improvisation as a value shift in contemporary dance (Conjecture 5.0)

Kristian Larsen

Last year I went to see a contemporary dance performance. At the end of the show a colleague of mine leaned over to me and said, “I hate knowing how this stuff works”. The comment had not been aimed at the show. But rather it expressed a sense of being tired of not being surprised or satisfied when watching dance. I felt a similar sentiment. I have no pretensions of being a master of choreography but I do know enough about it to have a clear sense of what I find dissatisfying. Where I had gotten to as a practitioner was the equivalent of being stuck on an intellectual island in the middle of an ocean of dissatisfaction, surrounded by sharks of critique and living on a diet of sour grapes. I was very close to abandoning dance as a worthwhile pursuit. I thought I’d do one more thing before I let it go and that was to attend a workshop with a teacher that friends had recommended.

Predictably, as these things go, the experience was a revelation and I made a conscious decision to take a very specific direction in contemporary dance. The decision I made was to specialize in the practice of performance improvisation. The decision itself did not come about from a rejection of standard dance practices, which as a choreographer I had burnt a lot of energy up on doing. It came from a genuine discovery of “This is what I really want to do”. It also embraced the notion that in order to improvise well, a high level of understanding of dance technique and choreographic practice was required.

Generally in set choreography the aim is to predetermine as many numbers of ‘knowns’ as possible so that the work can be repeated. So structures, patterns, sequences of gesture, set time frames and spatial relationships are memorized and preserved. The pattern takes precedence and is faithfully rendered again and again by the dancer’s bodies. Duration is not negotiable ie: the piece takes the same amount of time to complete each time it is performed.

In this formalized mode of composition there are certain advantages. For example complex themes or a singular idea can be explored and worked until a very clear and skilfully rendered composition emerges. There is opportunity in the rehearsal process to make an abundance of versions, rough drafts and mistakes that a paying public will never get to see. This allows the choreographer to choose elements that they like to be included in very precise detail in the work. Thus a degree of control is available. But never enough control for a choreographer to ever be satisfied with what they have made and how the dancers perform it.

For the dancer there are advantages such as feeling a sense of challenge and progression in their technical abilities. Dancing the same choreography again and again allows the dancer to deepen sensitivity to timing, develop real understanding of nuance & performance, and is an essential part of becoming an artist in this field. But because dance is still largely a live medium and does not actually have a recording industry to publish or distribute it, the pressure on the dancer and choreographer to reproduce a facsimile of the original is enormous. So is the pressure to create and dance a masterpiece every single time.

In the construction, mounting & performance of set choreography there is an establishment of roles. Along with roles comes a structure of status within the group. At an organizational level this has to happen. In order for a group to function it must have a purpose. And someone within that group has to take on the role of embodying that purpose, a leader. It is the leader’s job to see that the job gets done. That’s an important role. Often the choreographer will take the highest status within the group because getting the job done IS their role and they created the idea in the first place. There are other tasks that may need doing so other roles may include publicist, rehearsal director, dramaturge, composer etc. Then of course there is the choreography itself. Unless the choreographer is making a solo for themselves to perform then there are dancers involved. The dancer tends to be of a lower status than the choreographer. It’s the Queen Bee / worker bee model, still widely in use and accepted by most. It gets the job done.

For some time now the process of making set choreography in contemporary dance has relied heavily upon the process of improvising. The choreographer will have an idea they want to work with & will then ask their dancers to improvise movement based on that idea. The process is observed and recorded. Then the choreographer will look at the material and take from it what they like. The dancers then learn the movements they originally created through the improvisation. The choreographer will edit, add their own movements & dynamics, re-edit, & set ad infinitum until the piece is performed.

So far so good. A lot of interesting material is made and shown from this method. One thing I think is of value is that it gets the choreographer and dancer into some degree of artistic dialogue. A genuine two-way discussion in which gives the dancer some level of input into the artistic process. It’s a little more satisfying than the more dictatorial “Learn it and shut up” model of making dance. However the downside as any dancer who has tried to reproduce an improvisation from a video will tell you, it’s an incredibly difficult task, sometimes it’s impossible.

The most problematic question I see with this process is “who takes credit?” It is usually the choreographer who assumes total rights and responsibility for the choreography even when dancers have constructed entire sections of an evening length work. In that instance isn’t the role of ‘choreographer‘ more accurately described as ‘director’? At best the dancers are given some vague mention of thanks in the programme for their ‘input’ or ‘contribution’. The lack of generosity is appalling. Only once have I ever heard of the dancers being publicly & explicitly credited for their actual role in the creation of a work ie: as choreographers.

The physical, emotional, and intellectual energy that goes into the construction of a set choreography is only one half of the actual process. The other half happens onstage. Performance is more than just a ‘live’ aspect of a dance piece. It’s a major reason why a piece gets made in the first place. Once onstage it’s out of the choreographers hands & belongs entirely to the dancer. The work evolves because the dancer transforms. The dancer transforms because their performance now has context, meaning & relationship. This is what the audience brings to the equation.

As previously stated, in set choreography time, space, and relationship is largely predetermined. Choice is very limited. The opportunity to have any real dialogue with another performer or with the music or the light or the space is not really available to any large degree. It is a choice the performer cannot make because reproduction is key. Along with the task of reproduction comes a lot of baggage for the dancer. Mostly this takes the form of variations on perfection fantasies and unrealistic ideologues about our bodies and talents. And God help them if they should have a “bad performance” and fall over on stage.

With all of this I perceive a misguided tendency to elevate the product beyond the artist. I am not referring to the “process vs. product” argument. I am referring to the emphasis placed on the ability of the dancer to reproduce steps time and again because primary value is assigned to the choreography, not the dancer. So I posit this:

There is no such thing as dance. There is only the dancer.

This seems obvious when reflected upon. If there is no dancer there is no choreography to be witnessed in any format. Be it live, dance film, CD or DVD ROM. Without the dancer there is no body for the choreographer to create and form ideas on & no performance. No dancer, no dance.

So how does performance improvisation deal with these questions? Mostly through thinking about the dance composition equation differently.

I do not see improvisation as an alternative to set choreography. That would be like stating that jazz is an alternative to music, an inherently stupid statement. As a compositional model performance improvisation has both commonalities & differences with its more widely acknowledged cousin. One of the key differences I perceive is that the value system is rearranged. For example the role of choreographer no longer rests on an individual (in an ensemble situation) but rather is extrapolated out to that of a shared responsibility. Typical dance hierarchy with its implications of status has to be relinquished in order for a group to improvise. The value of ‘acceptance’ has to be actively used in performance because so many events are out of the individual’s hands. The lack of control in the way that control is used in constructing set works is one of the most rewarding and terrifying aspects of improvisation. Predetermined responses almost always fail in this realm so a more real kind of communication has to occur. And by ‘real’ I mean dynamic in the sense that language, context and meaning change in relationship to each other.

Also the process of communication IS the product. There is no separation between these two realities and this is what the audience bears witness to.

In an improvised setting the dancer has some very different responsibilities to the dancer in a set piece. And these responsibilities come from one principle: choice. Because there is infinite choice available it is easy to get lost. So certain understandings and skills have to be in place in order for the performer and the performance to survive an audience. The dancer has to make compositional decisions very quickly. So the role of ‘dancer’ expands to the role of ‘composer-in-live-dialogue-withother- artists’. To do that well the dancer needs to have ability to read what is happening & respond appropriately, to treat memory and forgetting as a process of interpretation & imagination, to have a shared understanding of time/space with the other participants, to edit choices, to make contributions that go beyond personal themes to more universal themes, to relinquish an agenda of control and predetermined ideas, to actively be able to set up circumstances that allow chance/coincidence/the unknown to occur. These skills the dancer needs as well as a thorough physical practice. And I am not referring to a practice based in somatics, but a technical dance practice.

Another critical aspect is one of collaboration. In my experience collaboration is intrinsic to the construction of a work. In set choreography the dialogue between artists from different genres begins and ends in rehearsal. Onstage, a predetermined response to music, light etc is the way it functions. Collaboration is often considered a separate technical process rather than a natural given. But if a dance is to escape the bounds of the artists own mind and body then communication with other artists has to occur. When this communication happens in real time ie: live, is when collaboration is at its most vital. In an improvised setting this communication becomes abundantly clear.

It is not difficult to work in the medium of dance in isolation, it is impossible. To believe one can create & mount work that is ‘stand alone dance’ and have it be a satisfying and worthwhile event is aberrant thinking. I believe it contrary to the integral nature of dance or more broadly, art. This belief is based Photo of Kristian Larsen 11 on the idea that art is an embedded aspect of community with a deeply social function to fulfil. It is therefore a given (in my understanding) that interdisciplinary & collaborative practices are both profoundly important and incredibly ordinary in day to day practice.

Collaboration occurs as a “live” element in improvisation. In an ensemble piece everyone is speaking in the language of composition and building the work in a way akin to a conversation. Not all the artists are speaking in the same dialect in these conversations. Often accents are vastly different. But the dancers get to dance their way, the musicians get to play their music their way, and the lighting operators treat the light and space in their way also. At first glance this looks like a formula for a mess. But when all are working from a shared compositional understanding the results are often extraordinary.

There are two points about this that I think are key. One is ‘dialogue’. In a performance situation dancer and musician can have a meaningful exchange that allows for a full range of response. There can be pauses, dynamic shifts, beginnings and endings, one can lead the other and the lead can shift. But in order for it to work there has to be a strong emphasis on listening. And timing. It’s a lot like a conversation. This dialogue can and does occur between all participants, dancer and dancer, lighting and musician, musician and space, etc. This is what brings this process to life: autonomy and choice. The ability to respond (ie: responsibility).

The other important point is ‘diversity’ - diversity of expression, of age, of individual talents and strengths, of perspective and of response. This is how it works in life (biodiversity) and it is diversity that makes improvisation work. All of it working on a common ground of understanding and clarity of purpose. I love the allegory of a band in this instance. Everyone has their own instrument to play in order to get the job done - the drummer drums, the guitarist plays their guitar the singer sings and so music gets made. In set choreography a lot of the time everyone is trying to dance the same way as each other, uniformity is given precedence over individuality. The tradition of ‘unison’ has a power, which often gets rendered insipid through overuse. It is hard to achieve but it is possible in improvisation. Sometimes it occurs by accident.

This brings me to “coincidence’. I was given a piece of advice about theatrical conventions by a German professor of choreography. I can’t quote it precisely but he more or less said ‘you can’t beat reality’. He explained that if you are performing a rehearsed choreography and it is interrupted by a ‘real time ‘event such as a dog or a child walking on stage then it doesn’t matter what you are doing, the unexpected event will take precedence in the eye of the audience. That unplanned event has a certain kind of power. It is random, chance, coincidental in its nature. But it only has meaning and power in relationship to a context or another event. Coincidence has an extraordinary potential to provide meaning in a theatrical context. Also in day-to-day life. The mind perceives a coincidental event and does one of two things with it. It either associates a significant amount of meaning to it or dismisses the event as, well, mere coincidence. In improvisation we are looking to set up conditions where coincidence can occur. This is where real discovery and response to those discoveries can occur. Chance and coincidence can transform the banal and abstract into a meaningful and rewarding event to witness.

The two models of composition do have a great deal in common. I don’t see one as inherently superior to the other. They have a lot to offer each other in terms of new and not so new information. One model is tradition. To its own detriment contemporary dance has a tendency to reject its own history. But rejection of prior codes shouldn’t be mistaken for evolution of the art. Neither should a refusal to examine the structures of relationship within the form. I am not referring to choreographic structures but relationships between people.

Contemporary dance is a fine art driven by deeply intellectual concerns. Currently it has its hands tied; it is bound to its own classicism. And no amount of multimedia, text, minimalism, somatic based movement, inclusion of cultural dances (e.g.: Pacific island or Hip Hop etc), dramaturgy, innovative set design, or technology is going but give us anything else but ‘more and better of the same’. I believe performance improvisation to be an opportunity, a forum for dialogue and relationship with vast potential to transform the underlying paradigms of thought that propel contemporary dance. It is not a question of form. It is a question of values and of relationship. And most probably it is a question of relinquishing current understanding of status & control within the art.


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