The following is a response to readings from Susan Leigh Foster's Dances that Describe Themselves: the Improvised Choreography of Richard Bull.
As I am reading I am transported back to this summer to The Seattle Festival of Dance Improvisation. I am listening to dance artist Jimena Paz discuss the nature of improvisation in performance. Across the circle from me, someone asks her, “As an improvisational artist was it difficult performing in the choreographed repertory of Stephen Petronio?” Jimena seems shocked, almost confused by the question and answers that she does not distinguish between the performance of improvisation and choreography. I am both surprised and reassured by her answer. Artists at the festival have approached improvisation and choreography as separate endeavors, an either/or engagement of different skillsets that are perceived as being disparate, independent undertakings. As the readings and this memory rub up against each other I cannot help but wonder, could improvisation be a way of thinking, a way of engaging the self in movement no matter the specificity of the container? In other words is it possible that improvisation and choreography are not separate / different states of doing and being?
This memory shaped my perception of the reading and forced me to reconsider the ways in which I define the terms improvisation and choreography. I often consider these terms as being on opposite ends of a spectrum with the level of preordained specificity separating the extremes. Choreography is associated with constraints while improvisation has a connotation of agency and freedom. I have realized that these terms do not need to describe separate experiences, but rather can denote an approach instead of a form. In this way of thinking, improvisation and choreography are not either/or approaches where one set of skills and techniques is emphasized or valued over another. Instead, it is possible to perform both tasks at once by shifting one’s thinking.
Susan Leigh Foster’s term “improvising choreography” is the perfect phrase to define this approach. Using these terms together to describe a singular process frames an entirely new method where improvisation and choreography do not sit on opposite ends of the spectrum, but rather combines “form and deliberateness” with “brilliance and spontaneity”(109). While Foster used this term to describe processes where dancers were composing the choreography in the moment, I believe her term could be applicable to any process or performance where both form and liveness are equally valued.
For example, I have worked with artists who consistently perform the same movement with specific timing, spacing, dynamics, and shapes. In this case, improvising choreographing could describe a process in which these prescribed movement patterns are approached with an improvisational attitude, a way of relating to the set material, finding malleability, resilience, and alertness within the specific framework. This requires that a performer recognizes and believes that exact repetition is impossible as nothing is ever exactly the same. Instead, improvising choreography acknowledges the need to attend to the evolving, ever changing world through an improvisational sensibility. When I am approach movement through this lens, I can be open, responsive, curious, and playful, willing to relate and adapt to the world around me. Instead of acting as though I own the choreography and am in charge of my body, I can move in relation with it, responding to its subtleties (239).
Improvising choreography can thus be seen as a way of thinking. As Foster writes, it “constructs an experience of body investigating and probing playfully its own physical and semantic potential. The thoughtful, thinking, creative body engages in action” (243). I believe that this engagement is possible in a multitude of constructs and constraints. I do not have to think of my performances of improvisation and choreography as being distinct practices, but can approach all movement with both the discipline and clarity of form and the openness of spontaneous decision-making.
This is a blog of processes. Through the sharing of media and writing I am following my impulses, teasing out and unpacking, translating, solidifying, and making concrete my investigations into something that can be shared.