A choreographer’s work can be highly communal, yet also strangely isolating. In the rehearsal studio, the dancers generally wait in silence as the choreographer pieces together sequences and makes decisions by trial and error, sorting through options in keeping with a concept that she may not share with anyone else.
That’s the choreographer-as-God model. But some choreographers have turned to a more collaborative process, using dance dramaturges to help work through the creation and staging of a dance. The practice is well established in Europe and Canada and has its roots in the theater world, which has a long-standing tradition of dramaturges, who conduct research on an existing play or assist and support a working playwright. Dramaturges may read and edit drafts of a script, take notes in rehearsals, offer informed feedback and write program notes.
How does this work in dance, a world of images and actions, rather than text?
“A lot of times, I’m just someone for the choreographer to talk to,” says University of Michigan dance professor Clare Croft, who works as a dance dramaturge. She became interested in it while earning her PhD in a program that included a lot of theater people.
“I was so jealous of how much they collaborated, the designers and playwright and director, all sitting around a table talking about what the piece was about,” she says. “Dancers have fewer resources. The economics have limited us. And there’s this 19th-century notion of artistic genius, where the choreographer is supposed to be the person from which everything springs. Essentially the choreographer is the playwright and director.”
And more. Often, most of the decisions about a new work rest on the choreographer — not only the concept, steps, music and casting, but also choices about lighting, costumes, set design and research. The choreographer might be running the company, too, and worrying about bookings and payroll.
“If you’re young and self-produced, having almost no resources, doing all the work yourself in five different ways, you’re incredibly stressed,” says Katherine Profeta, a dance dramaturge who has worked with New York-based choreographer Ralph Lemon for more than 20 years and teaches dramaturgy at the Yale School of Drama.
“Wouldn’t it be great to have someone enter into a conversation about your artistic goals?” she says. “Having someone help think about the larger aims of what you’re doing, and where is the joy or the political passion or any other reason you might think a new work is important. A dramaturge can help someone to see that.”
As a choreographer builds a dance, a dramaturge can be a second set of eyes. She can document changes in the work and act as a stand-in for the audience, monitoring where the dancing might lose impact or be confusing.
Lemon began working with Profeta when he was creating a commissioned piece at Yale and was told he would have helpers in the room: a dramaturge, stage manager and production assistant.
“I was polite and said, ‘Okay,’ ” Lemon recalls with a laugh. “I’m used to being in a room with just me and the dancers.”
At first, it was uncomfortable.
“There was a little suspicion about what does it mean to have this many people in the room with me while I’m creating something?” Lemon says. “For me, dance-making was about that private language I was creating with my dancers, and at some point, you perform that. But with Katherine, now there was always a public quotient to my private space.”
Prompted by Profeta’s questions about his pieces and reminders of his stated goals, Lemon started trying to be more generous with his work — to share his ideas and his own questions about it.
“It changed my method,” he says. “It helps me keep my process expansive, and keep it really wide.”
Croft says the dance world has more people functioning as dramaturges than it realizes. “It may be that someone has a roommate that everyone knows has a great perspective, and can they come in for the run? Or in some settings, it may be the ballet mistress or the longtime design collaborator.”
That’s how it works in the New York-based Monica Bill Barnes & Company. Barnes collaborates with a team drawn from the theater world, including her chief partner, creative producing director Robert Saenz de Viteri. His background is in devised theater, where a creative team builds a work together from scratch.
Barnes says she fashioned her company “after a certain dissatisfaction with the art form.” She has sought ways of making dance more welcoming to an audience, particularly to those who have never seen a dance performance. To do this, she began adopting various theater methods, including having her collaborators serve as de facto dramaturges, with an eye on clarity and openness.
“We wanted to create a frame that gives people a way in,” Barnes says, speaking on her way to a recent residency at the University of Maryland, where she began work on a piece called “The Running Show,” presenting dance as a sport. “And the tools were theatrical: creating character and context.”
In this way, Barnes has developed an especially outgoing approach. In “The Museum Workout,” she led visitors at an energetic pace through New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; since it premiered in 2017, she has toured it to other museums. In “Happy Hour,” Barnes immerses audiences in a comically awkward office party. (Her company returns to U-Md. next fall to perform “Happy Hour,” on Nov. 21 and 22.)
“That standard of the choreographer as God — I so disagree with that,” she says. “The choreography is there to serve the show, and the choreographer alone is not making the show. The creative team is making the show.”
Presenters are seeing the value of dramaturges as a way to smooth the connections between dance and audience. When a choreographer shows up for a residency at the Lumberyard, a performing arts campus in Catskill, N.Y., she gets to work with Melanie George, the Lumberyard’s dramaturge.
“I come with the money,” George says. “In the same way they get tech support, space and time, they also get me.”
George began hosting pre-show talks with audiences, highlighting themes and ideas to watch for in the evening’s performance. For this, she needed to spend time observing rehearsals, and her role evolved into assisting the artists.
Her input in one piece helped unearth a theme. She was working with choreographer Kimberly Bartosik, a former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, on a piece that at times was entirely illuminated, including the audience. This meant that when dancers were exiting and standing to the side of the stage, they could be seen. George started asking questions: Are they really off the stage? What are they supposed to be doing there? Are they still performing, or is it down time?
“It’s a small thing, but it ended up being a large conversation,” George says. “I was saying, here are themes I’m seeing — exertion and recuperation. Were you guys aware of this?”
Peggy Olislaegers is a longtime independent dance dramaturge based in Amsterdam, where she also works on research and development for the Dutch National Ballet. (Yes, among many luxuries, the company invests in R&D.) She works with young choreographers at the ballet’s choreographic academy, and she sometimes has to convince them that she’s not there to dilute their autonomy. This is a fundamental concern because a dramaturge’s work upsets the traditional hierarchy of the rehearsal room.
“There is a presumption that when you have a dialogue, you will move away from your very specific, authentic idea. So that’s the first thing you start to challenge,” Olislaegers says. “Very often in the beginning, I tell people my questions are not about doing it differently because I think your idea is weird. It’s an invitation to start being playful with the idea, to start moving around it and giving it breath. You can trust me with your idea! But let’s take the full potential of it.
“I am here,” she adds, “to bring you even closer to your ideas and authenticity, by challenging you to explore it from different perspectives.”