Miranda’s Flourish Fund reflection

“I have heard of a dramaturg… but what do they actually do? And why do you need one in dance?”

Inevitably, this question (or a version of it) arises as soon as I mention to someone that I am developing myself as a dance dramaturg. The answer I’ve come up with so far is something along the lines of “a dramaturg can be a number of different things, depending on the situation – they can be a mixture of mentor, outside eye, assistant director, researcher, facilitator, friend, counsel, critic…”.

These roles, how I decide between them and what effect the whole thing has on the making of a piece of work, is what I have been exploring over the last six months or so, backed up by mentoring sessions with producer and dramaturg Chris Fogg which were supported by a Flourish Fund award.

Like many roles in the arts, but perhaps to a greater extent, dramaturgy seems to be something you can only really learn in the doing. So alongside mentoring sessions, I set up several opportunities with choreographers to experiment with the idea of being a dramaturg. None of them had worked with one before, and I hadn’t really done it either, so in each situation it was somewhat the case of the blind leading the blind.

My approach to any sort of collaborative working is to start with an in-depth conversation. Understanding the creative impetus and the idea(s) behind a work is important for any collaboration, and was something I already tried to do in my other work as a producer and consultant. As a dramaturg, this conversation became heightened and perhaps more interesting. I tried to ask searching questions of the artist, to satisfy my curiosity but also to help them to articulate things that perhaps they hadn’t had the chance of articulating previously, or maybe only in their own heads. This feels to me like the first job of the dramaturg – allowing the choreographer (or director/maker/etc) to articulate their ideas, perhaps in the process of doing so, forming them to some extent or clarifying them. So I become a facilitator of expressing thought, at least within the creative team.

After this basic principle, which I felt I had to start with in all the relationships in order to ensure that there was enough common ground between us to keep going, it really depended on the artist what else I might offer. The development opportunity I was seeking through the support of a mentor and trying out these relationships was partly about seeing what skills and experience I already had that would be useful as a dramaturg, but to some extent this got flipped on its head, as I was able to offer a few skills that I already had to the artist, and together we matched them to what the artist felt they might need at that point in their process.

A few things in particular became clearer to me through my interactions with the artists I worked with. They’re quite obvious really. The artists had different ideas about what a dramaturg would bring to the process, and although we discussed this to some extent in advance, much of this expectation only became evident during the rehearsals themselves. One artist wanted me to be more hands-on than I had expected, wanted my input on structuring rehearsals as well as my reflection on the work that was created. Another artist had concerns about authorship and ownership and an anxiety that I might take away from their creative authority over the making of the piece. Some artists wanted me to concentrate on movement quality, gestures, and other choreographic elements within a wider piece, and others were more interested in my ability to look at the whole structure or narrative of the work, but not the choreography itself.

With all the projects I worked on, it has become evident to me that the earlier a dramaturg can come on board on a project, the more useful their input can be, and the more likely they are to gain a good understanding of what their role needs to be with this particular artist, this team, this piece of work. Successful dramaturgy seems to be to be about an ongoing and fruitful dialogue between the dramaturg and the artist, not only within the context of the making of work, but outside of the rehearsal room; an ability to reflect on creative processes as the processes are still ongoing; a meta-analytical role. I have valued the artists who have been clear and frank with me about what I am doing that’s useful, and what I am doing too much or too little of. I think that without the ability to have these discussions before, during, and ideally after the process, the usefulness of the dramaturg is weakened.

As a result of the award and the work that I have done as part of it, I feel that I am now able to confidently call myself a dramaturg (even if qualified by ‘emerging’ or ‘inexperienced’), rather than apologetically offering my services to someone in an unspecified role which might encompass dramaturgical actions. It has enabled me to come much closer to the making process from where I previously stood as a producer or a manager, when any creative input always seemed presumptuous. But it also gives me a defined role that feels of use in the making of work, without me needing to have a creative voice as a maker myself, and this is what inspires me – to respond to a variety of different kinds of work, to approach it all with the same care, regardless of the period of my involvement or my own aesthetic preferences. I’m excited by the potential this role gives me to open a window on a huge spectrum of different creative practices.

I’m looking forward to the next steps in this journey. Two artists have written me into their forthcoming funding applications, and two further artists have indicated they want to work with me in future projects. I have been selected to attend the ‘Dramaturgy at Work’ workshop and South East Dance’s ‘TEST’ weekend, both in September. I am also reviewing Dance Dramaturgy, a new collection of essays edited by Pil Hansen and Darcey Collison, for Oxford Dance Writers. (www.oxforddancewriters.com)

Miranda’s Flourish Fund reflection