By Carrie Stern
Improvisation. Most performing artists — actors, dancers, musicians — improvise. After years of being told what to do and how to do it, college is often the first time improvisation is encouraged. For some, improvisation is uncomfortable, a struggle, its lack of specifics terrifying leaving participants floundering, feeling adrift and even angry. For others, improvisation is a revelation, a door that opens onto possibility.
As a tool, improvisation is a way of exploring. Actors use it to find nuances of character or situation. Composers and choreographers commonly ask dancers and musicians to improvise around an idea or a phrase of movement or notes, generating a vocabulary that is culled for composition.
But improvisation is also an art in itself with its own rules and structures. More ephemeral than any other live performance, performed improvisation is truly “art in the moment,” the process of creation made visible. Jazz musicians famously evolve complex music over a template of a few basic lines. Dancers often rely on unrevealed structures, loose descriptions of touch points that provide shape to the overall performance while leaving the movement open to the moment.
But improvisation is messy. Even the best of practitioners, or those with high levels of scaffolding guiding their choices, inevitably encounter moments when energy drops and the movement isn’t finding its way.
Performed improvisation reached its peak as an important part of the conversation in modern dance in the mid-1970s. By the 1980s it had begun to fade as the genre turned to formal choreography and younger choreographers appeared with new priorities. Although recently there has been a renewed interest in improvisation as a creative tool, it is rare to see performers who employ improvisational tactics, and who are deeply versed in its performance.
Brooklyn-based Company SoGoNo are experienced performers with a common language springing from their training in Action Theater, an improvisational physical performance method created by Ruth Zaporah. They have worked together for many years. Familiarity allows SoGoNo to tune in to each other, quickly picking up cues as they change figurative and literal direction. Experience encourages rapid shifts when they find themselves at a dead end.
Artistic Director Tanya Calamoneri, who was injured and unable to perform in the SoGoNo concert I attended at Williamsburg’s Triskelion Arts, told me, “The presence, engagement and alertness of the performer are qualities that I find captivating and easier to enable through improvisation than through pre-set choreography.”
Normally director-less, SoGoNo’s “December’s Second Nature: Surreal Travelogues of the Ordinary” was an experiment in directed improvisation. Calamoneri became an outside eye, suggesting fruitful lines of physical inquiry and giving feedback on verbal narrative structures.
The result was mixed. There were beautiful, suggestive phrases of dancing — quick-changing impulses during which the other dancers never missed a beat were joined by slow, evolving explorations of a single idea. Danny Tunick, the company’s musician-in-residence, was a clear partner, responding and driving the expanding ideas on the stage.
One of the pitfalls of improvisation is that the performer must know when to let go. It’s easy to be engaged in your own path. On stage it’s important not to miss the point at which it is no longer interesting to anyone else. I am content to follow an improviser as they discover a pathway, but too often, particularly towards the end of the performance, discovery went on too long without resolution in either movement or sound.
In this performance, the verbal passages that drove the movement were in part to blame. I am a fan of storytelling with dance, but more than once the stories lost focus as the dancers struggled to figure out where they were going. Special guest Owen Walker, though a fine performer, was only occasionally in tune with company members Cassie Tunick and Heather Harpham.
Despite these objections, it is a rare opportunity to be able to watch seasoned performers as they follow the passageways opened by the movement coursing through their bodies, the meeting of music, words, and other dancers in new, never seen before, or after, creations.
Improvisation also played a role in Jordon Fuchs’ work on the last program of FLICfest. A longtime improviser, Fuchs’ “Strange Planet” attempted a structure that would corral improvisation’s unruly edges while supporting presence and engagement among the performers. Like Calamoneri’s work, it was only partially successful. At times it verged on the overly indulgent, while at others it established startling, intense performances.
Audiences’ impatience with performed experimentation, and performers’ fear of taking a chance, is a loss for dance as a whole. Both as a choreography tool and as a form of performance, improvisation feeds modern dance in important ways. In the pressure cooker of performing open-ended structures, experienced performers often discover and offer up fascinating new dances.
And a note: It’s hard to believe I had never before been to Triskelion Arts, Willamsburg’s longtime center for new dance. Up several broad flights of stairs, a long, crisp hallway sprouts several theater-studios along its sides. All were in use upon my visit. Opened in 2000 and the recipient of six Dance Theater Workshop “Outer Space Grants,” Triskelion is a wonderfully old-fashioned, alternative rehearsal and performance space with a long tradition of hosting rising choreographers. There are too few of these spaces left in New York City, places where young companies can afford to self-produce, where choreographers can take a chance.
For more on Company SoGoNo, visit www.sogono.org. For more information on Triskelion classes and performances, visit triskelionarts.org.