Improvisation in Performance

Over my Winter Break, I spent a full week in Philadelphia studying Movement Improvisation in Performance.  Included in this work was Contact Improvisation and Authentic Movement.  As a performer, it was one of the most liberating experiences I’ve had in a while.

I don’t want to talk about CI too much, but just to give a little background, it was first developed and codified in 1972 by Steve Paxton, who was a dancer from the Judson Church Dance Theatre scene.  “Authentic movement is an expressive improvisational movement practice that allows a group of participants a type of free association of the body.”  It’s a very spiritual practice in which a witness watches their partner, who has their eyes closed, do whatever they want for fifteen minutes.  If you have any curiosities about this, PLEASE FEEL FREE TO ASK!!

The artists I worked with during that week were Ishmael Houston-Jones and Yvonne Meier, who are extremely famous dance improvisers who made their claim to fame in the 80’s.  I had only heard great things about them and their work before the workshops.  The Philly Dance Community has a wonderful High-Tea event that serves as a discussion with visiting artists once a month, and the guests were of course Yvonne and Ishmael, so I had an opportunity to get to know them more then.  I clearly remember asking Ishmael what he valued most in work, and he said, “Authenticity and Risk.”  I was in total agreement.

After seeing their work, however, I feel differently.  Ishmael sent me a video of a PS 122 revival of his work called “THEM.”  I wasn’t totally impressed.  The dance improvisation was impressive, yet it all existed with the same timing and rhythms.  I love improvisation…but I felt as if no one was really saying anything.  It was as if the artist wasn’t making a stand.  Yvonne Meier’s work is similar in that it is entertaining, but that she doesn’t express her voice clearly enough.  After talking with a friend, we realized what we were missing: Vigor.  And maybe set choreography.

As a dance theatre artist who loved doing this work, and got something out of it emotionally, I am on a quest to find how these practices can translate directly into performance.  I fully understand how they can be used off the stage, but I want to discover how these forms may illuminate ideas more effectively than set material.

Here are a few links I have posted to further illuminate this topic:

Ishmael Houston Jones’ website (It’s actually fantastic!!!)

THEM at PS122

Yvonne Meier performing

Yvonne Meier’s famous “Scores”

A recent review of their works in the NY Times (that follows my line of reasoning)

Please comment if you have feelings about their work!

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