The dramaturg as witness, dialogue partner and editor.

By Guy Cools

Although the text corpus on dance dramaturgy has recently grown substantially, there is still very little literature that describes the actual work a dramaturg does within the creative process. The three roles I would describe essential to the work of the dramaturg are those of: the (silent) witness, the dialogue partner and the editor.

The dance dramaturg as somatic witness

In the introduction to her book, Choreographing Difference. The Body and Identity in Contemporary Dance (1997), Ann Cooper Albright describes how watching the performance La Tristeza Complice by Alain Platel transformed her act of watching into the act of witnessing: “To witness something implies a responsiveness, the response/ability of the viewer towards the performer. (…) what I call witnessing is much more interactive, a kind of perceiving (with one’s whole body) that is committed to a process of mutual dialogue 1.” .

Bringing the witness role into the studio, as early as possible in the creation process, is one of the most powerful things you can contribute as a dramaturg. Already through your silent, but felt, presence, you will influence somatically and energetically the dialogue between choreographer and performers. For me the witness role is an essential, creative part of my work as a dramaturg. The intuitive play with proximity or distance towards the process is mainly there to create subtle shifts in the witness role that might influence the interaction on the floor between performers and choreographer. In the early stages of a rehearsal process I also like to physically participate and experience the physical research on my own body. When at the later stages I constantly exit and re-enter the process, my felt presence or absence also energetically shifts the shared space and our ‘relationality’ and by doing so subtly influences the process.

Dance dramaturgy as a dialogical practice

My work as a dramaturg happens as much outside of the studio as inside. Whereas inside the studio the witness role is the more dominant one, outside of it I meet with the choreographer on a regular basis to discuss what is happening in the studio. These conversations ideally start as early as possible, when the first ideas for a new creation germinate and they intensify during the course of the rehearsal process. These discussions don’t focus so much on the material that is developed but on what is needed to further nurture the process: for instance in the communication with the performers; what kind of input they need; how to best plan and organize the time of the rehearsals; how to start thinking about a possible way to organize the material parallel to its development.

A conversation is very different from so-called feedback. It is much more open-ended and purposeless. The only kind of feedback that seem relevant and useful, are reminders of previous ideas and conversations, which serve to reconnect with the journey one set out on together. I am big believer in the notion that in the creative process ‘the first ideas are always the right ones.’ As such the feedback is often only there to remind the choreographer of these initial, most vital lifelines of the work.

The dance dramaturg as editor

When I first read the book The Conversations, Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje (2002), I immediately recognized myself as a production dramaturg in the role of the film editor. In the form of open dramaturgy I practice, the editing process happens on the floor where, the material reveals itself how it is best connected. Often it is merely a matter of being attentive, recognizing the moments and acting upon them.

A main function of the editing process is to keep the audience engaged. In the field of neuroscience, studies have shown that engagement is always the result of a combination of recognition and surprise. Too much recognition leads to boredom. Too much surprise doesn’t allow spectators to connect, to enter your world. You need a unique balance of both elements.

In the editing process you are shaping the rhythm of the piece. When I support the editing process of a dance piece, a lot of my attention is focussed on the transitions between sections. In order to achieve an engaging rhythm, every transition requires a unique solution. It is in the non-beat, the pauses, where the unique quality of a rhythm is defined. In the performing arts, the two main senses being addressed are the eye and the ear. The visual rhythm and the auditory rhythm are separate tracks that are connected and influence each other. Auditory rhythm is always stronger than visual rhythm. The relationship between both is a crucial one. The music can support but can also kill the visual impact.

Finally, you also have to guide the audience’s focus of attention. On stage each body is a centre of attention. In the editing process, there are ways to clarify and frame the different centres of attention so that the audience will follow them with you or will realize that they have the freedom to decide for themselves.

Conclusion: Dramaturgy as a creative and somatic practice.

Even in its relatively short professional history, dance dramaturgy has been mainly associated with the theoretical, rational component of knowledge: the ‘outside eye’ which from a distance keeps an overview and gives meaning and coherence to the embodied practice of the makers and doers, the artists. Contemporary dramaturgical practices, however, blur this dichotomy. The creative ‘friendship’ between dramaturg and choreographer presumes as much proximity and intimacy as distance. Already in the witness function, the ‘outside eye’ becomes an ‘outside-body’ which plays with varying its distance to the creative process and by doing so influences it somatically and energetically. Even in the more conventional functions of the dialogue partner who listens, and the editor who helps to shape the rhythm, the whole physicality of the dramaturg is involved.

1 Ann Cooper Albright, Choreographing Difference: the Body and Identity in Contemporary Dance, Wesleyan University Press: University press of New England, 1997, p.xxii.

Guy Cools, The dramaturg as witness, dialogue partner and editor, 2021.

Guy Cools

The Belgian dance dramaturg Guy Cools is currently living in Vienna. He has worked as a dance critic, dance curator, as well as a production dramaturg, with amongst others Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (BE) and Akram Khan (UK). As a dramaturgical mentor, he has been mentoring the Biennale Dance College in Venice and the Atlas program of Impulstanz in Vienna. He teaches at various universities and arts colleges throughout Europe and Canada. His most recent publications include The Ethics of Art (co-edited, 2014); In-between Dance Cultures (2015); Imaginative Bodies (2016); The Choreopolitics of Alain Platel (co-edited, 2019) and Performing Mourning. Laments in Contemporary Art. (2021)