Epistemological Rigor

“Cvejić argues improvisation’s epistemological lack of rigor due to its reliance on the practitioner’s experience within the frame of the ineffable…” Bell, p.111


from Biba Bell’s review of Choreographing Problems: Expressive Concepts in European Contemporary Dance and Performance in DRJ 48/3 December 2016

Merriam Webster defines epistemological as “the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity”.

By studying improvisation through the lenses of Ensemble Thinking, the Six Viewpoints, Contact Improvisation, & Action Theater, the theory of the nature of improvisation becomes apparent. I would therefore propose that Ensemble Thinking, the Six Viewpoints, Contact Improvisation, & Action Theater could be seen as epistemological rigor. The rigor already exists. The frame of the ineffable does not preclude epistemological rigor. The theories of the aforementioned improvisation practices are embedded (embodied) in the scores of each improvisational methodology. The scores of these practices could be seen as the theories that transcend the ineffable. These theories live beyond the moment that performing disappearance à la Phelan.

“The consequence of the “monopoly” of practitioners’ knowledge in the field is a lack of proper theoretical study, of a comprehensive systematization…” – Cvejic, p. 130

The bias against practitioner’s tacit knowledge is evident in Cvejic’s position. A comprehensive systematization of improvisational epistemology already exists in theories such as Ensemble Thinking, Action Theater, Six Viewpoints, Contact Improvisation, et. al, already exists in the practices themselves. It is her inability to recognize the theories, as a relay between practices with any of the aforementioned methodologies (Deleuze), inherent, embedded, and embodied within each improvisation method.


As to the idea that there is a “monopoly”, well, yes, of course there is a “monopoly”, and rightly so. Physicists create the theories for physics, because they are the ones who study physics. Economists create the theories for economics because they are the people who study economics. Linguists create the theories for linguistics because they are the ones who study language. People who study improvisation (as it relates to dance) create the theories of improvisation. To know it you have to do it.



“…the technique of Contact Improvisation, which prioritises the understanding of movement as response to direct physical stimuli through sharingweight with a partner(Novack 1990)”

the quote above is from Sophie Lycouris’ doctoral thesis.  And I think that this notion perpetuated by Cynthia Novack’s book is what is keeping CI in the dog house of dance. This book, I believe, seems to be the academic go-to for understanding Contact Improvisation. I wish academics would use a more updated notion of CI

And I think that the above notion of what CI is, is outdated and limited.  CI 26 years ago, maybe, focused on the movement in CI as a “response” to stimuli.  This is only half of the coin. The focus on “movement as response” is what I think Lisa Nelson has been quoted as referring to as CI not being an art form.

There is nothing in CI that precludes the dancer from creating movement before direct stimuli. I understand why the “response” side is emphasized.  Beginners all too often initiate movement without having the skills to execute their desires.  End-gaining in AT™ terms. But I fear that this is where most teaching of CI stops, at the listening and responding.

But that is merely the beginning.

So back to the dog house…by limiting CI to responding, practitioners give CI that limp noodle look, the “improvised” look. (Don’t get me started about whether or not improvised has a look. Does painting have a look?). And humans, being the animals that we are, assume a whole host of values when we see an iteration of something.  We, unless we know better, assume that everything of that thing we observe looks like what we have seen.  Think “first impressions”. If CI is noodley in one iteration, then CI is noodley.

This noodle-heit and then the assumption of cuddly hippie everything goes lackadaisical-ness ruins CI for the rest of us who practice it differently and desire to use the tool of CI for other aesthetics and logics.

(oh, Andrew.  Stop whining!)

Improvising the technically pedestrian choreography

“While improvisation initially offered Jones a reprieve from the demands of technical training…” – page 115 from I Want To Be Ready by Danielle Goldman.

This quote refers to the choreographer Bill T. Jones. While it may be true that improvisation did offer Jones a respite from the rigors of technical training, I find that this statement sets up, or rather is indicative of an old and antiquated antagonistic binary about improvisation and technique.

I would say that good improvisation requires technical training.  The opposite of improvisation is choreography.  And to do choreography doesn’t require technical training but merely memory.

A dancer’s relationship to time, i.e., improvisation or choreographed, has nothing to do with technical training.  Choreography can be technical or not, improvisation can be technical or not. Though, I would posit that untechnical improvisation isn’t improvisation, but merely futzing about, regardless of how enthusiastic it is. Choreography, on the other hand, is merely remembering a sequence of events.

Technical, pedestrian, improvised, choreographic…one does not imply the otherScreen Shot 2015-11-19 at 6.29.36 PM

Is CI a Cunningham chance operation?

‘The dancers are called on not to express a particular emotion, or set of emotions, but instead to develop refined coping mechanisms for creating continuity between disarticulated movements while remaining sensitive to their location in space. They must keep time without musical cues; sense the presence of the other dancers on stage; know blindly proprioceptively, what these other dancers are doing; and adjust the the timing and scope of their movements accordingly, thereby expressing the “human condition” at hand. All this work is “expressive”-it belongs to the “category of expression”-insofar as it is demanded by a human situation on a stage and insofar as human situations on stages (or otherwise) constitute an embodied response to the present moment, an embodied response to the utterly unique conditions of existence at one given point in time.’ – Noland, C 2010, ‘The Human Situation on Stage: Merce Cunningham, Theodor Adorno, and the Category of Expression’, Dance Research Journal, 1, p. 55

In this quote, Noland is referring to Cunningham dancers dealing with the re-ordering of set phrase material.  When she writes (or otherwise), she could be referring to a contact improvisation jam.  I think it is a very apt description of an silent CI jam. In CI jams, dancers are constantly “using refined coping mechanisms for creating continuity between disarticulated movements while remaining sensitive to their location in space.”  [Though, how much contacters are actually aware of the whole space is open for debate! IMHO]

What people do at CI jams is, I would say, “an embodied response to the present moment, an embodied response to the utterly unique conditions of existence at one given point in time.” [Though, how much is actually an embodied response and not actually another iteration of habit is also open for debate. IMHO]

Are Cunningham choreographies that are governed by chance operations a contact improvisation jam?

Are contact improvisation jams a piece of choreography by Cunningham?

Paxton danced for Cunningham, after all.