Improvising Dance

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When you think of improvisation in dance, you probably imagine either young clubbers out on the dance floor inventing moves to the latest pop tunes or postmodern artists engaged in contact improv, making communal choreography through the sharing of weight, energies, and physical impulses. But there are many other dance forms that embrace improvisational techniques. In all cases, however, though the dancing is infused with a sense of extemporaneousness, it is created under firm guiding principles: established beginning and end points, structural boundaries, predetermined limitations, and unqualified acceptance of whatever is proffered.

Laura Pawel Dance Company

It was from new-music composer Eleanor Hovda that modern-dance choreographer Laura Pawel first learned the importance of improvisation. "She introduced me to the notion that you can't possibly set every aspect of a performance," Pawel explains. "Even in strictly choreographed work, like a ballet, there are always differences from one performance to another. It's simply a matter of which aspects you choose to set. But something is always going to be improvised. It's the uncertainty principle in physics. You can't control everything, and when you try to do that, you break your head on the rock of reality. You have to let go in some way."

Pawel's choreographic process now involves deciding where in each work she is willing to relinquish control and give her performers freedom to improvise. "As a choreographer, if I see the same movement over and over, I get bored," she says. "I want the performers to retain the structural elements that I set out but to surprise me with the details."

Founded in 1968, her seven-member New York–based troupe, the Laura Pawel Dance Company, performs to commissioned scores played live by musicians who also improvise in performance. In addition, Pawel's dancers often incorporate improvised talking into their work. They might be given a sentence fragment to complete or a general topic on which to expound.

"To be a good improviser," Pawel says, "you have to do a lot of listening, paying attention to one another. People sometimes think improvising means simply doing whatever you want, but that's not so. It's tremendously difficult yet very stimulating."

Forsythe's Improvisation Technique

"Forsythe is interested in a deconstructive reconsideration of the possibilities of ballet," says Helen Pickett, who teaches university courses and professional workshops based on William Forsythe's approach to improvisation. It was during her 11 years as a member of Germany's Frankfurt Ballet that Pickett absorbed the work of Forsythe, the company's artistic director and an idiosyncratic ballet choreographer.

Forsythe's improvisation technique is broken down into what he calls "modalities," which are about 30 movement concepts, such as shearing, collapsing, folding, and matching. Once you improvise ways of moving your body in the different modalities, they become "reminder tools," giving you a whole new set of ideas to use to trigger movement variation or invention.

Before students explore the modalities, Pickett feels it's important for them to be introduced to Forsythe's idea of the "dissected" body. "When I teach," she says, "I give a series of warm-up exercises that involve breaking down the body—taking your head away from your shoulder, your shoulder away from your ribs—so when you walk, you don't take your torso forward in space as a whole, but you may take your chin before your hip. You also learn to use more sides of your body. You may be asked to move forward with your scapula rather than your chest, or to step backward with the left side of your knee."

Though born out of the ballet vocabulary, Forsythe's technique is not just for dancers and choreographers; it can be of value to any creative artist. "It opens up avenues that allow you to expand your ideas of what you thought your body could do," Pickett says. "It's about rediscovery. It's not about throwing away your previous education, but about taking it down a different path."

Tap Dance

"In what we do, improvisation is huge," says acclaimed rhythm tapper Derick K. Grant, an original cast member and dance captain of Broadway's "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk." "Tap dance is such an individual sport. It's all about expressing yourself. You work all day on training your feet and your technique, but when it comes time for the performance, you just want to be as available as possible to respond to whatever is happening at that moment—what you're feeling from the music, or the energy you receive from the audience or a particular venue. It takes courage, honesty, and not being afraid of exposing who you are."

Internationally renowned dance instructor Barbara Duffy has been teaching tap improvisation for 20 years. "But I'm really just a guide," she says. "Improvisation is something you have to find for yourself. In my class, I present different ideas that dancers can then go off and work with—rhythmic, technical, physical, emotional ideas—to open them up, to get them to feel more free. For example, I might limit what they can do by telling them they can only do steps and heels and no other tap vocabulary. Or that they have to make really big leg movements. When you confine someone like that, it puts them physically in a different place and often helps them discover something new."

Barbara Duffy is the artistic director of a women's tap ensemble, Barbara Duffy and Company, which will be appearing Aug. 28 at
Jacob's Pillow in Massachusetts.