Image: Alex Apt
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I am sitting in the rehearsal room, the big hall of the Parramatta Town Hall, multi-tasking. Cloé Fournier is in full action mode in prep for a showing this afternoon for the production team of her new work Mea Culpa. I have been her mentor and more recently her dramaturg on this project.
I find myself as last minute replacement quite often these days. I am beginning to feel like a Volvo. Am I that dependable? If so, not a bad place to be I guess. Ah, but I digress.
Dramaturg. Outside eye. It’s a peculiar position. In the early days I never officially availed myself of one, although my composing genius, Elias Constantopedos (who was incidentally too young for a licence), was also my sounding board as we juggled sections of my overall non-linear narratives like letters in the popular 1970s square sliding game.
I realise dramaturgy involves much more than tweaking the overall arrangement of a show. Still, I have been asking myself why the trend for dramaturgical intervention at all in a dance context which typically lasts about an hour? I can almost hear the obvious retort, “Because the audience in this context is a captive one, dufus, that’s why we need a dramaturg.” Another even more obvious reason for employing a dramaturg would be to attract all of those potential theatregoers who are too frightened to attend an evening of dance, of being caught out without a clue as to what is happening on stage.
I confess that I usually meander through the halls of many an art gallery not knowing what the hell I’m witnessing. The key to the white box gallery experience is to just relax and free associate isn’t it? If so, why isn’t this an official option in the black box? Perhaps dramaturgy has become a necessity because the producer/presenter powers that be want to make sure the ball is always rolling in the direction of one hundred percent mindless comprehension in order to snare more bums on seats.
If this is so, if the audience member has to be in full possession of the artist’s intent, then I fear the dance is in danger of being hoodwinked by the whole Hollywood package, whereby sappy proclamations of love abound at every turn and there’s a tried and tested backing track to prompt the audience when things have taken an unexpected detour. Cue violins to run away from the bogeyman lurking in the dark alleyway.
Aren’t we, as art makers, in serious jeopardy of exonerating ourselves from artistic culpability if we rely on systems to regulate the dance theatre experience too much? By narrowing the parameters for expression in favour of a didactic message aren’t we in serious jeopardy of killing the very thing that differentiates the dance experience from the established theatrical one? Are we eradicating the scope for the poetic, which deliberately employs ambiguity for the reader to dwell, to meditate, to engage with the content long after the initial performance act?
Cloé’s work is beautifully chaotic, filled with ambiguous imagery to challenge the viewer. In Mea Culpa Fournier deliberately employs strategies to make the audience feel complicit in the sometimes uncomfortable action unfolding on stage. In one instance, Fournier draws on traditional folk dances from her native Brittany to deliver her narrative, which explores a female- driven, technological, augmented reality. The mash up of the two chronologies, her ancestral past with an imagined future, serves in the realisation of an interesting aesthetic and in the creation of a unique non-binary trans-human world on stage.
The delicious thing about being designated dramaturg or mentor is that you obtain first entry into the artist’s imagined habitat. The dramaturg obtains a reprieve from the everyday humdrum, where one’s grip on reality is prized supreme. Where else can you gain access to and wallow in absurdity? Above all, the dramaturg merely plays devil’s advocate and yet nothing need be altered, kind of like a magician or feather foot whose mark is only truly comprehended by the artist.
As I watch the dancers emerge from their synthetic beige padded alter egos I am grateful to have gained insight into Cloé’s world of transitioning hybrid beings. I only hope I haven’t jeopardised her unique choreographic voice by heavily insinuating mine. In this case my conscience is somewhat relieved in the fact that the role of dramaturg has been shared and was not only consigned to the person in possession of that high falutin’ title.