Role of dance dramaturg more prominent in Singapore

It is hard though, to pinpoint its exact contribution in a performance

At the end of a particularly affecting dance production, audience members might want to shake the choreographer's hand or congratulate the dancers for a job well done.

But one individual they might not think to acknowledge, who sometimes plays a crucial role in a dance production, is the dramaturg.

Often attending rehearsals and offering advice to the choreographer throughout the development of the work, the dance dramaturg is a role that is becoming more prominent in the Singapore contemporary dance scene in the past five years.

Choreographer Raka Maitra from Chowk never works without a dramaturg, while dance company Raw Moves recently appointed dance academic Nidya Shanthini Manokara as its company dramaturg.

At the Esplanade's annual da:ns festival, many commissioned performances have been borne of choreographer-dramaturg pairings. At last year's festival, for example, Malaysian dramaturg Lim How Ngean worked with Thai choreographer Pichet Klunchun for Dancing With Death.

If you want the limelight, don't be a dramaturg. That's part of the nature of the work.

DRAMATURG ROBIN LOON

Dramaturgy is the process of putting together a performance according to a certain flow. In Singapore, audiences might be more familiar with the dramaturg in theatre productions, who often focuses on the script.

"The nature of contemporary dance performances these days is more complex," says educator and dance dramaturg Lim, 48, who is based in Australia. "Choreographers are looking at new ways to put together a work that includes other elements, such as text, multimedia and live music. With such a diverse way of dance being performed, the need for dramaturgy is becoming more obvious and apparent in the creation of a dance."

Adds director of Intercultural Theatre Institute T. Sasitharan, 59, who has worked multiple times as a dramaturg with Maitra: "When there's no text, the shape of the work becomes more difficult to see, so you need somebody to be able to sharpen the elements of a performance in a way the performer can never do."

The work of dance dramaturgs ranges from undertaking extensive research on the topic of the piece to acting as a sounding board for the choreographer.

They might also develop materials, such as educational kits or documentation, for the work.

The National Arts Council notes that there is a "growth in interest and awareness of dramaturgy within the dance scene", which is a "natural progression as the scene grows and matures".

This "signals that our dance-makers are investing in the creation process and also digging deeper to unearth the potential and possibilities of contemporary dance," says Ms Elaine Ng, the council's director for sector development (traditional arts and dance).

Industry players The Straits Times spoke to acknowledge that not all productions need a dramaturg.

Even sans dramaturg, most productions go through some form of dramaturgy - the director might think about how best to sequence the performance or other members of the team might offer suggestions to improve it.

But some productions can benefit from having one, especially those whose choreographers also perform in the works or which involve multiple collaborators or disciplines.

The formal role of the dramaturg in contemporary dance in Singapore can perhaps be traced to 2006, with the developmental dance platform Forward Moves at the Singapore Arts Festival.

Between 2006 and 2009, former festival director Goh Ching Lee appointed Bangkok-based dramaturg and producer Tang Fu Kuen as a dramaturg to work with emerging choreographers at the time. Lim later served as one of the dramaturgs for the 2010 to 2012 festivals helmed by the festival general manager Low Kee Hong.

"I wanted to update and invigorate the dance scene here - to provide the same opportunity and give Singaporean choreographers access to a dramaturg who could be their sounding board, adviser or provocateur," says Ms Goh, founder and artistic director of CultureLink Singapore, an arts management and consulting agency.

What the festival did in those years - recognising the value of the dramaturg and providing the budget to dance-makers to hire them - other commissioning bodies are now also implementing.

For example, for every new dance work that it produces or commissions, the Esplanade ensures that a dramaturg is made available to an artist who wants one.

"I've found almost all of these works have benefited from the inclusion of the dramaturg, who helped facilitate a rigorous process in the creation," says Ms Faith Tan, the Esplanade's producer (dance lead).

She also notes that artists are starting to develop long-term relationships with dramaturgs, such as the Klunchun-Lim and MaitraSasitharan partnerships. Tang also often works with independent Singapore dance practitioners Daniel Kok and Choy Ka Fai.

Still, the pool of dance dramaturgs in Singapore is small - fewer than 10, estimates the National Arts Council.

There are also dramaturgs such as academics Charlene Rajendran and Robin Loon, who tend to work on theatre or multi-disciplinary performances, but do not rule out working with dancers in the future.

Younger dance groups and independent dance-makers may recognise the value of a dramaturg, but sometimes opt not to work with one, usually due to financial constraints.

"I agree that a dramaturg is important, but I don't engage one formally because a dramaturg equals extra cost. I can barely pay my performers as it is," says independent choreographer Max Chen, 32, founder of collective Paragraph.

For contemporary Malay dance collective, P7:1SM4, it is about searching for the right fit. It is looking for a dramaturg to work on its 2018 project NGOPI, about the ethical aspects of coffee production.

"Ideally, our dramaturg can be a professional in the coffee industry and also possess some artistic knowledge," say the collective members, who add that for their first time working with a dramaturg, they hope for someone who is "more of a consultant or contributor" and "questions, shares research data, checks the validity and clarity of work, but does not create the idea of the work".

In the absence of a dramaturg, what practitioners like them do is invite friends or mentors to preview the work and provide feedback.

But as the arts scene in Singapore develops, practitioners say that there is value in professionalising the role of the dramaturg.

Centre 42, a space dedicated to the development of text for the Singapore stage, introduced the Dramaturgy Apprenticeship Programme in 2015 to help develop new dramaturgs. Dr Manokara did an apprenticeship with dance company Raw Moves as part of the programme.

The Asian Dramaturgs' Network, founded by Lim, held its inaugural meeting in Singapore last year, co-presented by Centre 42 and the Esplanade. This year's meeting will be held from Feb 16 to 18 in Yokohama, Japan.

"During the meeting last year, we realised that people have been practising dramaturgy without calling it that," says Dr Loon, Centre 42's principal consultant in charge of documentation, dramaturgy and discourse. For example, in Indonesia, there are roles for a "pendamping" (supporter) or "pengganggu" (provocateur) instead.

These kinds of Asian voices are what might help enrich the discussions and documentation of dramaturgy, which are traditionally Euro-American-centric, says the Esplanade's Ms Tan. She hopes that more institutions and funding bodies in Asia can help make the role of the dramaturg a more sustainable career option.

Dramaturgs in this region also often travel widely for work, which "means that dramaturgs also become key carriers and interpreters of knowledge and can be instrumental in establishing valuable connections, playing a critical role in shaping contemporary dance in Asia and beyond," says Ms Tan.

For now, those interested to become dramaturgs can check if they have these qualities - good interpersonal skills, love for research and the ability to think about and question the elements of a production.

And the role of a dramaturg may sometimes be a lonely one. Often, it is hard to pinpoint the dramaturg's exact contributions to a work.

"If you want the limelight, don't be a dramaturg. That's part of the nature of the work," says Dr Loon.

Adds Dr Rajendran: "There is no 'rah-rah'. Sometimes after a production, it gets awkward because people don't know what to say to you. Your work is totally invisible to the audience. And that's fine."

•Asian Dramaturgs' Network Meeting 2017 takes place from Feb 16 to 18 in Yokohama, Japan. Tickets cost ¥3,500 (S$44) for all open events for those who work in the performing arts and ¥500 an event for members of the public.

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Correction note: This story has been edited for clarity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2017, with the headline 'Invisible forces of dance'. Print Edition | Subscribe