by Amy Freeman
15 September 2011
Just as a play does, a piece of dance-theater begins with an idea or the seed of an idea. Unlike a play, though, at least in the case of a collaborative process, creating dance-theater doesn’t involve a single person sitting in a room writing for a while. Instead, the piece takes shape through rehearsal, discussion and research.
I’ve been working with keila cordova dances, a company based in Philadelphia, in various capacities since 2008. I started as the company intern, doing dramaturgical stuff as well as much less glamorous administrative stuff, such as going door to door asking restaurants and other small businesses to buy ads. Last year, I got to costume one of the dance pieces. This year, my role with the company has been to perform research dramaturgy on their Fringe Festival performance, Agnes Falling.
Agnes Falling is described as a “modern day fable.” It’s full of the things you remember from the fairy tales you heard or saw growing up, but placed firmly in our contemporary world and presented through the eyes of Agnes, a young woman who has a spell put on her by a wicked witch frat boy so that she’s bound to continue to do the things she always has, never being able to try new things.
Although Keila was developing her own story with Agnes, she still wanted to see if her ideas connected with anything previously found in fairy tales/fables/folk tales. She sent me a list of ideas to research.
(A note: although you can argue about the difference between fairy tales, fables, and folk tales and whether or not fairy tales is a misnomer, I’m going to use them all interchangeably here.)
Starting research on any topic is the most difficult part. Even with a list of things to look for: the significance of birds in fairy tales, the significance of trees, doors, chairs, shiny balls in fairy tales and fun facts about bird migration, getting that toe in the door is tricky.
My initial search on databases such as Jstor and Project Muse led to articles that looked interesting but ultimately had nothing to do with what I wanted. A visit to the library proved much more fruitful, especially after I recruited the assistance of the literature librarian. It was ultimately the discovery of an old book called The Types of the Folktale, that pushed me onto the correct path.
The Types of the Folktale is a book, first presented by the Finnish folklorist, Antti Aarne, and further developed by an American folklorist named Stith Thompson. The book gives us the Aarne-Thompson Classification system, which, although it may sound terrible and boring, is actually quite exciting.
The two divided folk tales into groups, motifs and types. For example, one group is “Animal Tales” and another “Religious Tales.” Each type has a number, for example, “The Persecuted Herione” is type 510, commonly called AT510. The types even get into sub-types, such as Cinderella, which is AT510A. The AT system was updated in 2004 by Hans-Jörg Uther. Uther’s update, now called the ATU system, included more international tales and older ones. Unfortunately, I couldn’t access it and had to use the AT version from the 1960’s.
Armed with AT types and a better vocabulary for what I was looking for, my research took off. Had I but time, I could have spent months and years at the library simply reading all the different tales from all the different countries about birds or stories about trees. Instead, I choose a Norton compilation of tales which included versions from Perrualt, the Grimms and Basile, among others.
When I presented all my research to Keila, it led to an exciting and engaging discussion on the nature of tales. One concern I always have when researching for anything is that the material I found won’t matter. That was not the case here, as even late in the process or what some would consider late in the process, the information I was able to provide about birds in tales was able to inform and enhance the work.
The discussion with Keila ultimately led to more research being done on my part. Cinderella came up a lot in our discussion, as versions of the tale (and there are many) usually have birds either performing the role of the fairy godmother or otherwise assisting the girl. We all know the Disney version of the story, where the birds come along and help her out along with the mice. In some versions, it’s a tree that provides all the finery for Cinderella so that she can go to the ball.
Keila wanted to know about the history and function of the fairy godmother, as there’s a fairy godmother-type in Agnes Falling (though it’s not who you’d expect) and she wasn’t sure of the history of the figure or what his role should be in the story. Of all the research I did for this show, the fairy godmother stuff was the most exciting (even more exciting than finding out about AT(/U) types).
Research is decidedly my favorite aspect of dramaturgy, especially when working on a new piece. Seeing what starts as pure information transform into a piece of dance or theater is truly exciting. I was in the room only a little bit during the process for Agnes Falling. Since I’m not a dancer and in some ways dance is still a foreign language to me, working as a dramaturg on the edges is preferable and it’s from there that I’m able to do my best work.
Agnes Falling created by Keila Cordova dances; sets by Kata Kolb, costumes by K. Moriah Smith, lighting by Shon Causer, composer/sound designer Cory Neale, video design Jared Grossman. At Temple University Conwell Dance Theater, Broad and Montgomery Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19122. September 16th & 17th, 2011. World premiere.
WITH: Kate Abernethy, Fatima Adamu, Heather Cole, Kathy Kerner, Melissa Rodis, Sean Rosswell.