Improvise or Else?Author: João da Silva
Improvisation is the art of composing and performing extempore, that is, without planning or preparation, in the spur of the moment. It is often associated with the production of novelty, uniqueness, which is to say, of that which was not previously known. However, in order for this out-of-time1 character of improvisation (the unknown) to be communicated with others it must in one way or another be captured within a system of known (shared) conventions, such as pre-existing codes, norms and laws of language, including those of the medium itself. Because of its extempore nature improvisation is, paradoxically, dependent on an economy of time for its recognition, sharing and even legitimation.
The new or unique arising out of improvisation must always already emerge, at least partially, from the known. It can thus never be entirely new or out of time. This is perhaps the reason why Jacques Derrida has said in an unpublished interview (1982) that he believed in improvisation and fought for it, but always with the belief that to improvise is the most difficult thing to do, that it is impossible.
Derrida seems to have conceived improvisation from a view of life in its finitude, the boundary of which could be said to be death, of and beyond which one will never be able to know anything. One could arguably say that for Derrida the time of death, a time out of time, is the time of improvisation par excellence, death arguably being the only time about which we know nothing, a sort of absolute unknown, which we may be able to fantasize or speculate about but that we cannot describe or predict.
Hélène Cixous—by means of her écriture féminine2—seems, unlike Derrida, to believe in the life-affirming possibility of improvisation, though she is well aware of the extremely difficult task of dismantling or getting outside of the known codes of language because as she herself says ‘we are all born into language (…) and so there is nothing to be done, except to shake them like apple trees all the time’ (Sellers, 1994, p.xxix cited in Ramshaw, 2008, p.167).
In their book Live Theory, an introduction to the work of Hélène Cixous (2004), Blyth and Sellers write that in invention one needs to encounter that which is other and in order for one to allow for the abundant presence of that which is other ‘it is necessary to risk losing the self, to immerse oneself fully, willingly, possibly irrevocably into the unknown’ (p.32). What do they possibly mean? Is the difference between Cixous and Derrida, between the possibility and the impossibility of improvisation, to be found in the actual action of ‘shaking the apple trees’ of what we know, in Cixous’ insistence in being (writing) the present, in an insistence on giving time to time (Ramshaw, 2008, p.167), on disregarding linear or logic continuities between life and death, past and future, old and new? What is invention?
I propose that invention, in contrast to innovation, is that which cannot properly enter an economy of exchange, whose position in the world is uncertain and as such it offers no guarantees as to profits or returns. It is a mode of creation that produces a difference in the milieu it exists in, a capital so to say that is more than being different or more than. It produces a difference that matters, in qualitative and affective terms.
In invention moreover one meets the other—that what is different, strange or unfamiliar—without fear, need for appropriation or demand for something in return. Thus, risking to lose oneself, by challenging tradition, or risking the unknown (which could be equated with death in my reading of Derrida’s relation to the impossibility of improvisation) could also imply a risk of—in the intimate encounter with that which is other, strange or unfamiliar—becoming not only largely known but also like the other. In this scenario difference as such disappears, it becomes homogenized, smoothened out.
On the basis of the above meanderings, in this article I suggest that dance improvisation has, up to the nineties, historically been consistently perceived as the other of set choreography, unsettling it in such a way that, on the one hand, without notions of set choreography and their norms of style and composition, there would be no improvisation, and consequently no risk-taking either, and on the other, without improvisation there would be no new forms or ideas of choreography. However, what about the time after the nineties? What has happened to dance improvisation and its unsettling relation to set choreography? Have their differences become ironed out? Have improvisational practices, in all its various denominations and agendas, become the flagship of innovative practices in neoliberal capitalism?3
If the differences between improvisation and choreography have disappeared, or, as is implicit in the questions I am asking above, become insignificant so that differences do not make a difference that matters, can we still speak of risk being taken in dance, in particular by means of improvisation?
A brief historical account of improvisation
Improvisational techniques in the arts, from the eighteenth century onwards, have often been employed in efforts to resist or unsettle the establishment and its high-art forms and norms of composition. Artists who have used these techniques, in one way or another, have consistently and voluntarily ‘failed’ to perform according to the rules and norms of the establishment and in ‘failing’ to perform they have succeeded, in a way or another, to contribute to the expansion of the range of what is or would be possible to do and think within and beyond disciplinary bounds. They have shaken the apple trees, Cixous would say. Timothy McGee, professor emeritus of the University of Toronto, Faculty of Music, whose main research area is performance practices from 900 to 1800 posits that until the end of the eighteenth century, from the Middle Ages and through to the Renaissance, the idea of improvisation was basic to the concept of the performing arts (McGee, 2003, p.xi). According to him in this period, with the advent of the professionalization of the performer and her claim to stardom ‘performance was no longer an instrument for the execution of previously conceived art but itself art of the highest caliber, equal and possibly superior to composition’(p.7)4. The performer was moreover in
possession of a vocabulary and of a grammar of direct composition that enabled her to generate coherent text in the act of the performance itself, and therefore outside the range of control by other interested parties such as composers, playwrights, and authorities. (p.7)5
In dance, as in music and drama, the ‘fluency of improvisation was never a matter of free and spontaneous exuberance but always a matter of disciplined movement within the limits demarcating the range of creative legitimacy available to the performer’ (p.19). The context of the work and what the work invited, allowed, resisted or endured were thus crucial.
By the end of the eighteenth century however, the practice of improvisation met resistance and lost popularity. Significant in the decline of improvisation was the development of what Frost and Yarrow (1990) identified as the ‘plush and decorous theatre space in the eighteenth century and the rise of the director, who tended to impose and teach rather than allow for the creativity of the performer’ (in Smith and Dean, 1997, p.11). Later on, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, improvisation importantly became ‘susceptible of independent development at a pace and in a direction determined chiefly by the changing aesthetic relationship of performance to notation’ (McGee, 2003, p.2). This attitude had also to do with a culture that, still with McGee, valued written words more than spoken ones, written texts above physical enactment, compositions above live performances, concepts above designs, and designs above the objects that embody them (p.2). Here one can say that the divide improvisation-composition is clearly installed: what was earlier a holistic approach to what constituted a good performance became an approach in which compositon was privileged over improvisation. An intermission though occurred before the emergence of Surrealism, Dada and Futurism in the early twentieth century. Dada performances at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich during the First World War often involved improvisation, and so did Surrealism and Futurism, all of which courted concepts of chance and indeterminacy which can abut in improvisatory modes (Smith and Dean, 1997 p.11-2).
By the late forties and the whole of the fifties, in the years after the Second World War, there was much discussion about how to keep within art products (finished, fully composed works) the spontaneity, and the feeling of freedom or openess associated with it, in the process leading to products. Then, radical—in the sense of rare—was a dance performance that allowed for improvisation, that is, for real-time choice making in performance (O’Donnell, 2004). Among those artists whose work included this interest and whose ideas helped define what Belgrad (1998) calls a ‘Culture of Spontaneity’6 were the artists of enclaves such as Black Mountain College in North Carolina, the bohemians of North Beach, San Francisco, and Greenwich Village in New York City. However, even though the ‘Culture of Spontaneity’ and its techniques of improvisation instilled in the forties and fifties—with its skepticism towards the mental atrophies engendered by the homogenization of high art—it had already in the fifties and well into the sixties been ‘significantly recast as it was popularized, politicized, and rebelled against’ (Belgrad, p.249). Robert Rauschenberg, for instance, ‘had come to suspect the emotionalism, philosophizing, and “projecting of the unconscious onto canvas” (p.251). John Cage used a ‘variety of methods to circumvent any conscious or unconscious communication of his own subjectivity through music’ (p.253).
In his article Improvisation in Dance, published in early 2000 Curtis Carter posits that
after a half a century of competing visions for avant-garde modern dance culminating in a galaxy of stars, each with a unique system of movement and performance—Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and a host of others who formed their own companies to pursue their respective theories and techniques of dance—the climate was in the 60’s ready for more open-textured explorations of dance movement. (p.182)
Indeed, in the early sixties the Judson Church revolution was born and with it what Sally Banes (1981) called the ‘seedbed for post-modern dance, the first avant-guarde movement in dance theatre since the modern dance’ (p.99). It led to the possibility of dance performance of so called de-codified, or pedestrian, ordinary movements. Typical of the work of choreographers associated with Judson was the repetition of a situational movement or game-like structure that could last either for a specific period of time or for a time determined live during the performance, until it seemed to be completed. Steve Paxton, for instance, ‘walked on stage, and very slowly put on a jacket, and then left’ (O’Donnell, 2005, p.2). Most of these artists, well acquainted with the canon of Modern Dance, rejected its confines, its ‘excessive psychologism, emotional dramas and social literalism’ (Banes, 1981, p.106), not necessarily though by making new rules as the early modern dancers did. Examplary of this, Robert Dunn’s interdisciplinary and ecclectic classes encouraged
inventive scores, in the belief that laying out chance or other intuitive possibilities and determining materials and spatial considerations in advance were ways of generating improvisation free of old habits and premeditated solutions. (Reynolds and McCormick, 2003, p.397)
Susan Foster (2002) describes a good deal of dance made in the sixties and seventies as events whose artists also ‘worked hard to kill the choreogapher and empower the audience. Their dances took theatrical space as conventionally conceived and opened it up, moved it around, or brought it down’ (p.127).
By the eighties, the ordinary, democratic, pedestrian body brought to light in the sixties began to be reassessed. Given the proliferation of approaches to choreography generated by so many independent choreographers in the seventies and eighties, by the eighties the teaching of choreography (dance composition) appeared in one of two hybrid forms, as in improvisation-composition and composition repertory.
Indeed, Ramsay Burt, writing about the influence of the Judson tradition at the end of the twentieth century and the start of the current, observes that within a younger generation of choreographers in the nineties there was a strong interest in the ‘new’ dance of the sixties and seventies. He mentions the works of the French-based group Quattor Albrecht Knust, which included Christophe Wavelet, Jerome Bell, Boris Charmatz, Emanuelle Huyn, and Xavier Le Roy, who performed ‘re-readings’ of Steve Paxton’s Satisfying Lover (1967) and Yvonne Rainer’s Continuous Project Altered Daily (1970) (Burt, 2006, p.186). He also writes, quoting Andre Lepecki, that these dance makers have taken the ideas of the sixties and seventies in radical directions, namely
a distrust of representation, a suspicion of virtuosity as an end, the reduction of unessential props and scenic elements, an insistence on the dancer’s presence, a deep dialogue with the visual arts and with performance art, a politics informed by a critique of visuality, and a deep dialogue with performance theory. (Lepecki in Burt, 2006, p.193-4)
This could be argued to be the time when improvisation as one usually knows it and its techniques lost some of its prominance or impact in the sense of it no longer explicitly being seen as an ‘other’, or as a threat to composition. Its edges became smoothened. An examplary indication of this is the fact that as of the mid-late nineties a number of improvisational methods have been developed by practitioners that understood and experienced improvisation itself as a form of composition. Including the term composition itself or notions that directly allude to processes of formation in the names of their practice unsettled, at least at the level of dissemination, often by means of teaching, the usual assumptions regarding the differences between improvisation and composition. Some examples worth noting are choreographers Mary O’Donnell’s Open-Form Composition, João Fiadeiro’s Real Time Composition, Susan Sgorbati’s Emergent Improvisation, Nina Martin’s Ensemble Thinking, Richard Bull’s Choreographic Improvisation and Ivar Hagendoorn’s Cognitive Improvisation. A large number of other practitioners also name their practice Spontaneous or Instant Composition7.
From the above it becomes clear that in the nineties improvisation and set choreography in dance are no longer in a clear-cut relation of antagonism. Both agencies, in their plural manifestations, have become to a good extent intertwined, co-dependant, and the aesthetic of spontaneity and the improvisatory techniques that have helped produce it an integral part of the mainstream culture. Stefan Hölscher (2013) for instance rightly notices that Friederike Lampert in her PhD thesis (2007) very clearly differentiates between several degrees of improvisation, but that she also points out that there is no pure improvisation, as, I would add, there would be no pure composition either. There would be only more or less improvisation (or composition). Hölscher thinks that Lampert’s thesis proves that improvisation is problematic because it insistently remains virtually linked to the choreographers, who select and combine the material to be used in performance, while the dancers can make no aesthetic asessment of the forms they themselves generate and have no influence on the arrangement of what they produce either (p.240).8
Improvise or else?
Jon McKenzie in his book Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance (2001) asks what performance is and identifies three kinds of performance at work in contemporary culture, namely cultural, organizational and technological. All of these probe and valorize norms (p. 132) but each poses a particular challenge or demand. In cultural performance the challenge of efficacy, in organizational performance that of efficiency and in technological performance that of effectiveness. According to him, in the specific case of cultural performance, ‘performance emerges as the efficacy of certain activities capable of challenging of social norms and symbolic structures’ (p.38). A failure to perform, in this case, can result in either becoming or maintaining the norm or worse perhaps, invisible, inoperative. McKenzie claims performance has, from the Second World War onwards, been replacing discipline as the paradigmatic formation of power and knowledge.
If we follow the brief historical outline I presented earlier in this paper and if we agree with Sayre’s (2003) reading of McKenzie when he posits that ‘if performance is assimilated into the mainstream it loses its critical power’ (p. 200), we could perhaps come to the conclusion that improvisation in dance, having arguably been to a great extent assimilated into the mainstream, fails to perform its traditional role of exercising critique, of being one of the main motors behind renewal, and of thinking outside the box because nowadays thinking outside the box has itself ‘ironically become a cliché’ (p. 202), as found for instance in the current rhetoric of innovation and the pressure to accordingly perform (that is, to innovate).
There is so much more to knowing than its two (unachievable) ideal limits: the known and the unknown. The known, at its extreme modulation, suggests an (over) confidence and certainty of one already fully knowing something and its future. The unknown, on the contrary, suggests that one will never be able to know anything and its future at all. On the one hand there is no space for surprises. On the other one is simply overwhelmed and is left at the mercy of pure chance or fate. What is common to both can be thought of as a certain inability to act, a paralysis, which is not only antithetical to inventive practices; it is also devoid of any risk-taking that matters whatsoever, that is, risks that when taken either bring to light or substantially challenge what a particular work dramaturgically endures, invites but also demands and so open the space for the production of a qualitative and affective difference for performer and audience alike, differences often associated with issues of self under or over exposure, of failure to perform according to expectations and of loss or excess of control.
My experience as a dancer of both improvisation and set choreography leads me to think that the unknown alluded to by Blyth and Sellers and acknowledged by both Cixous and Derrida is, in professional practice, very hard to encounter. In the going after the difficult or perhaps impossible-to-find unknown most dancing actually takes place in a space that is marked by feelings and thoughts of both distance and intimacy, knowing and not knowing and not of an absolute known or unknown. Deciding to bypass what one knows, momentarily, or deciding not to decide according to what one consciously knows, produces a kind of knowing that is not devoid of knowledge, it is not ignorant so to say. It is rather a kind of knowing that is open, in the sense of being a knowing that things can change, that decisions could be otherwise. Hence, I propose that in improvisation9, it is how one handles this open knowing what actually determines whether risks that matter, as briefly mentioned above, are taken or not. For example, obliviously and exclusively relying on that which one knows (by habit, fear or extensive rehearsal) will most likely not fully expose nor challenge any borders, neither one’s own nor of the group. This puts the work at the risk of becoming dull, opaque, domesticated, in the sense that its improvisatory potential (of going after the unknown, strange or unfamiliar) will remain unexplored.
Improvisation can thus be said to be both impossible and affirming. Impossible because the absolute unknown is arguably not to be achieved in life and affirmative because—in its arguable impossibility—one must keep, in living, shaking the trees of what one knows, and so meet the other without fear, need for appropriation or demand for something in return.
Performance of Risk in Dance Improvisation (working title)
In my PhD project I investigate the nature of risk taken in group improvisation and how this (risk-taking) is related to ‘knowing’. I challenge the widely accepted view that in improvisation one takes risks because, not having prepared or planned what to do beforehand, one does not know what will happen. My research is based on an examination of a selection of choreographies of American Mary O’Donnell and Brazilian Lia Rodrigues.
Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Maaike Bleeker, Theater Studies, Utrecht University
Planned completion: 2016
1 I am here playing with the literal meaning of extempore (having no time) and the idea of one being outside of time.
2 Cixous’s écriture féminine project recognizes that Western thought has been determined by an endless series of binary oppositions, which for her always come down to the ‘man-woman’ one, with man being privileged over woman. Écriture féminine thus aims to create a ‘feminine’ way of writing, a language that attempts to subvert the privileging of both logo and phallo-centrism.
3 Improvisation is often described as a practice that requires a number of skills, such as the ability to collaborate, communicate clearly, attend, when appropriate, to the need of others on stage, to respond in spontaneous and authentic ways, be flexible, versatile, mobile. All of these attributes are also the ideal attributes required in neoliberal capitalism. This may perhaps explain why improvisation in the last fifteen years has lost tract outside the mainstream.
4 McGee further explains: ‘This is a period in which a new social division of labor caused the middle class to advance to a position of dominance in intellectual and artistic life and in which the professions that have come down to us (…) were founded and allowed to grow in adherence to the logic of their own technical development while responding to the trends in the middle class markets of Europe and to the preferences of aristocratic patrons. In the sphere of the arts, these changes are traceable through the emergence and history of the entertainment industry, the chief distinctive features of which were the discovery of the commercial value of artistic entertainment, the professionalization of the performers and their rise to stardom. The chief force behind this rise, which saw the transformation of medieval minstrels, tumblers, and mimes into the celebrated virtuosos of music, dance, and drama, was virtuosic improvisation’ (McGee, 2003, p4-5).
5 For the censors of the Counter Reformation improvisation was more than a strategy for the avoidance of ideological screening. This is especially evident in the case of Commedia dell‘arte. Soon after the appearance of the first companies in the early decades of the Counter Reformation, religious authority denounced Commedia because its texts, being only performance texts could not be screened for orthodoxy and propriety prior to the production itself (McGee, 2003, p22).
6 The title of Belgrad’s book plays on the word ‘culture’ to suggest ‘cultivation’ and the paradox that spontaneity improves with practice, and thus is also reliant on skill and technique. Improvisation for Belgrade works in opposition to mass culture, corporate liberalism and the established high art of the post-Second World War period and it embraces body-mind holism and intersubjectivity as non authoritarian, democratic ways of being together. These have undoubtedly contributed to the project of democratization in the arts, also in dance, of the sixties.
7 Even though already in the sixties improvisation was called in a number of different ways, depending on how different artists understood it, such as ‘indeterminate choreography’, ‘open choreography’, ‘situation-response composition’, ‘in situ composition’, ‘spontaneous determination’ (Banes, 2003 p.78) choreography and improvisation were still largely distinct and employed in particular niches, not as widespread as since the nineties.
8 This is an interesting but limited view on improvisation, as it departs form the premise that in all improvisation dancers have no aesthetic and compositional agency in performance. The two cases of my PhD (O’Donnell and Rodrigues) are such cases.
9 I am here referring to large group works that include improvisation but are highly structured and whose dramaturgy is close. For details see my previous article for Danswetenschap in Nederland volume 7, p.115-120.
- Banes, S. (2003). Spontaneous Combustion: Notes on dance Improvisation from the Sixties to the Nineties. In: A. C. Albright and D. Gere (eds). Taken by Surprise: A dance Improvisation Reader.
- Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, pp. 77-88
- Belgrad, Daniel (1998). The ‘Culture of Spontaneity’. Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
- Blyth, I. and S. Sellers. (2004). Helene Cixous: Live Theory, New York, London: Continuum
- Burt, Ramsay. (2006). Judson Dance Theater: Performative Traces. London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group
- Derrida, J. (1982). Unpublished Interview. [Online]. [Accessed 22nd May 2014]. Available from World Wide Web:
- Foster, S. L. (2002). Walking and Other Choreographic Tactics: Danced Inventions of Theatricality and Performativity. SubStance #98/99, vol. 31, nos. 2 & 3
- Frost, A. and R, Yarrow. (1990/2007). Improvisation in Drama. New York, London: Palgrave Mcmillan Hölscher, S. (2013). Vermögende Körper: Zeitgenössischer Tanz zwischen Ästhetik und Biopolitik. PhD thesis (unpublished). Gießen: Justus-Liebig-Universität
- McGee, Timothy (ed). (2003). Improvisation in the Arts in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Michigan: Western Michigan University
- McKenzie, J. (2001). Performance or Else: From Discipline to Performance. London:Routledge
- O’Donnell, M. (2004). Release. From Body to Spirit, Seven Zones of Comprehension Coming from the Practice of Dance (Hampshire, UK: Dance Books Ltd.). Available from World Wide Web:
- Ramshaw, S. (2008). Time out of Time: Derrida, Cixous, Improvisation. New Sound, vol. 32, pp.162-175. Available from World Wide Web:
- Reynolds, N. and M. McCormick. (2003). No Fixed Points. Dance in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, UK: Yale University
- Sayre, H.M. (2003). Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance (review). Modernism/modernity, Vol. 10, Number 1, January 2003, pp. 200-202
- Silva, J. da (2010). O’Donnell’s ‘Open-Form Composition’ (‘OFC’): A Possible Stance to Abridge the Divide Improvisation-Composition in Dance? Utrecht University: Master Thesis
- Smith, H. and R. Dean. (1997). Improvisation Hypermedia and the Arts since 1945. London: Routledge