PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

What is Dramaturgy in Dance?

Episode Summary

Poet and dance writer Karen Hildebrand hosts this two-part podcast focusing on dramaturgy and dance. In this first part, Hildebrand defines the role of a dramaturg, drawing extensively upon a 2014 PillowTalk with dramaturg Anne Davison and Scholar-in-Residence Maura Keefe.

Episode Notes

Poet and dance writer Karen Hildebrand hosts this two-part podcast focusing on dramaturgy and dance. In this first part, Hildebrand defines the role of a dramaturg, drawing extensively upon a 2014 PillowTalk with dramaturg Anne Davison and Scholar-in-Residence Maura Keefe.

Episode Transcription

[Music begins, composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN:Welcome to PillowVoices, a production of Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival with content from the Pillow archives. I'm Norton Owen, the Pillow’s Director of Preservation. And it's my pleasure to introduce a two-part podcast, focusing on dramaturgy and dance. Our host Karen Hildebrand is a poet and dance writer, formerly the Editorial Director for Dance Magazine, and a past Editor-in-Chief of Dance Teacher Magazine. In this first part, Karen addresses a basic question: what is dramaturgy? And also what exactly do dramaturgs in the dance world do?

ANNE DAVISON: I think that the most dreaded question for a dramaturg and certainly most that I know is: what is a dramaturg? Because you would think that as one you would be able to answer that very quickly and succinctly but I think we anticipate the glazed-over expressions. 

KARIN HILDEBRAND:That's Anne Davison speaking during a Pillow Talk discussion with scholar-in-residence, Maura Keefe. Davison is a freelance dramaturg who's collaborated with theatre directors, playwrights, and a number of choreographers, including Doug Elkins, Jane Comfort, and David Dorfman. So, exactly what is a dramaturg? And what do they do? If you're like me, you've noticed the role credited in your program magazine at the theater, and assumed it has to do with adapting or interpreting a literary source. A bookish thing. That's partly true. And it can also be a lot more. It's a role that resists easy definition. If you Google it, you'll find this: a behind-the-scenes resource for directors, actors, and playwrights, providing context, research, and feedback to help improve the quality or accuracy of a production. A literary advisor who provides vital research and information for theater productions and opera companies. One who provides textual analysis of a play or opera’s story and theme, as well as information on production history, the author of the play, and any previous adaptations. Duties might include the hiring of actors, assisting with an editing of new plays or operas, creation of programs, helping the director with rehearsals. Here's more of Davison's conversation with Keefe, about what this means in practice.

MAURA KEEFE: Choreographer Doris Humphrey is often my go-to person for thinking about how dances are made. And while she did not particularly address the role of the dramaturg, in her masterful book from 1959, called The Art of Making Dances, I think in her discussion of choreographic form, she sort of gets at it. She writes, “having scrutinized in detail all the elements of a dance, thoroughly dismembering the body, as it were, the creator must then know how to put the parts together again and make the dance a whole. Even a knowledgeable awareness of the broken fragments will be useless if there is no technique for sewing them together. Perhaps overall form is the hardest part of choreography to grasp.” She then advises choreographers to listen to qualified advice. Don't be arrogant. 

ANNE DAVISON: a lot of the work that I've done as a dramaturg, both in theater and dance, is kind of dealing with that larger context. Because depending on the project, and depending on the working collaboration with that particular, either a choreographer, director or writer, what is most useful, and what I'm asked to do for them can vary a little bit. But I think it always does involve kind of being an outside eye in a sense, and to have the kind of larger context of the piece. Either very specific historical research, kind of, you know, exploration or actual, you know, kind of looking at the actual structure and tone of a piece and how it's gonna interact with whatever audience.

MAURA KEEFE: So there was a thing that I thought was interesting. So I sort of picture this in the theater context, that there's the person who maybe is sitting in the library and doing a little research about what Chekov was thinking when he wrote this [Davison: Sure]. So there's that that version. And then there's the person who's sitting next to the director in a theater. And then there's the person who's thinking about, well, how is this going to make sense to an audience [Davison: Right] that, that the same production might ask you to do all of these things or only some of them.


KARIN HILDEBRAND: I like the way Keefe sums things up by categorizing three general ways a dramaturg typically contributes to a production. Ultimately, they: (1) provide research; (2) help the audience connect to the work; and (3) give feedback to the director. Depending on the project, a dramaturg might do any or all of these things. Also, not all dramaturgs are identified as such. The people who create sound and scene environments, for example, often do a great deal of contextual research for a production. The first activity to provide research might be the most traditional role. The one I assumed when I first saw the odd word in a program. Even Davison who grew up loving theater, and who has a graduate degree and dramaturgy didn't know one could do that as a profession until she was a senior in college. I like this part of the conversation, where she gives us an example of how and why the research activity can be significant.

ANNE DAVISON: If you're setting a Shakespeare play, a director decides, just a random example, to set it and one of the comedies in the Roaring Twenties or something like that. It can be, I think, valuable to bring in for that actors, some sort of collated and targeted research about the time and the, you know, political goings-on, both where the director has chosen to set the play and worldwide, and kind of the social interactions, and all those kinds of things to kind of feed into the world that the designers are then creating. And I always say also that some of the best, you know, dramaturgs to use that term are the, you know, costume designers and set designers and props designers that for works that are set in a very specific time and place, obviously do countless amounts of research. So I also think that for the dramaturg, in doing that kind of historical research, one of the, especially in this day and age of Wikipedia and Google, and kind of endless amounts of information that's just out there, is to be able to really take and collate and whittle down into a kind of manageable amount of material to that then can be a kind of baseline for the people working on the team. And then obviously, the director and the actors themselves are often doing their own research and can kind of choose to go much further in depth or to disregard, much as you were saying, some people like to…

MAURA KEEFE: So an actor reading about the Roaring Twenties, it might give him or her an idea of how her character might move or why something just sort of had to live in that world. [Davison: Yeah]. This imaginary world that has real specificity. 

ANNE DAVISON: And presumably if the director has chosen a certain time and place, that's because he sees resonances in whatever that setting is to that to the Shakespeare play. So it can kind of help to bring alive like oh how this, you know, political event might be. It might equate to twentieth century, that.

KARIN HILDEBRAND:The second activity: helping the audience to connect to the work might include writing a program essay for the audience. The task is to give background and place the work into a context the audience might connect to. In this role, the dramaturg functions as publicist, or communications director. At Jacob's Pillow, the scholars-in-residence take on this role by writing program essays, and interviewing artists for Pillow Talk sessions, pre and post-performance talks. The third activity: providing feedback to the director is sometimes referred to as an in-house critic, observing, taking notes, commenting, asking questions, provoking conversation. Davison describes this as providing an outside eye. She can offer her perspective after viewing a scene, so the director can know whether or not things are coming across as intended. With her outside eye, she might make some suggestions. Could certain scenes be swapped, for instance, to create more of a dramatic payoff? Or if the tone has changed ever so slightly? Would it allow the audience to go on the journey the director intended? As Davison points out, it might be something as small as changing one word. So far, we've talked about the role in the way it pertains to the text-driven world of theater. But how does a dramaturg operate in the nonverbal vocabulary of dance? Here's Davison and Keefe again. 

ANNE DAVISON: Even the most kind of completely abstract, non-narrative non-linear dance work with no dialogue in it is trying to tell some sort of story, you know. Which is not necessarily A happens and B happens and C happens story, but it's there's some sort of emotional connection that the choreographer is trying to make with the audience and through the dancers and the dancers in their works. So I think…

MAURA KEEFE: Even if maybe they don't use that language of I'm trying to tell a story [Davison: Right], here’s what the story is [Davison: Right], there's something about the structure and arc of a work that…

ANNE DAVISON: Of a piece of art that I think does kind of lend itself to those same questions of, you know, is this working the best to get, to have your the ideas that you want, you know, coming across, and again, even can come down from the very specific choices. And also, with choreographers have amazing, the choreographers I've worked with have had amazing sound designers working with them, shaping the sound scores, who have been, you know, wonderful collaborators. Justin Levine and Matt Stein on both of Doug's pieces that are currently here at the Pillow. And Brandon Walcott with Jane Comfort and Sam Crawford with David Dorfman. And so in that sense, kind of like you were saying, for a theater piece, you have the director and the writer, maybe the composer, lyricist. And for dance, I think it's with the choreographers I've worked with also very much about a collaboration with the design of that soundscape, and the music that's going to be supporting the work and ends up being a conversation in that way that can be as minute as like, what if that we changed that song entirely? Or what if that that part is actually a little bit shorter? That obviously very much affects the choreography itself, and how the dance is shaped, but also, you know, kind of how what the music or lack of music that is supporting that.

MAURA KEEFE: So I've also been thinking about, like, I guess it's my, it would be sort of me in there thinking, well, maybe I have a better idea than the person who's in charge and so what happens when, like, you think this is an essential piece of fellow narrative that we have to have in here [Davison: Right], and that but you don't get to have the final say? 

ANNE DAVISON: Sure. And that's actually a great question in general for dramaturgy as well and the role of the dramaturg. Because the other thing that I always try to be quick to point out is that, you know, it is definitely not my piece. And it's also very rare that you'll read a review that said, thanks to the poor dramaturgy, this is a failure, you know. So it's like kind of no glory, no blame, is kind of what the position is. So, you know, ultimately, I think it is you who have to, you know, ask that question and say, you know, like, I just, I do think that it's, this possibly could be stronger with this included or with this, you know, omitted, you know, kind of thing, but ultimately it is the choreographer’s piece or the director’s piece or the playwright’s play. And, you know, I've certainly have felt very strongly about things that then I've definitely come to think that I was completely in the wrong and a good thing that that choreographer or playwright had a better sense of their work in that moment than I. And then other times, there are things that have, you know, not, you know, questions that I still have that still remain, you know, certainly. 

MAURA KEEFE: So do you think that when working in the context of a dance process, that some of the decisions that get made by the choreographer that you realize are right is because it's a less familiar field for you that’s, that sometimes like, so that when Doug sort of knows something because he's been a dancer [Davison: Sure], and knows how he's gonna communicate that without text or something.

ANNE DAVISON: I think maybe, I think that's quite possible in the you know, choreographic sense if I don't kind of get a certain arc of movement or how it fits in, and then once I see it more kind of do have a better understanding in a movement kind of way. But I think that they're just like, sometimes it just is, you know, a taste thing. And it's like, you have to like, I'm not always right. And it's like, I might not always like that, but it's certainly like, you know, the piece is still, you know, true to the artist’s vision, 

MAURA KEEFE: Or there's more than one right answer. 

ANNE DAVISON: Exactly, exactly. 

KARIN HILDEBRAND:While Davison and Keefe have done a great job of defining the role, I'm curious to know what this all looks like in action. In “Part Two: Dramaturgy at Jacob's Pillow,” we'll look at three different dance works, all presented at the Pillow, where dramaturgs were part of the creative team in residence. We’ll look at Beauty by Jane Comfort. And then Rome & Jewels by Rennie Harris. And also Going To The Wall by Bebe Miller.

[Music begins, composed and performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN:That's it for this episode of PillowVoices. Thank you for joining us today. On behalf of Jacob's Pillow, we look forward to sharing more dance with you through the films, essays, and podcasts at Dance Interactive dot Jacob's Pillow dot org. And of course through live experiences during our festival and throughout the year. Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for helping launch this podcast series. Please subscribe to PillowVoices wherever you get your podcasts, and visit us again soon, either online or on site.