on performing improvisation

As long as our language is inadequate, our vision remains formless…In bringing the light of critical thinking to bear on her subject…a woman may feel herself coming deeper than ever into touch with her unconscious and with her body. – Adrienne Rich

The word connects the visible trace with the invisible thing, the absent thing, the thing that is desired or feared like a frail emergency bridge flung over an abyss. -Italo Calvino

The ineffable practice of movement improvisation calls for an associated writing practice.  Through dialogue between thinking through language and thinking through movement, we may better understand what we desire and what we fear.

I’ve had an ongoing shared improvisational practice with Christian Burns for over a year. We’ll perform the practice in a couple weeks. Among other questions, we’re asking how a practice becomes performance. What separates private practice from public performance? The degree of attention to composition? The extent to which movement has a finished quality? The presence of the performer? The expectations of the audience? The amount of legible agreement between the performers?

We inhabit the blurred territory between improvisation and choreography—the land of instantaneous composition. In a recent open letter to the Bessie Committee in New York, master improviser Jennifer Monson wrote:

 Improvisation is the act of making work. It is not about a “performance” per se. The choreographic intelligence that is functioning during a performance is a skill that takes years of rigorous experience to develop. I don’t think it is possible to separate the performing from the creation of the work in this kind of improvisational practice.

(As Monson attests, mastery of instantaneous composition takes years.  With my beginner’s mind, I’m eager to record my learning curve. I always find my notes in the first 24 hours in a foreign country most illuminating.)  One score Christian and I have tried is doing improvised material as if it were set, and doing set material as if it were improvised. Doing improvised material as if it were set immediately tunes my relationship to space.  Locating the body in space heightens the “finish” of movement.

One approach to improvisation is deconstruction. Any movement from the dance canon (and movements from outside the canon) can be deconstructed down to the level of action or task.  Some examples might include:

        Pull an edge across midline

        Fall with one side of the backbody

        Spiral lower arm externally down

        Carve a limb around one mass of the torso

        Scissor top limbs in the sagittal plane

These kind of directives, if developed and refined, could become phrase material in a choreographic process.  But if deconstructed, movement becomes a set of flexible “operations” a la Forsythe technology.  The movement goes towards what Trisha Brown calls “pure movement,” or movement without connotation.  In a deconstructed state, movement tends to take on formal and post-modern qualities.  If deconstructed, movement can also become a launching pad for the imagination.

Indeed, another approach to improvisation practice is imagination. Under this paradigm, I see the space differently than when deconstruction is the engine.  Image, story and feeling can enter.  Depending on what has already happened in the improvisation, I may give my imagination a tighter or a longer leash. Aesthetic preferences also determine the balance of imagination and deconstruction in an improvisation practice.

Another layer of improvisation practice is the practice of presence. This is the most obvious but the most difficult aspect of the practice.  Improvisation is probably the best teacher of the practice of presence. Inspired by Patsy Rodenburg’s principle of “Second Circle,” I track my physical, emotional and intellectual presence during improvisation.  I have a habit of withdrawing my energy and going into what Rodenburg calls “First Circle.” Rodenburg describes First Circle presence:

Here, your whole focus is inward. The energy you generate falls back into you. First Circle absorbs other people’s energy and draws all outward stimulus inward…You are in First Circle if you:

Find yourself withdrawing physically from people, feelings or ideas

Find you are holding your breath or breathing rapidly and shallowly…First Circle is useful when you don’t want to be noticed…..

When Sara Shelton Mann came to observe our practice recently, she asked me, “Are you trying to hide?”  Certain physical habits betray my slippage into First Circle: moving backwards, tilting the head off the axis the spine, pacing a line in space.  Often my lineage in postmodern dance leads me into First Circle presence. How can I be rigorous about formal considerations (e.g. time and space) without going into First Circle? How can I allow my humanity to be present while attending to formal concerns?  In painterly terms, I want to allow the improvised material to reflect the hand of the artist.  I want my formal considerations to vibrate with presence–more like an Agnes Martin painting, less like a Sol LeWitt.

I almost never go into what Rodenburg calls “Third Circle,” which is the aggressive energy of presentational bluff.   Again, Rodenburg:

In Third Circle, all of your energy is outward-moving and non-specific, and is untargeted…Your attention is outside yourself, yet unfocused, lacking precision and detail. You get a loose connection to any situation, but miss the nuances.

By virtue of personality and/or training, some performers do stray (or get stuck in) Third Circle (seen Greek drama at ACT recently?).   Rodenburg’s ideal is presence in Second Circle, in which “your energy is focused. It moves toward the object of your attention, touches it, and then receives energy back from it. You are in the moment…you give and take.”

Everyone knows that in improvising, it’s critical to listen and respond to the environment.  But equally important is a secure anchor in one’s own voice.   How am I present as a performer? Does my movement say, “I’m here”? Does my location in space say, “I’m here”? Does my choice of facing? My eyes? My face? My center? My decisions? The way I touch Christian? The way I process the audience’s presence? My breathing? Etc.

Habits of presence create habits of composition, on the micro level of movement phrase and on the macro level of composing the body in space (in relationship to other bodies).  My tolerance and stamina for presence becomes a rhythm of relationship—relationship to my own dancing and to the people I dance with.  One of the best tools I’ve found to listen to the rhythm of presence is the practice of having longer “thoughts.”  This “long thought train” practice frames presence in terms of the duration of what I’m making, instead of the less objective, “I’m present. Damn, now I’ve dropped out.”

Why do this practice? Well, for starters, to feel alive. I’m drawn to perform improvisation for the same reasons I’ve always been drawn to dance.  In Merce Cunningham’s words:

 You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and read, nothing but that single fleeting moments when you feel alive.

After decades of dancing within the frame of set choreography, performing improvisation feels like a frontier.  I want to go beyond using improvisation as a generative tool. If improvisation is not a means to an end, but the end itself, how do I need to show up?  The hard truth is that choreographic experience is not necessarily relevant.  It is easier to hide inside choreography than it is to hide in improvisation.  What is failure, in the context of performing improvisation? For me, failure would be hiding.  Having an audience beckons me out of hiding.  That’s why the practice of improvisation should become performance. The how part?  I’m still working on it.

Hope Mohr and Christian Burns perform metrics of intimacy December 4 & 5 at 8 PM at The Garage in San Francisco. For more information and tickets click here