Author: Guy Cools
First publication: 01/01/2012
Language: English
Originally published in: Danswetenschap in Nederland - Deel 7
Made available by: Vereniging voor Dansonderzoek
Themes: Education
Media: article

Dance dramaturgy both as a profession and as a subject of a critical discourse is a very young discipline. As a profession it exists only since the late seventies of the previous century with forerunners such as Raimond Hoghe (dramaturge with Pina Bausch from 1979 onwards) and Marianne Van Kerkhoven (with Anne Teresa De Keermaeker from 1985 onwards). The critical discourse is very dispersed and exists mainly in conference papers and magazine articles with a couple of special issues that collect a series of articles as the positive exception: for instance the contributions by Marianne Van Kerkhoven and Jean Marc Adolphe in Nouvelles de Danse, Dossier Danse et Dramaturgie (1997); the essays by André Lepecki, Myriam Van Imschoot and Maaike Bleeker in Women and Performance 26, On Dramaturgy (2003) and more recent the articles by Bojana Kunst, Hans Thies Lehmann, Patrick Primavesi and Christel Stalpaert in Performance Research, On Dramaturgy (2009). Or within the Dutch content, the published conference notes and papers, Perspectives on Potential Dance Dramaturgies (2009) and Liesbeth Wildschut’s contribution Reinforcement for the choreographer: the dance dramaturge as ally (2009).1 Most of these publications discuss dance dramaturgy still from a theoretical, academic point of view and reveal very little about the actual practice, the corpus of texts by Marianne Van Kerkhoven being one of the few exceptions. Her early ‘manifesto’, Writing without a pencil in the hand, the only explicit contribution on dance dramaturgy in the special issue On Dramaturgy in the Theaterschrift series (1994), is still the ultimate reference point for many publications. As a result there are a lot of myths and misunderstandings about the actual practice, within the academic as well as the professional field.

Having been confronted with the above in my daily practice as a dance dramaturge and in the numerous public talks and seminars I gave on the subject, I decided that the best contribution I could make with my PhD research, would be a critical reflection on my own practice as a dance dramaturge. The main challenge was not so much to define its content which has been an ongoing research all through my career, but to find an adequate, written form that would render the practice also in its somatic and creative aspects.

Experimenting in the early stages with different textual forms, it finally became evident that the solution would lie in a diversity of interrelated text corpuses whose formal diversity would reflect the different core aspects of the practice. I decided upon three known forms: the notebook, the dialogue and the critical essay and one unknown, to be discovered: Rewriting Distance, which is the creative and artistic research I embarked upon with my Canadian colleague Lin Snelling of the University of Alberta, to find ways to integrate writing as a performative, embodied practice together with voice and movement. Developing several interrelated text corpuses instead of one reflects the form of ‘open dramaturgy’ I always practice and which Marianne Van Kerkhoven (1997) defined early on in opposition to the more traditional, ‘conceptual dramaturgy’:

The type of dramaturgy I am familiar with, is miles away from the ‘concept dramaturgy’ that has been highly fashionable in German theatre since Brecht. (…) The type of dramaturgy I relate to, and which I try to apply both in theatre and dance, follows a certain ‘process’: we consciously choose material from various origins (texts, movements, film images, objects, ideas, etc…); the ‘human material’ (actors/dancers) clearly prevails over the rest; the performers’ personalities and not their technical capacities is the creation’s foundation. The director or choreographer starts off with those materials: in the course of the rehearsal process he/she observes how the materials behave and develop; only at the end of this entire process do we gradually distinguish a concept, a structure, a more or less clearly outlined form; this structure is by no means known at the start. (pp.20-21, author’s translation from French)

In this article I will give an overview of the different text corpuses I am developing simultaneously and which all together should render both the diversity and coherence of my practice as a dance dramaturge.

A dance dramaturge’s notebooks
Incidentally, Anne Bogart raises the question of the dramaturg’s ownership within the context where everyone else has a clear domain, and suggests that this must apply to ‘archival materials and structural ideas’. (…) But most interestingly, when I eventually moved on (…), my suitcases were full of ‘archival materials and structural ideas’ – as well as a few maps and stories. (Radosavljevic, 2009, p.50)

The first text corpus will consist of a critical revisiting of my own notebooks. Using Jonathan Burrow’s A choreographer’s Handbook (2010) as a formal model, it will organize the insights I accumulated in my practice in an open, associative form. The ambition of the corpus is to offer other practitioners (both dramaturges and choreographers) concrete tools and ideas to reflect upon their own creative practice.

In my work as a production dramaturge, my interest and focus shifted from supporting the creation of a particular production over the development of a particular artistic language to the creative process as such. If I am able to offer artists tools to transform and improve their creative process eventually also the language will evolve and the work resulting from it. In order to do this I developed with my Canadian friends and colleagues, the performer and choreographer Lin Snelling and the rehearsal director Ginelle Chagnon for Circuit Est in Montréal a workshop model which we called ‘creative ressourcement for choreographers and their collaborators’. Simultaneously my theoretical reflection got more articulated and framed during a short residence in Cyprus (Limassol) and Greece (Athens) in the spring of 2009 where I started to use the cross, the circle and the labyrinth as graphic symbols to discuss the creative process. The Cycladic Museum in Athens has a big collection of clay human figurines: small, symbolic representations of the human body that accompany the death in their gravesin a lot of cultures. Among the collection are the so-called cross figurines, found in Cyprus and dating back to 2000-3000 BC. In its simplest, most schematic form, the human body is represented as a cross. Previous to being a religious symbol, the cross as a graphic symbol represents the basic polarities of our human existence, which are also the basic energy fields along which the human body is aligned with a vertical axis representing the upright position and the horizontal axis, the left-right duality.

The vertical axis of the body, its upright position, represents in all cultures the connection between heaven (air) and earth; the way we organize and centre the world around us as individuals and communities (the village tree, the chimney). It also represents the way we gather and develop our knowledge (again the tree) moving between the intuitive unknown (the spirit of the air) and the experienced and embodied known (the matter of the earth). If the vertical axis organizes our knowledge, the horizontal axis does the same for the energy field that guides our actions, circulating between a receptive (water/yin) and an active (fire/yang) pool.

My interest, experience and understanding of these basic polarities has been fed amongst others by my readings of Mircea Eliade; my practice in yoga, chi kong and other related somatic practices; and has also been a major theme in some of the creative explorations I accompanied as a dramaturge with amongst others Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. As a result, I began to think of and use the cross also as a graphic and schematic representation of the creative process with the vertical axis, connecting intuition and embodied experience and the horizontal axis perception (receptive) and articulation (active). Around each cross, you can draw a circle that activates the polarities, moves them in a seemingly logical and chronological order.

In my experience, it is the moment of perception (receptive action) that most of the time triggers the creative process. The perception of something outside of us – an event in reality, another work of art, another person – and/or the inside sensations related to this perception arouse the desire to dialogue with, to understand, to make it our own, … to create. Often it is an intuitive sense of something still ‘unknown’ that we have perceived or sensed that challenges our curiosity and moves us into action to find our own personal articulation in whatever language or medium we have chosen to express ourselves in. This second quadrant of the creative cycle, to find a personal, authentic articulation of something unknown, intuitively sensed outside of us, seems to be the real challenge, goal of any truly creative process. If successful, that is when such a personal articulation will be realized and found, the process will trans-form (which means a form will be found) the unknown into the known, the other into me. What was first only intuitively perceived will become embodied and experienced. And since this process also most of the time produces a physical result, an oeuvre, a ‘body of work’, it can again be perceived by others and the whole cycle might start again. The creative process defined in this way subscribes the Peircian notion of semiotics that any sign put into the world is an open invitation to be translated and responded to by another sign. The ultimate and essential goal of such a creative process is always personal transformation through the embodiment of new knowledge.

If I place myself as a dramaturge on the horizontal axis of actions and activities, my role shifts from that of a somatic witness (the most receptive one) over that of a dialogue partner or moderator to that of an editor (the most articulated one). As a witness, I use my experience (staying in the fourth quadrant of the creative cycle) of previous processes; the discussions I had with the choreographer in preparation of the process; and me mentally and somatically archiving the previous stages, as a way to ground the creative challenge of the choreographer (moving most of the time in the second quadrant between intuition and articulation). But there is also a real creative aspect to my work when, for instance I use my own intuition to play with the physical and somatic distance to the process, alternating between withdrawal and approach in order to influence the process by my mere absence or presence; or when, in the later stages of the process, I help the choreographer organize and structure the material in its definite shape. For the latter, the work of a film editor like Walter Murch (the image and sound editor of most of the Coppola films) has been for a long time a role model2 and as such it is no coincidence that in the history of dance the not always overtly acknowledged dramaturges where often the composers (as in the case of Cunningham/Cage or Burrows/Fargion) or the exceptional combination of a composer and filmmaker/editor as in the case of Thierry De Mey (with both Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and his sister Michele Anne).

Eventually the graphic model of a chronological cycle around a dialectic cross is too formal and idealized. The reality of the creative act is much more complex. Therefore, I add to the circle and the cross, the form of the ancient labyrinth which puts the two dimensional graphic model into a three dimensional sphere of constant energy movements and shifts, which resembles the fluidity of any good conversation.

The body: language conversations
Creating becomes a conversation when we enter a dialogue with whatever we are doing. In this conversing we are drawn along in the moment by moment flow of sensation, interchange and choice, rather than following a predetermined intention or idea. Conversations grow as we listen and explore – a constantly shifting process of discovery that changes in momentum, rhythm, clarity or chaos as we work. (Tufnell, 2004, p.41)

The second corpus of texts will bring together a series of ongoing dialogues, most of them commissioned by Sadler’s Wells in London. They include conversations between myself and Jonathan Burrows/Matteo Fargion, Rosemary Butcher, Dana Caspersen, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Tim Etchells, Akram Khan and Alain Platel as well as conversations about my own practice as a dance dramaturge with collegues and artists. In the autumn of 2012, some of these past dialogues will already be published by Sadler’s Wells in London and a new series is planned in London with Hofesh Shechter, Jonzi D and Sue Buckmaster. One of the most essential contributions of the dramaturge to a choreographer’s creative process is the ongoing dialogue before, during and after the rehearsal process. In it, we literally practice verbal articulation of the intuitive knowledge and ideas that need to find their embodiment in the work. Verbal articulation remains the intermediate tool with which the choreographer will converse with his artistic partners and collaborators and only by practicing it, will one become more clear and fluent in it.3 The conversation as an oral form also has the advantage that it doesn’t fixate the articulation in a definite form which the written word tends to do but that it remains a fluent, moveable state in-between different voices. As such I have in my own articulation of ideas or insights often given privilege and priority to the dialogue form instead of the written essay which is always to a certain extent a monologue. The dialogues are an embodied reflection at a particular moment in time on a specific artistic practice and as such fulfill themselves a critical and dramaturgical function.

The case studies
Whether we like it or not, we are incarnated. We are bodies on this planet, and all myth and all stories seek the origin and the end of our somatic structure. Myth as story is the life of our body in one or another of its forms. We are all making up stories, finding stories, finding facts to talk about our somatic origin, its growth and its end. (Keleman, 1999, p.68-69)

In a third corpus of texts, I will use the form of the critical essay to discuss and describe a number of limited themes that have been reoccurring throughout very different creations, out of the synchronicity of events and the parallels between my own interests and those of the choreographers I worked with, creating as such ‘a body of work’ that defines my own themes. The case studies will look at these thematic links between different choreographers and different productions and discuss the underlying themes and place them in a larger, philosophical discourse around the body. For the moment three major themes are distinguished.

The mourning body researches how the ritual and performative practice of ‘lamentations’ is at the core of a lot of traditional and contemporary art practices, not only in music, but also in theatre, dance or visual arts. Based on the field research I did in Greece on the living oral tradition of the miroloyia, it shows how these ancient practices can be translated into a contemporary art practice with amongst others Zero Degrees by Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui as an iconic tribute to the victims of the London 2005 bombings.4

The body in-between identities and cultures applies the writings of the French philosopher and psychiater Daniel Sibony on the Entre-deux (1991) and its application to dance in Le Corps et sa danse (1995) on the discussion on inter- and transculturality and researches how in the actual, somatic experience of a dancing body this in between provokes a creative state of ‘con-fusion’. Again my collaboration with British-Bengali choreographer Akram Khan in for instance bahok (2008) is at the origin of these insights.

Finally the body as story and myth uses as a reference point another life inspiring dialogue, Myth and the Body (1999), between somatic therapist Stanley Keleman and scholar Joseph Campbell. They articulate how all mythological images are about the body and how one function of art is to create “evocative images, images that touch and resonate in very deep centers of our impulse system, and then move us from those very deep centers into action.” (p. 34) Myth by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is a creative, contemporary translation of these beliefs.

Notebook, dialogue and critical essay are known forms of writing that I have been practicing on a regular basis all through my career. The real challenge of a PhD research in the arts is the exploration of the (yet) unknown in a personal creative and artistic practice.

A creative praxis: Repeating and Rewriting Distance
Recently, I’ve begun to talk while moving. The subject of this dancing discourse could be almost everything – a news item, a letter from a friend, an article that I’m working on. I’ve found this new performative discourse curiously captivating. In motion my body can stop the flow of a thought or sentence and insist that I notice some phrase, idea, or even a silence. My body catches this moment in movement and repeats it, or enlarges it, until it expands into my verbal focus. Flushed and energized after this kind of work, I sometimes feel as if I’ve reached through to the other side of hysteria – where language and body weave their way in and out of one another, facilitating (instead of blocking) the expressive quality of that ‘other’ discourse. (Cooper Albright, 1997, p.105)

In 2003 the Canadian choreographer and performer Lin Snelling and I started to develop an improvised performance practice, called Repeating Distance. Some of the main topics of the research were: the further integration of voice and movement both as intelligent and physical forms of expressions; the exchange and dialogue between the receptive function of the witness and the articulate function of the performer; the exploration of the naked performance space and the surrounding (urban) landscape as a primary source for an open narrative. Stretched out over a period of almost two years, a full three months of studio research was spent with residences in Belgium and Canada before Repeating Distance was officially premiered in May 2005 as part of the Body Walks project of the Corpus-Festival in Bruges. Since then it has been both performed and presented as a workshop format to offer choreographers and dancers new tools for their creative process.

We continue to teach and perform Repeating Distance, but also started in 2011 a new research that will add and integrate the exploration of writing as a creative and possibly also performative practice to our shared knowledge: Rewriting Distance. While developing Repeating Distance we became more and more aware how the spoken word and the physical action/movement are parallel tracks which are both driven by the mind and the body which have interrelated and interconnected memories. We researched how to navigate these tracks, separately or simultaneously; how to ‘move’ from one to the other through association and translation; to improvise and compose at the same time; how to edit by clear choices of articulation or silence. All these basic insights we now want to expand to the act of writing, which as well is both physical and intellectual and can both benefit from and stimulate the creative thinking and moving we already explored in the dialogue between witness and performer. In order to do this, we will build further on the existing Repeating Distance structure and add a third element, the writing. This form of triangulation will already in its potential order and chronology multiply the possibilities of creative dialogue: Will I write after witnessing you perform? And shall I perform after writing about my witnessing? Or shall I write while performing? And witness after having written down my performance? In order to explore the potential of three parallel tracks, it also necessarily implies to invite a third partner in our conversation who can also challenge the habits that have become installed into our dialogue. The two tracks, stereophonic exploration of voice and movement has the potential to develop into a multi-track, polyphonic space/time where the hand writing or the voice reading aloud what has been written add new creative and somatic dimensions to the conversation between bodies.

Until now Lin Snelling and I have done several research periods in England with Miranda Tufnell and Sally Marie; in Edmonton, Canada with Stefano Muneroni; in Gent, Belgium with Koen Augustijnen; in Limerick, Ireland with Mary Nunan. Further research is planned in Montréal with Catherine Lalonde and with Christopher House in Toronto. They are all are either choreographers with an interest in voice work and writing or writers who also have a physical, performative practice.

The goal of a PhD in the arts should be the bridging of theory and practice and to accompany a creative and artistic practice with a critical reflection. As such the main focus has shifted more and more to the creative practice Rewriting Distance as described above, which researches forms of embodied writing during, before and after a performative practice and how these forms of writing can be both differentiated and interrelated. The next two years, this performative practice will be further researched and documented in a number of research residencies. Its ongoing development can also be followed on the website:

Dance Dramaturgy as a creative, somatic praxis
My PhD research in the arts consists of two major parts: a critical reflection on my past experiences as a dance dramaturge; and the creative process of Rewriting Distance in which the roles of spectator, witness, performer and writer and their potential interaction will be researched and eventually also presented in a performance context.

Most existing literature on dance dramaturgy still tries, from an academic, theoretical point of view to define and argue the potential value and contribution of this relatively young research field and its related profession to the art form. Very little is actually articulated about the actual praxis. Reflecting critically on my own praxis of the past 10 years, using as a case study my work with amongst others Les Ballets C de la B; Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan, I want to focus on the creative and somatic aspects of this praxis.

Promotor: Prof. Dr. Christel Stalpaert, Ghent University.

My own earlier contribution to this, De la dramaturgie du corps en danse/On Dance Dramaturgy/A dramaturgy of the body (2005) introduced the European notion of open dance dramaturgy in the public, performing arts debate in Canada. It was published both in French in Jeu (2005) and in a bilingual version by the Canada Dance Festival (2006).
The book The Conversations, Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje is both in its content and form (a series of dialogues between both men) another lifelong source of inspiration.
Related to this essential need for verbal articulation, I have given my whole career prevalence over simple and clear language instead of the intellectual language bravura of a lot of academic discourse that tries to impress by the creation of constantly new terminology which instead of bridging between the I and the other, between the individual body and the environment, often only creates more distance. A language practice I will try to defend and apply through my whole research and which also has its philosophical fundament in a.o. the writings of David Abram (The Spell of the Sensuous) and his plead for a return to a more embodied form of writing revaluing the qualities of both oral cultures or pictographic languages.
A more extensive version of this topic has recently been published in Receptions of Antiquity, Jan Nelis (ed), Academia Press, Gent, 2011.


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  • Albright, Ann Cooper. (1997). Choreographing difference, The Body and Identity in Contemporary Dance. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press
  • Blok, Suzy, (ed). (2009). Perspectives on Potential Dance Dramaturgies. Amsterdam: Dansmakers
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  • Cools, Guy. (2005). De la dramaturgie du corps en danse. Cahiers de Théâtre Jeu 116, pp. 89-95
  • Cools, Guy. (2011). Giving a Voice to Mourning. In: Jan Nelis, (ed). Receptions of Antiquity. Gent: Academia Press, pp. 145-152
  • Gritzner, Karoline, Patrich Primavesi and Heike Roms, (eds). (2009). On Dramaturgy, special issue of Performance Research, 14 (3)
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  • Van Kerkhoven Marianne. (1997). Le processus dramaturgique. Nouvelles de Danse (Dossier Danse et Dramaturgie), nr. 31, pp. 18-25
  • Wildschut, L. (2009). Reinforcement for the choreographer: the dance dramaturge as ally. In: J. Butterworth and L. Wildschut, (eds.). Contemporary Choreograpy: A Critical Reader. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 383-398
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