By Thea Patterson and Peter Trosztmer
With this paper we will reflect upon, and attempt to describe, one specific collaboration, which has evolved over roughly a 10-year period. Ours: A collaboration between a choreographer/performer (Peter Trosztmer) and his dramaturge or outside person (Thea Patterson) We will offer our individual perspectives and insights as we look at our trajectory and the developing methodology we have arrived at, one could say, mostly by making it up as we go, (for there is certainly no manual, or single path of execution to be found for this). We will share our individual perspectives on our collaborative history, the role and definition of collaboration, the methods we employ, and how we deal with some of the main aspects of the collaboration including communication, conflict, consensus, power, ownership, and finally why we would ever choose to collaborate in the first place.
As we try and put to words what it is we do, and to encapsulate exactly what comprises the elements of our particular working relationship, we seek to do so as the practitioners we are, rather than the academics that we are not. As such, we choose to leave behind certain constraints of written style and form for a looser and more personal interpretation of the theme.
Background and Definitions
Thea and I have worked together (along with other people/collaborators), on many different projects. Usually I am the performer and she is the person working from the outside. This is where our place of specialty sits. When we began to work together we had no real clue of each other’s area of specialty, but through this “long and winding road” we have, over three major creation periods, begun to map out each our areas of expertise.
We starting working together in a creative work related capacity (as opposed to our other collaborative endeavors like the creation and raising of our child) in 2006 with the creation of my first solo in my Synthesis as Composure series. This was followed by the second synthesis piece in 2009 and finally my most recent work “Eesti -Myths and Machines” in Nov 2011, which finds our working relationship much more fully realized and efficient. These three solo processes cover the bulk of our practice as collaborators, but it is also worth mentioning that we have also, during these same years, worked together on several other projects in various configurations that have also informed us. The most notable of these would be, first: “Norman” a piece conceived by Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon which we co-choreographed, and which was also a solo for me, (and as such Thea also took on the role of rehearsal director and performance coach). And second, the work we do with our collective The Choreographers, which find us embodying all types and levels of collaborative activities. Simultaneously to the work, we also live our lives, raise our daughter and manage a home collaboratively. We collaborate within our neighborhood and with our friends. We collaborate on what we eat and how we live. Our general overall view of the world is substantially collaboratively developed. It is through this process that we push each other, challenge each other to clarify our perspectives. Each of these contexts, with their differing parameters and challenges have been integral to us moving forward, as we clarify, define and refine both our working and personal relationship.
Over the three solos she has assisted me with coupled with our life partnership, Thea has had a big part in, that is to say, she has collaborated with me in how I have shaped what I value in myself as a performer and in my relationship to art and movement. How we collaborate has developed and changed, grown and refined itself over the better part of 10 years and perhaps from the very beginning of our relationship, to the point where we find ourselves collaborating on this paper.
When I was contemplating this paper the first thing that went through my mind, was this question so often posed…. “What is it exactly that we do?” “ How does the work happen?” in concrete understandable step-by-step terms? Which was followed quickly by the overwhelming sense that I really have no idea! This led me then to this notion of the “winding road” as a metaphor for this idea that we really are just making it up as we go along. That we are, to greater and lesser conscious degrees, practicing something called heurism, or the
“pragmatic educational philosophy of learning by doing, or finding out for oneself”
(Williams, David (2010) 'Geographies of Requiredness, pg 200)
Of course, with a second and third reflection it becomes clear that there is a methodology that emerges, albeit one that is not written or codified and is perhaps as ephemeral and changeable as the emerging work.
When I think of collaboration, and in researching its definitions and parameters, naturally one is brought to this idea of shared invention, the blurring of hierarchies and ownership, of a shared investment and a shared responsibility. But within this there are many degrees along the full continuum of collaborative paradigms. Where do Peter and I fit on this? Is it a true collaboration if, in the end the work is signed by one author? The parameters range between complete collaboration where the direction of each person is equally implicated, to a narrower frame where collaborators are brought in to contribute in a more specialized way, and where the overall direction is held in the hands of one (or perhaps more) defined leader(s). As a collaborator defined within this final assessment (one author) what is my role? When I reflect on the way our dynamic unfolds I see it contained within an overall direction that belongs to Peter. It is his body that is telling the story, which predominantly defines the movement aesthetic, the physical intensity. He also has final say on the thematic direction, (as much as one can, when competing with the emergent voice of the work itself, which often takes us in directions unforeseen and quite often exactly needed).
In the context of our creative past, it seems that I get myself into trouble and then I pull Thea in and she helps to get us out. I play the role of the optimist, where anything is possible and then Thea comes along and points out many of the impossibilities and sets things along on a more reasonable path. That is to say, with the beginnings of a project I find it useful to dream, but there then comes a time when it is necessary to create a piece. I make propositions and try to build a structure and she simply makes it better. I find it difficult to structure a piece that I am also performing in. I find it useful to have someone with a perspective that I understand that I can reflect with, a ground zero so to speak, as I move back and forth between the role of choreographer and performer. I use Thea’s eyes and insight to help create and craft details of movement etc. She takes the movement, text and structural choices that I began with and helps develop them. It seems to me that the work she does resembles at times what a choreographer does, however, she is working on a piece that is initiated by me and that I will ultimately lay claim to as author. At other times she is clearly working more in the capacity of dramaturge, witness or as provocateur. She definitely remains more objective or manages to maintain more distance from the work, than a choreographer might typically do to his or her own creation. For things to develop efficiently I need to trust her to be working on what it is that I am looking for, that she is committed to using the “language” that has been established or proposed for the work. I bring Thea into my work to question me, to ask me what I am doing and why. So in really clear terms, I propose and begin projects, Thea assists me in almost every facet to bring them to fruition and then I go ahead and take all the credit! Perhaps the best way to elaborate on this is to look at our latest collaboration, as it was our most developed working process up to this point, and contained all we have learned from the previous solos applied with more precision and refinement:
My most recent work –“EESTI:”Myths and Machines” indeed could be also described as our most recent work…Thea did not the enter at the beginning of the process, in fact the seeds of this project did not come from me alone but rather were born out of conversations with another long time collaborator, visual artist Jeremy Gordaneer, about how to integrate moving sculptures, sound and dance in an installation inspired format. As this research with Jeremy developed I began another project - researching how my family came to Canada. These two pursuits oddly enough soon began to meld into a singular project. All the while I am living with and talking with Thea. Talking about how things are proceeding, the challenges, and questions. She helps me to process what I am learning through the act of speaking and clarifying my thoughts. Her role at this early stage is mostly to listen, and remain curious.
Research for the project continued for a time with me very much in the driver’s seat but coming often to Thea for reflection and discussion. Eventually she ended up in the studio with me, living and inhabiting the world of Myths and Machines. She read my stories, listened to me recite them, watched me improvise with them, watched video of me working alone and with Lois Brown (theatrical dramaturge) and helped me to structure my choreographic ideas. She made physical, emotional, performative, suggestions, and using the research I had done, helped me to choreograph, write, structure, and improvise. She became another set of eyes that could view, witness, affect, and create from the outside, while I worked from the inside. Thea entered into the work with me fully as a co-creator, In fact, at times she entered into the exploration physically and vocally by improvising, reading, talking and moving. She guided me sometimes in new and surprising directions and helped me through creative blocks. Using the studio and the tools at hand, Thea offered herself to the work. She played with lights, making the space more intimate, created scores, made propositions, played recordings I had made and mixes I made with recorded sounds, made video, spoke text, opened up the space, boxed it in and so on.
Together we searched out what would become the heart of the work. We shared this personal journey into my relationship with my history and my identity. She affected and shaped the process and outcome intimately and in detail using many tools from the choreographers toolbox: procedures of diminishing, taking away (i.e. editing); procedures of augmenting, supplementing, layering (montage, collage, bricolage); procedures of refining, distilling, collapsing and combining; and procedures of gradually expanding and thickening. As we progress Thea’s role becomes difficult to define, it is no longer that of the outside eye, or even the dramaturge or director – she is working in a hybrid role that encompasses all these roles plus some. By the time we reached production her role continues to reflect more that of the choreographer while I have become the performer. This is important because, as we know, there comes a point the performer must leave the thinking behind and become embodied in the work.
Thea’ s perspective
How would I describe our methodology? I would say at the base my job is to assist Peter towards the place of most clarity on a number of different planes. The very subjective definition of this clarity is something that we arrive at through a dialogue between the two of us, as we continually refine all facets of the material, including: the physical, the spacial, the treatment of text, the treatment of silence, of music, the handling of props, the use of focus and so on. My eye is acutely attuned to what I describe as the ‘glitch’ moments…that is, any moment that causes me to feel disconnected from what he is doing. The reasons are not always obvious, and the real work is the process of uncovering, clarifying, and communicating how to address those moments.
Ours is not a particularly gentle discourse. The work is to find the way to communicate particular subtleties that are often hard to put to words, and to pass through, also, what is lost in translation between our two distinct ways of seeing and understanding the world. For me I find it a challenge to put to words that which I feel is missing, without becoming negative or overwhelming Peter with what is essentially lacking (in my highly subjective but also quite developed opinion) which can become frustrating for him and causes him to lose confidence and at times to become angry. We conflict when there is a sense that I am not communicating in such a way as to be able to bring whatever ‘it’ is out. What is it that I need to communicate? Usually it is about the movement pathways of the body that are for some reason or another, what I describe as ‘foggy’. Peter is often working through movement scores or systems that gradually become more and more precise and refined, if never completely ‘set’ (though there are certainly times when the movement is also very set). The challenge is to keep the integrity of whatever the system might be. To identify when it is becoming blocked in the body, when the clarity is not there, when overlapping stimulus are perhaps clouding rather than augmenting the whole, or when it is falling into habitual movements that inhibit it to move forward.
Often it takes time to get to the heart of the thing. Time spent skirting it, trying to pinpoint it, describing and re-describing, often without success…or with incremental movement towards the resolution. Is it the execution? The rhythm? Lack of clarity in the physical pathways? Timing? The way we deal with communication has everything to do with how well we fare. It is delicate, and the wrong words, which happen often, can send us off track. Of course, this process of ‘going off’ inevitably becomes part of the evolution and deepening of the research, and is in fact, a major component in the process of eventually finding our way back. But in the moment, and if the communication is feeling clunky, it certainly can sometimes feel like the end of the world.
But, issues of communication aside for the moment, the assessment of mine that something Peter is attempting is “glitching”, or not working, is certainly subjective, yet it is one I have learned to trust, as it is the base of what I have to offer. My experience has shown me too, that while another set of eyes may indeed identify a similar moment, they might very well be drawn towards another set of factors, equally as valid. But I only have what my eyes can see. It is the direction that my eye gives, in conversation with Peter, that then defines in many ways the parameters of how we deepen the investigation of any given moment, and thus my perspective, my vision, begins to be folded into the work. This is the essence of the collaboration; a chain of alchemistic events, where any augmentation that I integrate into the work subtly shifts the direction of the evolving vocabulary, to which Peter then also responds in kind, and so on. It is a kind of collaborative snowball occurring on a very subtle level. Through this process, we begin to lose the hard lines of what belongs to who, and we blur the notion of “I” for the more inclusive “we”. This methodology is used all along, each of us pushing the material forward, and while there is always resistance, and conflict, at a point it falls away. Once this trust is achieved, and we have lost the blocks of communication and once all the fights have been fought, suddenly it opens up and the snowball is allowed to roll. We have come to realize that hard as they feel in the moment, we need the bumpy parts of the road to be able to profit from the smoothly paved hill.
I found a very interesting and inspiring analogy for this process in the thesis of Mark Alan Elliot entitled Stigmergic Collaboration, A Theoretical Framework for Mass Collaboration. In it he speaks of the collaborative process in terms of its stigmergic agency as he makes a connection between collaborations in the natural world, and those that we undertake as human artists and creators.
“Joint authorship has always been a stigmergic activity, mediated by the emerging document itself. Each author is stimulated by what previous authors have written to add main-line content or marginal comments.” (Pg 53)
Or in other terms, Stigmergy is defined essentially as a mechanism that allows an environment to structure itself through the activities of the agents within the environment. It is a term derived from the insect world; where large numbers of workers (such as ant or bees) collaborate on building an emerging structure, but where they are heavily influenced in the actions they choose, by the emerging structure itself. This is an evocative analogy for another integral piece of the puzzle, which is this notion that once this chain of events is set in motion, whether between two collaborators like myself and Peter, or in a more complex system involving many contributors, that there is this sense that the sum is more than the parts, that in fact the work itself becomes another vital collaborator, with a voice and a power all its own.
Pitfall and Challenges
What is so special about collaboration anyway? Especially with a spouse…it is rife with potential for conflict and discomfort. One does wonder, why in fact anyone would even consider it, and yet there are many examples to be found. (Locally we find: Bill Coleman and Laurence Lemieux, Allen and Karen Kaeja, Suzanne Miller and Allen Pavio and historically we have the likes of: Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Picasso and Dora Maar, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, and of course, John Cage and Merce Cunningham to name a few). So there will be a conference dedicated to collaboration. When I hear this I think, it sounds like we will be getting together to paint an idyllic picture of the shared creative process. Or to applaud the increasing trend towards this type of practice for its leveling powers, for its ability to render a process democratic and to erode the hierarchies of power we have inherited, embodied and now finally rejected. But have we? What of the feeling of not having control and the fairly consistent struggles for power and dominance that inevitably still ensue? Or the challenge that is trying to communicate one's way through the shifting nature of the performance…. Or the nature of effective communication itself? These are tricky things to negotiate.
Take first the issue of control and dominance: maybe it is a failing to even admit that it comes as strongly into play as it does, but it is real, and so it would be remiss not to include it and, because reflecting on the general trajectory of how we work, it could also be argued that in the end, these struggles do in fact play out an eventually integral role. It has something to do with finding the rhythm of each of the processes, and until we find that sweet spot, it is inevitably bumpy. Because we are a couple, and because we do collaborate on pretty much all facets of our life, we seem to find ourselves applying similar communication tactics and skills to our creative work as we do to negotiating how to deal with any given domestic situation. We are far from perfect in our life and so we are also far from perfect in the studio. We do not always react, respond and enter into dialogue in the most productive manner. We are two strong personalities with strong opinions and views that are not always in accord, and so we argue, debate, defend, negotiate, pout, rant, cry, are blunt, honest, and even at times brutal.
To elaborate on this notion of control, or loss of control and the presence of power and dominance which seem quite clearly to be closely related, when I scan through our creative history for specific examples it actually becomes foggy, I think because of the reason stated above, that the negotiation of these things actually leads us where we need to go, and so then it kind of all fades away into the fabric of the process. But that said I tend to assert my power and dominance when I feel strongly that I am seeing something that he cannot, (because he is in it) and when I feel that whatever my assertion is, it is being resisted.
I also find myself struggling with issues of control when I do not understand something and the only recourse is to leave Peter alone to work it out, and that I cannot, or should not yet impose too much external pressure upon him or it. There is something about not understanding a given idea, movement quality, structure choice etc that evokes a kind of panic response…The reality however, is that I may never understand a certain choice, I may even be strongly adverse to it, and yet, he can and does at times move forward anyway. After the initial discomfort of not being able to control (as if it was my right!) the given moment, my job then becomes to make that moment I am not in accordance with the most connected and folded in as I can. This often means looking at what is around the moment, and finding and strengthening its connection to that in which it is housed. Eventually, inevitably for the most part, in regards to whatever my concerns were, I am usually surprised and humbled by the way it turns out.
A close cousin to control is resistance. This is unfortunately a rather all too frequent visitor for us as we work. It is usually the place where we end up when communication becomes broken, or if either of us feels we are not being heard, or are being put upon by the others need to control or dominate. Most often, it is not very productive. It is the state that is most likely to suspend the momentum of any given work period and find us off in the ditch playing out relationship dynamics not at all related to the work at hand. It is something we work on, that we have improved with over time, but that we still and probably always will fall into.
Why do we collaborate?
Why do we collaborate with all of these challenges? Even on this paper, always this sense of “Here we go…how do we start? How to we agree? How to we disagree? To be honest sometimes I experience dread (vs. peter’s optimism). So why then are we drawn towards it? Is there is some sense of solidarity, of communion and community, a sense of not being alone, of a shared investment that outweighs all the other? I collaborate with Peter because he needs me. I collaborate with him because the work is better for the two of us being there. I collaborate with him because he makes me better at what I do. We collaborate because this is what we do, this is how we live, and it is a reflection and a celebration of the best and the worst of our humanity. We are ourselves in the barest of forms while we stand side by side in the studio or the theatre.
We did not know when we began, how much this collaboration would challenge our partnership both inside and outside the studio, or in the end, how rewarding, difficult, maddening and wild the development and refinement of our collaborative process would be. It is always raw. But herein also lies the beauty, for I do not know of another creative situation in my life that allows for such a baseline of such intimate trust and honesty. What this means is that we meet as equals within that room. I can say exactly what is on my mind; I am in effect less careful than I might be in other situations. I am completely, sometimes brutally honest and so is Thea. We move forward knowing that our collaboration is defined by this level of trust that supports all our conversations, heated debates, power struggles, and finally those sweet moments of accordance and consensus, well fought for that serve as the backbone for the emerging work and for the continued life of our collaboration both as art practitioners and life partners.
Elliott, Mark Alan. “Stigmergic Collaboration: A Theoretical Framework for Mass Collaboration”Centre for Ideas, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne 2003
Holland O.E. and Melhuish C. “Stigmergy, self-organisation, and sorting in collective robotics”, Artificial Life, 5:2, 173-202 1999
Williams, David. “Geographies of Requiredness: Notes on the Dramaturg in Collaborative Devising*”, Contemporary Theatre Review 20: 2, 197-202 2010
Macêdo, Silvana “Collaboration in Art: Sharing the Space of One?”M.A. Thesis: University of Northumbria Newcastle upon Tyne June, 1999
Kloppenberg, Annie. 'Improvisation in Process: “Post-Control” Choreography', Dance Chronicle, 33: 2, 180 — 207 2010
DeLahunta, Scott, Ginot, Isabelle, Van Imschoot, Myriam, Lepecki, Andre´, Rethorst, Susan, Theodores, Diana and Williams, David, ‘Conversations on Choreography’, Performance Research, 8.4 61–70 2003
Behrndt, Synne K. “Dance, Dramaturgy and Dramaturgical Thinking” Dramaturgy and Performance, Palgrave MacMillan, 2008
Melrose, Susan. ‘Intuition’, Performance Research, 11.3 75–8 2006