Archive as Performance – Julie Potter Interview with Bebe Miller Company Dramaturg Talvin Wilks

[box] Bebe Miller Company’s West Coast premiere of A History, January 25 and 26 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), Advance tickets: $25 Regular  •  $20 students, seniors, teachers. At the door: $30 Regular  •  $25 students, seniors, teachers. $20 YBCA members – FREE for YBCA:You  for more information visit [/box]

Earlier this month writer, dance maker, curator Julie Potter and  Talvin Wilks, dramaturge for Bebbe Miller Company discussed his role as a collaborative dramaturg in a process which employed historical thinking to generate a dance. Here in the interview.

JP: Bebe Miller mentioned that A History emerged from your conversations about how to archive her work. Can you talk about the seed of this project?

TW: A History was triggered from my phase of archiving and documenting. I’ve been doing a series of oral histories – talking to a lot of artists about documenting the history of their work – and felt like there wasn’t a strong enough web presence for the Bebe Miller Company. We started thinking about an archive for the Bebe Miller Company and a web portal into the history of the company, the process of dance making. That’s my memory of the initial conversation.

I was also thinking about New World Theatre and the archive there. I’ve been caught up in the idea of framing the history of ones work. Then I got a call from Bebe and that led to this idea called Danceport, the working title for a more alive and accessible archive web site. We were hoping to work with the ACCAD (Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design) that did Synchronous Objects with William Forsythe. They have a very interesting web engagement that explores his process and applies his aesthetic practices to other scientific approaches in thinking about movement, energy and thermodynamics.

We wanted to think about people could understand the way we make dance – not just a listing of our ideas but a real engaged understanding of what goes into our process of creating dance. I think at this time a lot of choreographers have been thinking about how to archive their work beyond video, Labanotation and dance notes; really thinking about how to capture the spirit, the idea, the research and the thinking process that went into the making of the dance. I was also concerned with the information dancers carry that is often overlooked: in their bodies, in their own histories and their own journals. They really carry a core source of information about the making of a dance that is often just tossed aside. We usually think of the choreographer and the work itself.

We wanted to create some kind of web site engagement that would allow the dancers to download and document their history and their memory of what went into the making of the dances, as well as my dramaturgical practice and process, which is often hidden and behind the scenes. The dramaturgy is not necessarily in the foreground, which it shouldn’t be, but it’s there and we wanted to find a way for it to have a presence, as well as the additional creative work and journaling that Bebe goes through when she thinks about making a particular dance.

Then the dancers also wanted to make a dance inquiring how to utilize this process of looking back and archiving to make something new. We didn’t want to just remake dances because we’re not a repertory company, but we did want to utilize this historical thinking as a generative process. Could something new come out of the actual process of looking back?

JP: So the dance is a project within creating the archive?

TW: Exactly. Or rather, the dance emanates from the process of creating an archive and it created all these feedback loops. We weren’t really thinking about making a dance at all. We were thinking about trying to formulate a way the four of us: Bebe Miller, Darrell Jones, Angie Hauser and I could utilize our journals, memories and things that we have collected in thinking about the making of a particular dance, especially the dances that we four shared over a period of time. From there it got complicated because we did not initially partner with ACCAD to make the digital archive. We shifted into this process of reviewing dance. Maybe something new could emanate from that to generate a new dance. So that’s how A History was born-the dance piece itself.

The web archive remained in the background and we changed focus. There was a lot of interest in the dance and then the grants for Danceport started coming in, so suddenly we were involved in both: obligated to generate some kind of web site and digital archive as well as a dance.

Currently we have multiple platforms: we have the dance itself, A History, a prototype of Danceport in the form of an e-book that will remain in process, the video installation by Maya Ciarrocchi, a component created as a media representation of the dance making process, and then we were very fortunate to partner with Jerry Dannemiller who was working with the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance. He took us on as a project and created this wonderful exhibition of the history of Bebe’s work called Tracing History, which connected to all of this archival exploration, so it really has been a fascinating coming together of all of these components and at the heart of it a dance piece was generated.

JP: When you’re archiving time-based, body-based art forms as you have for theater, what elements do you consider and prioritize?

TW: Well I’m new to it and it’s really just in the last five years that I’ve been thinking about these things and that I’m old enough or experienced enough to actually have things worth archiving or even thinking about historically. One battle I’ve had for a long time emerged through working on a book called Testament: 40 Years of Black Theater History in the Making. I’ve been interviewing different pioneers who make theater and when you look historically back at say, the black art movement and regional theaters, and you look at the history, in the end, all you really have are documents of the actual event that took place and reviews. You don’t really have any first hand information from the artist unless there have been previews written. You’ve really lost a lot of the historical understanding of the work itself.

In my interview process I’m trying to gather firsthand memory about the work itself, about the period, about the context, about the politics to go along with the ephemeral aspects of a history that has already been documented. I’m coming at it from a real personal idea and perspective. I feel that’s what gets lost. Even initial ideas and thinking into a particular work: how did that evolve over a period of time and what are your points of view or feelings about the actual results. Those things have become more and more important as I’ve been doing the oral history kind of documentation.

JP: What does your dramaturgical process with Bebe look like? Who’s asking the questions and how do you support her behind the scenes?

TW: It’s a process that has evolved over almost 15 years and started in a theater piece called Drumming for which we were in Miami working with conductor Tania Leon. We established a chemistry working on that project. I came in as a directorial consultant, which had some dramaturgical process involved, so in that way she saw me as a theater artist and director with a theatrical point of view. I also had a history as a playwright. She started a piece called Going to the Wall, which was a very challenging exploration about race, culture and identity and what happens when you bring those things into the rehearsal room itself.

When often people are asked to check identity and ethnicity at the door and just bring in the vessel, she wanted to see what happened if you actually brought those issues into the room and could explore those elements, as well as a thematic understanding of the piece itself. She knew she didn’t have all of the techniques and approaches to keep everyone’s faith in that kind of exploration, so she was looking for a collaborator and eventually brought me into that process.

I was asked to help the dancers understand themselves as characters separate from themselves as dancers in order to see how that would inform a dance vocabulary. I also brought in some theory and approaches from my history working with The Open Theater and The Talking Band. I’m based in ensemble theater practices. That’s my training.

I started collecting information in the room which I call language capture. Dancers and companies in process actually generate a lot of language as they are explaining, understanding and identifying what they doing in the room, but there isn’t someone in the room collecting that information. Often it’s utilized and forgotten. I found this fascinating that within a second they would name a movement, a dance, a phrase – just short hand and didn’t necessarily mean anything for an audience – just something they were utilizing, yet it would be incredibly informed, it would be metaphoric, it would be poetic and in the interest in describing gestures they would use an entire metaphoric vocabulary as a way to name and remember a particular phrase and movement.

I started collecting all of these titles and my first job in the process was just called the naming of things. The collecting and naming of things identify particular dance phrases that then, because they were documented, offered a quicker way of piecing thematic components. Immediately I made a connection of their dance making process and my own theatrical play making process that I think was the root of our collaboration. Therefore, I’m often considered the structuralist. I collect the different components and I help to piece them together thematically in conversation with the dancers and Bebe.

Bebe normally generates the concept and the broader idea. She establishes the movement vocabulary in collaboration with the dancers and a lot of the work is generated through contact improvisation and then is rehearsed and shaped from there. I think of those things in a connective way. How do they reflect the ideas we’ve been exploring? How do we set up certain experiments to think about that vocabulary inside of a particular kind of exploration?  I think about how those different building blocks start to work together to create a broader understanding of the exploration.

From there, I had specific assignments for projects, for example after Going to the Wall, I was commissioned to actually write a text for Verge as well as do the dramaturgy. Because I received an individual artist grant, I was also able to be at every rehearsal. It was the first time that we started thinking of the dramaturg as an involved collaborator throughout the entire process as opposed to a dramaturg who partners with the choreographer who comes in and out once there’s something to be seen, reviews that, explores that, thinks about that. I’m actually on hand, in the moment responding. Once we established that relationship it’s been that way ever since.

JP: Sounds very much like ensemble based and devised theater practices where everyone is in a room collaborating and creating together.

TW: Yes, and that’s where the company gave me this privileged place. They valued my aesthetic eye and my view of the work. I didn’t necessarily have a dance background but I did have a movement background. My theater training had always been movement-based, so I did have a vocabulary.  I had worked with choreographers collaborating with poets for many years, so there was a knowledge base there that I think was also very helpful and informative to the company, especially in thematic exploration. I was also connected to the use of text. We’ve utilized text in a majority of the dances since Going to the Wall, either spoken by the dancers or generated by Bebe and used as voiceover scoring. Textual concept has been a part of the dramaturgical relationship.

Finally, I would really strengthen the idea that I consider myself a collaborative dramaturg and I really have a place in the building and shaping of the work and the understanding of the thematic expression of the work. The role borders and it crosses. Some people think it’s not pure to bridge and break those boundaries, but I think in our process it’s been a very exciting collaborative engagement to incorporate me in that way. It’s significant for me as a dramaturg to work with a dance company.


[box] Talvin Wilks is a playwright, director and dramaturg. His plays include Tod, the boy, Tod; The Trial of Uncle S&M; Bread of Heaven; and An American Triptych. Directorial projects include the world premiere productions of UDU by Sekou Sundiata (651Arts/BAM), The Love Space Demands by Ntozake Shange (Crossroads), No Black Male Show/Pagan Operetta by Carl Hancock Rux (Joe’s Pub/The Kitchen), Banana Beer Bath by Lynn Nottage, (Going to the River Festival), the Obie Award/AUDELCO Award-winning The Shaneequa Chronicles by Stephanie Berry (Ensemble Studio Theatre), Relativity by Cassandra Medley (Ensemble Studio Theatre – AUDELCO nomination for Best Director 2006) and On the Way to Timbuktu by Petronia Paley (Ensemble Studio Theatre – AUDELCO nomination for Best Director 2008). He has served as co-writer/dramaturg for ten productions in Ping Chong’s ongoing series of Undesirable Elements, and dramaturg for four collaborations with the Bebe Miller Company, Necessary Beauty, Going to the Wall, the Bessie Award-winning Verge, and Landing/Place for which he received a 2006 Bessie Award for Dramaturgy.[/box]

[box] Julie Potter is a dance artist, writer, curator and yoga teacher. She is the Writer in Residence at the ODC Theater and the Community Engagement Program Assistant at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Julie has written for publications including the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Culturebot, Engine28, Willamette Week and In Dance and was a fellow in the NEA Arts Journalism Institutes in Dance and in Theater. As a 2011-12 Emerging Arts Professionals Fellow she curated public programs including Artist As Citizen, The Artist-Administrator Balancing Act and Collaborators in Situ. She was also a guest curator for Dance Discourse Project #13: Dancing in the Museum presented by Dancers’ Group, CounterPulse and the de Young Museum. Julie continues her studies as part of the 2012-13 class at Wesleyan University’s Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance. Visit and [/box]


Dramaturgy in Dance – is a series of conversations instigated to promote discourse/dialogue around dance performance/theatre and its various processes from a maker’s perspective.

THEOFFCENTER would like to thank Julie Potter at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for making this interview possible.We would also like to thank Talvin Wilks for giving us time, passion and vision.



1 comment

  1. Thanks, Julie, for a great conversation. Only one correction, the ebook is actually called Dance Fort, but I’m loving Danceport. I think we’ll have to change our title, brilliant!

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