Monthly Archives: October 2012

Improvisation vs Choreography (addendum to ‘Reviews as Dramaturgy…’)

As addendum to yesterday’s post, I note my focus there is largely on prepared work: Choreographed work, scripted work, pieces that have undergone weeks or months of study and preparation.

Though physical and dance improvisation benefits and connects more when following a narrative, I expect it to be more nebulous: It derives largely from intuition, observation, reaction and stream of consciousness, and to hen that into demands for a narrative can stifle that work into submission.

Yes, in theatrical and comedic improv players are taught and expected to establish and develop characters, relationships, setting, a narrative built around objectives… and that may frequently be too much to ask of a physical or dance improviser playing in a short piece, or within an installation where performers are expected to create constantly over the course of several hours. It’s great when such work can find narratives, but narratives aren’t expected or demanded in that forum.

However, when performers have time to build a piece and audiences are expected to pay full price to see that piece, the expectations are higher. They should be higher.

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Reviews as Dramaturgy, and the Gap Between Dance and Theatre

Over the years I’ve developed among some circles a cultural notoriety for rattling the cage with my honesty, fundamentally angering people with my frank commentary. So far in this space I have tactfully made an effort to avoid that… a fairly easy task when you stick to a relatively benign topics like discussing your artistic process.

Today with this piece I am probably going to make some of you angry. Though I ask that you not let anger slam the door shut on your otherwise open mind, I am certain some of you will refuse to get anything other than upset, offended or otherwise combative from reading this. Proceed with caution.

The following is not necessarily organized into an essay… but not pure stream of consciousness either. It does change direction a couple times and isn’t necessarily built around a major thesis but makes several points and invites multiple topics of discussion and action.

Note: The following regards choreography and prepared work. For improvised pieces and installations, there are different expectations.
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Scenario: You go to see a dance show. The work features some highly trained and experienced dancers. The dancing in the show is very technically sharp and attractive. The costumes add a nice aesthetic touch. Maybe there’s a pretty set and/or some colorful lighting. But otherwise the piece itself is quite nebulous. You see little more than sequences of dance moves put together in a piece. Other than the vague presence of a certain aesthetic and hints of a main idea through the brief dramaturgy in the program (maybe even the company website), you see little to discern it from any of the artist’s other work, or even from the work of most other dance you’ve seen.

A couple days later, someone posts a review of the very show you saw. And it’s like you and the reviewer saw two very different shows. The reviewer describes one particular sequence with emotional and contextual terms that were from your perspective clearly overlaid by the reviewer onto a technically sound but not particularly noteworthy dance sequence. The reviewer repeats this process with different portions of the show, portions where you saw the general idea of what the choreographer and performers were going for, but certainly not with the acute color and detail the reviewer claims to have seen.

It feels like you simply read the Cliff Notes to a book that our reviewer apparently read cover to cover multiple times and committed to memory. Or, more pointedly, it’s like you came to a run of the show where the performers phoned in their effort, while for the run the reviewer saw they went all out and delivered the effort of their lives.

In reality, both of you saw the same show. Nobody phoned anything in: The performers gave a serious effort each time. You took the show at face value. The reviewer saw the same show, then proceeded to overlay in their review a wide variety of context that didn’t necessarily exist to the naked eye of a casual viewer.

This to me is the great peril of the typical arts review. This is not unique to the Times or the weekly rags or Seattle Dances or whoever decides to write a blog entry or one-off article for a media outlet about a show. It’s not even unique to dance… to a lesser but significant extent theatre, music and movie reviewers frequently fall prey to the trap of playing dramaturg and creatively filling in blanks in lieu of reviewing what is actually there before our eyes.

Now… dramaturgy *is* valuable. Creative performance work never happens in a vacuum. We approach our work informed by a history, whether our own history, our society’s history or other historical events/material that inspire work. I take value from any effort to give the observer some advance context and back story on what the show we’re about to see comes from, whether on a website or printed program. Dramaturgy is a relevant part of producing performance work.

At the same time, let me give you a wildly extreme but illustrative scenario. Imagine I do a performance piece where the lights come up and I walk onto a blank stage with a chair. I set the chair center stage and sit down. I stay there motionless and expressionless for 9 minutes, then get up, take the chair and leave the stage. Lights down, and scene.

If I told you that piece was a dramatic presentation of the ennui and nihilism of life described by the texts of Friedrich Nietzsche, does that make your experience with my “performance” any different?

No, I do not think this way about most dance pieces. Dance pieces in fact are conversely rich with choreography and activity. But with exceptions few and far between* it is often only that: An exhibition of dancer training and execution, akin to a gymnastics floor routine but with more of an aesthetic theme and without the presence of scoring judges. I painted an extreme example to illustrate what this superimposed dramaturgy sounds like to me.

… exceptions such as Amy ONeal’s recent “The Most Innovative…” show, a brilliant interweave of narrative and cultural context with the traditional exhibition of dance.

Yes, I come from a theatre background where artists are expected to engage the audience with presence and character, tell a clear story that the audience could follow and carry that story to a fulfilled conclusion. To the field of dance this is, despite the work of dance theatre pioneers like Pina Bausch, still largely a foreign concept. It’s almost like Pina introduced the concept all those decades ago, but dance misinterpreted her innovated message as, Oh colorful costumes and nice sets and pained expressions on our faces and more emotionally pent up execution of our choreography… like they started to get the point, then got caught up in aesthetics and abandoned the journey ADHD style.

When as a theatre artist I call out a dance piece’s lack of narrative, character, or depth beyond the technique and aesthetic, I frequently get from anyone in the dance community a dismissively esoteric rebuttal.

– Well, that’s not what we do in dance.
– It’s more about the aesthetic.
– Theatre and dance are different worlds and thereofre the expectations are different here.
– You clearly just don’t understand dance. Dancers obviously understand what was happening.
– You probably don’t like dance.
– You weren’t paying that much attention.
– You need to understand the context behind the piece.
– You’re placing unnecessary personal expectations on the work.
– Just because it’s not what you want doesn’t mean it didn’t work.

My mentors and peers in the working world, let alone in theatre, would dismiss such dismissive rebuttals as outright closed-minded laziness, if not condescending.

I’m going to go out on a limb and postulate that, if I need a BFA or MFA in Modern Dance to understand and appreciate your work, you’re not doing your job as a performance artist… just as I’m not doing my job as a theatre artist if you need a BFA or MFA in theatre to understand my work. To a more pointed and universal extent… if a viewer needs reference material to make sense out of a performance, then the performer(s) did not make their piece sufficiently clear. If I mumble when talking and you cannot hear me, is it okay to rebut that you need to do a better job of listening? Or should I make a better effort to speak up?

Your role as a performing artist in the community is to create and present work for the general public, for their consumption and for their enrichment. How can it enrich them if your performance does not provide enough material on its own for them to understand and enjoy it?

To finally circuit back to the original point… let’s address the distorted perception of the purpose of a publicly disseminated performance review. Artists in theatre, dance, music and other forms see reviews as a promotional wing of their show (a potentially cancerous self-serving mindset). Such a piece is not a review; it’s promotional copy.

While I presume Seattle Dances writes ‘reviews’ with the purpose of promoting work than critically analyzing it (and honestly that’s not such a bad thing if that’s the intended purpose)… media outlets like the Times, the weeklies and media sites have more of a responsibility to the public to filter work and help the public discern what work is worth the consumer’s finite time and money. (Whether or not they meet that responsibility is another matter entirely and you could argue most if not all outlets fail to a great degree at objectively meeting this purpose.)

Still, there remains the issue of claiming the presence of material, texture and such that isn’t really there to the naked eye. This does not positively serve the public. If enjoyment of a piece requires an esoteric, educated eye, or is merely about exhibiting exceptional dance ability or aesthetic, two points arise.

1) This intent should be made very clear, so those who don’t understand the work or are not receptive to such esoterism either don’t waste their time, or realize should they attend that they’re watching work that is unclear to their perspective and should be viewed with forgiving prejudice.

2) If the goal of the work is to communicate with and impact the viewing public, the piece is probably not fulfilling its purpose, no matter how brilliant the choreography, how aesthetically appealing or otherwise beloved among the inner circles… and effort’s needed to clarify a narrative that will make the ideas and themes clear to the general public.

Raise the bar on yourselves, whether you make work or ‘review’ it. Help your art grow. Do that instead of responding to this piece with anger and personal attacks (if that’s how this leaves you feeling).

Contribution to the opening edition of STANCE

Velocity Dance Center has just released the first edition of their brand new online journal, STANCE.

I contributed to the debut edition’s Quick Draw section with a short piece on how the act and process of failure has influenced my life and in turn my work.

Give it a look, and then give the other thoughtful pieces and media in STANCE a look as well.

Vision, Creation and Composition: My Process, Defined (as best as can be)

Vanessa DeWolf, Leah Vendl and I got to talking during Velocity’s Body Book Club meetup, part of the series around AmyO’s current show.

Vanessa asked about our respective processes, what informs it. I’ll refrain from sharing Leah and Vanessa’s answers and leave it to them to share if they wish. But I found the meta-question quite difficult to answer. Those of us with a definite process easily slide into it, but struggle to itemize otherwise intuitive steps.

I vaguely recall the answer I gave on the spot, but honestly had to think about itemizing the answer some more long after that conversation ended. How would I define my process? Could I define it concretely enough to allow someone else to repeat it?

I think of my process in distinct phases: Vision, creation and composition. Many choreographers and dancers enter blank and experiment until something catches them, but for me I am frequently moved to do a piece by clear images in my mind. The journey from those images to the final product does change the piece, but vision primarily informs my work. I can’t imagine this is an original idea, and each of these phase concepts always interweave, but in each phase one of those three ideas is the main focus.

I frequently enter a project with a solid idea. Pretty much every project is inspired by a specific vision. My vision rarely, if ever, presents a complete picture of how it’s going to be. They are ideas between nebulous gaps where I may have anywhere from some idea of how to link them to absolutely no idea at all. They may be single, incomplete pictures, where I would have to completely fill in the rest of the piece from scratch. A good portion of this process takes place internally, sitting down, standing up, almost anywhere. Big ideas come to me from anywhere, from listening to a song, seeing something interesting, or just a wild-running imagination producing an out-of-nowhere image worth bringing to life. Ideas eventually strike me that I feel compelled to produce.

And that’s where the creation phase comes in. When it comes to formally defining my creation phase process, my closest approximation is Danielle Agami’s Gaga classes. Danielle frequently comes in cold turkey, and bases her class instructions on intuition, how the room feels, how she feels, what she observes, etc etc. She starts by committing to a simple choice of movement, and the class evolves from there based on observations and experience… somehow leading each class to a uniquely profound experience she has never offered before and will never offer again.

This is similar to how an improv scene would play out. Performers enter a scene with no idea (outside of a cursory suggestion or assigned format) what will happen next. Players enter the scene and immediately commit to a choice to do something, embody something, say something, become someone. Everything that happens is an offer which informs the subsequent choices of all players on stage, and the scene grows from there into a full story. Everything you do in an improv scene is truth that is honored rather than ignored or forgotten. You do this because you have to give your audience a show, everything you say and do can clearly be seen by your audience, and they will see and remember everything you do and say.

It figures that as an improv guy that Danielle’s approach would suit me. It’s the exact same way an experienced improviser approaches a live scene… except her role is clearly always defined: To constructively direct an improvisational dance class. And the student’s role is to follow her instruction and see where it goes.

I remember one session during her SFDI workshop when we were moving on the floor and she suddenly instructed, “Direct yourself, as if you were teaching this class… to yourself. Instruct your movement in a way that will eventually, naturally, get you to your feet.” This workshop had several epiphanaic moments, but this note was supremely profound. To create and develop work is in effect to direct yourself, the body being your student and your mind being your director or instructor.

In any case, during the creative phase I enter the studio, start with any one aspect or image I have in mind and start moving through it. If I have a full sequence or choreographed moment in my mind, I practice bringing it physically forth.

And this is where my body begins to offer feedback, and my inner director follows. Sometimes what I do feels great and it invites more movements, more progressions, etc. Sometimes what I have in mind isn’t feasible or do-able. Sometimes I try something I thought interesting and it’s actually quite boring, uninspiring, or doesn’t go anywhere of use. Contrary to the kid-gloves of most peer feedback sessions, I’m very blunt with myself, which pushes the process forward.

None of that is to say I immediately discard what doesn’t immediately work. Images strong enough to bring me to the studio don’t just go away or get rendered irrelevant the second they don’t immediately work to my liking. I try things again, re-try them in different ways, maybe figure that something will work with practice, adjustments or different wrinkles. Like a sculpture, this process often molds my initial ideas into something better and, most importantly, something alive and presentable to an audience.

The creation stage is not a sequential flow-chart process. It is quite nebulous: Work on a given moment or sequence could last a few seconds, or could last hours. It could invite work on building choreographed sequences, or I could leap from one item to a separate item elsewhere in the still-developing piece. And I could make these shifts at any time for any reason.

There comes a point where I have created enough solid, connectable material to build a complete piece (or I’m up against a deadline 😛 though these two points frequently fit together well), where I shift to the composition stage. In many respects I’m performing composition during the creative stage, but it is in the final stage where my process focuses not on finding key moments but putting the key moments I have developed together.

This is where my inner choreographer gets tough and decisive. This works. This does not work: Change it. If this part is not working, figure out why and make a choice: Change whatever you need to in order to make it work, or cut it and do something else. Do what it takes to put this sequence of key moments together so it makes sense. Make this piece complete. Tell a clear story or make sure everything fits together in an order that makes sense. The hardline not-taking-your-bullshit approach you’re taught to never use with your peers in an exploratory setting is the approach I take with myself.

(I would obviously be more forgiving choreographing a group, but would also have to take a more rigid, organized internal creative process to effectively prepare for directing a group. The tradeoff for being this way by myself is that I free myself to make snap decisions on the fly. Groups don’t adjust as quickly due to the communication factor, and they certainly don’t respond as well to blunt instruction.)

Whether or not my decisiveness yields the correct or best decision is not as important as my need to act decisively. If a choice for a given trouble spot is clearly sub-optimal but the most workable solution for that spot, then I go with that decision unless a superior decision presents itself. Yes, many times I made a committed choice on a spot only to later, spontaneously, accidentally discover a better choice to which I subsequently committed to action and memory. I’ve lost count of the number of these happy accidents in my solo pieces: They happen frequently and these discoveries do pepper the composition phase of my pieces.

Ultimately, if I don’t end up with a completely choreographed piece after this piece, the foundation is solid enough to inform any needed improvisation between choreographed parts.

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Meta-deciphering the path of this process took me a while. It’s mostly intuitive and a process I largely process in the moment. It is a process that has produced several pieces, is producing some more and will produce more.

P.S. How does my process work when coming back to re-work pieces? Obviously I have a largely complete work, so the vision and composition phases are mostly complete. I return to composition with much of the work already pre-made, so that can shorten or inform that phase second time around, depending on my needs and goals for the re-work.

The Vertical and The Horizontal, or ‘Expand and Advance’

Since starting the Confluence and Rebellion series with Beth Graczyk I have dwelled on occasion on the concept of the vertical versus the horizontal. Reading over text passages Beth gave me on 10/11 it started to make sense to me over the last few days not just how the vertical and horizontal concept worked but how it can apply to my work.

In improv some instructors play a development game called ‘Expand and Advance’. In duos, one player tells the other a story. Whenever the listener says ‘expand’ the speaker discusses the details of whatever topic of idea he/she has most recently brought up and keeps expanding on that point until the listener says ‘advance’, at which point the speaker can continue the narrative… until the listener says ‘expand’ again, and so on.

This is a game designed to show two sides of an improv narrative, of the present moment juxtaposed with reflection on the past to help illuminate details within the present.

Likewise, Beth brought forth the concept of pieces working within vertical and horizontal axes. The horizontal axis is the active motion in space, movement and life within a moment or narrative. The vertical axis concerns the sensual experience of the character or performer, what they think, what they feel, what they remember. The vertical axis concerns itself with reflection, while the horizontal axis concerns itself with action and direction. It is very similar to the ‘expand and advance’ improv game.

In the workshop we’ve gone on about poetry not just in text but in movement, in performance, in speaking not just from text but in how voices interact and weave together, then in how bodies and movement weave together in space. Within this poetry bodies always utilize a combination of active horizontal movement and reflective vertical movement within and without the self.

Discussing my cocaine dance piece with others, the topic came up of narrative and aesthetic clarity, of how discrepancies within the presentation of myself and my piece could contribute to discrepancies in how the piece is received. I have thought to some length about how those discrepancies could be reconciled, not necessarily cleared up but utilized, organized and perhaps woven into the context of the piece.

It is a piece that furiously moves horizontally, but is inspired in large part by vertical senses: Memories, impressions, connotations, sensations and emotions, a sort of social commentary. The piece’s horizontal movement incidentally takes places within a vertical context… like many dance pieces. You’re not literally watching a blow-by-blow breakdown… you’re watching a physically poetic narrative about what I feel the given scenario would lead one to.

My struggles to clarify the piece’s narrative may have found their answer in the horizontal and vertical axes Beth Graczyk made clear to me these last couple weeks.

Salt Horse and Exploratory Confusion

On Thursday, Studio Current began a massive series of workshops with Beth Graczyk teaching the first of four sessions of Confluence and Rebellion, ideas that her group Salt Horse has explored as well as ideas she explored with Torben Ulrich in Cacophony For 8 Players in OtB OW New Works 2012.

I’ve worked with Beth and others during Salt Horse’s Investigative Movement Practice class series at Velocity Dance Center, exploring improvisational dance through pacing and embodiment of textures and other physical qualities, among many other things. At Beth’s Studio Current session we played in the context of the longitude of sensual experience in the moment versus the latitude of physical experience of movement, through various tempos, textures, patterns, explorations of space and many, many other factors. We also played with text, reading passages in a variety of ways, paces, tones and such both solo and in duet.

If this reads like a jumble of information with little coherent connection, rest assured that is how I’ve experienced it as well. I have enjoyed the overall experience, and I’ve picked up bits and ideas through the many experiences. But there is a lot to explore, a lot to take in as you explore, even a heavy dose of reading material.

Eventually, I gather, the experience will ingrain applicable lessons that I can apply in turn to my work. Meanwhile, I await next week’s fun and adventurous journey into exploratory confusion.

Excellence pursues an ideal but does not demand perfection

Though I had hoped to write here daily, a busy and derivative 48 hours cut me off. Even today, I have key rehearsals for my piece later this afternoon as well as tomorrow morning, plus commitment to attend tonight’s Sketchfest doubleheader at Theatre Off Jackson.

My piece has undergone several shifts and changes in the last 24 hours. I went from two pieces of music, a lot of added props and a more comedic bent… to three pieces of music, virtually no props* and a more physical dance theme that, whether or not it retains any comedy, isn’t so concerned with comedy. The text that introduces my piece gets to the point more quickly. Despite making the bulk of the piece more fluid leading into these last couple rehearsals, I actually have a much stronger grasp on the piece than I did before. Though it was more choreographed, I felt less connected with what I had before.

Last night I also saw a pair of dance shows. Kate Wallich produced a piece in her trademark style called “Smoosh” for a Cornish College art party, and Alice Gosti curated a set of short dances for a show at Pink Door. Seeing these shows I was once again reminded of the abstract aesthetic focus of the average dance piece, and nervous concerns I had about my piece quickly faded away.

I realized that any solid theatrical narrative granted to my piece is more than people see (and expect to see) in most dance pieces, and though many dancers have and exhibit excellent technical skill, no one expects a 10.0 floor routine from a dance piece. The pieces I saw were at times technically brilliant and at times very raw or simple, but for the most part still engaging and fun. And that ultimately is what brings people to dance, theatre and performing art.

Because I make an effort to commit to excellence in my work, I often get too demanding of myself… to the point where I can doubt myself to death when my work is far from ideal. But people have raved about and seen the value in my work time and again when my finished product (or the product they saw) was far from an otherwise unreachable ideal.

I’m not a well trained dancer and other performers know I’m not a well trained dancer like many of them are, but that hasn’t led many of them to condemn me for it. I have to be careful not to waste any energy condemning myself, energy I should devote to building a piece that despite short time is rapidly forming and taking complete shape.

* – It’s a good thing I didn’t get past the concept point with those prop ideas and waste the money to buy them!

Can theatrical improv methods integrate with dance improv?

Dance improv’s differences with theatrical improv lie mainly in being more free form, more nebulous, more “move and see what comes of it” and avoiding a tie-in with any sort of meaning unless profoundly relevant. Sure, theatrical improv encourages freedom to play as well, but in that approach you’re expected to develop form, e.g. finding the game, accepting or “yes and”ing offers, developing character and narrative.

That said, the idea of integrating ideas from theatrical improv into dance improv still seems like uncharted territory to me. It’s far easier said than done, obviously, since both arts involve such different skillsets and mindsets. Still, as Salt Horse hosted their Investigative Movement Practices class tonight at Velocity Dance Center, I couldn’t help but look at Salt Horse’s flocking exercise and think of the improv game Flock of Seagulls.

In Flock of Seagulls the cast takes a story, usually from an audience member, and re-enacts it physically to dance music. Whoever is in front dictates the narrative movement of the performers behind them. The players don’t deviate from their standing position at any point in the exercise. Whenever everyone turns, whoever is now in front immediately becomes the leader and must seamlessly continue and evolve the physical narrative.

Other theatre and dance exercises I vaguely recall employ the flock concept of handing the leader baton off based on whoever happens to end up in front, though the example I mentioned is the only one where a story is physically told. Dance improvisation is considered an involving enough exercise without adding in the need to organize that improvisation into and around a story formed on the fly.

Still, I see possibilities. It’s difficult enough to get performers in dramatic improv to work with improv games and techniques. Asking dancers who aren’t actors to do the same is asking a lot. But evolution asks a lot. It asks you to fundamentally change who you are and how you do things. I see not a division of independent chemicals, but undiscovered country. Trepidaciously exciting country.

I realize I’m leaving a high-potential topic dangling in ending this post here, but it’s late and I should rest. Still, think about it. Talk to some improvisers and pick their brains, dancers. There might be something there. I’ll go into this some more at some point.

Gob Squad and the Rise of the Interactive Score

After hearing universal raves about the show, I finally got to see Gob Squad’s Kitchen at On the Boards last night (closing night). It was a lot of fun! I can see why people liked their lampooned simulation of creating a 60’s hipster film so much.

Along with the requisite puppeteering of audience members into the show, I particularly enjoyed Gob Squad’s use of video feeds to perform the show as a faux-conversation with the audience in a closed circuit fashion. We were completely detached from the action and yet acutely attached.

Between this, Turbulence and other recent shows I’m seeing a marked trend in theatre and dance towards the *interactive score*, where rather than a scripted or choreographed show the production works through a series of beats: Not only do performers improvise between them but also physically involve the audience in the show. It’s loosely similar to how a short form improv show goes, but more nebulously structured and more engaging of the audience than patronizing them for mere topics.

Authority figures of the incumbent performing arts community fear this kind of change, because an evolved world where these shows are the norm renders playwrights, or authoritarians like directors and choreographers who worked their lives to climb to the top of their societies, obsolete. Everyone in this evolved world can be involved in the artistic process of authoring a show, rather than being told how to be involved. In fact, given that I’m sure many performers would be scared as well, because in such a reality they must be innovative rather than just skilled at their given trade. And, much as it chagrins me to admit this, a lot of dancers and actors aren’t particularly creative outside of playing their roles with a flourish. Those who cannot be creative would also be rendered obsolete, no matter how excellent their trained skill.

True art is never meant to be hierarchical any damn way. This is a big reason progressive workshops and classes are emphasizing a sense of play and freedom. This is the direction our culture is going. The days of dog and ponying your way into a production and merely doing what you’re told are slowly dimming. Play the game, and get left behind. Or follow the path of innovation and join us in the future.