balancing authorship and dancer agency

“How protective should we be? How open-minded? How expanded can we go?”
- Antje Hildebrandt (on the future of choreography)

 “Whether an artwork is a failure or success, in the end it is of secondary importance. If I have learned to see a little bit better, then I will have gained something and the world around me will be far richer…A [work of art] is not an object, it is an interrogation, a question, a response.”  –Alberto Giacometti

Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, an ensemble dance to live jazz music, premiered a couple weeks ago at ODC Theater.  Was it a success?  Never mind about reviews and ticket sales.  And every audience member has a different opinion. Artistic success can mean that a work feels finished.  The other two dances on the program felt like artistic successes because when I watched them, I didn’t feel the desire to wrestle with them further.  In contrast, when I watched Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, the work felt unfinished.

Can artistic success mean that the work clarifies (for the artist) which questions to ask?  Many questions arose making Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.  To articulate those questions, I return to my original intentions for the project:

(1) to be in an ongoing conversation with jazz musicians about improvisation,
(2) to collide improvisation with set composition, and
(3) to empower the dancers to explore improvisation not only as a generative tool for choreography, but also as a performable practice in itself.

Below I discuss these intentions and how I related to them in the creative process. I’ve put unresolved questions in brackets.

Intention #1: to be in an ongoing conversation with jazz musicians about improvisation

My conversation with lead musician Henry Hung started about a year ago through Jim Nadel, who directs the Stanford Jazz Workshop.  I told Jim that I was interested in working with jazz musicians who would be interested in a six month rehearsal process with dancers and who could use Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew as an aesthetic point of departure.  Nadel’s first recommendation was Henry, who performs constantly throughout the Bay Area as an improviser.  Henry’s band, Klaxon Mutant All-Stars, will release its first album this May.  My conversation with Henry covered a lot of ground, including: How can an improvising ensemble support an improvising soloist? and What does it mean to jam?

How can an improvising ensemble support an improvising soloist?
In the beginning of the rehearsal process, we explored how an ensemble could support a soloist.  Here, Henry describes how he balances the individual improviser’s need for freedom with the needs of an ensemble:

When I improvise, my musical choices occur in the context of what the group is doing.  I don’t enjoy improvising if it is unrelated to what the group is doing at that time.  This doesn’t mean that I always play sympathetically with what is going on–there can still be contrast and counterpoint in a responsive mode. What I try to do is create energy and momentum appropriate for the moment.  That can be silence or density. It’s about listening, being open to the moment, and trusting the choices you make.

During rehearsal, bass player Tommy Folen, when asked how he supports a soloist in the context of ensemble improvisation, said that he “listens in slow motion.” Tommy meant that he allows for time in between his responses to a soloist to discern the soloists’ direction.  Tommy’s comment reminded me of a dance improvisation score I’ve used in the past that I’ve called “modulation” in which two dancers enter with different qualities or states and modulate towards each other, triggering movement cross-pollination that then results in a third, hybrid state.

I wanted the dancers to develop the ability to “listen in slow motion” to a soloist—to support someone’s dancing without detracting from it (the form becomes a duet) and without exiting (ensemble disappears). As an outside eye, the instances of successful solo support were rare. It was not always clear to everyone when someone was soloing. Even when it was clear that there was a solo happening, dancers differed about how best to support a soloist.  Some mirrored the shapes a soloist passed through. Others stood as witness in proximity. Others created a spatial frame around the solo. Successful solo support requires compositional mind—an awareness of the entire picture as it unfolds. Compositional mind requires the dancer to prioritize the needs of the dance over personal desires. Supportive choices evolve as the solo evolves, not ahead of it in time.  If a dancer believes that they are responding to the soloist, but are in fact only reacting to their own desires, they will leave the solo behind.  Self-involvement is the enemy of compositional mind: the trick is to be self-aware, but not self involved. I adopted a new mantra in rehearsal: “Ask yourself what the work needs, not what you need.”

[How can dancers develop a sense of what the work needs from inside the work?]

What does it mean to jam?

Another theme of my ongoing discussion with Henry and the other musicians was the musicians’ desire to “jam.”  When we reached performance time, it was not until the end of the piece that the musicians felt they were jamming.  This took me awhile to understand because for the entire piece the musicians were playing and improvising together. Wasn’t that jamming? No. As Henry has explained to me, the musicians desire to jam is only fulfilled when they are all on the same harmonic page working through an agreed upon chord progression.

What is the dancer equivalent of a jam? Unison phrasework?  A shared improvisation practice?

When the musicians drop deeply into a jam state, they became a unified sound with incredible energy. Several dancers had the experience that the “wall of sound” that pressed out from the jamming musicians was much more difficult to respond to than when the musicians worked more independently of each other (even if playing at the same time).  Faced with the “wall of sound,” the dancers would simply tune the music out rather than make sound-based decisions.   Conversely, when the musicians prioritized watching the dancers, it was more challenging for them to listen to each other. Throughout the rehearsal process, we played with the performers’ balance of attention. What prevents an ensemble from dropping into a jamming state?

[As a director, what role did I play in erecting barriers to ensemble connection?]

In retrospect, I fulfilled my intention to be in ongoing conversation with musicians about improvisation. And yet the conversation was limited. Any conversation between dancers and musicians about improvisation must be practice-based.  Such a conversation requires studio time. A lot of it. A six month rehearsal period is only long enough to develop the beginnings of a common language between improvising dancers and musicians.

[If I had exerted less directorial control, would the conversation have gone deeper in the limited time that we had?]

Intention #2: to collide improvisation with set composition
Intention #3:  to empower the dancers to explore improvisation not only as a generative tool for choreography, but also a performable practice in itself

I can’t talk about Intention #2 without talking about Intention #3 because the balance of improvisation and composition is inextricably linked to the amount of power given performers to improvise. In Susan Sgorbati’s Emergent Improvisation technique, there is no choreographer; complex composition emerges entirely in real-time through ensemble choices. Under this model, in the words of my colleague Christian Burns, “choreography does not need a choreographer.” Arguably, as Antje Hildebrandt argues, the death of the choreographer means the birth of the dancer.  (See also Joao Fiadeiro on “Real Time Composition“).

However, I want authorship over the dances I make. I don’t want the end result of the dance to be so diffuse and democratic that a single point of view is lost (do you think you can ascertain Tino Sehgal’s voice in a Tino Sehgal work?).  I want the precision that authorship brings. Also, from the dancer perspective, a creative process without a director can be deeply frustrating.  For this dance, I wanted to collide improvisation with composition, not throw out composition altogether.  And if a dance is not entirely improvised, the choreography needs a choreographer.  I wanted to perch the dance in a delicate territory between chaos and order—what Susan Sgorbati calls “order for free.”  I wanted exactitude in disorder and freedom within craft.  The end result of the work was a patchwork quilt—windows of improvisation in an otherwise crafted composition.  In the words of lead musician Henry Hung, when asked what was revealed to him about the nature of improvisation throughout our rehearsal process, said : “Improvisation can be structured.  It is not necessarily an unbound process.  There is a fine line between chaos and order.  Good and effective improvisational practice reveals that line.”

There are many challenges in wanting both authorship and dancer agency.  One is a constant battle against fixity.  Steve Paxton has written: “Improvisation is a word for something which can’t keep a name; if it does stick around long enough to acquire a name, it has begun to move toward fixity. Improvisation tends in that direction.”  Indeed, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction started out as a set of open scores that we practiced every rehearsal and became an increasingly fixed set of forms. Dancer Tegan Schwab said during rehearsal that, “after doing the same improvisational structure several times and then performing it, the structure itself starts to become set vocabulary.”

My nature colluded with the progression of the dance towards fixity. As a language person, my desire to name things contributed to “fixing” the ineffable. Also, just as anxious people are drawn to meditation, I’m a rigid person drawn to improvisation. (Several people, upon visiting rehearsal, said that it looked like I had let go of a lot of control in the piece, but I suspect many of the dancers in the piece would say that I didn’t let go enough.) As a performer, whether improvising or doing set material, subverting fixity requires being open to the constant stream of new information offered by sensation.  [For a director, what are the tools for subverting compositional fixity?]

As the dance moved towards fixity, the dancers struggled to hold onto agency.  As I increasingly crafted the dance, the dancers felt that there was less and less room inside the choreography to add to the existing content through their own choices.  In one rehearsal, one dancer said she felt that she could not lose herself in improvisation inside the piece because she was worried she might not “find her way back” (to the set choreography).  As I moved the dance toward fixity, I wondered if I was failing to fulfill my intention to empower the dancers to perform improvisation.  One dancer, in relationship to this intention, asked me one day, “How accountable do you want me to hold you?”

Throughout the process, I asked the dancers whether the balance of their experience felt more improvised or fixed. The dancers always had very different answers from each other.  Some dancers felt they were always improvising; others felt their experience was entirely set. Others felt they were only improvising in the transitions.

Struggling to honor both authorship and dancer agency, I called Dana Reitz, my mentor this year in Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange Across Borders (CHIME), a program of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company.  She advised me to ask the dancers to “breathe the material” and “sing the line”—to play with the internal timing of the material I had given them in the way that a good jazz musician takes a melody and plays with it. I went back to the dancers and asked them to find freedom inside the structure.  At this, some of the dancers shook their heads, as if it was not enough. Some of them wanted permission to explode the whole thing.

Improvising as a performer differs from crafting an ensemble’s improvisation from the outside.  When I’m improvising, there’s no conflict between my aesthetic imperatives and dancer agency.  My aesthetics necessarily inform my choices.  However, when directing, there’s tension between my aesthetics and the choices the dancers make.  It is possible to cultivate aesthetic agreement among a group of improvisers. But it takes time. And it calls for the right kind of dancer—dancers who, in the words of Mike Vargas (longtime collaborator of Nancy Stark Smith), “pay very close attention to their environment, who have very particular contributions to make, people who are ready nevertheless to drop their agenda at a moment’s notice in order to adjust to new circumstances and new information.”  Technical prowess does not necessarily make for a good improviser.   In the words of Vargas, “one of the most important decisions an improviser makes is choosing whom to improvise with.”

[As the questions driving my work change, shouldn’t the dancers I work with change, too?]

In the end, I did not empower each dancer equally to perform improvisation.  As the process went on, I gave more improvisation opportunities to those dancers whose improvisational choices aligned with my aesthetics.  As distribution of material become less democratic, the dancers’ experiences became even more divergent. By performance time, some dancers’ material was mostly fixed while others were mostly improvising.

[What are the implications of a collaborative process where one person retains control over authorship?]  Another way of framing the collision of improvisation with composition is as a dialogue between democratic values and artistic point of view.  Performer/Choreographer Andrew Wass talks about choreography having (1) logics, (2) aesthetics, and (3) tools:

Logic is the purpose and function of the dance. Why is the choreographer is making the dance. Political reasons? Entertainment? Research?

Tools are the ingredients, what goes into the dance (communication and power systems used to generate content)

Aesthetics is the sensory experience of consuming the product: how it feels, looks, tastes, sounds….
An aesthetic has no inherent tool or logic.
A tool has no inherent logic or aesthetic.
A logic has no inherent aesthetic or tool.

Under Wass’ rubric, for this project, the logic of my choreography was research and my tool was improvisation. My aesthetics were not inherently related to improvisation and its associated democratic values.  [How can I be more explicit with dancers about what I expect from them as collaborators if I am using improvisation as a tool? What are the politics of a choreographic process that uses collaboration as a tool but whose logic is a single artist’s line of inquiry?] In response to the common program note (one I use), “choreography in collaboration with the dancers,” Antje Hildebrandt questions whether collaboration is even possible.

All of these unresolved questions generated considerable ambiguity as we made Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.  It requires vulnerability to dance for someone. It requires even more vulnerability to dance for someone amidst ambiguity. In my process, the dancers made themselves doubly vulnerable on a regular basis.  I’m deeply grateful for that.  [How can I make myself as vulnerable as the dancers in the creative process? To paraphrase Hildebrant, “How protective should I be? How open-minded? How expanded can I go?”]

The title of Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction came from a Wallace Stevens poem in which he proposes that poetry, in order to succeed, must be abstract, must give pleasure, and must change.  Under Stevens’ rules, was the dance a success?  Yes, if you take pleasure in questions. As video artist Bill Viola writes, “Our work today as artists is not about describing the arrival at and possession of a goal, but instead it is about illuminating the pathway. It is not about a system of proofs and declarations, but a process of being and becoming.”