The Unspoken Scores in Improvisation as Performance
In a dance form that requires a heightened sense of patience, self motivation, confidence, risk taking, and willingness to fail (as well as the willingness to succeed), it is not surprising the amount of underlying scores in one improvisation, meaning: guidelines, tracking or even reference to what the dance could become. I have developed many fascinations throughout my practice of improvisation as performance. I consider myself a questioning person; I like to know all the facts therefore, I ask a lot of questions. Recently I have been trying to hold back my questioning disposition in order to allow my instincts to take over. Through this process I have learned to attack movement without first thinking and questioning each moment. This approach has allowed my inner critic to settle and my willingness to physically emerge into the space more confidently, and in fact, more comfortably. It has also allowed me to open up my perspective, to search for inner meaning inside the piece and pay closer attention to my fellow dancers. By paying closer attention I have started to see the smaller dances that happen on the sidelines, dances that some may not even recognize as a score. This mixture of what is and what is not the score, along with the choices and hesitations that are ever present in the performance space, have now become my fascination, my frustration, and what fuels my desire to work in improvisation as performance.
The Hesitation Dance: To Enter Or Not To Enter
To me, a dance does not seem complete unless the element of hesitation and being unsure arises. To others, those elements can stand as blockers rather than motivators. One of the scariest moments in this art form is making the commitment to start the dance. Questions and insecurities from our own inner critic ask: what can I do and will it be good enough? The space becomes silent and the focus changes.
The first part of this underscore involves the dancers’ wandering eyes. While some dancers start connecting, looking at each other and silently deciding who will enter first, other performers keep their eyes strictly focused down. By making no eye contact these performers feel no need to enter. Body language of the side performers alters, and their energy goes from open and present to introverted and internal. The once present dancers suddenly turn into stiff awkward bodies, no longer supporting those performers in the space.
I was once asked, “Are you not going in because you do not want to be the first to enter, or is it because you are not inspired to enter at this point?” This question is continually recurring. I find that I am always ready to be inspired and enter the space; for me, dancing within the space is a safety net. While some find comfort in the hesitation prior to entering the space, I find discomfort in waiting for that one person to finally have the courage to begin a new piece. I hate the tiny conversations that develop through eye contact; it makes my frustration and impatience build rather than creating calmness for the piece. I must remind myself that sometimes people need time and courage to begin a piece. “Nothing is all or nothing, so how can we be inspirable?” said founding participant of Contact Improvisation, Nancy Stark Smith.
Realizing that every person has a different comfort level I remain open to the hesitations that occur on the sidelines as they develop into their own dance. Just entering the space has become its own entity; this is what I consider the hesitation dance. No longer do those standing on the border of the room need to be outside of the dance, but rather they become a sustaining world, supporting the other emerging world inside the space, at the same time. I am fascinated with these two emerging worlds, separate, but supportive of each other, both occupying one space.
Architecture Part I: Support Those in the Space
The beauty of the hesitation dance is the varied movement landscape it allows. By seeing sidelines of space as part of the score, it takes the boundaries of the stage away. Therefore, a performer no longer has the chance to hesitate when emerging into the space, but rather everyone is always performing. So often I look at space as a separated “performance space” and “waiting space,” rather than one collaborative structure there to support the energy. Artist, director and teacher of the body-based improvisation training, Action Theatre, Ruth Zaporah discusses in the article, “Improvisation in Performance,” about the process of feeling lost in a piece and “getting back in.” She states, “You are in it. You are in it. There’s no place to get back to.” Removing the boundaries from the performance space, and realizing there really can be no exit, lends itself to become a scary place and a beautiful structure. Barbara Dilley furthered Zaporah’s thought by stating, “What do I do when nothing is going on…you learn that there’s a kinesthetic quality of your physical body in the space at the same moment.” This score no longer leaves room for hesitation but requires the body to find its place in the building architecture. The body can create so many beautiful lines, shapes and designs. It can allow for multiple interactions or a frame for someone else. Smith said, “The end of the space is the body,” therefore, we have no other choice but to commit our body to the surrounding space. We are, as Smith stated, the end of the specific space. There is no removing the fact that space ends at our bodies; therefore we must send waves of energy to the next point where the space ends. Then we can try to connect each body’s energy to one another.
Architecture Part II: Axis and Paths
Looking at space as an open structure, and our bodies, the end of the space between two or more things, I have to look at the actual geometrical structure. In many improvisation classes we enter the space with the clear goal to make an architectural setting with our bodies, in relation to each other and other objects. This new concept leads the sideline border to dissolve and pathways to develop—trying to remove the hesitation and help those “not in the dance” realize that either moving or not, they are present in the dance.
If we broke the space into a grid of pathways, what becomes the main emphasis? Do the performers recognize their structure outside of each individual score? So often this grid-like structure emerges and only a few people see it, while others find their own pathways through the space. As multiple paths are formed and scraped out in the space, axes are created and “reach across space to draw together the important points in a place.” I often feel out of place standing on the sideline of space and staring into the center. I hate the feeling of not being involved in the movement, when in all reality I myself create axes for those who are moving through their own pathway. The book, Chambers for a Memory Palace states, “The climax of the axis is a choice, not an instruction.” However, in personal discovery of the underscore throughout each individual score, I find that one may not consciously place themselves as an axis, but may ultimately be creating a perfect line frame for the pathfinders.
The Choices (Score or No Score) Are Yours:
One of the most valuable lessons I gained through the practice of improvisation as performance was the realization that I make my own choices. Smith says in, “Improvisation as Performance,” “I realize that [improvisation is] not so much a question of searching but of finding,” while Ruth Zaporah says, “…it’s just being alive, no matter how tight your structure or how open.” These two quotes sum up the challenges I face myself as an artist: relinquishing myself to what comes next and taking the inner critic out. Following through with these help me allow for being in the moment. Allowing one’s self to “trust the space,” and realizing that fear is just anticipation for what’s about to happen, choosing to be fully present and supportive even if you chose to remain on the sidelines, and committing to the material, these will only enhance the score. Therefore, improvise when faced with an opportunity you can’t resolve, and as Smith once said, “There is always more time but just be ready to fall.”
This article appeared in the November 2009 issue of In Dance.