Reflections on Dramaturgy in relationship to the Choreographic Center by Tara Aisha Willis

In January 2017, with support from the Ford Foundation, UBW hosted a Dramaturgical Planning Convening for the Choreographic Center. The goal of the gathering was to interrogate and refine plans for a dramaturgical support program for emerging to mid-career choreographers. Dance Artist, Writer, and Curator Tara Aisha Willis participated in the meeting and reflected on the convening as follows.


Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s capacity for building networks of connection between the people and resources that come into her orbit is an ongoing, caring practice. It infuses the structure of Urban Bush Women, as the container for her choreographic, educational, and social justice projects alike. At the start of the Dramaturg Planning Convening held at the offices of the Mertz Gilmore Foundation, Zollar began by describing the driving question behind UBW’s new Choreographic Center: who will be the next generation of female-identifying choreographers of the African diaspora, making work for nationally or internationally visible stages, that actively contends with multiple layers of narrative, identity, history, and social justice? And what might be the best way of nurturing those choreographers toward artistic maturity, complexity, and longevity? How might UBW’s resources and core values strengthen the work of artists who want to make dance through nuanced narrative approaches? An important part of the answer for Zollar: strengthen the infrastructures around those choreographers. Rather than simply supporting one limited project or phase in their process, provide a personalized system of connections and relationships that will push and anchor them over time.

Zollar envisions this Choreographic Center as servicing artists who fall within three sequential tiers of career development. Artists in each tier have been supported by various UBW choreographic workshops and commissioning programs in the past, and through Zollar’s individual mentorship. But the Center will bring those efforts into focus. Inspired by conversations with arts advocate and administrator Sam Miller, Zollar realized that this was not a limited initiative, but an ongoing “center”—a vital framework to organize the constant attention Zollar already pays to each emerging artist she encounters. Crucially, it will not be a literal building, but a network of partnerships with institutions and individuals, all brought together in a clearly delineated but flexible structure. A house filled with rooms that have permeable walls, an amoeba-like structure that can morph to fit each artist’s needs while also having moments of community across the Cohort, or across multiple Cohorts. Focused on the particularities of shaping a two-year program for Cohort 2 artists, the Dramaturg Convening brought together UBW staff Jawole Zollar (Founder and Visioning Partner), Renee Taylor-Foles (Organizational Advancement Partner), Jennifer Calienes (Choreographic Center Strategic Advisor), Ruqayyah Albaari (Logistics and Media Coordinator), and myself, with choreographer Nora Chipaumire, teacher/dance musician Douglas Corbin, actor/director William Nadylam, dance history scholar John O. Perpener III, dramaturg/scholar Katherine Profeta, and dramaturg/director/playwright Talvin Wilks.

Why dramaturgy? Zollar pointed out the troubling trend she has seen across college-level students working with narrative-based choreographic approaches. In many composition classes, abstract dances tend to receive more praise and support than narrative dances, which are often interpreted as didactic—even when both choreographers have yet to develop complexity in their work. Seeing the many black students in that category getting shut down and ceasing to grow because of that tendency, programs in Cohort 1 of the Center are designed to help those story-focused dance makers develop their choreographic voice and find layers of nuance in their practices. Cohort 2, however, she calls the “mountain climber” cohort. They already have the skills and experience to deepen their practice and make complex work, but would benefit most from having the time, space, and infrastructure to ask and be asked questions of their established practices, to examine their work with a “granular approach,” and for focused periods of intense making, in community with others. These artists need not only development and residency support at a crucial turning point in their careers, but a chance to solidify their relationship to their artistry through the feedback loop that a dramaturg is equipped to provide. Many in Cohort 2 will be building their visibility, getting larger and more elaborately produced opportunities to perform. But, speaking from experience, Zollar points out that such recognition can mean losing track of the creative process and integrity of the work itself. The Center would help those artists develop strategies for collaboration, for staying in the work, and probing it with care that will stay with them throughout their careers.

Even with the three-tiered structure in mind, it was clear that at this convening, all feedback and contestation of the Center’s parameters was not only welcomed but valued. By the end of the day, an altered and improved program structure had blossomed out of the group’s conversations. That is a strength of UBW’s ethos: gathering artists and culture workers together with distinct goals in mind, but taking an intentionally open-ended path that is collaborative, without disappearing the individual. As each participant described their relationship to the notion of dramaturgy, it became clear that Zollar had a range of relationships with each person—from longstanding collaborations to admiration at a distance. Nonetheless, it was crucial to the process that each person brought their distinct perspective and queries to the table.

History—perhaps as a necessary vehicle for working with narrative—was a common theme. Nadylam described his investment in work that has a sense of time and history, echoing into the future and resonating with the past. Wilks’s dramaturgical practice attends to the embedded history dancers carry in their bodies over time, finding language and sequences for what ideas are trying to do within the choreographic process, especially in his work with Bebe Miller. Perpener expressed that the title “dramaturg” might not be the right fit for his expertise, but it would be crucial for artists to see how their work fits into a historical continuum of black artists, to understand the archive of precedents to their work. Zollar added that while many young choreographers know big names in black dance history, they may not be familiar with earlier black experimental dance artists. Like the group gathered in the room, this Center will support artists as they work across a wide range of approaches to mobilizing narrative and identity-related material—the center has the potential to bridge across and nurture the full continuum of what working narratively might mean.

Chipaumire questioned the necessity of dramaturgy for these artists; she sees her own constant remaking of and research into herself as inherent to the material and process of choreography. Her background and body need daily dramaturgy, not necessarily through a separate process. Corbin’s task with dance students has often been getting them to think about sound choices at both macro and micro levels of form, to pay attention to the music’s tension with the dance, not just it’s alignment. Profeta’s dramaturgical practice with Ralph Lemon has included feeding what she has documented back into the room later in the process. She sees dramaturgy as fulfilling multiple needs within a project—editor, researcher, questioner. Talking through the work consistently with someone who is intimate with the work but still maintains an outside eye can be particularly potent when an artist is making a major shift in their process.

Profeta raised a question that resonated across the conversation: how can the Center allow choreographers to have agency in building a relationship with a dramaturg? Wilks wonders if, given the unique nature of pairing choreographers with dramaturgs, the Cohort 2 artists may need an ongoing space for conversation about dramaturgy itself, and all its slippery definitions? How does the fellowship support an artist if the pairing doesn’t work or needs to shift? Is the pairing necessarily a mentorship, or more of a collaboration? Might it serve as a learning ground for early career dramaturgs, as well? If that partnership with a dramaturg is so central, how can the Center most efficiently determine what an artist needs while also helping them establish a long-term relationship, to both their dramaturg and their deepening practice? How can the Center create the best conditions for each artist’s needs for ongoing critique, for an outside viewer to be invested in their growth, to be asked the questions that fuel and frustrate them?

The group agreed that a longer retreat with dramaturgs and choreographers would be crucial, for multiple formats of working together and alone, investigating what dramaturgy might be, building relationships, and finding the right collaborators. It would also produce ongoing meaning throughout the rest of the two-year program, and serve as a meeting ground for artists across the Cohorts to connect. The artists selected for Cohort 2 would be able to demonstrate the urgency of the program to this moment in their practice, for its support of their process but also their readiness to dig in and put that process into action. Not fully settled on was what the role of writing might be, for the dramaturgs, but also the choreographers. How might the provocation toward writing and research that a dramaturg brings to the table open up doors within a choreographer’s process, to give dimension to the work, and perhaps even get them writing themselves? More practically, how should the program’s funding be structured, so that it can be responsive and flexible to each dance artist/dramaturg partnership, even when they might not know what kinds of resources they’ll need until that relationship is fleshed out? But that is the uniqueness of UBW’s porous structure. All of its programs occupy rooms in the same house, but with such permeable walls, the new Choreographic Center will be able to offer a program with complexity and depth, that fosters the same in the artists it nurtures.

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