The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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APR 2011 Issue

My Schreibstück

“I’m sorry, but I think there’s been a mistake.”

“I’m not interested in performing, but I’m happy to help in other ways.”

These statements set the tone for my first Schreibstück rehearsal.

Karen Schupp rehearsing <i>Schreibstuck</i> with her performers. Photo credit Tim Trumble.
Karen Schupp rehearsing Schreibstuck with her performers. Photo credit Tim Trumble.

Schreibstück, a choreographic score written in 2002 by Thomas Lehmen, explores the human experience through 39 one-minute “themes.” Whenever a new iteration of the work is created, three directors create individual versions of Schreibstück, which are performed in canon. I facilitated a realization of Schreibstück with three non-dance cast members, all colleagues of mine at Arizona State University: an Architect, a Media/Video/Projection Designer, and an Ethnomusicologist/Music Historian.

Because I think like a dancer and relish movement invention, I developed a series of movement explorations for our first rehearsal. I imagined a utopian rehearsal experience in which my non-dancer participants would fall in love with movement.

Instead, we spent the first rehearsal discussing what I meant by “movement” and “dance,” and analyzing Schreibstück theme by theme. What does it mean that “Identity Intensities” (which explores personal identities) comes before “Intensities of Images” (which looks at your perception of how others view your identity) in the script? In “Dying,” what is the significance of “performing movements related to dying” in isolation from the other performers? We discussed the creative challenges and advantages of Schreibstück’s structure; found what was, in our opinion, missing from Thomas’s outline of the human experience; discovered areas of frustration; and unearthed contextual information about how themes related when performed in canon. We provided discipline-specific suggestions on how to design each theme. We did not move at all.

When I create work, I set up movement problems to solve, structural restraints to explore, and look for contextual relationships. My way of working is not that different from the exploration prompted by Schreibstück.

However, this wasn’t my choreographic problem. It was a puzzle for us to collectively solve. I abandoned my “dancerly” ways of creating and looked for methods that honored the participants’ non-dance ways of thinking. Some fantastic solutions emerged.

Our reading of the script was analytical, perhaps because as faculty we tend to critically evaluate everything. We had strong opinions about what was missing from the human experience presented in Schreibstück. We were frustrated by having to follow Schreibstück’s rules. I incorporated the “missing aspects,” frustration, and critical evaluation into our version, which resulted in a comprehensive illustration of the performers and their experiences with Schreibstück.

I found ways for everyone to contribute based on disciplinary strengths in combination with our commentary on the work. For example, Schreibstück required the creation of a “Love Story.” We decided to use a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 format because it echoed our own constant commentary on the script. A pastiche of movie clips was projected onto the performers’ shirts while they commented on the formulaic nature of Hollywood love stories, the films themselves, and personal stories. The reflexive nature of this choice mirrored our process of realizing Schreibstück.

Schreibstück’s themes are performed without music and are exactly one minute in length, and performers are required to use stopwatches to keep time. This was problematic to the participants, especially to the Ethnomusicologist/Music Historian (“How can you disco without music?”). He developed an Audio Schreibstück (a playlist of one-minute music clips that corresponded to each theme, such as Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls”for “Disco” and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings for “Dying”) that performers listened to on iPods. This allowed us a subversive solution while also respecting the time constraints of the score, and gave our version compositional clarity. A silent minute of movement is difficult to sense for non-dancers; the use of iPods and music created distinct thematic environments and helped the performers distinguish the feel of each section.

Perhaps from years of looking at blueprints, the Architect in our group was frequently able to read the script exactly as written and build a solution based on the obvious. In Schreibstück, each group creates a “Common Choreography” prompt to share with the other groups. When developing our prompt, he asked, “What are the common choreographies that people know?” I related this to celebration, one aspect of human experience we thought was missing. We created a list of 10 “common choreographies” performed at weddings, bat mitzvahs, etcetera, as the basis for our “Common Choreography.” I would have never thought of this; I am so embedded in dance that I sometimes miss the obvious dances, dances which were so clear to him.

We frequently found a “back door” into problematic themes and often bent the rules. For example, in our reading, the theme “Fucking” spoke to issues of power, and therefore presented problems. The performers in our group were male faculty members, making the performance of “actions related to fucking” in close spatial proximity to younger, mostly female students tricky. We discussed ways sex can be alluded to, such as the penetrative imagery used in Hitchcock films. I immediately thought of tap dancing’s “train step.” After reassuring the participants that they could perform the train step, we pursued this idea. Throughout the process, I had to balance the performers’ comfort and opinions with the integrity of the score. The resulting “Train,” as we refer to this theme, is much richer and more sincer than arbitrarily assigning “movements related to fucking” would have been. I wouldn’t have found this roundabout, inventive solution if we had not spent the time discussing our reactions to and interpretations of the work on that first day.

As we approached the performance date, the participants became increasingly invested in their movement and performance.

“Can I see your Working phrase again? I don’t think we’re doing it the same.”

“How far back are you stepping in the train step?”

Our first performance of Schreibstück was incredibly well-received. The participants truly performed the work and their execution of the material was sincere, committed, accessible, and right-on. By the end of the performance, each audience member had a sketch of who each of these men is both on and off stage, and a great respect for the risk they took by participating in Schreibstück.

Overall, the participants seem to agree that performing in Schreibstück might not have been what they wanted to do, but what they needed to do. On many occasions, they have remarked that dancing is a whole new way of thinking for them.

I have a new way of thinking, too. I am still drawn toward creating highly physical work, but my creative outlook has been strengthened through experiencing dance, movement, and Schreibstück through the eyes and bodies of non-dancers. I imagine from this point forward I will pause and consider how a non-dancer might approach my own self-devised movement problems and structural restraints before jumping in and dancing. I can only hope that this results in a process as rewarding as Schreibstück’s.


Karen Schupp

KAREN SCHUPP is on the faculty in Arizona State University's School of Dance. She has created and participated in common choreographies since childhood. For more information, please visit


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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