Dance festival mixes other disciplines into its creative process

The Dramatic Impulse is about dance without question: the two-weekend affair is in fact the 32nd annual Alberta Dance Festival presented by Dancers’ Studio West.

But in another way The Dramatic Impulse is about more than dance or at least about understanding dance in a broader way. Underpinning each of the nine pieces presented in the festival is an artistic work from another medium (Frida Kahlo’s paintings say or Beckett’s Waiting for Godot ) which serves as a foundational inspiration for the choreographers. In another discipline-blurring move Dancers’ Studio West also engaged Zach Moull to be the show’s resident dramaturg.

Dramaturgs are experts in the craft of dramatic composition and primarily work in the theatre realm. “The idea of having a dramaturg for a contemporary dance show is fairly novel at least in North America” says Moull. His focus as dramaturg for the festival was on each piece’s theatrical elements or as he puts it to “encourage work that is making as rigorous choices about the lighting design or what the dancers are wearing or how they’re placed in space or what we tell the audience in program notes or lobby in order to shape their experience.”

All the choreographers worked closely with artistic director Davida Monk as well of course but Moull’s contribution might be about the arrangement of props onstage or how to approach the dancers’ connection to their audience.

“A large part of this adventure has been going into nine different rooms and trying to learn nine different languages that are not my language” says Moull. “Instead of story or narrative you’re thinking of arc or journey; instead of intentions or motivations you’re thinking in terms of triggers and impulses. And it’s not just a linguistic difference… we also are genuinely talking about slightly different things.”

Besides embedding a theatre professional into the creation process the festival also stretches the boundaries of its genre by having each performance premised on a piece of art of the choreographer’s choice. That isn’t to say that the final works are direct dance adaptations of the source material however.

“We’re playing with getting artistic feedback and impulse and drive across disciplines… so this seemed like the way to explore where do our artistic impulses come from and what can be the material of a piece” explains Moull.

Thus Oriana Pagnotta’s piece inspired by Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman uses a series of plates as props but in unexpected ways; or while Robert Halley’s work references specific images from Shel Silverstein’s poem “No Difference” it’s more generally about the idea of sameness and difference.

“Part of the effect of it is it asks the choreographers to work in a different way” says Moull. “There is more material there are more things there that call you to do choroegraphy that’s not what you would do if you were alone creating something from your mind. It calls you to stretch what you do and how you think about the possibilities of contemporary dance.”

There are many points of entry into a festival like this one; dance lovers will have a feast of new work to enjoy; theatre folk will enjoy the attention paid to the shows’ dramatic elements; and many of us might feel a connection to the dancers’ source material. For example says Moull “You’re not going to literally see The Edible Woman onstage [but] after the experience you might go back to The Edible Woman and see something new in it.”

The festival features a different program for each weekend.