check she was going to sleep. Another remembered a scary encounter when he was with a group of friends out late who were held up at gunpoint by a gang and robbed.

The cast took it in turns to be the archivist and write a brief record of each dance in a big hardback notebook. They changed over, I think, once an hour, and at one moment we were told exactly how many thousand dances they had remembered since the first performance in Groningen last year, and how many hours and minutes this had taken. On a table on the way to the exit was a typescript ‘The Index’ which listed each dance up until today’s performance.

I turned up an hour after the performance had begun and stayed two and a half hours. Because I’d been late it took me a while to work out what was going on. Audience members came and went. Sometimes we saw high energy dancing, sometimes there were great stories, a bit of karaoke or a party piece. But there were also lulls and quiet moments. I suspect there were some fixed, rehearsed moments that they always did during each performance, and some kind of running order for these key moments were spaced out during the performance with room between for new, impromptu memories.

Performers paced themselves to last the full five hours. And they seemed to be supporting each other, chatting together and commenting on what they were doing, sometimes standing in for someone in the past or becoming an extra body for a re-enactment.

Although they were all from such different backgrounds, they empathised with each other. They too had felt something like that, or had done something like that. Sometimes they laughed at cultural references I didn’t always catch. Because I became immersed in the piece because it went on so long, I too somehow felt myself being drawn into the sense of community that the piece was generating.

The dancing itself often looked and felt quite spontaneous and rough though actually there was some wonderful dancing that is still fresh in my mind as I write this review a week later. This roughness seemed to give an ‘accessible’ feeling to the show, but there was nothing superficial to it.


[Nic Green. photo from]

Memories are powerful stuff. Memories are something that we share with others who were there with us at the time or that we told someone about just after it happened. I don’t think I have many memories that no one else has, things that I never told to anyone. Memory is both personal and collective, and we can sometimes adapt or revise our memories so that they conform with what others, who were also there, insist happened. There must have been occasions when I myself have insisted that my own memory is better than someone else’s.

There is something particularly poignant about some performers’ struggle to remember a movement sequence that has almost gone, the detail already irretrievable but the feelings that accompanied it still lingering. Memory’s failure, a reminder of mortality, and preparation for dying.

But one of the wonderful things about trained dancers is their ability to remember long complex sequences of moves which they can bring back sometimes ten or fifteen years later with the help of the original music, or diagrams or words in a notebook, photos, or snowy video tape. Magically, if at the right moment the other dancer in the piece is in the right place behind them, even that can bring back muscle and spatial memories. Dancers’ acts of remembering are for me sources of hope.

There were moments when the archivist looked at what they’d noted down and gave us a brief summary of what they felt were the highlights from the previous hour. These summaries magically brought dancers and spectators together in a collective act of remembering that was quite special. And to think that I almost hadn’t book for Wallflower … hmmm.