everything is music

Recently I asked my colleague, theater director Mark Jackson, to come into a rehearsal for ridetherhythm, a dance I’ve been developing for almost a year that collides Antigone with the housewife in the Todd Haynes’ movie Safe.  The piece features text, song and movement. Jackson and I have worked together extensively in studio exploring Anne Carson’s Antigonick through several workshops with actors and dancers.  When I initially invited Mark, I asked him to “wreck” what I had made independently with the hope that his intervention would bring my own voice into sharper focus.  The utility of having another artist wreck your work is Susan Rethorst’s idea.  Describing the experience of her first “wrecking” with Tere O’Connor in NYC, Rethorst wrote, “He entered into the rehearsal process and looked at the piece as though it was to become his from that moment forward, changing it to his liking, imposing his own aesthetic with complete disregard for my intentions. I then took back the rehearsals, [it was] akin to culture shock; disorienting, the center of gravity shifted.”

When Mark came into rehearsal, I observed, took notes, and stayed out of the way.   I soon realized that something was happening in the room other than a “wrecking” of my work.  Mark was prodding the material to become more fully itself.  Mark made some changes to the content as you might see it notated on the page (for example, removing text, but keeping the blocking), but for the most part, the surface of the dance was relatively unchanged.  However, he utterly transformed the guts of the piece.  After his interventions, the work had more clarity, energy and impact.  He hadn’t been a dance wrecker. He had been a dramaturge.

Indeed, choreographic interest in Rethorst’s wrecking premise tracks the rising love affair with dramaturgy in contemporary dance.  What needs drive these parallel trends?

Here are some good questions about the role of the dramaturge in contemporary dance:
Is dramaturgy interference, intrusion or is it filling in where there is a lack of some kind? Does it perform a need for the market of dance making? Is the dramaturge a translator, interrogator, a ‘prober’, interpreter or provocateur? Does dramaturgy function as a support in the lonely act of making or does it split the body of the choreographer in two?

Like all artists, contemporary choreographers need fresh eyes on their work.  One of the hallmarks of Rethorst’s approach to choreography is her emphasis on cultivating a receptive responsiveness to the work.  But it’s hard to be constantly receptive to something you consider every day over an extended period of time.  Patrice Pavis’ Dictionary of Theatre’s summary of the responsibilities of the theatre dramaturge includes “intervening from time to time in rehearsals as a critical observer with a fresher pair of eyes than the director” and similarly, “looking after relations with a potential audience.” Hildegard de Vuyst, when asked about what she does as a dramaturge in Alain Platel’s process, has said: “I consider myself the first audience, I ask myself – ‘what does the work do to me?’”

But exactly what kind of “other” eyes do postmodern choreographers need on their work?  Contemporary choreographers need outside eyes on their work that can see time in a visual way—in other words, people who can see visual information in terms of time.  Postmodern dance creates deconstructed landscapes in which movement is an independent language in its own right, not an adjunct to music or story.  As Susanne Traub has written, “In a deconstructed landscape, everything can be a symbol, although the symbols may refer to nothing beyond themselves. All material is of equal value: text, music, dancers, actors, bodies, space, time, light etc.” Indeed, my material, prior to Mark’s interventions, was extremely abstract and deconstructed.  It was difficult (for audience as well as performers) to discern a narrative thruline.

In a fractured aesthetic realm, choreography must have an internal music.  Not a rhythm based on story or actual music, but an internal song.  The strength of the internal rhythms within Merce Cunningham’s choreography is part of what makes his work so commanding.  Andre Lepecki has said that when he comes into Meg Stuart’s process as a dramaturge,  “[t]he thing is that I can reinvent is [the external] eye. For instance, I can make it listen”  (emphasis mine).

Indeed, Jackson responded to my palette of abstraction by tuning the material in relationship to time. He has a particular sensitivity for the inherent musicality of material, and much of his coaching zeroed in on the performer’s relationship to time (does the material crescendo? have the feeling of a countdown?).  Katharine Hawthorne remarked that Mark’s coaching “changed my experience of time passing.”  Jackson said to the performers:

Find the meaning through the rhythm.

Everything is music.

As a performer, how do you summon intention within abstraction?  As a choreographer, how do you shape it? You listen to the material.  You listen and you respond.   I’m reminded of something I wrote many years ago, in an article titled, “The Language of the Listening Body”:

A listening body is engaged in finding its constantly changing relationship to the environment. The listening body constantly locates itself in space and time….The language of the listening body has as much to do with placement of the body in space as with physical vocabulary. The listening body listens not only with the ears, but listens for a relationship to the environment, and places itself accordingly in space.

Contemporary dancers must inhabit abstract choreography with the same kind of attention that most associate with improvisation.  Following are some key phrases and prompts that Mark offered the performers along these lines:

How does what’s happening in the room affect you on the inside?
Let your choice (to be still) be in response to something happening in the space.
Be in a charged state of alertness.
Be sensitive to what’s triggering your actions.
What’s happening inside you?
What’s triggering your actions?

What we pay attention to defines our work.  How can I constantly pay attention to principles of presence in the creative practice?

Because neither music nor story anchors postmodern dance, postmodern performers have a bigger responsibility than in classical or modern dance (e.g., Graham) to be dramaturges for choreographers. Again, Lepecki:

The dancers in most contemporary works today have to produce the material, to think about the scenes, they have to choreograph themselves. So, it ends up that the dancers are also making dramaturgical decisions in a way. They’re making the choreographic decisions and they come up with ideas to solve the scenes sometimes.

Mark Jackson’s visit to rehearsal reminded me of the importance of infusing abstraction with a visceral internal music.  Dancers, dramaturges, and wreckers are all resources for “othering” our work so that we can hear its nature anew.  As with all forms of collaboration, my dialogue with Mark pulled my work further away from me, which allowed the work to emerge more fully.   The wrecking and dramaturge trends express the timeless desire of the artist to birth something greater than herself. In the words of T.S. Eliot:

What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.

Sometimes, it’s through surrender that we hear our voice.


A big thanks to Mark Jackson and the performers: Jeremy Bannon-Neches, Katharine Hawthorne, James Graham, Evan Johnson, Megan Brian, and Tegan Schwab.

ridetherhythm will be performed as part of Hope Mohr Dance’s home season at ODC Theater April 10-13, 2014.   The work was made possible and developed through ODC Theater’s Unplugged program and through the Converge series at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

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[...] of improvisation, where the dancers respond kinetically to their inner and outer environment. Mohr writes in her blog The Body is the Brain: “Because neither music nor story anchors postmodern dance, postmodern [...]