On Improvisation and Artistic Voice

HMD welcomes this post from Parker Murphy, the company’s new administrative fellow through Mohr’s residency at ODC Theater. Parker graduated from Northwestern University with a B.A. in Dance and Psychology, magna cum laude in 2013. After working with many renowned Chicago based artists, Parker has moved to San Francisco to continue pursuing a career in dance performance and choreography. Currently, he is working on projects with Yannis Adoniou’s KUNST-STOFF, LEVYdance, and Caitlin Hafer through ODC’s Pilot program. 

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a Hope Mohr Dance (HMD) rehearsal. Mohr and dancers Jeremy Bannon-Neches, James Graham, and Tegan Schwab were in the early stages of creating Route 20, a trio for the upcoming 2014 season. The rehearsal process began with a narrative improvisational exercise with a common predetermined goal of getting someone off the ground. The dancers took turns in who would be the middle person being lifted. As an outsider, I caught a quick glimpse into their personalities and their feelings about being lifted from the floor. Some dancers were happy to have both feet off the ground, forcing a colleague to catch them rather than waiting to be lifted. Others weren’t quite so eager and more hesitant to give their full weight to the practice. These two approaches made for compelling movement exploration as habits and goals intersected. The exercise generated an extensive vocabulary of material that was both physically and emotionally driven.

As many dancers know, one of the beauties of improvisation is that the movements are fleeting and are quickly overcome by the next impulse. The mind enters a survival state that allows movements to occur subconsciously without rehearsal. However, Mohr recorded the dancers’ improvisations, thereby allowing the company to analyze and replicate certain movements. This process enabled Mohr to select, reconstruct, edit and craft spontaneous movement. Mohr cleverly acknowledged that “with over-practice it [choreography] becomes a form, rather than an instinct,” and she coached the dancers to maintain the integrity of the improvised moment.

This beginning exercise did more than just generate movement; it initiated a thought-provoking discourse into the relationship between improvisation and choreography, which is multifaceted. A performance can be entirely improvised, with minimal structural foundation; it can be a choreographic work that originated from improvisational practices; it can be set choreography where improvisation was in no way part of the process; or it can be any combination of these approaches. Mohr’s rehearsal offers a window into one process that incorporates movement generation from an improvisational practice with a mix of additional pre-choreographed movement. Whatever role improvisation plays in the choreographic process for a given work, I believe it plays an equally, if not more, crucial role in the development of the choreographer.

Improvisation can have a clear functional relationship to choreography, as seen in Mohr’s rehearsal; however I believe it has more profound psychological effects on the development of the choreographer and artist. Dance is an art form that one can study and train their whole life, only to perform or share the fruits of their labor in fleeting moments. Thus it is crucial that these moments, no matter how ephemeral, communicate something to the viewer. To better explain how improvisation fits into this context, consider this analogy: A writer spends their time learning their craft by developing their vocabulary, perfecting grammar and sentence structure and learning and reading all the great writers who have preceded them. However, when the time comes to show themselves and to put their art on paper, they don’t follow a prescribed pattern of what’s been done, instead they use that knowledge to produce something unique to them. They are improvising away from the structure they’ve mastered to create their own voice.

Now, consider a choreographer who trains their whole life, mastering whatever technical background they’ve chosen and studying the artists who have advanced the field. This artist, like the writer, is ready to utilize their creative voice. However, through my experience, a choreographer doesn’t find their voice by simply reproducing what they have learned in a studio, but rather through improvisational practices. Only through improvisation can dancers produce movement that to them is the most articulate and nuanced, providing them with communicative freedom.  I am not making a value judgment on any one form over another, but rather stressing the importance of the creative license that improvisation provides. To conclude, I think that improvisation is crucial to the development of an individual’s artistic voice.  Only by surrendering to the spontaneous impulses of the body can dance artists access deep-rooted parts of their being.