Indigenous Dramaturgy

I have to stop making promises that I have little hope of keeping. Yes, that means all things March Dance were a bust. I was so caught up in my own dance development that I saw nothing.

However, I did engage in a dance activity involving the facilitation of a workshop regarding Indigenous dance dramaturgy held by Critical Path and led by Jasmine Gulash.

The term dramaturgy was introduced by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing as a series of essays between 1767 and 1769 published as Hamburg Dramaturgy to articulate the process of judgement in relation to the structure of a dramatic performance.[1] This includes the performative arc, or rhythm, determining the positioning of the buildup and subsequent release of tension within a performance. To put it simply, the role of the dramaturg is as intermediary between the theatre makers’, the authors’, directors’, cast members’, set and costume designers’, and composers’ intent, and the prospective audience experience.

Subsequently, a workshop dedicated to Indigenous dramaturgy is a very contentious thing for it both acknowledges that there is an avenue for the Indigenous theatrical paradigm within the European theatrical canon, including the venues whereby it is housed, while simultaneously set as a distinct entity apart from it. One such contentious point brought up in the workshop was the mandatory need for a dedicated Indigenous dramaturg for an Indigenous dramatic product, whereby I asserted that the opposite may be more crucial. The discourse between an Indigenous writer/ performance arts maker and a dramaturg who is well versed in western theatrical convention could in fact prompt the Indigenous creative to articulate their perspective, of cultural alterity, with more clarity than with a dramaturg who is well versed in Indigenous cultural ways of being and doing. Because there is a shared shorthand of assumed intercultural knowledge, crucial foundational information may be lost to those outside the community because it may be overlooked.

Consequently, to combat cross cultural misunderstanding there has been a tendency for Indigenous artists (including myself) to take a position as teachers of culture within our works. This includes assuming the tone and trappings of the pedagogue. It is an all-too-common trap which can hinder artistic diversity and growth, as well as imbue a patronising or condescending air to a production. By entering a dramaturgical relationship with a cultural outsider, new literacies have the potential to be built through the development of artistic strategies, as opposed to perpetuating tired pedagogical representations. In his paper On Dance Dramaturgy dramaturg Guy Cools observes that,

“In the field of neuroscience, studies have shown that engagement is always the result of a combination of recognition and surprise. Too much recognition leads to boredom.

Too much surprise doesn’t allow spectators to connect, to enter your world.”[2]

For the Indigenous artist, or any artist operating outside, or on the peripheries of the Western artistic canon, this means we tread a fine line between being overly didactic and vague or inaccessible. Although one could argue this is a universal artistic dilemma regardless of underpinning cultural influence.

Australian Indigenous contemporary dance representations authored by Australian First Nations choreographers reflect a relatively recent occurrence in terms of content and structure as does the necessitation of a dramaturg in the dance making process. I am in my mid-fifties, and when I was an emerging artist, I never dreamt of hiring a dramaturg. Although I must admit that my income is steady because I am now regularly engaged as a dramaturg on a range of projects. Alternatively, in lieu of a dedicated dramaturg I would, and still do, spill my artistic beans to any passing ear. I am probably avoided in many social gatherings because of this tendency to single-mindedly steer the conversation toward my latest project, whereupon I expound upon the challenges of realising my current conceptual preoccupation. When I say “any passing ear” I mean it, no relative, friend, peer, acquaintance or casual passerby is exempt.

One could argue that to dedicate a position within the choreographic process alludes to a heightened correlation in status. As a choreographer, it is still considered a luxury if you can write a dramaturg into your budget. However, for emerging choreographers the allocation of a dramaturg reveals that precious time during the creative process has been dedicated to the intended audience experience. Too many times I have asked an emerging artist what it is they want to make with them paying scant, if any, regard for the experience of the eventual witnesses to their creative endeavors.

This term “witness” is crucial to the performing arts unless one is performing solely for cathartic purposes. To describe his practice as dramaturg, Cool uses many terms including “midwife” and “kitchen help” and, by drawing upon the writing of renowned pioneer of experimental performance British artist Tim Etchells, as that of “somatic witness”.[3] To be a somatic witness implies an active rather than passive role. In fact, the concept of surveillance is pivotal to Aboriginal culture in Australia where interrelatedness is a fundamental precept. This interrelatedness is demonstrated through the introduction of myself to establish kin protocols, determining how I must physically interact with every Aboriginal person I meet. In remote areas where skin groupings based on specific environmental representations are still practised, these behaviours are still highly regulated and determine suitable marriage prospects and include avoidance measures. I experienced this as a student of NAISDA Dance College as I was adopted by the Yolngu community of Darlingbuy in preparation for cultural residency to the Northern Territory.

In her research into the Yolngu of Northeast Arnhem Land anthroplogist Astrid Bonfield refers to the Yolngu term djungaya to represent a reciprocal manager/custodian relationship. The term Yothu Yindi, used by the popular Australian Aboriginal rock music band and the subsequent foundation which organises the Garma festival, is so named because it encapsulates this overriding Yolngu principle of reciprocity. Yothu meaning child and Yindi meaning big who is djagamirr gnandi watangu (translating as care-having mother’s holder) or mother.[4] Additionally, the Warlpiri term for kin owners is kirda in this reciprocal relationship, and the managers are called kundungurlu. Bonfield references anthropologist Dianne Bell who asserts that the kirda/kundungurlu relationship can be discerned through painted patterning on the body and dancing boards in conjunction with the angle at which the boards are held and the spatial relationship of the dancers to one another whilst performing.[5]

However, Indigenous dramaturgy is not confined to facilitating the audience experience. Indigenous dramaturgy is also about post-colonial cultural interventions. It is about disrupting Western hegemony, or dominance, in the arts. Therefore, as dramaturgs we also must encourage choreographers and directors to be rhythmically discordant, to fly in the face of the drama in three acts. I am again reminded of Marrugeku’s Le Dernier Appel which was addressing post colonia political and social instability and inequity in relation to the Indigenous peoples of Australia and New Caledonia and which challenged me on so many levels; from its extremely slow beginning, with defiant bodies standing staring at us in what felt like an eternity, to finish with the lights and sound suddenly dropping to a deadened halt, with the dancers in full flight.

So, in closing, I hereby make no promises in regard to the content of next month’s blog, only that there will be one and I will have written it.

Vicki Van Hout
FORM Dance Projects
Blogger in Residence

[1] Arons, Wendy, Michael M Chemers, and Sara Eigen Figal. “The ‘Open-Sourced’ Hamburg Dramaturgy: A Twenty-First-Century Invitation to Interact with an Eighteenth-Century Work in Progress.” Theatre topics 24, no. 2 (2014): 145–148.

[2] Cools, Guy. “ON DANCE DRAMATURGY.” Cena (2019): 49

[3] Cools,“ON DANCE,” 44, 47

[4] Astrid Bonfield, Songs of the Morning Star: A Study of a Musical, Textual and Ritual Complex at Gapuwiyak and Bukudal, Northern Australia. (The University of Manchester (United Kingdom), 1998), 110
Franca Tamisari, “The Meaning of the Steps is in Between: Dancing and the Curse of Compliments.” The Australian Journal of Anthropology 11, no. 2 (2000): 278

[5] Bell 1983, p. 127 in Bonfield, Songs of the Morning Star, 46