A Critical Departure

Bojana Cvejić posits that the improvising dancing that Burrows and Ritsema do in their piece WDSQ is significantly different than dance improvisation. She writes that their performance is the result of a  “critical departure from dance improvisation” (Cvejić, 2015, p.160). I take the term critical departure to mean that Cvejić considers the methods and models used by Burrows and Ritsema when creating their performance are the results of a research and rehearsal process that was heading in a different direction than dance improvisation. As I have not seen the piece, I can only assess how Burrows’ and Ritsema’s dancing relates to dance improvisation by what Cvejić has written about their performance.

I would propose that Burrows and Ritsema do not achieve a critical departure from dance improvisation as a whole. Rather, it could be said that they create their performance using dance improvisation. It could be that I have misunderstood Cvejić. The critical departure that they have created might be from their own habits. Such an interpretation could be read in the following quotation:

…in WDSQ we encounter an exemplar of a creation by problem that operates in several registers: the object of an Idea of movement, the form of which seems impossible; a procedure constraining a process by conditions and rules for questioning movement, which results in the invention of a new syntax…(Cvejić, 2015, p. 159)

The use of conditions and rules to expand a dancer’s movement vocabulary, syntax, movement possibilities is a standard idea of one use of dance improvisation. Most practitioners of dance improvisation would attest to this thought.

Earlier in the chapter Exhausting Improvisation: Stutterances, Cvejić discusses a movement process Burrows and Ritsema engage in to problematize their movements. She writes that “…they issue it and abort its development at the same time” (Cvejić, 2015, p. 153). Such a process sounds very similar to Chaos of Intention. Chaos of Intention is part of Re:Wire Dancing States, a body of improvisational work initiated by choreographer Nina Martin and is continued to be developed in conjunction with her colleagues of the Lower Left Performance Collective. (Full disclosure, I am a member of the Lower Left Performance Collective).

Chaos of Intention (CoInt) could be described in a similar manner as the method of problematizing movement Cvejić writes about. CoInt requires that the dancer change, modify, or transform his movement as soon as he recognizes it as familiar in some way. By constantly tracking the movements he creates (issues) and changing them so that they do not progress (develop) as they normally would, the improvising dancer is able to expand his movement potential. A goal of CoInt could be described as attempting “…to move and yet not produce a cognizable movement” (Cvejić, 2015, p. 149).

“Improvisation in WDSQ begins exactly by dismantling the function of the body as the source or point of origin of movement” (Cvejić, 2015, p. 141). This quotation relates Cvejić’s thoughts about Burrows and Ritsema’s improvising to Forsythe’s practice of improvisation. His methodology results from “extending and amplifying knowledge from and individual authoring body” (Cvejić, 2015, p. 141). Cvejić proposes that Burrows and Ritsema’s improvising is different because it does not make use of the dancer’s body for inspiration, but dismantles that relationship and makes use of other sources.

The use of external sources for movement inspiration and origination is also part of the Re:Wire Dance States methodology. There are several binaries that an improvising dancer can make use of as an external “source or point of origin of movement” (Cvejić, 2015, p. 141). Big/Small and Near/Far are two such binaries.

Big/Small relates to several variables. It can relate to the range of movements through space that the dancers creates. These movements through space can be big, small or somewhere in between. Big/Small can also refer to the amount of time that an action occurs. The movement of an arm can take a big or small amount of time. Near/Far can be used to relate to the space that the dancer is in. Using this score, the improvising dancer creates and notices the distance between different objects, points, people in space. He can then change his location in space to alter these relationships, making them nearer or farther than before.

It could be argued that these two binaries make use of the body as a point of reference for movement (Near/Far) or make use of the body to move through space and time (Big/Small) and therefore do not fully remove the body as the “…source or point of origin of movement” (Cvejić, 2015, p. 141). I would however argue that they dismantle it to an extent by pulling the dancer’s awareness out of his immediate corporeal somatic experience.

In light of the similarities to extant improvisational methods, the procedures that Burrows and Ritsema use to create their dance performance WDSQ are not a “critical departure from dance improvisation” (Cvejić, 2015, p.160). Their procedures are related and comparable to a whole host of improvisational theories and practices already in use.

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.

 

Aristotle and Improvisation

It is absurd to suppose that purpose is not present because we do not observe the agent deliberating. Art does not deliberate.

– Aristotle, Physics II.8, The Complete Works of Aristotle Vol. I. The Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes).

If Art does not deliberate and choreography can be seen as a form of deliberation, is, then, choreographed dance not art?

Is the art that choreography generates, then, the un-deliberated performance of its execution?

Does this mean, then, that the purest artistic form of dance is the least deliberated, i.e., absolute improvisation, when the phases of exploration, experimentation, and execution collapse into a singular event?

 

A whole lot of dancin’ goin’ on!

I propose that there are 9 ways* to change the type of movement material with any given moment in an improvised dance.

If we are to take a dance of 10 minutes in length and say that the dancer can change the type of movement material every 30 seconds then there are 19 moments when the change can happen and have movement afterwards.

This means that there are 9 to the 19th power number of dances that are possible to create.

This leads us to

1,350,851,700,000,000,000

possible different dance choreographies if we are to look at moments of change in movement material.

 

*These changes will be elucidated later on. Stay tuned!

From Improvisation to Choreography: The critical bridge

These are some thoughts in response to an article by Larry Lavender Predock-Linnell and Jennifer Predock-Linnell, From Improvisation to Choreography: The critical bridge, Research in Dance Education, 2:2, 195-209. A link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14647890120100809.

I felt inspired to share a few of my thoughts about their article because I feel that the authors have limited notions of the possibilities of improvisation.

  • “composing in the sense of shaping and forming movement material, and criticism—observing, describing, analysing, interpreting, evaluating, and revising both the work in progress and the completed dance.”
Using the two descriptions above I would say that improvisation can be viewed as simultaneously composing and critiquing a dance. The only element of critiquing a dance that it not possible while improvising is revising. Granted an action can be re-done, but the observers will see that, so probably not revising of material, but revisiting of material.
  • The authors quote Nora Ambrosia – “‘Improvisation and creative movement are two dance genres that do not necessarily require participants to have a background in dance technique. … These two genres are focused on self-expression and self-exploration’ (p. 87).”
Here a bias. One, improvisation is not a genre. Choreography is not a genre. They are, I would propose, a temporality, a relationship to time of process of the creative act to when the products of the creative act are observed. (re: the three phases Exploration, Experimentation, Execution). And as being a relationship in time, improvisation is not focused on self-expression and self-exploration. Choreography also does not require a background in dance technique. All you have to do is remember what you did and do it again. Training/technique helps both.
  • and this – “… that improvisation exercises do not sharpen students’ awareness in any lasting way either of their own aesthetic values or those of others, nor do they compel students (mentally or physically) to exercise and test their ideas about dance as art.”

Did the authors ever think to question their method of improvisation pedagogy and what exercises they used? I would say that improvisation affords the dance maker plenty of opportunity to test ideas about dance as art, by allowing her/him to simultaneously compose and critique work. Improvising in the studio also has the benefit of having an audience, i.e., adrenaline, thereby creating a situation that is more similar to an actual performance.

  • “In short, improvisational work…generally does not develop in students the kind of critical consciousness that we think is imperative to their future success as choreographers.”

– see the point above

  • “while the dance world (particularly in academia) has long been deeply invested in promoting the idea and value of self-expression…”

This quote to me shows one thing that is wrong with dance education. It is seen as having an end goal, not as a means for knowledge production or investigation. What professor of structural engineering or radiology would say that they are invested in promoting the idea and value of self-expression? Who wants a dentist that went into dentistry for self-expression?

  •  “dance—rooted in bodily experience, and committed to the idea of the body as expressive of the range of human feelings and emotions”

This is another example of limiting the possibility of what dance can be used for. I am not denying that dance can be used to express the range of human emotions, but there is so much more.

  • “Because we think they should, we argue that pre-choreography training—i.e. training in improvisation…”

I would say that choreography can be used as pre-improvisation training. Choreography can be used to get a dancer out of habits of movement, as can improvisation (Re: Chaos dancing, fussy, neuro, etc). Both temporalities can inform each other.

By viewing improvisation as being  in service to choreography, the authors, to quote Foucault, treat choreography as the “as the primary law, the essential weight of any” dance making practice. The authors attribute certain values to a relationship of time and unnecessarily limit the uses of dance and dance improvisation. They also have not investigated/questioned/problematized their relationship to and use of improvisation enough.