Guest blogger Eleanor Russell is a PhD candidate in Theatre at Northwestern University.
What does the dancing body know? How does it come to know it? The question of knowledge production and ways of knowing took center stage on May 9th at Cultural Conversations: Dance + Dramaturgy, sponsored by High Concept Labs and Chicago Dancemakers Forum. The full day of events included panel discussions, lunchtime conversations and a focal open rehearsal.
Both dance and dramaturgy are ways of knowing the world and the self; indeed, as a panelist noted in the opening discussion, the body itself is a kind of dramaturg. The presence of a dramaturg is ultimately, as choreographer Reggie Wilson put it, “just a way to get another smart person in the room.” The production of knowledge, through the body as well as by a dramaturg, is an important goal for these artists and scholars.
How do we use dramaturgical resources to improve our dances, to learn even more about the potentialities of the body and movement?
Dance + Dramaturgy panelists and participants were never just talking heads. Participants were invited to learn and express themselves with their bodies and voices, supported by two dance performances. The Seldoms performed an excerpt from their work-in-progress about Lyndon Baines Johnson in an impromptu fashion in the middle of the morning panel. The seemingly spontaneous dancing, preceded by conversation and followed by more conversation, made a formalist point about the interconnectedness of discourse and dance. In this way, I again saw dance as a kind of discourse, a way of knowing.
The second performance was a rehearsal “blind date,” with dancer Darrell Jones in a session with dramaturg Kat Zukaitis for the first time. Jones moved through the space while Zukaitis sat on the floor. Both spoke the same amount, and again the seamlessness of applied dramaturgy and dance performance was exemplified. To speak is to move. To move is to know the body, to know what of what it is capable. While Jones and Zukaitis were in conversation, and with the former’s flowing yet grounded movements, the audience experienced the story of this dance as well.
But sometimes, we learned as the day progressed, the audience doesn’t know the story of a dance. Sometimes the way of knowing a dance is to not really know it at all. There is value in the feeling of alienation or confusion. In discussion of her solo project A Body in Places, celebrated dancer Eiko Otake emphasized: “We dance about something, but how much do we want it to be clear to the audience what we are dancing about?” The issue of “about,” for Eiko, seemed divorced from the process-oriented work she does with her dramaturg, Lydia Bell. Even in the event of confusion, the audience will stay with you, the artist, because you love what you do. As Eiko said, ultimately, “enthusiasm is infectious.”
Specifically, though, Eiko’s enthusiasm was infectious. Just watching her speak and move about the space, spry and engaged, was enough to feel the mental exertion from the day’s earlier events ease up a little. Her movement, like her words, were both focused and targeted, yet her engagement was flexible: she seized upon an idea from Lydia or Peter Taub (of the Museum of Contemporary Art) and ran with it, taking it to the edge of possibility. If the body is a dramaturg and a dancer is always already a dramaturg, then the job as an artist is to realize this and push oneself to know as much as one can.
In this way, dramaturgy in contemporary dance is as much about awareness as it is about discovery.