During supervision meetings, discussions have centred on ownership and authorship, as repeating themes underlying the research. Can I call the work ‘my work’? Or is this a notion of authorship/ownership that shifts due to the underlying principles of the work? By defining the work as an ‘open work’ (Rubidge, 2002) and relating to the idea of work being the nexus of all strands involved (Sanchez-Colberg and Preston-Dunlop, 2002), the ‘visible choreographer becomes one strand of the work, along with the dancers and the material. Similar to Martin’s exploration of the making of a dance (Martin, 1992), Before I decide (2011-13) has a clear artistic direction throughout the rehearsal process, which influences the performance process. However, it also has a strong collaborative element throughout the rehearsals and the performance process.
Does it remain important to identify myself as the author of the work?
Since I started working as a professional choreographer in 2001 I have worked in different collaborative settings either with other dance artists or with artists from other art forms (music, theatre, poetry, visual arts). Each collaborative setting was different in the way we worked together, shared responsibilities and defined authorship. In 2006 I worked with the musician Richard Ormrod on the piece called Noises for the leg (performed in Leeds, Hull, London, Derby), a 15 min stage performance for three dancers and three saxophonists. Our main aim was to experiment with a collaborative setting that shared all responsibilities, artistic direction and authorship evenly between the two directors. The result was a creative process with a complex range of skill sharing but also many discussions, disagreements and artistic compromises.
Reflecting on this approach I wonder if we used each other’s skills and expertise to the work’s best advantage and that in ensuring an equal input for all decision making resulted in a work, which was neither musically nor choreographically complex and strong. Rudi Learmans highlights the current product orientation within collaborative work in contemporary dance and the difficulty for collaborative work as it forces decisions onto a process, which needs time to unfold.
He refers to Nancy by quoting,
How can we think about society, government, law, not with the aim of achieving (…) the common, but only in the hope of letting it come and taking its own chance, its own possibility of making sense? (Nancy in Learmans, 2012, p. 102)
Referring to Noises for the leg (2006) the process and skill exchange was highly valuable but with the aim to produce a product the collaboration lost parts of its value. Since this experience I have taken care at the beginning of each project to clearly outline my definition of collaboration in relation to authorship/ownership, responsibilities and leadership. At times when I have been able to offer professional employment for all performers, there has also been a range of influences on the sense of authorship/ownership framing more management responsibilities to my role and in return a higher expectation for what the dancers could deliver.
I am still interested in collaborative settings and I choose to work with specific performers due to their expertise and skills, their engagement in the conceptual ideas of the work and the ability to challenge my ideas. Furthermore, working interdisciplinary means that the work benefits from the performers’ knowledge, which lies outside my expertise and skills within dance. Looking at current professional dance development shows that more creative input is required from the dancers/performers and the number of choreographers who prescribe each step, like for example Mark Morris, is relatively small. At times it is mentioned in programme notes that the work had been created in collaboration with the dancers but this does not seem to affect the choreographer being perceived as the author of the work.
Adding improvisation to the performance process increases the input of the dancers/performers. Improvisation collectives such as Mathilde, a Leeds-based collective of five improvisers who integrate movement and sound (Mathilde, 2011), work on the basis of equal authorship and artistic direction. One could argue that there should be a similar agreement for Before I decide (2011-13) but the addition of power adds a layer of artistic direction of the ‘visible chorographer’. This raises the question of the difference between artistic direction and authorship and how I define artistic direction. I initiate the work, set the framework for it. I am the one who connects all ideas and elements, for example the conceptual ideas, the selection of performers and the performance venue. Cvejic questions,
Is authorship always already assigned to the one who initiates a project? How can an initiative to invite authors for research reassure an egalitarian basis of collaboration, a frame of collectivity without central leadership? (Cvejic, 2005)
In regards to Cvejic my own role includes more than inviting other performers. There is a clear outline and direction for the rehearsal process and a decision of approach. When working on Before I decide (2011, Leeds) the dancers requested a clearer artistic direction to provide a framework to work within. We discussed the definition of the artistic framework in relation to the range of unexpected responses by the dancers. The dancers felt more empowered by knowing the framework whereas I was afraid that this would limit the range of possibilities the dancers could offer.
When working on Before I decide (2013, New York) I was surprised that these questions were not raised by the dancers. In reflection I understand that the taught improvisation class at the beginning of each rehearsal, which I did not offer in 2011 combined with my rehearsal feedback set a framework for the movement language/material, which introduced my artistic direction in a more subtle way and left space for a greater range of unexpected responses to my instructions. One of the dancers explains how it introduced my interest in movement studies, which gave her a frame to work within.
Linking the set up of Before I decide (2011-13) to Martin’s investigation of the conditions of authority there are some differences but also similarities between the rehearsal and the performance process (Martin, 1992). My direction throughout the rehearsal process is clear not only in relation to the movement language/material but also in the feedback I give throughout the shared explorations. This sets the framework for the performance; however, I am not in control of the unfolding of the material throughout the performance process. Does this give me authorship of the performance work? Or is my authorship too dependent on the dancers’ contribution?
Comparing this idea to Forsythe’s White Bouncy Castle (1997) and his work with choreographic objects his authorship lies in the selection of the object and the set up he creates. Forsythe explains,
The choreographic object [is] a model of potential transition from one state to another in any space imaginable (Forsythe in Manning, 2009, npn).
The interaction of the audience with the objects, described as
The potential transition from one state to another (Forsythe in Manning, 2009, npn),
becomes the material, which is not in his control. However, the authorship still stays with him.
In Before I decide (2011-13) the material becomes the improvised responses to my instructions and interaction between all performers. Similar to Forsythe’s positioning to his work White Bouncy Castle (1997), I could not claim authorship for the material. However, the material is not the main focus of the work but the social dynamics within the group when developing the material, the shift of control between all participants as well as the visibility of the choreographer as the social subject (Bel, 1999). In reference to White Bouncy Castle (1997), it is not about the movement created by the audience when jumping/playing on the bouncy castle but the decisions they make and the social interactions that can arise. Manning explains,
Choreography sets the stage for an ecology of movement events. It delimits the infinity of movement, subtracting from the realm of opportunity to create a singular vocabulary for change (Manning, 2009).
This supports the idea that the material becomes a shared language for changes to happen, both when playing with the material but also within the social dynamics between all dancers.
I now appreciate that my role changes from the rehearsal process to the performance event and I am starting to question if the term ‘visible choreographer’ is still appropriate for my role within the performance process. Do I become a performer within the collective of performers with a slightly different set of rules and directive responsibilities?What possibilities would it offer when I let go of the term ‘choreographer’ – could the ‘visible choreographer’ become the ‘choreformer’? As I set the framework for the material during the rehearsal process could I trust this set up more and share the authorship with all performers to allow the work to unfold in unexpected directions? Could letting go of the ‘visible choreographer’ liberate me of the responsibilities of singular authorship?
Cvejic, B. 2005. Collectivity? You mean collaboration. [online]. [Accessed 18.05.2014]. Available from: http://www.mobileacademy-berlin.com/englisch/2006/texte/cvejic02.html
Laermans, R. 2012. Being in common: Theorizing artistic collaboration. Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, 17 (6), pp. 94-102
Manning, E. 2009. Propositions for the Verge William Forsythe’s Choreographic Objects. INFLeXions (2), pp. 1-33
Martin, R. 1992. Dance as a Social Movement. Writings on Dance: Living Dancing (8), pp. 8-21
Preston Dunlop, V. and Sanchez-Colberg, A. eds. 2002. Dance and the performative. London: Verve Publishing
Rubidge, S. 2002. Identity in flux: a practice-based interrogation of the ontology of the open dance work. In: Preston Dunlop, V. and Sanchez-Colberg, A. eds. Dance and the performative. London: Verve Publishing, pp. 135-163
Photos: Petter Frost Fadnes, Josh Hawkins, Ulrike Heuer, Andy Wood