To dance academies – Junior Senior teaching project / To Improivsation Festivals – What is the point at this point


Junior – senior teaching project – Katie Duck

In 2006-7 Katie Duck was asked to conduct a course for junior teachers within the AHKhoogeSchool voor de Kunsten within the department of choreography SNDD (School for New dance development) in the Netherlands. This project was initiated by Gabriel Smeets (head of the SNDD) and funded by the AHK in order to allow for young teachers to take advantage of senior teacher’s experience within specific subject studies in their dance academy. Katie was asked to work under the subject area Improvisation. This is her concluding essay.

Dance academies within courses or departments generally offer studies within three subjects’ areas: technique, theory and composition. When I was asked to monitor the teaching methods of junior teachers using Improvisation as a subject area I asked:

Is improvisation a subject?
Why are we adding this as a subject when in fact the three major subject study areas are sufficient?
Why now is improvisation being placed alongside these precise study areas?
Can improvisation as subject place an aim and objective and criteria in as clear and specific enough way as the three major areas of study?
Can we evaluate and assess a student’s progression within improvisation as a subject of study or can a student be told that they are doing good or poorly within the subject of improvisation?

In the junior – senior teaching project I found that each teacher had unique and clear aims and objectives for what it is they teach. What they shared in common was that their aims and objectives were aligned with contemporary values within the field of dance. In order to address contemporary values, the junior teachers were seeking to place their teaching within methodologies that allowed for practice in open time frames that are not classical or traditional, described by the title “improvisation”. They were motivated to choose open time frames as methodologies in order to produce experimental, live or spontaneous practice from students in their classes. The demand on the student to conduct their practice within open time frames and to exhibit an ability to spontaneously invent movement can be reflected by most of our contemporary choreographers and dance makers such as Merce Cunningham, Pina Bausch and more recently Bill Forsyth and in art movements like Contact Dance.

In the works of Pina Bausch she asks that her dancers invent movement within her rehearsal processes and then composes these inventions within her choreography’s. Bill Forsyth asks that his dancers refine their technique by experimenting with open time/space frames such as the 9 point system. He also uses open time frames to develop movement material within his rehearsal processes and further, in some of his works, he integrates open time frames within the compositions of his choreography. Most choreographers today are integrating open time frames as part of their process within rehearsals and in their choreography’s out of an interest to provide a platform for dancers to expand their dance training toward movement invention and to promote real time activity within a performance space. These tendencies can be traced back to the 1940’s when Merce Cunningham, in his collaborations with John Cage, produced music and dance scores using triggers and chance procedures. The development of chance procedures is now well established in how we create both music composition and choreography today. An over-whelming amount of studios all over the world have been affected by Contact Dance teachers as both a technique and an approach for gathering dancers in studios. Contact teachers seem to have made it their mission to change how we think about dance and dancing. It has reached such a broad international base of dancers to date that it is impossible now to not include it alongside any of our classical or traditional training methods. As well as it being part of our “normal” studies in dance, Contact Dance as an movement has altered the way we consider dance as part of our social activity’s in lifestyle.

The junior teachers showed a clear need to up date methods of practice for both technique and composition using theoretical materials out of their own research and experiences within the professional field of dance. They have been categorized within a subject titled improvisation; however, their teaching materials are exactly aimed toward exploring technical training, composition and choreography procedures with clear historical and theoretical premises. Finally, the demand for the junior teacher from me was to integrate their research and develop their methodologies. It was not to refine the teaching of improvisation as a subject title.

Under the definitions of the word improvisation and within this period of conducting a course for young teachers, I have concluded that you cannot assess improvisation as a subject; you cannot assess a student as doing improvisation well or poorly. The aims, objectives and criteria the junior teachers produced in their work fit clearly within the already established academic studies of composition, technique and theory. For example in the essay by junior teacher Kyungsun Beak (originally from Seoul, Korea and now a resident artist in the Netherlands’s) she states:

“As a methodology I use a frame called “Perspective Dynamics”. I see it as to help students to become aware of the changing patterns in the mind and the body systems. I am influenced by ‘four quadrant’ by Dylan Newcomb. (‘Four Quadrant’ based on Integral Spirituality, Integral Psychology, No boundary by Ken Wilber – Spiral Dynamics by Don Edward Beck and Christopher C. Cowan, I-Ching)”

Kyungsun’s references reflect how dance studies are presently integrating with studies by physiologists and neurologists (brain studies) and her intention to promote a student to use their intuition as part of their practice in dance technique alongside the invention of movement. Kyungsun states in the opening paragraph of her essay:

“I am stimulated by how a moment brings into consideration an individual’s positioning into one’s surrounding and feeling. How we can apply this to extend and deepen our own movement possibilities and how we can use this as playful performers.”

Improvisation is her over-all approach or how the subjects of technique, theory and composition could be taught. Her teaching materials are specific in how it can eventually be placed within the assessment criteria of a student. The junior teachers are addressing contemporary art practices and contemporary lifestyle in how they have developed methodologies. However, their ingenuity with methodology does not qualify the invention of a separate subject for study.

It occurred to me that the placement of improvisation as a subject title within the dance academies could be marginalizing the contemporary aims and objectives the junior teachers were showing me by separating that practice from the main academic studies. Marginalizing innovative practices by using “catch words” is common in other fields. Robert Ornstein writes in The Psychology of consciousness “There is a tendency in Psychology to use catch words in labeling the fields of social, clinical educational, or industrial as applied fields of psychology and to separate them from the more traditional experimental psychology. Any division is absurd unless the person who uses it consciously reserves it for rough descriptive purposes. Investigators in these fields must of course rely on experiments. But, beyond that, any such distinction acts as a deterrent in the search for more adequate formulations which will better account for human behavior, whether in the laboratory, the clinic, the factory, or in every day social life.

The use of a subject titled improvisation with a diversity of aims and objectives placed into it could create confusion for the student because it could appear as if what that teacher is teaching as improvisation is placed aside and away from the “normal” practices of dance. It also places the student in a position where they place effort on trying to be good at something which cannot be achieved. Numerous teaching methods can be offered to them which reflect the practice of improvisation however I believe that these methods need to promote their studies in the three main academic areas so that they have a clear aim toward learning the subject involved. The three subjects can merge within a classroom, for example, composition or technique can be accompanied by theoretical lecture alongside the practice of the study areas. The student needs to be able to self-assess their progression alongside the assessment criteria of that subject. Without a clear criteria as to how a subject is assessed the student can spend a great deal of time trying to figure out how to self-assess within the subject title rather than place rigor in the practice they are offered in a class.

I am questioning if in academies of dance in Europe, England, the USA and Asia who define their pedagogies as experimental, contemporary or modern or new place improvisation as a separate subject title in order to avoid having to re address their courses and departments. Are the academies seeking a means to retain or conserve classical or traditional methodologies for the three main subject studies by inventing a new subject called improvisation? I see no reason why classical or traditional methodologies cannot be practiced side by side with contemporary methodologies in the three basic subject areas. Is it not the student’s aim to research and learn and the teacher’s aim to research and learn and teach? This procedure can only take place if it is the academies aim is to provide an education which aligns the student within an assessment process under a clearly defined pedagogy.

I have concluded that the academies of dance are making an attempt to bring their courses and departments up to date with contemporary lifestyle and art practices by claiming improvisation as a subject title. However, at this present time, the invention of a subject away from the three main subject areas of study does not help to clarify for the student what they are supposed to be studying and why because it can confuse the student and appear to marginalize up to date methodologies from classical and traditional methodologies. It is possible that the academies are not yet prepared to re think their methodologies due to the qualifications available to them within their staffs. It is possible that recourses have not been made available to them so that they have to invent subject titles for teachers who are qualified to use up to date methodologies and practices. The danger is that this use of ‘catch word” titles could be interrupted as a fear for change; a means to conserve rather than to grow with the times we live in. This finally is reflected as the students enter the professional field of dance. The dance academies have a profound impact on how the profession of dance is able to stay in tuned with contemporary societies.

I have been categorized under the title improvisation over the past 20 years by my own admission. For this reason I was asked to monitor junior teachers under the subject title improvisation. I claimed this title as a means to express my artistic aims and objectives. However, my artistic aims and objectives have never been and could never be improvisation. Improvisation was a “catch term” introduced to me in the mid 1970’s which suited my potential to produce work but it never suited my artistic voice. My artistic aims are based on contemporary developments within communication devises and brain studies and how this has affected our societies to date. Intellectually, I have never been comfortable with the title improvisation as my artistic aim with publics or in my teaching with students.

I am now determined for the junior teachers I have been working with in this project and for the students who are now entering dance academies to clarify how contemporary methodologies have been marginalized by using the “catch word” title -improvisation. I admit to promoting and working under this title as a means to claim a position for my aims and objectives within the professional field of dance and within dance academies so that intellectual inquiries and practical methodologies which are not classical or traditional could be incorporated. But that was over 20 years ago to date. Now it is time to allow for conservative resistance to be stopped in both the professional field of dance and the dance academies so that the genetic drift of our student bodies have opportunity to place their artistic aims toward publics without having to deal with being categorized by “catch word” titles.

If you were to ask someone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness what it is they would like more than anything in the world they will tell you “to not be categorized under titles which bundle their individual diagnostic tendencies as a single illness and most of all to be treated and considered as normal”. I feel that those artists and teachers who are working under the subject title improvisation are prepared to join the normal practices and intellectual inquiries established within the field of dance and the dance academies. It is time to recognize that methodologies that were once considered to be a kind of madness categorized by the title improvisation have now broken the boundaries of what we formally considered to be sane.

Improvisation festivals – what is the point at this point?

Improvisation has become a “catch-all” term in both the profession and the academies of dance. Improvisation has been placed within dance departments as a subject with aims and objectives. Some of these aims are more suited in the subjects of technique and choreography. Some of the aims are more suited for sociological or even theological context. Why has this word improvisation been made subject?

This use of improvisation as subject with a diversity of aims and objectives tossed into it has created a situation where improvisation means nothing. It creates a situation where it can be tossed aside…. away from the “normal” practices of dance, art in general, lifestyle and confuses how we communicate.

Improvisation is not a subject with aims and objectives…it is pedagogy.

This is not the fault of the dancers, dance makers or the people who want to use dance as a means to gather. It is the fault of the dance institutions, critics, dramaturges and academics that have not gotten the message that improvisation is the methodology we have evolved to and either they have to learn to swim or get out of the water!

The institutions place improvisation as a subject with a mix of aims-objectives in order to protect their economic structures, their class systems, their ever so tired aesthetic values – those of which have recently dwindled to pedophile standards and abusive behavior.

The idea to divide the routes (history) of an improvisation festival from the spring cleaning of the new views could be useful if there is a perspective on the continuum as to what has been accomplished by the use of the term improvisation as festival.

Does the festival celebrate change in our lifestyles and therefore the art we make? Has it represented change in arts economic structures? Is it now an institution trying madly to squeeze a mix of aims and objectives placed in a frustrating democratic ideology? As an institution, has the festival become the subject?

Consider the internet…….consider feminism…..consider new neurology…consider physics….. consider contemporary philosophy…….consider economics in art (improvisation is not expensive and it does not look expensive)……fantastic for artists…….a nightmare for funding bodies and academics……because they would have the need to change.

Improvisation is in every aspect of our lifestyles. Placed as subject or title with aims and objectives is an isolation exercise for those who fear change. That is the danger. Do not allow the boogie men to isolate the word as subject.

You see the bear…do you feel fear and therefore feel like running…do you feel like running and then feel the fear….you remember you have been told not to run…or to look the bear in the eyes….fuck it……. …hug the bear!

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