On Dramaturgy – Prepare

I wrote this post before the start of my recent project, but never got round to publishing it! So here it is. Just imagine it’s still July 2016 when you read it…

“Excuse my ignorance, but what exactly is a dramaturg?”

The process through which I came to be working with Chris was such a fluid one that I never stopped to pose this question myself. It was obvious to me that I would be working with a dramaturg on my next project. At the beginning of the year I had no idea what a dramaturg was either. I just had a hunch that a workshop being run by South East Dance was exactly what I needed to do. And so, by a series of coincidences, I had landed myself an incredibly generous and patient Chris who had already, in a few sessions, got me back into thinking of myself as a maker again. “He’s like an outside eye who’s also an inside eye” I said. “He listens and teases out what I’m after, suggesting ways of getting there and then suggesting ways of not getting there in case they might actually get us there anyway.” Tom, my collaborator, looked confused.

My first meeting with Chris was at the British Library cafe, or the echoing lobby area where you literally have to pounce like a vulture on a free table. I had no notes from the session. Chris wrote loads. What was I doing? Where was I going with it? What did I want to do? By the end of the two hours Chris pinned me down on one thing: “One of the conversations we need to have is around ‘Everything you hate about dance'”. I had no idea that I’d said that. I guess I was talking about the contemporary dance cliches, but the reference stuck. We now have a number of shorthand references like this.

In a second meeting Chris tried a technique that Lou Cope spoke about: he reeled off a list of words asking me to chose between two similar but different options. “Green or Grey?” he asked, “Grey” I answered. These are our oblique questions. We’re talking about the piece without talking about the piece. The result is a list of words that actually feel very connected to the work: close, lines, restless, shoulder, fact, held, grey, violin, made. There are also a number of words that don’t have anything to do with it, like “toast” and “lemon”.

By this point we were lucky enough to be able to shift our conversation into a studio. On our first day in a studio space, Chris came prepared with stuff: an elasticated string, paper, postcards, objects, wool. It’s kind of a relief, I thought, when someone else has thought about things. We stuck a long piece of blank paper up on the wall of the studio, sharpie at the ready. It’s our key questions board. This has been religiously rolled up and re-posted for each rehearsal. Even now, at the end of the project, it’s remained mostly empty, but then there’s a lot more to come I guess…

I’m making a piece about control and freedom that involves a dancer pulling a string that’s attached to a record player, playing an old relaxation record that’s telling her to relax. So our first question was: What else might it be? We had no sound to work with, which was a good thing. We tied the elasticated string to the ballet barre in the studio and began improvising movement informed by the string. At some point in our earlier discussions we had thought of using a dog leash to replicate the gadget my collaborator had built for me last year, a kind of retractable string. But it just didn’t give me any impetus. Apart from this, Channel 4 had just aired a documentary about adults who dress up as dogs. “Is this about control and freedom, or is it just a piece about dogs?”, Chris asked. Of course he wasn’t just talking about the dog-people, he was talking about seeing what we’re actually doing, rather than what we think we’re doing. We discarded the dog leash, but now Amazon thinks I own one…

We attached one line, then two lines to the Ballet Barre. We worked on facings, different uses of the line/s. My problem is that I often get a bit stuck in my head. I worry about creating movement just for its sake. I need a reason to move. I tried “just moving”. My “Suspending Judgement” sign was hung up on the door handle. To take my mind away from my movement Chris tries to get me to relate a story. He begins and then he says he doesn’t know what happens next, which is my cue to pick up and continue until I decide to hand the story back to him and so on. “He keeps hi-jacking the story!” I think. I bet he thinks my story telling is just as crap. The good news is that I’m so hung up on how terrible this story is that I have absolutely no idea how I’m moving. This is good, because it gives my body time to warm up to the string, to absorb something from it unconsciously.

We then try to give the movement a little more shape. Chris throws out random lines from a collection of poetry. “It never let up until morning”, “I melt for the first time”, ‘A formal line through beach and open ground..” I answer each line through movement, allowing myself to get stuck, to repeat, to try to embody something from that line. It’s not a literal translation (it can never be in movement). At one point I shake my head “everything I hate about dance” I say, referring to something I was doing. Chris gently encourages me to keep going. Just beyond that block something else happens. In our discussion afterwards Chris wonders if my fear of falling into cliche is stopping me from moving, and maybe if I suspend judgement and allow the cliche to happen, maybe just beyond that, there’s the gold.

What I’ve realised about working with Chris in the space is that it’s like having a clearer headed (and kinder) version of me on the outside. Chris is absolutely there with me through each improvisation. He knows what I’m after and luckily has none of my baggage to colour what he sees. So when he says there was something there, I know what he means. My experience is an embodied one, his is a visual one, but we’re still talking the same language.

Our second session in the studio. Chris hangs some postcards up on the wall. I pick three images to work with. Again we use one string attached to the barre. In the next improvisation I work through the images. Again, I’m creating an embodiment rather than mimicking. I feel the license to use the images however I feel. What comes out of this improvisation is the following realisation: “When you create movement with purpose, it has meaning.” (Chris’ words).

Our third studio session is with another dancer Joel. Two strings, two movers, multiple relationships start to unfold. Joel’s physicality is totally different to mine, but his playfulness and attentiveness to the string is exactly why I want to work with him. In a later discussion with Chris we talk about how to work with this difference without flattening it out. I don’t want Joel to move like me. Somehow I feel that if we both attend to the task, the physicality for this work will come out of that.

Our last studio session is with the sound artist Tom. All these sessions have been a preparation for our actual project which starts in August. We talk about the technical aspect of the work and put together some ideas for the string which Tom now needs to find a way to incorporate into the build. Then we start working with sound and movement in the same space. We don’t have any interactive stuff yet, so Tom just improvises via his laptop whilst I attempt to use his sound as a score for my improvisation. This time my movement just isn’t as fluid. It’s been three weeks since the last session, during which time I’ve been to San Francisco for Anna Halprin’s workshop, returned to a Brexit vote and sleep walked through a week of teaching on jet lag. But Chris is supportive and stops me hitting the self destruct button. At the end of the session we walk to Gordon Square to talk about collaboration and brainstorm some ideas about how to structure the process.

At some point in that last rehearsal Chris had brought up a question he had asked me to keep thinking about whilst I was away in California: “What moves you?” I hated the question. When Chris asked me to have this at the back of my mind during my last improv with Tom I dismissed it almost immediately. It doesn’t really fit. I almost wanted to cross it off our “key questions” board. Well I’m not in the business of making sentimental crap, I thought. It wasn’t until a few weeks later, when I was in Malta for a fleeting visit home to celebrate my parents 40th wedding anniversary, that the answer hit me. My mother stands up half way through the meal and gives an unexpected, unprepared little speech, the kind that’s so heartfelt and messy round the edges that its rawness is palpable. She has us all in floods of tears. And then I realise that what moves me isn’t something dressed up to be dramatic. It’s something that’s just so real it hits you in the gut. And this realisation is such a relief, because it means I can make something that might move people and all I have to do is be absolutely real.

I’d like to thank Lou Cope for inspiring us to work like this and for creating the ground work for our discussions to grow from, South East Dance for hosting the Doing Dramaturgy workshop and The Place Artist Development for giving us access to a studio space during this time.

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