My research focuses on my own practice as a dance dramaturge with Les Ballets C de la B, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan (see also bio) and how somatic principles such as the energetic exchange through dialogue or through the act of witnessing are as essential to it as the more accepted critical thinking. I will illustrate the lecture both with examples from my practice as a dramaturge with other artists and from my own performative practices, Repeating and Rewriting Distance, which I developed together with the Canadian choreographer Lin Snelling and in which we are researching the somatic role of the dramaturg in a performative context. See also: www.rewritingdistance.com
How do I move between dancing and writing?
My dancing, her writing
her dancing, his writing
this stew of movement and language
Only through the body – my body, as I move
from past performances to present thoughts. And back and forth.
How do I navigate two courses?
Dis/course? (whose course? Oh, that stuff.)
The physical course (as in performances coursing my veins)
(Albright 1997, 95)
The following is a written follow-up of the presentation I gave at the CARPA 3 colloquium on March 2nd 2013. It discusses the Rewriting Distance practice as performance research and its impact. One of the main research fields of the Rewriting Distance practice is the fundamental questioning of the primary ontological status of writing within a discourse on performance and dance. As such it places the writing next to or embeds it in research methods such as walking, improvisation and conversation. The presentation at the CARPA 3 colloquium followed the same principals in the way that it was mainly improvised; using different text sources as traces of the practice to re-member and recreate its discourse. The following text tries to do the same by bringing different text sources together in a unique, new combination
What came before, Repeating 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. (Albright 1997, 105.)
In 2003, we, the Canadian choreographer and performer Lin Snelling and the Belgian dance dramaturge Guy Cools 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/dramaturge 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 2 years, a full 3 months of studio research was spent with residences in Belgium (amongst others in Arts Centre Monty in Antwerp) and Canada (amongst others at Circuit Est and Studio 303 in Montréal) 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/or presented as a workshop format to offer choreographers and dancers new tools to transform their own creative process in, amongst others:
- Athens at the Isadora Duncan Dance Centre;
- Limassol (Cyprus) on invitation of Pelma;
- Vienna as part of the pro-series of Impulstanz;
- London at the Place as part of their Choreodrome project;
- Nanaimo (BC) on invitation of Crimson Coast Dance Agency;
- Toronto on invitation of Toronto Dance Theatre;
- Montréal on invitation of Circuit Est and Studio 303;
- Tilburg on invitation of Danshuis Station Zuid;
- Edmonton on invitation of the University of Alberta.
Meanwhile Lin Snelling continued to develop her own choreographic and performance practice in collaboration with, amongst others, Peter Bingham (at EDAM in Vancouver); Marc Boivin and Tedi Tafel (in Montréal); the visual artist Sheilagh Keeley in Toronto, and to focus her own research and teaching on the integration of voice and body, teaching voice and singing to dancers and movement to actors. Guy Cools worked all this time as a production dramaturge with, amongst others, Koen Augustijnen (Les Ballets C de la B); Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (Toneelhuis; Eastman); Akram Khan; Daniele Desnoyers, Christopher House, Lia Haraki and Anabel Schellekens and developed and focused his research through his teaching, writing and mentoring on the creative process and the development of tools and strategies to transform it.
We continue to teach and perform Repeating Distance, but in the summer of 2010 we started a new research phase in our creative and artistic dialogue with a new project that wants to add and integrate the exploration of writing as a creative and also performative practice to our shared knowledge.
Rewriting Distance, a performative research.
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. 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 wanted 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.
Lin was originally trained as a journalist and Guy did a combined MA in linguistics and theatre studies before we started the exploration of our somatic knowledge. The written word is for both of us at the origin of our creative praxis and has been accompanying it all the way as a tool to reflect, to document, and to communicate. It now felt the right time to make the full circle and explore its potential as a performative praxis as well.
In order to do this, we built further on the existing Repeating Distance structure. The Repeating/Rewriting Distance practice has a very simple form. It spatially defines the distinctive roles of an audience/spectator sitting behind a witness on a chair at the edge of a performance space in which the performer(s) can freely move and improvise. During the practice there are different, but all of them very simple strategies to rotate between these different roles. The spectator and the witness distinguish themselves by a different engagement towards the performer. The performer first and foremost performs for the witness who as such is inside the performance and bridges between the performer and the audience. While in the original Repeating Distance practice, Lin and I always performed together in front of a real audience, we decided in the Rewriting Distance practice to always invite a third partner so that we could also actively play with the spectator’s position.
(The following fragment is a revised part of an article on Rewriting Distance, co-authored by Guy Cools and Stefano Muneroni for the Canadian Theatre Review 2013):
As part of their research, Snelling and Cools organize one-week residencies in which they invite each time a different third partner, someone who has a particular interest in and experience of the interrelated fields of performer-dramaturge-writer. These guests are asked to participate in the practice, to make propositions to change it and to reflect on it in their own writing. The first two residencies took place in the UK with Miranda Tufnell and Sally Marie. The third residency was held in Edmonton with Stefano Muneroni, and the fourth with Koen Augustijnen in Gent, Belgium. Further residencies have been planned with Catherine Lalonde and Peter Trotzmer in Montréal, Mary Nunan in Limerick, Ireland, Christopher House in Toronto, Paola Bartoletti and Nadia Cusimano in Berlin and Mala Kline and Lia Haraki in Vienna.
In the one-week workshop of Rewriting Distance held in February 2012, Stefano Muneroni was interested in probing the questions of how one can talk about dance and whether the act of writing about dance changes when the temporal distance between writing and dancing is shortened so that they happen almost simultaneously. On this occasion, at least three distinctive but interrelated forms of writing were explored. The first happened during the performative practice. At any moment, any of the three participants could go to the writing table, which was inside the performance space, and add his/her writing as a distinctive voice track to the movement and spoken words of the others. And although the roles and different distances (both physical and mental) between performer/creator, witness/dramaturge and spectator were maintained, part of the research also consisted in allowing for the blurring of the boundaries between these roles. Most of the time the writing happened as part of the performer role; the physical embodiment of the writing, the posture at the table, the physical interaction with the pen and the paper. All these activities became an important aspect of the performative exploration. And the writing or the reading (aloud or in silence) of what was written earlier became an important factor of how to interweave the different storylines created by the different participants. The third voice/track provided additional layers to the notions of contamination and integrity, which defined the exchange, while problematizing the temporal and spatial structure of the event.
The second form of writing happened immediately after the performative practice (mostly the next morning) when each of the three participants reflected on what had happened in his or her own voice, and the results were exchanged by reading them aloud to each other. The third form of writing is the further development of the discourse around the practice in a series of published articles or on the website dedicated to the practice: www.rewritingdistance.com
If David Abram’s claim is true and we have lost our connection to the larger ecological environment and the use of our own body as the memory bank of that connection due to the overdevelopment of a written culture (Abram 1996.), then the Rewriting Distance practice is an attempt to reverse this process. It is a strategy to re-embody the writing by giving priority to the performed text with the commentaries creating concentric circles of distance in time (like in the Jewish Torah) that hopefully stay connected to the original, somatic experience.
The practice of Rewriting Distance challenges the passive role of the dramaturge as the external “eye” that provides perspective to the dancer by placing him/her in the midst of the performance. It also reconfigures the role of writing about a dance performance as an active, dynamic and live experience that has the capacity not only of happening at the same time as the performance but also of becoming part of it and affecting its trajectory. The nexus created by the interaction of three bodies moving, observing, and writing, and their co-creation of a written text developed as part of the performance itself, allows for new ways to conceive the role of dance dramaturgy.
The impact of the research.
I am a firm believer that the goal of any research, a creative process in particular, is not the accumulation of new knowledge (which is only a tool), but self-transformation. This process of self-transformation is always triggered by a moment of self-exposure where you give up what you know to go into the unknown. In my case, this was to go from the role of the witness/dramaturge into that of the performer, or to make the intimate act of writing a performative, public one. As such the impact of the research lies first and foremost in the transformation of your own processes. Similar to the way that fundamental, scientific research is mainly aimed at advancing the scientific community itself, we have been opening up our process from the very first day to the partners we invite into it; and the professional artistic communities in which we are doing the research by organizing workshops parallel to the research, in which we share our practice with other professionals; for instance, recently in Montréal to a mixed group of choreographers and playwrights.
The fact that the research has been facilitated by a Public Outreach Grant of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, is both an implicit recognition and legitimation of the research within an academic context, but it also implies specific requirements on how to define, evaluate and document it, which, as this third CARPA colloquium proved, can be very different depending on the different contexts; geographically or more fundamentally between the professional arts community and the academic one.
To conclude my presentation, I like to offer you a sample of the less academic and more creative writing that has resulted from the research and which is fully documented on the www.rewritingdistance.com website.
A sample of the conversational writing resulting from Rewriting Distance.
Limerick, November 1st, 2013.
I read a poem The Red Poppy by Louise Gluck. It begins with the following lines:
“The great thing,
is not having
a mind. Feelings:
oh I have those: they govern me”
Lin in the crashing big white waves swept up by the squawking bird’s fury. Crackling arms.
We talk about Eavan Boland’s poem, Night Feed. Later Guy is rocked and cradled, a baby round as a Buddha. Propelled by the flowing sweep of Eavan Boland’s words remembered, Mary lifts him into her arms. Soft hair that holds traces of mint and fennel, smell now gone, leaving a tender trace.
Lin reads Brendan Kenelly’s poem The Happy Grass as she traces circles on the white page. I think of dead bodies buried in black earth being heard by the singing green grass.
Pilgrimage over icy mountains leads me to an igloo and shoes made of fish skin measured.
Golden hair plaited with stories of curls and curlers and cow’s licks that move clockwise in circles.
How lovely to hear the whole poem Digging by Seamus Heaney read by Lin lying on her back as Guy sits writing at the desk. The full poem read. Red which reminds me of the wheelbarrow and now the poppy too opening its heart to the sun.
It is the day of sun and I also called it Thursday of three.
After our practice, we write as usual, but for some reason I can only remember what we have done in short bursts and as soon as I begin by writing them down, they keep bursting into my memory and I recall the whole practice in this manner of bursts.
He begins by opening the doors and instantly the fresh morning air enters the sunlit room.
She looks out at me from underneath the white. I think ice, Igloo.
She braids my hair from out of nowhere.
He shows me two dead bees and a lock of hair: potion for motion.
She looks at me from the blanket of paper. I am afraid. She says “selfish”.
He says dropped and it stays. The page stays.
I am afloat on a raft of words. Dancing the creases, ironing them into the air.
He, all of a sudden from behind the camera. He says “clockwise”.
She is sliding and skipping, shunting her body forward in space. I think Hawkins, how did she do that?
He puts the pen to his tongue and begins to write and I am reminded of the name of a childhood classmate.
The rain came when I was busy writing. “When did it start to rain?” I ask you. “A few minutes ago”, you reply.
The blades of grass are singing in the rain. “To see the world in a blade of grass, eternity in an hour.”
Reciting the poems of famous Irish male poets. “There are women, too”, you say, “maybe it doesn’t really matter”. He asks: “What is the name of a famous Irish female poet?” You say, “Eavan Boland”.
It matters. Everything invisible and groundless sings through the centuries of rain, the caves, the wells, the magic of land and story and sea. All of this making the word “memory”.
because I am shattered”
(The Red Poppy by Louise Gluck)
“By God, The old man could handle a spade
Just like his old man”
The Happy Grass by Brendan Kennelly
Some of this week’s realizations:
The importance of creating gaps to be filled in; leaving things to be found; dropping things to be picked up.
The dark side of somatics. It is not about interiorizing your awareness. It is about keeping your awareness for the environment alive, on the surface, skin deep.
The beauty of revisiting, re-membering, re-composing with past fragments.
But also stay present. In this room. With the weather changing constantly from rain to sun and back.
The grass singing. The sun being at the heart of the poppy.
To allow yourself to appropriate someone else’s poetry; your own secrets; the nickname only your closest relatives know.
The level of trust, of openness, it requires to be vulnerable, to allow “to see through”, to walk and stumble on long forgotten words.
“They gave their sorrow a name
And drowned it”
(Eavan Bolland, Atlantis, A lost sonnet)
How we progress in the practice: spiralling.
How intimacy is never a matter of scale.
How it is okay to be stuck, to be stung.
Guy Cools, May 2013, Montréal
After having trained as a dramaturge, Guy Cools became involved with the new developments in dance in Flanders from the 1980’s, initially as a dance critic and from 1990 onwards as theatre and dance director of Arts Centre Vooruit in Ghent. He curated dance events in Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Venice and Montréal. In 2002, he left Vooruit to dedicate himself fulltime to production dramaturgy with, amongst others, Les Ballets C. de la B., Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (B), Danièle Desnoyers (Montréal), Akram Khan (London). Since October 1st, 2011, he is associate professor in Dance Studies at the Fontys Hogeschool voor de Kunsten in Tilburg, Netherlands. With Lin Snelling and Ginelle Chagnon he developed a series of workshops to support the creative process of artists, choreographers in particular. He regularly gives lectures and publishes in Belgium, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, Holland, Greece and Cyprus.
Abram, David 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Vintage Books, Random House.
Albright, Ann Cooper 1997. Choreographing difference. The Body and Identity in Conemporary Dance. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Cools, Guy and Muneroni, Stefano 2013. “Rewriting Distance: Bridging the Space between Dramaturg and Dancer.” In Hansen, Phil (ed.) Dance and Movement Dramaturgy, Canadian Theatre Review 155, University of Toronto Press. pp. 54–57.