Seeking Change

“Improvisational performance in dance (like improvised performance in other media) fundamentally seeks to change the audience’s assumptions about what a dance piece might be.”  Sophie Lycouris BA, MA, Destabilising dancing:tensions between the theory and practice of improvisational performance, 1996, pg 177-8.


I would propose that was merely one goal for western white concert dancers early on, when they “discovered/invented” improvisation.

Such a “goal” could be said to be the first step for many dance-makers. “Oooh, look at me I’m improvising!” Great, now what? What about improvising are you going to reveal to me? What are you going to do with it? Is it a means? Then what are you meaning? Is it a tool? Then what can you show me about the tool?

I think many people use an improvisational approach to time and the creative process for many other reasons. To ascribe a goal to a temporal tool seems a bit much.

What is it?

Flo eminates from the kitchen.
Grub is collated frantically.
Foxy lemmings kite checks.
Worst Oma eliminates four tiny kittens.
Bald Mary stems collegial fraternizing.
The rebar knows kind chicks.
A kangaroo taps foul Tibetan koans.
The wild bran challah collective failed.
We all got tan in Kay’s chalet.
The tilted atrium failed the kinetic colloquial festival king’s child.

Critique of piece I saw during the S.O.D.A. audition

In order to relate what I saw without being descriptive I will offer a short list of whats that I saw:
1. a tattoo
2. a cube
3. black tape
4. gestures
5. white tape
6. a hypodermic needle
7. blood

My feedback about the piece would be to simplify. The piece has at least three different pieces in it – Man with Cube, Man with Tape and Man with Needle. He should pick one of them and investigate it more deeply. I would suggest that he keep his manipulation of the tape to a minimum and not rearrange the tape once it is on the wall. Also I would suggest that the black tape movement section occur further downstage facing the audience. The tape is already abstract and geometric and his focal and spatial choices re-enforced that. Maybe it was his intention to replicate the impersonal nature of the tape. But what I saw was more of a coping mechanism than an artistic choice.

Black tape plus movement plus white tape plus the downstage space plus low level movement plus text plus needle plus blood. Eight dimensions in all. Is this piece, then, about the progression towards the multidimensional, the ultra dimensional he said he was seeking? I do not know. I can not say whether or not this piece worked as I do not know what he was trying to achieve. I can say whether or not I liked the piece. I did not. But whether or not I liked it is of little importance. I can say what it made me think of. The use of the cube made me think of Donald Judd. The black tape pictographs on the white wall made me think of Lawrence Wiener and Robert Motherwell. The piercing of the skin made me think of Chris Burden and Marina Abramovic.

Any of these references, though, is at best a stretch and more present in my perception of the performance than in Riccardo’s presentation of the piece. This brings up the question of what does an audience need to know about the work. Do we need to know what the artist knows? Do we need to have the same frame of reference? Do we need those references to get out of the piece what the artist put into the piece? Is it important for the viewers to get what the artist is saying? Or is the artist creating something for us the respond to with our own references?

Despite not liking it, I feel that of the pieces I saw yesterday this piece had the richest vocabulary to be investigated. And I intend on taking his Man with Tape piece and investigating it further.

Critique for SODA application

Below is a reworked critique of a dance piece I saw in 2009. This was part of my application for the SODA program here in Berlin. Here is the “original

Accords by Thomas Hauert/Zoo, which I saw last summer during Tanz im August, consisted of sections delineated by performers entering or exiting the stage through the spaces between the back panels. The movements within these sections were governed by either the simultaneous initiating and halting of movement, flocking, or awkward partnering. Flocking is when people move in a clump changing spacing/facing with no discernible leader. Awkward partnering is skilled bodies coming in contact in an improvised manner consciously eschewing the Contact Improvisation movement paradigm.
As someone who performs and teaches the tool of improvisation, I appreciated the clarity in this improvised performance. It is very satisfying to see an improvised piece by people who have been working together for more than just a handful of rehearsals. All to often, improvised performances have three rehearsals. During the first one, half of the group doesn’t show and the half who are there just talk. For the second rehearsal 80% of the cast is there and some dancing actually happens. The third rehearsal is on stage in front of the audience, i.e., the performance. In Accords, the hours sweating together in the studio came through during the performance. I saw no moments of searching or moments of awkwardness when performers are in between inspirations.
Dance improvisation is a nascent art form. Because of this, there are many assumptions about improvisation and its uses. The three main assumptions about improvisation are that it is not supposed to be rehearsed, be well produced, or have a point. Also due to the newness of it, improvisation based work is in a vicious cycle. The work is underfunded, therefore the work cannot be well rehearsed and produced. The work is not rehearsed, so the quality is not consistent. The quality is not consistent so producers and curators do not want to show the work. The work is not shown, so artists making improvised work can’t get funding. They can’t get funding so they can’t rehearse. The cycle continues.
Thomas Hauert, it seems, has been able to break this cycle and to get beyond two of the three main assumptions about improvisation. His piece Accords is well rehearsed and has a high level of production value. The lighting was not left over from the previous performance. The costuming, consisting of black mesh body suits over primary colored pants and shirts, was not thrown together right before the performance. The set, more than just a black box, was simple — black, one meter wide panels, each the height of the stage. The panels, which covered the back wall, were wide enough apart for the performers to slip between them. At times acting as either a visual backdrop or an obstacle course for the movement, the set was well integrated into the performance.
Where Hauert failed was topic. His piece had all the production value of a choreographed piece, but not the point of a choreographed piece. An improvised piece can have just as much of a point as a choreographed one. What was Hauert trying to reveal to the audience besides the tool of improvisation? Is it the means or the end? If improvisation is what he was trying to show the audience, he succeeded. We saw people improvising. But listening skills and group awareness in and of themselves do not make a good piece. If all it takes to make a good piece using improvisation is good listening skills then any sequence of memorized movement is good choreography. This, we know, is not the case. Even if improvisation itself were the topic of the piece, nothing was developed strongly enough to become the point of the piece. The dancers did not work flocking, group timing or any of the tools I recognized for such an extended period of time to take it to a new level.
Maybe Hauert intended to provide the audience with an enjoyable visual and auditory experience for 90 minutes. As an artist using similar tools, I want to see the tools create something besides themselves.

Personal Statement for SODA

Below is my personal statement that I wrote in applying to the SODA program here in Berlin.

My interest in the S.O.D.A. program stems from a desire for a more profound connection and dialog with the dance/performance community. I am looking for thoughtful, candid feedback about my work that is more constructive than the often superficial comments traded after a performance. I am also seeking the tools -language, books, other minds – with which to understand and view my own work better. I am hungry for the same level of rigor and feedback in the studio and theater as I got when I was studying biochemistry at U.C., San Diego. Over exposure to acetone will destroy your liver no matter how you contextualize it.
What I am hoping to gain from the S.O.D.A. program is the same kind of discourse I had in the lab. Working individually or in groups, we evaluated and discussed each other’s methods and findings. I hope to interact with people of similar interests(performance, dance, presence) from varying backgrounds(age, country, training) in a focused yet open environment. I hope hat they know and have experienced will open my eyes and increase what I know and will experience.
My artistic skills, capabilities and development have been driven by my proclivities. I am drawn to the tool of improvisation because it keeps my mind constantly engaged, constantly sensing and interacting with my environment. Having studied other approaches to improvisation, such as Action Theater and the Viewpoints, I am more drawn to the tool of contact improvisation. I find that it is the clearest model with which to examine performance variables in relation to improvisation. This is not to say that I am only interested in unfettered vague improvisational work. In fact, quite the opposite. My work, though improvised, can be quite restricted. In Any Fool Can Think of Words that Rhyme the three dancers are restricted to moving one joint at a time. In A2Zed/Nexus one point of contact is maintained and returned to as much as possible. Other limitations or choreographies for my work involve the lighting, body tone, or staying still and grunting.
I am also drawn to the tool of improvisation because there is an assumption that improvised work has no point to it or thought behind it. Sadly, most of the work out there professed to be improvised does not have a point other than it is improvised. The artists are so enamored of the process of real-time composing, that they forget that the tool of improvisation can be used to create something other than itself. Anvils can be used to create other things besides anvils. I, therefore, make a point of creating work that has a very definite concept outside of improvisation itself.
Just as I was drawn to study biochemistry to understand how the mechanics of life work, I am drawn to the theater to understand how it works. I am interested in the underlying structures of theater and their relationships. Currently, my specific area of interest is the function of a title. Is a title a sign to tell the audience what the performance is about? Is it a lens through which the audience should view the performance? Neither function I find satisfactory. If a title is to tell an audience what is happening, there is no room for the audience to participate, for them to create an event within themselves initiated by what is on stage. On the other hand, if the artist uses the title as a lens, the artist runs the risk of being too vague, leaving all the work of creating the performance up to the audience’s imagination. If the artist is too vague then the audience could just as well stay home and imagine their own performance. Truth in Advertising, my most recent production, arose out of confusion about this function. The concert consists of seven pieces, each with two titles. One title is straight forward, the other title more obtuse. For example one piece is titled Man Grunting and Distillation – This piece is a distillation of the collective human experience of cruelty – cruelty that we experience from direct or inadvertent action of others and cruelty that we consciously or unconsciously inflict upon others. The intention of Truth in Advertising is to lead the audience to question the function of titles.
If art, as Brecht said, is a hammer with which to shape society, I would say that I aspire to be a hammer that shapes the hammer that shapes society. I say this because I make work in response to my environment. Observing the patterns and trends in the work around me inspires me. I aim to create work that leads my peers to question the tools and possibilities they are using in their work. I created Do You See What I See?, a series of performative still-lifes which bombard the audience with biographical information, as a response to all the intensely biographical work I was seeing in the San Francisco Bay Area. I created the sound score for Content with Content from descriptions in a film catalogue. By incessantly telling the audience what the piece is about, the sound score forces the viewers to question what any piece is about. I created Sentimental Pussyfooting: a study in plagiarism because I was tired of hearing “Oh, that’s been done.” The basic dance formula has been done again and again and no one complains about that. In Sentimental Pussyfooting I used pieces that have been done as points of departure, showing how much more there is left to investigate within ideas that “have been done”. Yoko Ono’s Cut piece, Paul Taylor’s Duet, and John Cage’s 4’33” are some of the pieces I used.
By surrounding myself with curious intelligent artists, I hope to gain new insights and avenues of inquiry into the inner workings of dance and performance. The S.O.D.A program will be the hammer that shapes the hammer that shapes the hammer that shapes society.