The Economy of Proximity: Dramaturgical Work in Contemporary Dance

Issue #06: Body in the Raw. Nudity Today.

Dramaturgical work in dance seems to reflect the increasing need for theory and reflection, which re-questions the a priori truths and self-evidence of dance, and thus brings a self-reflective dimension into dance, an awareness of the cultural, historical and economic context of the contemporary dance genre.

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“I know what I do, but I do not know how to name it,” said André Lepecki in the early 1990s about his role in Vera Mantero’s work. “You are a dramaturg,” was the reply of Bruno Verbegt, a producer. (Lepecki, “Dance” 28) In this essay, I wish to show that the reasons why dramaturgy has entered contemporary dance over the last two decades have not only been due to the aesthetic and formal changes in contemporary dance, but also because of a profound shift in our understanding of the manners of working in contemporary dance and of the ways of its production and presentation.

It is a known fact that the dramaturg enters contemporary dance simultaneously with the changes in European contemporary dance that have been taking place from the 1980s onwards. This is when contemporary dance – by means of interdisciplinary approaches – begins to shatter the stability of the categories that define choreographic and dance roles, and also raises the question: what is dance? At first sight, dramaturgical work in dance seems to reflect the increasing need for theory and reflection, which re-questions the a priori truths and self-evidence of dance (e.g., that dance equals movement, or that there is a neutral dance body), and thus brings a self-reflective dimension into dance, an awareness of the cultural, historical and economic context of the contemporary dance genre. However, if the entry of dramaturgy is only understood as a consequence of aesthetic changes, we are in danger of labelling dramaturgy as a new doxa. According to this new doxa the dramaturg is someone who is trained in the poststructuralist critical manner and familiar with the post dramatic expansion of performance practice; she is a guarantor of interdisciplinarity. At the same time, her work corresponds to the curatorial concepts of festivals and increasingly contextually-oriented production scopes. This kind of understanding of dramaturgy often works as a guarantee for the quality of performance, and is contained (albeit not always consciously) in the above mentioned dramaturgical coaching schemes.

Closely reading how dramaturgs themselves describe their work in contemporary dance, we can observe that many of them emphasise the need for the proximity of the work processes, for their inclusion, and point out the affective and embodied aspects of their work. Dramaturgical work has been described as embodied (Lepecki), as the management of different dramaturgical energies (Imschoot), as making the material richer in terms of dynamics and meaning (Fabio). (Turner and Behrndt 2008) Often, such descriptions reject the notion of the dramaturg as an observer, the one who is in the know, someone who spends most of the time sitting in the darkness of the stalls with a critical perspective from a distance. These descriptions aim to transcend the role of the dramaturg as a guarantor of objective knowledge. Dramaturgical collaboration is therefore characterized by a demand for proximity, which not only springs from the instability of epistemological categories or the fact that dramaturgs collaborate in dance performances with bodies and not texts. It also describes the topography of the work process, the division of roles and activities – we can also talk about certain characteristics of dramaturgical ‘labour’.1 I remember Meg Stuart describing a bodily automatism as a consequence of the proximity of her collaboration with her former dramaturg Bettina Masoch, who allegedly always sat very close to her and to whom the artist always turned to during the process by putting her hands on her shoulders: “I used to continue doing that for a while, even when she was no longer beside me.”2 This anecdotal automatism of work proximity (which, of course, can enter a variety of topographical images) speaks of a specific embodied aspect of dramaturgical work which is often in the foreground when we discuss the dramaturgy of a dance performance. What does this need for proximity suggest and where does it come from?

I. Paradox of public proximity

One of the answers can be found in focussing upon more “process-oriented methods of work, where the meaning, purpose, form and substance of work come from the work process and not from a meaning given in advance that needs to be dug out.” (Kerkhoven 18-20) Van Kerkhoven thus points out the shift toward more research-oriented, open and interdisciplinary ways of creating dance performance. In her essays from two decades ago, this manner of working is connected with a postmodern understanding of art, which refuses to accept truths and meanings set in advance. Nevertheless, it is possible to claim from today’s perspective that, in addition to the aesthetic characteristics of some specific style or art period, this kind of focus upon process-oriented methods of working is connected with the wider economic and cultural contexts of work processes, with immaterial labour in general.

In the foreground of many productions and presentations of contemporary dance over the last two decades has been the multilogue and pluralist orientation of the very process of artistic work, its affective, linguistic and cognitive dimensions, which importantly contribute to and shape the contexts of presentation and institutionalisation of dance (as well as that of dance education, research, etc.).

The work process in contemporary dance is also closely connected with the temporary community modes of collaboration. This is proved by the phenomenon of the appearance and disappearance of dance centres (Brussels, Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris), or temporary production initiatives whose additional value is precisely that of a constant exchange of immaterial work (information, knowledge, affection, emotion, proximity, criticalness, belonging).3 The proximity often found in descriptions of dramaturgical work in dance is then not only a consequence of the dramaturg’s work with bodies, or her awareness that there is no external guarantor of truth. This kind of demand for proximity is closely connected with the disappearance of the differences between individual manners of human experience, between labour, action, and intellect. Paolo Virno analyses the disappearance of the differences between labour (work oriented towards an organic exchange with nature) and action (political activity) in the contemporary post-Fordian world of labour, a world where labour is becoming increasingly similar to political, public action – the kind of action which finds its own fulfilment in itself. At the same time, intellect, too, is no longer an isolated reflexive activity but, according to Virno, becomes the basic score of post-Fordian labour (at the forefront of production are human cognitive abilities). Labour therefore becomes public, a virtuoso practice which always takes place in front of others. (Virno 2004)

It is no coincidence that contemporary dance (along with other contemporary art forms) is created and presented through many production contexts which encourage and develop artistic work in front of the public: we watch works-in-progress, research processes, open rehearsals, workshops, festivals with curatorial and contextual orientations, results of research processes, etc. “In the new landscape, the choreographer claims a theoretical voice, the critic emerges as producer, the agent writes dance reviews, the philosopher tries some steps, the audience is invited to join as both student and practitioner.” (Lepecki, “Dramaturgija” 27) In the first part of his text, Lepecki connects this kind of disappearance of differences with an emerging epistemological uncertainty about the critical discourse of dance. At the same time, he points out that this kind of disappearance should be studied from the perspective of the economy and capital which are influencing contemporary modes of production in performance. The disappearance of the differences between various categories of work and practices results from a shift in the understanding of the materiality of the artistic process of work itself, which profoundly influences the current ways in which dance is performed.

It could be argued that the need for proximity and embodiment of dramaturgical work in performance stems from the paradoxical fact that the methods of work, and labour processes in general, have become visible or public. The work that goes into creating a performance takes on a performative dimension – it is a process in itself and therefore demands an audience. The need for proximity is therefore actually the other side of the public character of the processes of artistic work. The performance of the work process is closely connected with the need for the inclusion of participants.

It is well known that 20th-century art calls attention to visibility, perception, and the materiality of the creative processes. Art is performed as a specific practice which finds its own fulfilment in itself. As Agamben states, contemporary art has experienced a gradual disappearance of the distinction between poiesis and praxis, the two dimensions of human work which Aristotle had formulated as separate.4 The disappearance of a difference between work whose fulfilment lies outside of itself (poiesis) and work which finds its fulfilment in itself (praxis) has influenced many aesthetic shifts in art, such as the emancipatory aspects of the avant-garde, the relation between life and art, open work concepts, as well as the conceptual and collaborative artistic processes.

In contemporary dance, however, we are faced with an interesting problem which at this point can only be briefly outlined. Since its beginnings, contemporary dance has been viewed as a unique praxis, as a movement which finds its own fulfilment in itself, as a unique metakinesis where there is no difference between poiesis and praxis. The contemporary dance movements which, over the last 20 years, have again put into the foreground the praxis of dance, and engaged in the proximity of the spectator within that praxis, are therefore not a digression from production-oriented contemporary dance which might understand itself as a unique poiesis. I would also claim that, in this case, it is not so much about a clash of ideologies or statements over what dance is supposed to be, which is why the frequent description of the dance movements of the last two decades as conceptual dance misses the point. What really takes place is a change in the manner of practice, in the production of dance itself, in the way dance is made, all of which is closely connected to choreographic work in the wider sense of the word. The proximity and collapse of the distance between various work processes and professions is closely connected with changes in contemporary capitalism, where, according to Virno, fundamental abilities of the human being come into prominence. At the forefront of production are language, thought, self-reflection, and the ability to learn. Contemporary production consists of sharing linguistic and cognitive habits, and it is this affective and intellectual exchange of knowledge that constitutes post-Fordist labour production. “All the workers enter into the production as much as they are speaking-thinking. This has nothing to do, mind you, with ‘professionality’ or with the ancient concepts of ‘skill’ or ‘craftsmanship’: to speak/to think are generic habits of the human animal, the opposite of any sort of specialisation.” (Virno 41) For Virno, this can be described as preliminary sharing, which is itself the basis of contemporary production. In his view, sharing is opposed to the traditional division of labour. There are no longer objective technical criteria that regulate the shared working conditions or define the responsibility of each worker in his or her own specialised sphere. As Virno writes, “the segmentation of duties no longer answers on the objective ‘technical’ criteria, but is, instead, explicitly arbitrary, reversible, changeable.” (41) In this context, the manner of artistic production no longer differs from other manners of production; as a matter of fact, contemporary capitalism has accepted some of the basic characteristics of artistic work such as creativity, autonomy and innovation. Interdisciplinarity, dance as a field of knowledge, research, open work, work in progress, embodied dramaturgy – all these categories are to be rethought and positioned in relation to cognitive capitalism, which places embodied language relations and events at the foreground of production processes. In this sense, the eventness of dance itself, its relationality, and the affectiveness of work processes are emphasized and become part of the production and performance of contemporary dance.

It would also be possible to set a hypothesis which we will not be able to reflect on in depth at this point. Having developed through the 20th century in connection with the principles of Fordism (endless motion, speed, oscillation between order and chaos, the regulated and the coincidental), the development of contemporary dance over the last two decades has reflected the deep changes brought about by post-Fordian modes of labour (cognitive and affective virtuosity, multilayered temporality, proximity, collaboration processes, openness of work, etc.). In this sense, different choreographic practices should not be understood only as aesthetic practices, but also as wider social processes of distributing bodies in time and space. These kinds of practices no longer emerge from the speed and autonomy of the industrial movement. What unfolds before us is the perceptive embodiment of the body, the intermediation of the body, the cognitive and biogenetic potentiality of movement. There has been a shift from the autonomy and dynamism of movement to the broader social and cultural distribution of bodies, with heteronomy and proximity emerging as main characteristics of contemporary cultural and economic relations.

II. The Profession of the Dramaturg

A major reason for the entry of dramaturgy into dance can be found in the changing contexts of artistic practice and social labour. The entry of the dramaturg into dance could be read as a consequence of the changes in the political economy of labour, where the production of language, contexts, and human cognitive and affective abilities now dominates. These changes are not only a consequence of artistic self-reflexivity and cannot be considered as isolated events in the (supposedly autonomous) sphere of art, but a reflection of the onset of cognitive capitalism and the altered modes of production associated with it. This is why the dramaturg’s work is strongly characterized by flexibility; as a participant in the process, the dramaturg can occupy a variety of roles – those of practical dramaturg, producer, festival director, stage manager, writer, journalist, teacher, workshop leader, coach, lecturer, academic, artist, dancer, production network member, cultural politics advisor, mentor, friend, compass, memory, fellow traveller, mediator, psychologist. The complexity of the dramaturg’s profession – the affective ability to move between theoretical reflection and practical knowledge, to be an external eye and an involved participant at the same time – is often too hastily reduced to a sort of ‘aesthetic’ elusiveness. On the contrary, the flexibility of the dramaturg’s work is connected to the contemporary production of events and relations, and the dramaturg often becomes a facilitator of the contemporary exchange of concepts, senses, attention, and perception. Flexibility, which is part of the political economy of the dramaturg’s work/labour, enables them to continuously deal with various possibilities of artistic production. These production possibilities are closely connected with new institutions, which are not based so much on the stable architecture and representative power of production houses, but rather on a model of constantly changing, critical and creative platforms for events and meetings. In this sense, contemporary dramaturgy differs from the modern project of audience cultivation and critical discourse formation, which has shaped audience taste and collective identification. As Eda Čufer writes, the function of the dramaturg according to the traditional enlightenment model is especially to establish fluidity and transition between various autonomous systems or spheres.5 Precisely because of its ability to transgress, the work of traditional dramaturgy is marked by a sense of objectivity, with the dramaturg identifying and categorising the audience that visits the artistic institution. Today, however, when the differences between diverse ways of human experience (labour, action, intellect) are blurred and the differences between autonomous systems discussed by Čufer are disappearing as well, notions of objectivity and externality seem anachronistic. Proximity therefore corresponds to the contemporary tendency towards audience fragmentation and individualization, as well as to the ideals of mobility and flexibility embraced by contemporary artistic institutions. Rather than adopting a perspective of objective distance, the professional dramaturg today embodies a kind of affective proximity, which, at the same time, is also at the forefront of understanding contemporary creative processes, models of contemporary institutions, and ways of disseminating artistic work.

Very often the role of the dramaturg has been defined by the simple fact that a performance always takes place before an audience. The dramaturg is continuously denoted as the first spectator, or someone who translates between the process and the product presented; someone who establishes the context of presenting and mediates between the various dissemination processes of artistic work. In all of these descriptions, the dramaturg adopts an outside perspective, whereas the audience is presented as a sort of anonymous multitude whose identification is also constructed by the dramaturg. Not only does the dramaturg represent the taste of the audience, but she is also capable of transforming attitudes by means of interpreting meaning. Contemporary dramaturgy radically digresses from this representational function of the dramaturg, not least because contemporary audiences can no longer be defined as a multitude characterized by a communal ways of identification. As the developments of the performing arts in the 20th century have shown, the modes of audience perception and reception have become fragmentary. Contemporary audiences are a lot more unstable, dynamic and singular; spectators become aware of their own viewing positions and perspectives and experience proximity and distance in embodied ways. Such individualized ways of looking, however, raise an interesting problem that places the anonymous contemporary spectator (anonymous because a priori they do not belong to a defined group, nation, class, gender, etc.) in proximity to the event. The spectator becomes a participant who is actively and critically involved in what takes place. This economy of proximity is characteristic of the production contexts within which contemporary art is presented and produced. Inclusion, participation, relationality, engagement, emotional and intellectual involvement, affective temporality, expectation – all of these modes are embraced in contemporary dance dramaturgy.


One of my most unusual dramaturgical experiences began on a Monday morning in 2007, when a kind organiser of a contemporary dance production house gave me the list of participants of a one-week session in dramaturgical coaching. As a dramaturg, I was to meet three authors or groups per day, with three hours in the studio available for our ‘séance’. The intention was to work on their upcoming performances, address questions generated by the authors during the work process, analyse created materials, question the relation to the audience, etc. It soon turned out that the authors came from a variety of backgrounds and with quite diverse motivations. Some had open questions that arose in the middle of the work on their performances; some wanted to share ideas from the beginning stages of their work; some came with finished performances. Like many of the authors, I felt at the beginning of each three-hour ‘séance’ as if going to a blind date and jumping into a precipice to boot; as befits dates of this kind, some of the meetings were unforgettable and some were failures from the very start. It was precisely due to the endless diversity of these meetings and the elusive materiality of our exchanges that I obsessively began to search for a common denominator with which I could connect and ‘ground’ our meetings. At the end of the week I noticed that, for the purposes of note-taking, we all used the currently very trendy Moleskine notebook, commercially successful and sold along with the romantic experience of its first user, Bruce Chatwin.

Compared to other more intensive and more research-oriented formats, this singular adventure of one-week dramaturgical coaching could be brushed off as not a very good idea on the part of the production house. Nevertheless, I think the very fact that there is a need for the artist (choreographer, director, dancer, etc.) to be dramaturgically trained, needs consideration. In the case described above, the artists involved are prepared to pay for this meeting; an economic exchange takes place between the artist and the dramaturgical ‘coach’ with the aid of an intermediary / producer. At the same time, such workshops are not the domain of result-driven production houses but are generally sought after by arts organisations which are interested in open ways of working rather than in products. Prior to the adventure described, I had the opportunity to participate in workshops held by more research-oriented organisations. There was no payment required from the artists and the coach’s fee was much lower as well. There was, however, more emphasis placed on the symbolic value of the exchange because it enables artists to acquire new knowledge, as well as providing an opportunity to socialise and practice contemporary forms of dance and theatre art. Considering that coaching always aims at improving a certain ability, increasing the quality of performing a certain task and perfecting a certain discipline, what could be the aim of dramaturgical coaching? Which quality should be enhanced by means of it? How should the object of this exchange be articulated? What ability is coached? What can change or shift by means of such a meeting? One could get away with the answer that it is simply about a dialogue between two parties, about a proximity that opens the path toward the possibility of exchanging knowledge and approaches. Why is it, however, that this dialogue is given a material value, in concrete financial or symbolic terms? And why is it that this kind of proximity is dependent upon the intermediation by a third party (who marks this proximity with their own indelible stamp)?

I think that these questions can only be answered by analysing the cultural and economic contexts that have influenced the emergence of dramaturgy in contemporary dance over the last two decades, especially since the 1990s. It is only in this way that the phenomenon of dramaturgical coaching will not be moralistically read as excess or an example of bad practice, one testifying to the production/market appropriation of research-oriented, open and interdisciplinary ways of working. Quite the opposite, coaching is only the other, extreme side of ‘good practice’, of the so-called elusiveness of dramaturgical practice, its frequently anecdotal inability of naming, its visible invisibility, and its ability to combine theory and practice. It is this openness of the dramaturgical practice in contemporary dance that can take up many different roles, oscillating between “reflection and creativity; detail and overview” (Behrndt 96). It is interdisciplinary, opens possibilities for production, and represents an ability that is difficult to define.

“That was just a very good dialogue between me, as dramaturge, and them, as the artists … I’m probably rather a curator, but in both cases the important thing is that they – that the artists have a partner to give them a kind of faith that is welcome – that it’s kind of accepted, that it’s understood. That’s probably the most important thing, that it’s understood.” (Thomas Frank in Turner and Behrndt 112) This is how Thomas Frank (a dramaturg and the current joint artistic director of BRUT theatre in Vienna) describes his work with the UK Company Lone Twin. Emphasizing the notion of proximity, Frank describes the dramaturg as someone who calms you down, offers emotional support and even faith. What is accepted (or not) as a result of the proximity of the dramaturg? What exactly is calming about the dramaturg’s presence? These questions are meant to supplement the introductory questions pertaining to the difficulty of articulating the processes of dramaturgical coaching. If we wish to at least approximately answer those questions, we need to immerse ourselves in the complex core of immaterial knowledge – an elusive ability and potentiality which is part of dramaturgical work. The appearance of this knowledge/ability can be explained by using Marx’s famous description of the changes in the 19th century: “All that is solid melts into air.” As we well know, it is dematerialisation that guarantees surplus value, or better put, the fictitiousness of value (whose material consequences we are facing in the present economic crisis). In this immaterial process, articulated through various ways of proximity and collaboration, cognitive and embodied knowledge become frequently appropriated, organised and embodied through the intermediation of the market and capital. Furthermore, this knowledge is at the core of contemporary production. The questions that I consider essential are: How can one place dramaturgical work in relation to politics and capital? The most interesting problem here is the question about the political potentiality of proximity itself. What is the potentiality of working with a dramaturg? On the one hand, proximity often veils the appropriation of the processual character of work and gives priority to a critical, but non-antagonistic understanding of performance work and audience reception. According to this perspective the dramaturg becomes that fellow conversationalist who calms our fears about contemporary life by ensuring that a certain practice can be shown on the market. On the other hand, we have to examine whether the entry of the dramaturg into contemporary dance nevertheless testifies to a certain radical change of artistic practice, which has the power to intervene socially and disclose artistic work as an antagonistic political space.

From this perspective, proximity does not spring from the intermediation of a third party which enables us to write our thoughts down into the same trendy notebooks, but results from an encounter of different ways of working together, which only enables (or fails to enable) changes and establishes future forms of being. The placing of cognitive knowledge into the centre of the production process can thus open new ways of being and also profoundly question the nature of dance and its supposedly self-evident relation to contemporary life.

Read More:

Bauer, Eleanor. “Becoming Room, Becoming Mac: New Artistic Identity in the Transnational Brussels Dance Community.” Maska 107-108 (2007): 58-67.
Behrndt, Synne K. “The dramaturg as collaborator: process and proximity.” conference paper, conference Dramaturgy as Applied Knowledge: From Theory to Pactice and Back, The Department of Theatre Studies, Tel Aviv University, 25. 3. 2007.
Čufer Eda. “Petnajst lepih tez o dramaturgiji.” Maska 1-2 (2001): 23.
Kerkhoven, Marianne van. “Introduction”. On Dramaturg, Theaterschrift, 5-6. (1994): 18-20.
Lepecki, André. “Dramaturgija na pragu.” Maska 1-2 (2001b): 26-29.
Lepecki, André. “Dance without Distance.” Ballet International/Tanz Aktuel [English ed.]. (2001a): 29-31.
Turner, Cathy, and Synne K. Behrndt. Dramaturgy and Performance. Theatre and performance practices. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Virno, Paolo. A Grammar of the Multitude: For an analysis of contemporary forms of life Cambridge, Mass: Semiotext(e). 2004.

  1. At the time when differences between manners of work are disappearing, dramaturgy can also be approached from the perspective of immaterial labour.
  2. The memory refers to a conference which featured duos of choreographers and dramaturgs. The conference was organized by Luk van den Dries, De Singel, Antwerpen, 2004.
  3. The fact that the majority of these exchanges takes place on a voluntary basis additionally emphasizes the value of this kind of immaterial work which is free of charge, Bauer 107-108.
  4. Ana Vujanović writes about that in her text in this same issue of Maska.
  5. Eda Čufer writes that dramaturgy is an intermediation between three autonomous spheres: the first one is philosophy, theory and academic discourse; the second one is literary and theatre practice; the third one is theatre as an institution of public significance and ideological discourse. (Čufer 23) These three spheres correspond to the three domains of human experience described by Virno.