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?