Practice Snapshot: Notes on Choreographic Dramaturgy

alys longley*


This practice snapshot discusses dramaturgy within a devised, multi-media, choreographic context through the performance h u m a t t e r i n g. Through approaching dramaturgy as a practice of folding, it accounts for some ways in which collaborators uncover the structure of new work in a devising process. In this context, definitions of what can constitute a body, or what can constitute a sense of humanity, can become uncertain. Practices of choreographic dramaturgy could be unsettled, extended and opened, so that embodied states split performance language open.

Keywords: mistranslation, artistic research, transdisciplinary dramaturg, dance dramaturg, choreograph, experimental writing

When I think about dramaturgy I think about folding.

For example:

How physicality folds time into form

How form pushes language into drawn shapes on pages

How physical states fold into felt states becoming more and more specific

How collaborators on a project fold its language in various directions

How the work of dramaturgy folds these various directions into a structure

How the poetics of text become states for concentrating movement

How drawing becomes dancing

How fragments of dancing take shape

How transitions between fragments become things in themselves, unfolding the time of dramatic experience

All this folding draws into question

what language is

how decisions move into place

what authorship is

what constitutes a body

what is the specific logic of a work?

Over the last decade, I have defined my artistic research as “mistranslation studies.” This term accounts for how the dramaturgy of my practice materialises in movement across languages, disciplines and borders. In the process of creating performance work vocabulary moves across formal disciplines—choreography, experimental writing, lecture demonstration, sound design, gallery installation. It also moves across proper languages—English, Spanish, Portuguese, Farsi, Mandarin, Māori, Japanese and Italian. This movement of mistranslation can be seen in works such as A Precarious Body of Tilting Maps and Migrant Constellations and Botany of Desire.

Movement across languages can generate a spill of ideas, pushing creative work to the edges of conventional systems of meaning. Rifts or dislocations in communication can become dramaturgical resources. Here, a vocabulary-yet-to-come can emerge, maybe when languages intersect but they don’t literally correspond. We attempt to go to this place in studio practice, facilitating the intersections between bodies, vocabularies and material forms.

h u m a t t e r i n g by alys longley (writing/artistic direction), Project team (clockwise from top left) alys longley, Kristian Larsen, Janaína Moraes Sean Curham and Jeffrey Holdaway , Old Folks Association, 2021. Photo: Yin-Chi Lee

When making the work h u m a t t e r i n g, we worked across English, Spanish, Farsi, Mandarin and Portuguese as dancers Alys Longley, Janaína Moraes, Maryam Bagheri-Nesami, Yin Chi Lee and Joanna Cook worked with mistranslation as a choreographic method. Slipping between different languages we explored vocabulary connecting the terms wave, swell, economy and injury. The connections amazed us. The English word for swell, and the word for inflation in Farsi, for example, align. We find that as terms cross languages and improvisation scores they shift, expand and layer, travelling with the poetics and practicalities of language. As collaborators we track histories and layers of words across the homes that we have known—linguistic and geographic. We trace thematics to evoke ideas around singular and plural bodies and their borders in an active, poetic way.

The artist Francis Alÿs’s maxim: Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic (2007) is a conceptual anchor as we move-with geopolitical thematics and linguistic translations. I see this practice as developing vocabularies-yet-to-come, which I consider a political, non-instrumentalised practice. That is, we are not addressing a geopolitical issue as such. Instead, we follow the artistic language as it emerges, and continue to turn our curiosity to border-crossing in relation to singular and collective bodies, explicitly opening up the baggage of our languages and turning words and meanings over as the musicality and possibilities of different languages touch and undo each other. Working with the poetic, the freedom to work outside of conventional logics is central to our practice, as is our commitment to the idea of solidarity. Our studio practice actively questions the concept of the nation-state to understand this as a fiction rather than a given.

h u m a t t e r i n g by alys longley (writing/artistic direction), Project team (clockwise from top left) alys longley, Deborah Fletcher, Sean Curham, Old Folks Association, 2021. Photo: Yin-Chi Lee

As an experimental artist I tend to show work in porous spaces—live art festivals, experimental art spaces, spaces that hold transdisciplinary creative work. In my studio practice, the role of dramaturg is often a shared and mobile one. I have the feeling this mobile role of the dramaturg is quite common in dance practice in New Zealand / Aotearoa—dramaturgy is valued by choreographers, and it is happening, but it is rarely funded as a separate creative role.

h u m a t t e r i n g by alys longley (writing/artistic direction), Project team (clockwise from top left) alys longley, Janaína Moraes, Jeffrey Holdaway, Old Folks Association, 2021. Photo: Yin-Chi Lee

In h u m a t t e r i n g (2021, 2022), for example, we were an experienced team of mid-career practitioners, all of whom could play multiple roles in a project, so that the lighting designer is also a dance artist, producer, researcher and teacher, the sound designer is also a choreographer, professional dancer, improviser, writer, dramaturg and teacher, the technical director is also a film-maker, sound designer, and visual artist—also a teacher. As artistic director for the project, I was also writer, performer, producer, documentation lead and researcher. The role of dramaturg was passed around our team like a hat, which different members of the team would take on at different moments. Our lighting designer, Sean Curham, for example, would shift focus at a certain moment to ask the team questions. “What is happening with timing in this section?” “Where is the focus here?” “What is actually happening here, and how does the movement relate to the text?” “Are we sure that what we think is going on would be evident to someone outside the process?” Sound artist Kristian Larsen would come out from having a deep concentration in sonic composition to take on the very different orientation of the dramaturg—taking everything in, sitting with how the layers of the performance language were emerging, and providing information on composition as an outside eye to performers.

Shifting into the dramaturg role involved an explicit and deliberate letting go of our specific craft (lighting design, or sound, for example), to instead focus on the knitting-together of elements. This orientation felt strongly differentiated to us, as it is the difference between an insider and an outsider position. As the dramaturg/outside role, the responsibility is to someone who is not already acquainted with the work, and how sense is being made. However, when tinkering in ones craft as a maker, you can be immersed in the internal, moving logic of the vocabulary of the piece, which is its own kind of world—and this aspect of creation often takes every bit of ones focus in the singular practice of a craft. I can remember my relief when Kristian, Sean or Jeffrey stepped into the dramaturg position—as they felt the need to have an outside eye position checking that the team was moving in the way the work needed. From inside the work, this felt like the dramaturg stepped away from being an artist inventing texture, tone and language, to checking in that the pieces of our puzzle were aligning. Having this kind of presence in the work felt like being held safe, like the world of the work was checked over for leaks and spills, the dramaturg had stepped back to measure the form of the thing and report from their distanced view.

Touching Through: Pink (2021) by alys longley, Jeffrey Holdaway, Kristian Larsen from A Tilting Body of Precarious Maps and Migrant Constellations Virtual Exhibition Space, 2021. Photo: Jeffrey Holdaway

A core aspect of h u m a t t e r i n g  is that it can exist simultaneously as a virtual work and a live one. This work is developed with DotDot Creative Studio in New York, as both an online exhibition and theatrical space and an in-person performance—so the performance space exists as a kind of messy TV studio as well as a theatre. The virtual aspect of this work expanded into the virtual performance and exhibition space A Precarious Body of Tilting Maps and Migrant Constellations. This allowed the performance project to collaborate with artists from across the world—Swedish artist pavleheider, Kate Stevenson from NY-based DotDot Creative Studio and Chilean artist Macarena Campbell-Parra were important international collaborators.

h u m a t t e r i n g by alys longley (writing/artistic direction), Project team (clockwise from left) alys longley, Rosalind Holdaway, Janaína Moraes, Old Folks Association, 2021. Photo: Yin-Chi Lee

I have been thinking-with dance artist Tru Paraha, about the term “choreoturgy”—an iteration of dramaturgical practice that orients with the choreographic and the ambiguity of sensation, feeling, state and movement. Tru’s artistic research is orientated by darkness and black out states, in relation to Matauranga Māori concepts of te po—the night, and te kore, the void. It develops intense choreoturgical instantiations of concept horror and speculative philosophy. In choreoturgical work, mobility and physical sensation activate meaning as it emerges in space, and it is often in points of in-betweenness that the structure for performance takes form.

h u m a t t e r i n g by alys longley (writing/artistic direction), Project team (Clockwise from left) Deborah Fletcher, Jeffrey Holdaway, Kristian Larsen, Janaína Moraes, Sean Curham, alys longley, Old Folks Association, 2021. Photo: Yin-Chi Lee

For me, choreoturgy, or choreographic dramaturgy, is a destabilising practice, wherein definitions of what can constitute a body, or what can constitute a sense of humanity, can become uncertain. What constitutes dramaturgy can also be unsettled, extended and opened. With the concept of choreoturgy, embodied states split performance language open and writing is a kind of interstitial practice that emerges out of physical experimentation. Dance-making and theatrical practices can melt disciplinary borders. In this space where the structural comforts of discipline fall away, vocabularies-yet-to-come may emerge.


Alÿs, Francis. Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political, Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic. David Zwirner Books, 2007.

Longley, Alys, and Kate Stevenson. “A Tilting Body of Precarious Maps and Migrant Contellations.” SloMOCO Residency Virtual Performance Event, December 6 2021. Accessed 3 December 2023.

Longley, A. “h u m a t t e r i n g.” Conference on Movement and Computing, 24 April 2022, Chicago.

——-. Botany of Desire. Videowork. Let Us Drink the New Wine, Together!/ Beberemos El Vino Nuevo, Juntos! Museum of Contemporary Art Santiago, Chile, 1 August-1 October 2022. Accessed 3 December 2023.

Paraha, Tru. “5th Body.” Choreographic Performance, Votive Poetics Symposium (Curator Lisa Samuels), University of Auckland, 2017, Auckland. 

Photo Credit: Kim Annan

*alys longley (PhD, Associate Professor, University of Auckland) is an interdisciplinary artist, writer and teacher, whose work explores mistranslation, working across languages and disciplines to evidence a spill of ideas beyond conventional systems of meaning. Her artistic-research projects shape-shift from writing and performance, artist-book, installation, film, education curriculum and poetry.

Copyright © 2023 alys longley
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