Dramaturgy for Jerks

I’ve snuck into a couple of rehearsals and pretended to be a dramaturg. Really, I was invited into the room, but it seems like I still have to pretend. It’s because I’m not sure if dramaturgy is the work’s intestines or if it’s the work’s haircut.

Is the dramaturg supposed to hold the choreographer/director accountable? Or is it the other way around? Who gets to keep the most secrets? If the dramaturg calls in sick, is the dramaturgy still there? Is rehearsal cancelled?

I know that writing about Dramaturgy with a capital D is quite treacherous. (Help.)



Sunday afternoon. Brooklyn Arts Exchange.
MindFlock, day three. (Ivan Talijancic and Alexandra Beller’s “Intensive Workshop in Directing and Dramaturgy for Choreographers and Directors.”)

A solo performer embraces a wood-paneled column and slowly slides down to the floor. She stands again, with her arms wrapped around the column the whole time. Then one arm flies up, before her whole body crumples back down to the floor once more. She’s begging the column not to leave. She’s grieving the column’s death. She’s waking the column up from a poison-apple nap.

Previously, a duet had completed the same column choreography but the column was their apartment. A trio pensively rotated around it, turning it into a low-key maypole, or maybe an interactive exhibit at a tetherball museum.

With each go, Ivan and Alexandra swap performers in and out of different groupings and offer some new instruction: do it again, but this time with the audience as your partner. Or do it again, but this time without text, while blasting “My Neck, My Back.”

Alexandra and Ivan celebrate the infinite readings each original performance of the shared movement and text provokes. The workshop’s participants all marvel at how each adjustment drastically changes the meaning of each performance. MindFlock drills this way of working. Change dynamic, change tempo, change text, change sound, do it in reverse. Make a change, but don’t think about it.

“How am I going to make my scene more poignant?” Ivan asks, hypothetically. “You just make a technical adjustment.”

In MindFlock, add Klezmer music and tell a performer to keep eye contact with the audience and suddenly an opaque two-minute dance becomes a hilarious, galumphing clown performance. Directing stumbles into dramaturgy, and anything can become, as Ivan puts it, “the red thread that connects seemingly disparate parts.” Mindflock instructs performers to get into the studio and make decisions first; the dramaturgy will follow.

A performance-making process that emphasizes the interchangeability of all choices makes me wonder what happens to the artist’s impulse—that vague hankering that drives an artist to the studio in the first place. For me, this impulse, this effort, is somehow wrapped up in a work’s beauty. (And by “beauty,” I of course mean that feeling of a work crawling up off a stage and onto my chest.) You can goad me with poignancy, with the bright lights of meaning, but I think I want to know an artist is trying to work out a very specific thing. I want to see such specificity in a work (with movement, text, intention, time, space, glitter, life, death, vomit) that I know it couldn’t have simply been something else given better-seeming options.



Thursday night. David H. Koch Theater. Paul Taylor American Modern Dance.

I’m not wearing a floor-length fur coat, so I feel like the yokel I really am. I’m here to nurse my twin crushes on Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg. Before curtain, my fellow audience members surrounding me are mutinous. A grown man sitting behind me keeps trying to steal a better seat. The usher does not tolerate this. She begs him, “Sir? Sir? Sir!” a dozen times before he returns to the cheap seat he paid for. He tells his companion the usher is being unfair. (She isn’t.)

A woman a few rows ahead tries the same thing. The usher shuts it down.

The house lights go out and while the conductor receives his applause, Seat Stealer makes a break for it. “Sir! We have late seating!” He frowns and he shakes his head. He returns to his seat and tells everyone around him, “I’m going to file a complaint.” Cascade begins, and a corps of dancers, lush and green, vault through the rich Bach air: all formal arms, flying, bouncing. This pleases Seat Stealer.

Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace announces a different relationship with the Koch Theater, partially because of the juicy thuds and squeaks of dancers connecting with the floor (even though they are actually flying). I don’t know what particular hankering Merce Cunningham was attempting to sort out when he started working on Summerspace, but it possesses a clarity that doesn’t seek to impart meaning. Merce and Paul use their dancers’ arms in mystically similar ways. Though in Summerspace, the dancers become indifferent, impeccably speckled birds.

Seat Stealer announces before Summerspace’s curtain call has ended that, “that was too modern for me.” He is a dramaturg in his own way, and I still hate him.

Paul Taylor’s compositions are dazzling, and Company B’s smoothie of World War II boogie-woogie Americana gets much of the audience bopping back and forth in their seats. Company B is prefaced by a disappointing dramaturgical program note: “The songs express typical sentiments of Americans during World War II.

“That was wonderful!,” says Seat Stealer.

I leave Lincoln Center convinced that ushers are the ultimate authors of the work, and wondering if dramaturgy will ever truly be able to get grown men to behave themselves.



Friday night. Brooklyn Academy of Music. 887
by Robert LePage.

Robert LePage tells a story about home. He manipulates props and set pieces and English and French to track the function of memory. Nobody near me tries to steal a seat, but they are audibly gasping at 887’s beauty.

I found this in a bio for Robert LePage’s dramaturg: “Peder Bjurman is known for his stagings of highly visual theatre pieces, often based on an abstract or narrative text, giving equal importance to sound, light and the performers.”

I can’t tell if dramaturgy is something that’s found inside of the work, or if it’s something that’s applied to the work. (I don’t wonder this about directing. The director has to get Juliet up to the balcony; the dramaturg is busy casting spells.)



Two weeks later. My kitchen.

Possibly: choreography robs a bank. Dramaturgy drives the getaway car.

Possibly: dramaturgy makes a mess of all the signs and symbols in a work. Directing tidies them up.

Also possibly: the artist gives you something to hold on to, and you can call it what you want.

Contributor

Willie Filkowski

WILLIE FILKOWSKI is a Brooklyn-based writer & performer. He hopes to one day become a Weimaraner.

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