“Danceaturgy”: Digging Deeper Into the Creative Soul of Dance

Dance students examine dance as never before done – as dance-a-turgs.

Photo: Mike Peters

A scene from DanceWorks 2010.

Artists and those who love the arts have tried to gain more meaning and insight by taking a critical look at what they have viewed or heard. Oftentimes, we challenge how we are affected emotionally and psychologically through the performances or artwork we experienced, seeking to process any messages that playwrights, visual artists, musicians or choreographers may be sending.

In the world of theatre, dramaturgy can be described as the art of dramatic composition and the representation of the main elements of drama on stage. Applied in a sociological perspective, the idea of dramaturgy (coined in modern times by Erving Goffman in homage to G.E. Lessing’s Hamburg Dramaturgy of 1767) contends that human actions are dependent upon time, place, and audience. As Shakespeare put it so eloquently, the world is indeed a stage.

In theatre, dramaturgy is a significant component in the construction and deconstruction of dramatic work while taking a critical look at how everything fits together.  There has been no formal equivalent in the world of dance, however -- until now.

Danceaturgy, a term invented by Dr. Neil Baldwin, Professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance and Director of The Creative Research Center, addresses this issue and gives depth to the creative process, deconstructing dance works and choreography while looking through the lenses of critical sensibilities and historical perspective. Baldwin worked with several students from the Montclair State University Dance Division within the College of the Arts and helped them to apply the concept of dramaturgy to dance.

Baldwin is a writer. He is not a dance performer, nor is he trained as a dancer.What he brings to the table is an “arm’s length” perspective of the pieces that the students worked on from an outsider’s point of view. “I want the students to take in the aesthetic gestation of how a dance work came to be”, says Baldwin about his approach to danceaturgy. In all, 10 students were chosen from Professor Lori Katterhenry’s repertory class to examine the dance works in which they were performing as part of their semester’s repertory. The students were given the task to write a critical analysis of their work, “step out” of their performer psyche, and look at their pieces from the outside in, as would a dance journalist. This was a difficult assignment, since many young dancers have a more technical view of their work. The key was to capture the emotion and intent of the choreographers and their creations.

Melissa Sande performed in Buschache Etude, a work by Pearl Primus, a choreographer passionate about the world around her. A native of New Jersey, Sande started dancing at the tender age of 3 and aspires to be a performer and dance teacher. “Dance to me is a celebration of what is culturally relevant. It acts as a release of emotion and the celebration of life,” she said. Sande’s critical view of Buschache Etude revealed that the piece conveyed a much different story from the original work. In her danceaturgical analysis, she noted that there was a significant change of energy from the original work. In the newly mounted production, to her the emphasis of the piece examined the human spirit and the emotional connection of collective experiences as opposed to conflict, war and struggle that Primus had explored in her original work.

Also part of the repertory class led by Professors Katterhenry and Baldwin, student Sharrod Williams gained valuable insight into the process of becoming a more connected dancer through his experience with danceaturgy.  In Negro Spirituals, a work by Helen Tamiris, set on the Montclair State dancers by Dr. Elizabeth McPherson, Williams looked deeper into the meaning and message of the piece and surmised that it celebrated the development of a race -- what it means to be black in America.  Williams said, “I try to stay neutral, but my study in danceaturgy taught me the importance of looking at a work as a total picture.  Before my introduction to danceaturgy, I kind of had an idea of how to dig deeper into a dance piece, but now I have a formal process.   I’m going to incorporate it into everything I do.”

Danceaturgy has given these Montclair State dance students a new perspective with more depth into what they do and how they create.  It has sharpened these students’ skills and challenged them to think in different ways.  Looking to next year, Katterhenry has asked Baldwin if he would like to co-teach a course with her in dance history. This would incorporate the next level of danceaturgy as a valuable addition to the curriculum.  With this initiative, it is intended to bring in Baldwin’s expertise as a cultural historian to enrich the experience of the students.  Baldwin notes, “We need more dance criticism that has a broader view.  There are not enough outsiders presenting an expanded and deeper view of the work that is being created.  Dance can often be an ephemeral experience, living in a finite space and time.  Our dance students can learn to place more value on its cultural roots and meaning to transcend these limitations.”

Dr. Baldwin wrote 13 letters to Prof. Lori Katterhenry documenting his unique observations throughout the danceaturgy process.  Both intellectually stimulating and insightful, these letters provide a detailed narrative through the eyes of Dr. Baldwin.  Click here to download these letters as a pdf file: 2010 Danceaturgy Letters.