Bojana Cvejić

Dramaturgy: A Friendship of Problems

Posted By on March 23, 2015 in TEXTS & TALKS | 0 comments

[Published as “The Ignorant Dramaturg”, “Nevedeni dramaturg” (in English and Slovene languages). Maska “Praktična dramaturgija/Practical Dramaturgy”, vol. 131-132, 2010, 40-53.]

It comes as no surprise to me that we congregated here to speak about dance (and) dramaturgy. We all can proudly register having behind us quite a few seminars, workshops and all sorts of meetings about ‘dance dramaturgy’. Why the topic draws much curatorial attention today, however, has less to do with an entirely new than with a recently more accredited practice, and perhaps even a profession whose role in the creation of dance hasn’t been sufficiently reflected before. Another approach would demand inquiring how ‘dance dramaturgy’ follows in a line with other curated concepts in dance since 2000 – such as ‘research’, ‘collaboration’, ‘theory’, ‘education and learning’ – the concerns of which it might actually reformulate and then why. I came here resolved not to pursue the matters like why dance dramaturgy now, why only now etc., because they would inevitably lead me to deconstruct the subject and the whole debate, so that we could go home with a little more sceptical and cynical faces than usual. Instead, I accept this as an invitation to think ‘what is dance dramaturgy?’, but my knee-jerk reflex is to deviate from the essentialist ‘what’ to more than one question. ‘Dance-dramaturgy’? Yes, but who by, for and with? Where and when? How, in which case and how much? Multiplying questions makes dance-dramaturgy a minor – of a minority (minoritaire) – and, hence, a plural affair. Studying many cases one by one, we would discover how the work of dramaturgy reinvents itself always different, whenever it is truly a matter of a new creation as opposed to repeating a ‘success-formula’. The temptation of unfolding the many dramaturgies hides the danger of arbitrary relativization – everything and nothing is or can be (considered) dramaturgy – and one loses a position to defend. Therefore, I’ll promptly set out my position and task here: I will contest dance dramaturgy in a specific condition of project-based freelance work – something we used to refer to as ‘independent’. If there should be a dramaturg, she isn’t a staff member of a company or a repertoire theater – someone who occupies a position of know-how, craft, or métier dramaturg (the bright example of Marianne Van Kerkhoven comes to remind us of the 1980s-1990s). The appearance of dramaturg in contemporary dance from 2000 on is all the more curious for the fact that choreographers themselves have never been more articulate and self-reflexive about their working methods and concepts. So, why a dramaturg then? My assumption is that we can begin to talk about dance dramaturgy, and try to make this notion thicker, only when we accept that it isn’t a necessity, that a dance dramaturg isn’t necessary. Rather than establish a normative definition, I would like to explore here functions, roles and activities of dramaturgy in experiment, how dramaturg becomes the constitutive supplement in a method of experimental creation – a co-creator of a problem.

But before I proceed with that, one more question from my own confusion: how do you write and how do you pronounce this word in English – ‘dramaturg’ or ‘dramaturge’? Adding ‘e’ appears as a feminine ending – a playful warning against the feminization of work. Gendering the profession doesn’t have to reveal a woman-dramaturge sitting next to a man-choreographer – feminization, according to Toni Negri and Michael Hardt[i], presupposes a transformation of labor from manufacturing objects to producing services. In order to clear the ground of norm and necessity, let me unsettle a few assumptions about the services dance-dramaturg is to provide.

  1. Dance-dramaturg has the linguistic skills that place her on the reflexive pole of the tedious mind-body split. This assumption entails a binary division of labor by faculties: choreographers are mute doers, and dramaturgs bodiless thinkers and writers. I will show how the boundaries of these faculties are blurred and constantly shifting.
  2. Dance-dramaturg observes the process from the distance of an outside perspective. She is expected to keep a critical eye against the self-indulgence or solipsism of choreographer. But what if the job of choreographer, as Jonathan Burrows recently writes, is to ‘stay close enough to what we’re doing to feel it, and at the same time use strategies to distance ourselves enough to grasp momentarily what someone else might perceive.’ He goes on to confer that choreography might be ‘something that helps you step back for a moment, enough to see what someone else might see.’[ii] So again, the division between doers and observers won’t do when choreographer and dramaturg both exercise the outside-eye. My task will be to discern the more subtle nature of this complicity and affinity in the shared faculty of seeing and reflecting.
  3. The previous might be argued against with the following point: the special duty of the dramaturg’s critical eye is to go-between the choreographer and the audience, so as to mediate and make sure that communication works on both sides. But this turns dramaturgy into a pedagogy, where dramaturg puts herself in the priestly or masterly position of the one who knows better, who can predict what the audience see, think, feel, like or dislike. We, makers and theorists alike, are all obsessing far too much about spectatorship, instead of wisely relaxing, as Jacques Rancière wrote in ” The Emancipated Spectator”[iii], and trusting that spectators are more active and smart than we allow ourselves to admit. My position would be to fiercely object to the stultification of this kind – the patronizing presupposition that audience won’t understand if they aren’t properly – dramaturgically – guided. Instead of giving in to the pressure of accessibility we’re living in this neoliberal age, dramaturgs could be concerned about how the performance is made public. This is to do with more than just publicity; it is an effort to articulate, find new appropriate formats, in order to make public, indeed, the specific ideas, processes and practices – the immaterial envelope of labor and knowledge sustaining the very work. I’m not saying that we need dramaturgs to sensibilize those hostile and ignorant spectators… it’s more a challenge to combat hermiticism – to think how to make knowledge about performance-making available – and perhaps interesting – outside of its own discipline.
  4. The last hurdle to overcome is the notorious function of dramaturg aka company psychotherapist. This dark and shameful side of dramaturgy is worth mentioning only to make crystal clear that the moment that dramaturg is relegated to the role of a ‘caretaker’ of the moods and tensions in a working process – a filter between choreographer, performers and other collaborators, for instance – she has lost the power of creation, and perhaps, even joy. We dramaturgs probably recall having one such dark experience to forget.

Now that we relieved our dance-dramaturg from these (traditional) services, are our hands empty enough for another undertaking?

When asked to define what a dramaturg is, the Dutch theatermaker Jan Ritsema’s statement appears non-specific: a co-thinker in the process. I choose to depart from this, albeit, generic, view, to inquire: if dramaturg is the sparring partner in thought, is she then as little or as much as a collaborator? Yes, but a very special collaborator, dramaturg is the friend of a problem. Or more precisely, she is the choreographer’s closest friend in producing a problem: a friend in advocating an experiment, and an enemy of complacency. The dramaturg is there to make sure that the process doesn’t compromise in experiment. What makes her a friend is proximity in being with and standing under (which isn’t always under-standing as well) the drama of ideas. Giorgio Agamben recently wrote: ‘calling someone “friend” is not the same as calling him “white”, “Italian”, or “hot”, since friendship is neither a property nor a quality of a subject…To recognize someone as a friend means not being able to recognize him as something.’[iv]

I’m engaging with the figure of the friend so as to do away with instrumentality and specialization of the role and relationship of dramaturg with the choreographer. The kind of friendship I’m invoking here begins with ignorance – not about what the two can exchange between each other or be useful for, because there must already be some shared affinity to even contemplate working together – but ignorance about the work to be made. Hereby, I’m referring to ‘ignorance’ in Jacques Rancière’s parable The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation.[v] Emancipation is the pedagogy that Rancière opposes to instruction, because it’s a situation of learning something about which both master and student are ignorant. Learning then rests on the assumption of equality of intelligence, as well as on the existence of a third mediating term between master and student – represented in Rancière by the book that master and student read in two different languages. Dramaturg and choreographer establish a relationship of equals similar to the relation between two ignorant people confronting the book they don’t know how to read. The ‘book’ is the work of research, that something, which binds by a radical form of effort that both invest into the process of defining what is at stake and how. The work is the thing, the ‘book’ that choreographer and dramaturg won’t read but write together – that third link which guarantees the rule of materiality. Whatever is done, thought or felt can be shown, discussed, and confronted on the work itself with two pairs of eyes or more.

Now that we placed dramaturg on a par with choreographer, we have to ask: what does this work of construction they are both dedicated to have to do with producing a problem? When I say a problem, I in fact mean an approach or a method which forces the work on a performance to deviate from the possible, i.e. familiar operations with: ‘theme’ or what the work claims to be about, ‘language’ or expression means, signature or aesthetic preferences, process or the dynamic in which the work develops, ‘dispositif’ or that which composes the attention of spectators. Listing all these categories already shows a certain stability in a pool of options, possibilities recognizable because: ‘we know what works, and what doesn’t.’ The production of a problem doesn’t begin with possibilities – they are a matter of knowledge that we account for as the limits to be pushed – but with ideas that diverge and differentiate the conditions of the new. Gilles Deleuze qualifies creation as virtual. To explain the notion of the virtual, he often cites Proust’s description of his states of experience : ‘real without being actual, ideal without being abstract’.[vi] The content of an idea is virtual, because it is differentiation, a differential relation between elements drawn by a problem, a question. The problem lies in the idea itself, or rather, the idea exists only in the form of questions. As questioning nowadays is a domesticated and worn out truism about almost any intellectual activity, questions by which a problem is posed are distinguished by answers that they give rise to. So the problem is measured by the solution it merits – if this solution is an invention that gives being to something new, to what did not exist or what might never have happened. Stating a problem isn’t about uncovering an already existing question or concern, something that was certain to emerge sooner or later. A problem is neither a rhetorical question that can’t be answered. On the contrary, to raise a problem implies constructing terms in which it will be stated, and conditions it will be solved in. The solution entails a construction of procedure and working situation. To orchestrate in practical terms what I coin here as methodology of problem I will take up the dramaturgy of the performance And then by Eszter Salamon. (Frankly, I would much prefer to unravel a variety of cases and not to risk to idealize one self-congratulating example, but time presses me to choose only one case to illustrate my view, and so it will be one from my own dramaturgical practice).

The project began with a discovery of homonymy – hundreds of women all over Europe and the U.S. having what the choreographer – and eventually her homonyms as well – considered a rare and unusual name because it comes from a relatively small culture – Hungary. After Magyar Tancók (2006), a lecture performance about her own becoming a dancer in Hungary, Salamon was interested to pursue further the relationship between cultural contingency and individual agency in her own biography. But after considering how arbitrary and insignificant the results of exploring the fact of having a name were, ‘what’s in a name?’ appeared a trivial question, a pseudo-problem. Interviewing more than a dozen of Eszter-Salamons, the choreographer Salamon and myself were facing a myriad of stories from and about ordinary people: individual, singular, and incomparable. Our initial speculation – that this material could feed yet another solo that voids the identity of a singular by multiple subjects – proved uninteresting, it meant stating the obvious knowledge about identity construction and performative self-determination. The question shifted to challenging the concept of self-identification itself. What does it mean to meet another person whose being doesn’t concern you in any particular way? Isn’t it strange, and rather uncanny, to peer into another person’s life when one has come across the evidence of it by pure chance ? What makes these women speak like everyone else, as a singular but not a particular person? What makes the expression of each one seem whatever, and yet being such that it always matters ? Our documentary departure gave way to fabulation, using the trigger of homonymy ‘as the minimum criterion for the choice, the connection, and the confrontation of exactly those different life experiences. “What’s in a name” became a matter of arbitrariness and coincidence that condition the performance, while the name “Eszter Salamon” functioned metonymically – not as a sign of the congruence of the Salamons, but exactly as a sign for individuation among singular homonyms.’[vii]

A considerable part of the solution consisted in constructing a procedure which would choreograph the fabulation of singularities. And the methodology of problem involves exactly that: an invention of constraints that will act as enabling conditions. As hiring dozens of Salamons from all over the world to perform on stage wasn’t an option, we decided to ask them to re-enact their spontaneous answers, gestures and presence from the interviews. Then we filmed their “restored behavior’ (R. Schechner) in a particular studio setting, a mise-en-cadre, in which they moved in a space the audience sees in total, while the camera shoots the figures off center in provisional shots, simulating the gaze of the theatre viewer’.[viii] Thus the screen could extend into the stage, and vice versa, blurring their boundaries. Performers – Eszter-Salamons the homonyms by name and their doubles as a kind of visual homonyms – circulated between the screen and the stage as in one continuous space, split between past and present, documentary and fiction, original statement and self-reflexive comment, non-theatrical imaginary space and bare theater stage. It should be mentioned that apart from the assistance of a professional film-maker[ix], the choreographer and the dramaturg were dilettantes of the medium they hijacked into the performance. Constructing such a hybrid between theater and cinema meant questioning choreography as well – and when I say that it could have been done only by dilettantes, I’m rhetorically distinguishing a dilettante approach that contests and strives to expand its discipline and medium from an essentialist view on professional craftsmanship. Dilettantes are those who ask questions beyond the specialist truth about the medium. (Photo#1: Shooting by Arne Hector)

(Photo #2: “Story-boarding media”, by Eszter Salamon)

Discerning dramaturgy from choreography would be difficult here, because they both mutated into a composition of movement in text, in camera shots, light simulating cinema, montage between screen and stage, soundtrack, performing modes, gestures and the least of all, dance. A composition of each of these elements, and moreover of their relations, Vujanovic called a choreography of the Deleuzian ‘concept of difference which through repetition transforms the elements introduced into a process of abolishing self-identity.’[x]

So what does the methodology of problem generate? Questions that will clear the ground and slowly eliminate the known possibilities to enable producing a qualitatively new problem. This could be compared with emptying hands I mentioned before. Burrows laconically calls it ‘relaxing one’s grip,’[xi] and I would say letting go of habits that make the mind lazy and hands routine. The problem will distinguish itself insofar as it demands constructing its own – different, singular or new, but impure and heterogeneous perhaps even hybrid – operation. The operation is defined by the specific constraints which secure its consistency. The result is a new dispositif – not an architectural arrangement but a reconfiguration of attention, meaning that spectators will also have to experience how differently they see, think, feel, instead of leaning back into recognition. The problem will also have the consequence of problematizing or unsettling views and opinions about either what’s being represented or how dance, choreography or performance is treated. Now it will be the spectators who will no longer ask themselves the essentialist question ‘what is this?’ but will, like we did in the beginning with dramaturgy, receive the gift of a problem in a plural of minoritarian questions ‘who, how and when, where and in which case’ is this about, is this a performance etc.

The next series of points concerns dramaturg in this type of dramaturgy I conceive as the methodology of problem. How does the dramaturg implicate herself in the production of a problem, and since she is such a close friend of it, how can her position be discerned from that of choreographer? It’s important that dramaturg doesn’t enter the process because the process is in need of a dramaturg; problems can be created only out of desire without need, duty or obligation. For a friendship of problem two notions need to marry. Affinity will not just mean being close, similar, akin, fond or understanding of something, but having this feeling move forward or toward an end – I’m here deploying the French etymology à + fin as a sense of finality. So affinity in a desiring production will provide a built-in constraint – limiting the amount of choice – and will drive the process with a ‘terminus’ that yet doesn’t pre-determine the process entirely from the beginning.

If affinity is what dramaturg and choreographer share, what is it that they don’t share? The motivation of choreographer that might be personal – the place where the work affects the maker. But this place isn’t essentially the origin of the work, however often it is so claimed. Affinity can help choreographer abandon the personal as a source of solipsistic defense reflected in statements ‘because I think so, I like it, it means to me personally…’ and take an external, constitutive of the work of performance itself, social, political or conceptual, but in all cases, self-reflected position. Affinity then grows into affiliation – connecting both choreographer and dramaturg to a framework of meanings larger than the individual artistic fantasy and achievement. Friends of problem are also allies who don’t defend a personal ego or mythology of the great artist but certain views, assumptions, questions and criteria. These (views, assumptions, questions and criteria) make them partial and hence, complicit – sharing responsibility about affecting a context always larger than the performance only. Again the personal aspect of the relationship is evacuated to make place for a commitment to certain politics, so we can never speak of dramaturg’s loyalty to her choreographer, but of fidelity to a position.

What about criticality and the critical distance considered as that which makes dramaturg relatively autonomous in her work? Indeed, we now have to reverse the question: what is it that dramaturg doesn’t share with choreographer? What motivates her apart from interest in the specific problematic of the work? To observe how thought arises in expression, and is its material act. This is quite different from the common assumption that dramaturgs come with their concepts and theories and then seek ways to smuggle them in a material form. The problems I’m talking about here do not represent pre-formed concepts – they create concepts in expression, which cannot be separated from the situation in which it occurs. Concepts born in expression do not pre-exist and transcend their objects. Instead of the identity of object, concept has for its objective to articulate a multiplicity – the elements which are variable and reciprocally determined by relations. One such expressive concept that developed in the making of And then was ‘third space’, a space which doesn’t exist actually, but virtually between screen and stage.

(Photo #3: from a performance of And Then in Lyon, 2007)


[i] Negri, Antonio and Hardt, Michael: “Postmodernization, or The Informatization of Production”. Empire (2000). Cambridge, MA & London, England: Harvard University Press. 280-303.

[ii] Burrows, Jonathan. A Choreographer’s Handbook (upcoming). London: Routledge, 39.

[iii] Rancière, Jacques. “The Emancipated Spectator”. Manuscript from the lecture held at the opening of the International Theatre Academy in Mousonturm, Frankfurt, 2004, courtesy of the author.

[iv] Agamben, Giorgio. “The Friend”, What is an Apparatus? And Other Essays (2009), Kishik, D. and Pedatella, S. (tr.). Stanford, California: Stanford California Press, 25-37.

[v] Rancière, J. The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (1991), Ross, K. (tr.). Stanford, California: Stanford California Press.

[vi] Deleuze, Gilles. “The Method of Dramatization”. Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974 (2004). Los Angeles and New York: Semiotext(e), 101.

[vii] Vujanovic, Ana. “The Choreography of Singularity and Difference And Then by Eszter Salamon”. Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, 1 Volume 13, Issue 1, 2008, 123-130

[viii] Ibidem.

[ix] The filmmaker Minze Tummescheit signs the cinematography and camerawork in And Then.

[x] Vujanovic, A. Op.cit.

[xi] Burrows, J. Op.cit., 112.