Choreograpy as Improvisation,
Improvisation as Choreography
There is a great deal of discussion on the merits, strengths and weaknesses of choreographed vs. improvised work. I encourage performers to bring the two closer together in their conceptualization. Improvisation for performance can be choreography. Set choreography can be incredibly structured improvisation. It is in these grey zones where the two modes come alive.
In choreographing improvisation one uses a score. A score is a set of rules that delineate the boundaries of the playing field. Scores can be very open and loose or very tight and specific. The more open a score, the more the performers need to have a part of their brain focused on what they are going to do with less bandwidth available for how they will do it.
In my own work I have utilized scores with varying degrees of structure. I find myself most satisfied when I know that the piece I’m presenting can rest its laurels on the structure itself. In Shofar, the piece was set into image chapters that created an arc. Each image had its identified content and textures of movement. Thus we, as performers, didn’t have to worry about whether the arc worked and could tend to the details of relationship and movement.
In I am… the structure was even tighter, literally. I was bound and slightly suspended by elastics attached to the ceiling. This physical structure, and the knowledge that the text in the soundtrack was able to do most of the work and I just needed to set up a moving image to support it, allowed me to go into performance with only one rehearsal in the apparatus. With the support (inescapability) of the structure, I could relax completely into the unfolding moment.
Pinstripe utilized a much more open form. In this duet we had a score that involved manipulation of each other and trading of places. We also had suits with pinstripes chalked on to them. The stripes would smudge and blur over the course of the piece. We had a musical score that utilized randomness by plugging “John Cage” into Pandora and inviting the technician to flip the song forward when they pleased.
The opening of Induced General Acquaintance utilized a grid form and a soundtrack constructed from an etiquette manual. We used handshakes, pedestrian movements, and inappropriate interactions (crotch lifts and the like) as our structure. We also had made phrases of choreography that were shared vocabulary. These were sprinkled through at any time. Some specific sound cues allowed for benchmarks of set choreography within the improvisation. We honed the structure tighter then looser then tighter again until we found the form that we could rely on dependably.
In all of these cases, the piece is being shaped in what I would call choreography. There is no detailed script of what body part goes where and when, but the piece has been shaped with enough intention that the performers know what to do and the choreographers know that their intention will be communicated.
On the other side of the dial, I have had the luxury of performing the same show (Vanishing Point by The Carpetbag Brigade) over 100 times. Almost every movement in this show was set, and often to a specific moment in the music. Yet I still consider it improvisation. My body knew the actions so well that I was able to enjoy the micro-improvisation within each unfolding moment like never before. My body would do the movements on auto-pilot, leaving so much of my attention available to track and respond to subtle shifts in relation, gesture, and timing. The show was able to stay fresh because we performers had been trained to engage with each moment as if it was happening for the first time. And it was!
A high school drama teacher, Jonathan Gellert, often said that “Acting is responding honestly in imaginary circumstances.” This is improvisation and a good performer does it regardless of how tight the structure of their action is.
Inside-out and Outside-in
Some artists have a clear idea of the thing they want to make. They have a script or an image or some moves and they are trying to fit the creation to the idea. With theatre, the performer must learn the lines in the script and their stage directions before they can consider feeling natural and honest in the roll. With set choreography, the performer must learn the moves and then, when their mind is not tied up with details, can start to unpack the subtlety in the movement and make it their own. This technique requires patience, trust, and delayed gratification.
Some artists prioritize process that arises from the inside out. They want to make sure the choices made all along the way have resonance with their internal experience. These artists may rely heavily on improvisation or may have a long slow process. The form of the end product may not be as clear and the way to get there is a winding road of trust and happy accidents. The butoh artist may know nothing of what his actual physical actions will be, but may have a clear imagistic journey set that allows him to consider what he presents in a set piece.
In a recent collaborative residency I curated and produced, a particular group was having a challenging time because the dancers wanted an inside-out process and the choreographer had clear ideas that she wanted them to enact. As a mediated solution, we ended up inviting the group to do two different pieces based on the same content. One was constructed from the top down blue prints of the choreographer’s vision and another was born from the collaborative explorations of the performers. It enriched the presentation to show two quite different pieces with different processes caltalyzed from the same starting points.
I started my performance career in the 4th grade in theatre and later dove deep into the fertile ground of improvisation. I prefer to fluctuate between these extremes and work from all directions.
In Anatomy of a Cloud, there is an ending duet based on the themes of falling and floating. To create this duet, we videotaped ourselves improvising on these themes. We then cut and spliced sections we liked together using imovie. We then tried to reconstruct them and create set choreography. The choreography was awkward and clunky for a period until we knew it again, and then we could inhabit it with nuance.
Breakfast with The Spencers was a piece about a stereotypical 50s couple at Breakfast having cheerful, superficial, mundane conversation. The soundtrack and actions revealed a world under the surface - one of angry pile drivers, frustrated farm animals, shrieking alarms, and heated desire. The first part of the piece required a great degree of precision in the form, as all the scripted text needed to time out perfectly with the complex interruptions in the sound track. The second half of the piece was a highly dynamic physical improvisation during which one performer would start the sentence “I wish you would just…: and the other performer would finish with “hold me” or “leave me” or “fuck me” or ”see me.”. The piece was very successful at combining a raw spontaneous section that was very much from the inside-out with a very specific section that had to be constructed painstakingly from the outside in.
(Photo by Kwai Lam of Breakfast with the Spencers)
A Starting Point
Knowing your style of working is incredibly valuable. This may change, but working with an understanding of your own particular skills and ways of working can go a long way towards reducing frustration.
Some artists work alone. They’ve got a clear idea and anyone trying to tangle with it will challenge the ease and sanctity of the process.
For some, like myself, finding a starting point can be the most overwhelming part of any creation project. This is part of why so much of my work has been collaborative. I flit about from one subject to another fascinating concept or beautiful image, finding each fertile, but doubting all the time that any of my ideas are worth spending the time and energy to develop and present. Meanwhile, I can immediately recognize the value of someone else’s idea and see how to take it from seedling concept to full-grown forest. My skill is in elaboration and development, and not so much in initial conception.
Some artists focus on process, some of product. Some work years on one piece, while others need to have five projects going simultaneously so they can jump from one to the next as the inspiration strikes or fades.
Regardless of your style of creation, its important to learn not to let the sanctity of the idea stop you from gettin going! In Art & Fear by Ted Orland and David Bayles, the authors tell the story of a ceramics teacher who told her class she would grade half of them on quality and half on quantity. In every instance the group graded on higher quantity work produced higher quality work. They had more practice, were more willing to experiment, and were less frozen by the need to create a masterpiece (2001, p.29).
My collaborator, Sarah Day, and I created Discourse Off the Walls (DOTW) as a means to experience this freedom from the gravity of art making and the pressure of making masterpieces. DOTW was a month of dance performance in a gallery. Every day for 24 days we created a new piece for presentation that night. Our time lines for creation were too short to say “no” to any idea that came up. Any hesitation or doubt would make the project impossible. We had some techniques for dealing with the question of starting point. We invited our friends and public to participate in No-Cost Commissions, offering a theme or structure for us to use in performance. A few of them took us up on the offer, but mostly we arrived at our pieces by saying “yes” to every idea that arose and seeing where it would take us. Sometimes a dropped idea from one day's rehearsal would show up in a final product days later. Some days we would find ourselves exploring things we couldn’t imagine could be used in performance. Sure enough, much of that material was used eventually. The main lesson was trust. The creative process is much larger than anything we can control.
One day in this project, we were in a really stuck, grumpy place where we really didn’t want to be working. Committed to using what's real and fresh, we decided to work with the unpleasantries of the day. Sarah pulled out a list of 10 unpleasant ways to die (including being buried alive, broken glass in your orange juice, and so on). I then decided to put on the cartoon music from last.fm (a Pandora like music service). One of the first pieces that came up was Spongebob’s The Best Day Ever. The piece was practically complete! We took the list and made gestural choreography to it, put it in time to the spongebob music, put on bright happy clothes, and let the piece gradually reveal its darkness.
It was an unexpected combination of elements that we never could have arrived at through cognitive composition.