Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The wisdom of experience: Linda Austin on dance improvisation

Dance improv at Disjecta on Saturday, via Linda Austin/photo: Jeff Forbes
Arts Dispatch received a very thoughtful reply to my consideration of Linda Austin's improvisation at Disjecta on Saturday. There, I attempted to provide a little guide to considering the topic -- dance improv -- in general, and Linda thankfully came to my assistance, gently correcting here and elaborating there.

In the short history of Arts Dispatch, this is only the second time dance improv has come up (the first was in regard to Anna Halprin's exploration of Lovejoy Fountain, which was designed by her late husband, Lawrence Halprin).  And it rarely comes up in either polite company or the city's other arts blogs, either, at least not that I know of (please correct me if I'm wrong).

So, I've decided to move Austin's response from the comments thread to a post of its own. Please feel entirely free to continue the discussion in the comments thread!

By Linda Austin

Thanks, Barry, for your thoughtful watching and comments and for your framing of Saturday’s performance at Disjecta in a larger context of "what is improvisation."

I am mulling over two aspects of improvisation and choreography that emerge from your writing: movement choices and purposefulness. I will point out that it is not the freedom to use seemingly "crazy" movement ---"tiny steps, crawling on the ground, one-legged poses, hopping and odd calisthenics”--- that makes a dance improvised. These "oddities" (not odd to me) might just as well make their way into a choreographed piece, while more conventionally "dancerly" movement might be the basis of an improvisation. So, your comments re: the challenge of dealing with movement that, to some, may seem purposeless and/or without easily-recognizable "dancerliness" can also apply to a completely set choreography as well as to improvisation.

It's very telling that our bodies and our eyes viewing bodies are so trained for utility (chop down a tree, make a cup of coffee) or obvious virtuosity (sports and many flavors of dance) or beat-oriented musicality (social dance or dance that makes a visual counterpart to already composed music) that the pleasures (and yes, virtuosity) of movement that fall outside these are hard to fathom. Yet, you say, "the rote way we respond to the world isn’t always satisfying." I also like the term "cognitive scramble" you used in your review/commentary.

The second theme -- purpose -- operates on many levels. First, there is the overall arc and motor: If you are not telling a story and you do not have an objective such as the concrete goal of moving the ball down the court and getting it into the basket (was talking about this last night with friend/colleague Robert Tyree), how is the piece moving forward through time? Lots of possible answers that I don’t have the clarity of mind and time to go into now. But I wanted to acknowledge that question and suggest, again, that it is not improvisation per se that makes this a challenge, and that an improvisation certainly may have a kind of progression (ours did) while a choreographed piece may mine the same material for an extended duration.

Another play of purpose occurs in the moment-to-moment actions of the performer. I propose that the improvisor’s real-time decision-making and responses to unforeseen situations may be less arbitrary and more filled with purpose than the re-enactment of already created movement. Like the consciousness that “right now I am going to break up this glacial timing with something quick and jerky.” Or "Oops, I was going over there to climb on her back but she moved! Must adapt!" At the same time it may all seem “useless”. But then uselessness, along with excess and play, is among the aspects of art-making and viewing that I love.

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