From March to May of 2020, during a time when the dance community was reeling from the devastating effects of COVID-19, I joined emerging dancer-activist and my long time creative companion Layzabeth Gonzalez in an experiment of long distance artistic collaboration and creative support. In our investigation, I worked as a facilitator for dramaturgical thinking in relation to her personal improvisation practice and her mission to hold a space for other dancers to continue their engagement with in-the-moment movement in meaningful ways. Following our dialogic digital endeavor, I wrote her a letter reflecting on the relationship between dance dramaturgy, community, and technology during the pandemic, considering how theater scholar Maikke Bleeker’s conceptualization of dramaturgy as “thinking-in-between” and Bonnie Brooks’s conceptualization of audience dramaturgy might apply or shift in this new context. The letter further reflects on improvisation as a metaphorical and bodily mode for navigating the topsy-turviness of life and dance while sheltering in place. Sent using snail mail, this letter imagines one possibility for connecting creatively outside of the digital realm during a time of social distancing.
Thank you for joining me in this long distance, digital dramaturgy experiment in improvisation. Though at first, you didn’t need a dramaturg, didn’t want a dramaturg, didn’t know what a dramaturg was1 , I hope my dramaturgical services have at least sparked something for you in your creative practice of improvisation. For me, our shared in-progress investigation raises questions around the potential and modality of long distance dance collaborations as well as the potential and limitations of the digital realm in relation. Fortuitously, the content of the project, improvisation, also functions well as a mode of experimentation for noodling our way through unknowns.
While improvisation can certainly be a solo practice, when done in group, a large part of the experience’s magic is the tangibility of bodies moving, grooving, and sweating together in a shared physical space. But of course, social distancing asks us to reimagine ways to wiggle, shake, and investigate as community. This challenge requires long distance collaboration. For us, this means texting, calling, FaceTiming, and Instagramming. Through these digital interfaces, we somehow manage to bounce ideas back and forth from Chicago to Tallahassee until we arrive at an idea that never would have popped into our heads without our dialogic exchange. Our experiment confirms for me that theater studies scholar Maikke Bleeker’s conceptualization of dramaturgy as “thinking-in-between” applies even if the “between” is nearly a thousand miles and sometimes occurs asynchronously2 . Our long distance collaboration opens up possibilities for dramaturgical thinking that lasts all day as texts go back and forth. It also decenters the studio and theater as the main sites where dramaturgical activities take place as you worked from you living room and I from beside my apartment’s pool.
Technology played an essential role as moderator in our investigations, connecting us in the digital realm. Instagram Live allowed us to move together while apart, connecting you, me and a handful of others scattered across the US for a shared improvisational practice exploring concepts such as stillness and speed. But the platform is glitchy and you would sometimes cut in and out while guiding our danced digital reflections on life during the pandemic. Perhaps most frustrating though was the challenge of creating a sense of community without the warmth generated by bodies sharing the same space. As you noted, going live on Instagram feels like speaking to a void and hoping someone hears you. Observing and participating, I too felt this void, unsure of who checked in to explore movement with us, how invested they were, or if the prompts and reflections we generated resonated with them. In many ways, it felt like an audience dramaturgy3 in which the audience was silent and invisible. For me this highlights, an insecurity I felt as your support system—were my dramaturgical efforts “working”? With no clear path forward, we took a cue from our improvisational practice, pausing and redirecting the movement. Thus began our preparations to experiment with Facebook groups and google chats to see if either platform will better help us create the circularity, the buzzy-network of energy found when individual improvisation practices come together in the same space.
I wonder still if your recent focus on stillness and sensitivity to speed in your movement practice might lead us to new discoveries about how we can dance together apart (as the hashtag goes). Technology as a mode for carrying out long distance collaborations allows for speed; however, as we reflected on the other day following your movement practice, stillness and slowing down offer opportunities for heightened awareness, sensitivity of self, and surprising choices. This leads me to wonder what snail mail might offer improvisational practice. What happens if prompts are delivered via letter and practices are shared via physical photos, drawings, and written reflections stuffed in an envelope? What might we learn if we consider the process of transmission—the mailing of the letter, the patiently waiting, the trek to the mail box, the always imperfect tear of paper as the envelope is opened—part of the practice? What would happen if we extended the same concept to our collaboration? How might thinking-in-between unfold if scribbled on paper, carried by the hands of postal workers, and received days later by a co-conspirator? I suppose we’ll find out, starting with this.
1. Andre Lepecki, “Errancy at Work: Seven Strewn Notes,” in Dance Dramaturgy: Modes of Agency, Awareness, and Engagement ed. Pil Hansen and Darcey Callison, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 55. This phrasing alludes to Lepecki’s reflection on the work of coordinating dramaturgical internships with professional artists and arts organizations for his students. back to text
2. Maaike Bleeker, “Thinking No-One’s Thought,” in Dance Dramaturgy: Modes of Agency, Awareness, and Engagement, ed. Pil Hansen and Darcey Callison (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 67-82. back to text
3. Bonnie Brooks, “Dance Presenting and Dramaturgy,” in Dance Dramaturgy: Modes of Agency Awareness and Engagement Pil Hansen and Darcey Callison (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 2015. 180. Audience dramaturgy here references performance scholar Bonnie Brooks’s conceptualization of it as the “navigation between the ideas presented in a works and how witnesses interpret and respond.” Audience dramaturgy here references performance scholar Bonnie Brooks’s conceptualization of it as the “navigation between the ideas presented in a works and how witnesses interpret and respond.” Audience dramaturgy here references performance scholar Bonnie Brooks’s conceptualization of it as the “navigation between the ideas presented in a works and how witnesses interpret and respond.” back to text
Bleeker, Maaike. “Thinking No-One’s Thought.” In Dance Dramaturgy: Modes of Agency, Awareness, and Engagement, edited by Pil Hansen and Darcey Callison, 67-82. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Brooks, Bonnie. “Dance Presenting and Dramaturgy.” In Dance Dramaturgy: Modes of Agency Awareness and Engagement, edited by Pil Hansen and Darcey Callison, 180-193. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Lepecki, Andre. “Errancy at Work: Seven Strewn Notes.” In Dance Dramaturgy: Modes of Agency, Awareness, and Engagement. edited by Pil Hansen and Darcey Callison, 51-64. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.