Interview / Montreal, Canada / Tangent article
What is special about the way you approach improv?
I came to Europe after my education at the University of Utah Modern Dance Department so I could work within the European Improvisation Music field. I based in New York after I left University in 1974 and then in Amsterdam 1975-79, Italy 1979-86, England 1986-91 and again Amsterdam 1991-2000. I have performed all over the world. I imagine it is unique that I am an artist who has based in so many places and that I have had opportunity to perform in many different cultures. I am nomadic.
Besides my own company and solo work, I have participated in many improvised performances with musicians over the past 25 years and that base of work is probably unique for a dance artist. The musicians I have worked with use text as part of their work, in the way that a song has lyric or an opera has libretto.
I can say that my work has a hybrid approach for collaborating text, music and dance within the frame of an improvisation performance. I developed and shared this approach with European musician Tristan Honsinger (cello and composer). I do not know if the word ‘special’ is appropriate. I leave that to you and the public after the performances in Montreal.
Who has been a significant source of inspiration/influence for you in improv?
I was influenced by the work of John Cage and Merce Cunningham when I studied dance in the early 1970’s. I was influenced by the way Cunningham was able to change the theater space from an arena to a room or large building, I was influenced by John Cage’s intensity of ear as music. And I was influenced by the way they both worked with chance as a composition structure and the complexity it introduced (non-Linear) I was also impressed with how ‘chance’ as structure led to collaborations by the artists and their respective art fields.
I did not join the 80’s notion that as dancers we had stopped dancing to music. John Cage did make music and Cunningham found the dance for that music. I love John Cage’s music as music. I can give a chronological order of influences:
Jimmy Hendrix (guitar solos and the electronics)
Isadora Duncan (introducing body esthetics, physical sciences and feminism to dance)
Bach (counter point, linear designs, and complexity)
John Cage (silence, chance structures, non-linear, complexity. Note: He hated improv!)
Derek Bailey (European improvisation music and arts collaborations in ensembles with no scores)
Mischa Mengelberg (European Improvisation music ensemble work with scores) Steve Paxton (Researcher for dance in relationship to the physical sciences and his career as a dance artist)
What is special about improv for you?
Improvisation implies (by structure) that there is choice.
In a Cage music composition, he leaves ‘time’ to the choice of the musicians and sets the melodic and /or sound areas. In a Cunnigham choreography he leaves space direction and the order of the movement combinations to the choice of dancers and sets the movement and movement phrases. Some composers and choreographers may create an order of events by way of cues but leave the timing or the movement or the movement phrases to choice. Some may set the movement and leave the order or the phrases to choice. Choice is how we can create moments of ‘chance’. If there are no choices in a piece given to the artist or artists then the relativity that ‘chance’ implies can not happen.
My special interest in improvisation is that my esthetic is ‘chance’. It is what I love to see in a piece of work, it is what I find beautiful. The paradox here is that I do not want to communicate ‘choice’ as an esthetic. I want to communicate ‘chance’ as an esthetic. But, I can not have ‘chance’ without ‘choice’.
It has been an interesting paradox that has kept me curious and busy for the past 25 years and that is why improvisation is special for me. I made one-hour pieces for my company GROUPO (1980’s) that appeared as if they were in ‘chance’. My pieces were set in complicated choreography structures that, when performed, ‘appeared’ as if they were done out of chance. It was an interesting period but tedious. Tedious in that it took a long rehearsal period to get the dance artists tuned to the structures so it would look as if they were making choices, and tedious in that I felt (eventually) that I was doing the ‘appearance’ of my esthetic and not actually my esthetic. I decided to form MAGPIE (dancers, musicians and a light technician) and allow for the performances to be improvised, (No order no sequences), so that the esthetic we would communicate would be reflective of what we were actually doing. I had already worked with musicians in this way and MAGPIE was the next step for me to involve dance in this way.
I am not a dancer who has ever taken the point of view that dance needs to be re invented. I have a deep interest in the activities that took place in the 1970’s in New York by Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown and others. But I do not share their ‘NO’ manifesto; ‘No esthetic, No technique, No virtuosity’. (Yvonne Rainer paper written some time in the 70’s). I have studied with Modern dance teachers from the 1930’s German school, Modern Dance teachers from the New York 50-70’s schools and with teachers from the post modern contact dance and release schools and from several ballet dancers here in Europe. I have also studies traditional forms in both music and dance from India, Africa and Spain. I thrive on dance with all of its traditions, formalities and innovations. I do not approach improvisation as the ‘No’ to composition or choreography. Improvisation is composition in the way that I work.
Will you know what the lighting and music will be for the IMF improv in advance, or are these artists improvising too?
We will find out what our limits are in the rehearsal period. One of the most challenging areas of this approach to composition is to figure out what the rehearsals contain. If the lights need to be set by cues and in an order because leaving it to choice is not reasonable, then it will be set. If the dancers need to have phrases set because we are not able to create cohesive phrases when left to choice, then we will set phrases.
My priority is with the public and what will be communicated in the art event.
I need to be satisfied that the use of improvisation is not pushing the theories of chance beyond the limit for it to communicate. There is only so much space available in the time of a piece for ‘chance’ to happen. There are always far more choices (even if I am solo, even if the piece is a full hour) than there is space to contain the choices. I need to feel that this is understood with whom ever I work with. It is ‘not’ interesting, for me, that improvisation allows for the artists to make choices. I find that to be the problem of improvisation, not the solution! It is interesting for me that the artists can create a space for something to happen. That means not doing all of the choices.
These are the issues that need rehearsal. They are abstract ideas but when put in action both physically or in music you discover a lot of territory to ‘practice’ so that you are skilled and ready to perform in this way. In the short amount of time we will have to rehearse we are all going to have to realize our limits in these skills so that we do not ‘try out’ the practice in the public event.
Will you plan a structure, or use any devices (e.g., telling different dancers to enter/leave the space) or leave it entirely open? Does the size of the group offer any particular problems or advantages?
I am not coming to do a workshop with the dancers in Montreal. I am coming to rehearse and perform. My previous experiences of working with dancers in rehearsal for an improvisation performance have been difficult because the dancers may not have a premise for the rehearsal process. In the work I do with MAGPIE we have developed a rehearsal process which is reflective in the performances we do. I do not want to rehearse structures and I do not want to do a workshop. I want us to rehearse for an improvisation performance. I will try to influence the group to set what ever needs to be set in order for the event to be performed UN-questionably well. The questions need to be placed in rehearsal, not in the performance.
The size of the group simply implies that there will be more choices available. That means that everyone should do less.
A typical critical feedback for an improvisation dance performance is that ‘the dancers move too much’. I would disagree with this. I do not think that a dancer ‘can’ move too much. It is their work to move. But they do move at times without creating the space for that movement to be seen. If you are going to work without a set order then you have to take on the responsibility of preparing the space for the movement to be seen.
I would hope that we will arrive at the ‘idea’ that it is not our job to dance but instead it is our job ‘to create space for dance to happen’. In the way I work, the dancers need to loose the ‘self’. The expression of the ‘self’ is of no value, for me, when improvisation is the structure. It is odd how improvisation leaves the whole piece to choice and how we identify choice as the liberation of the ‘self’. We can ‘believe’ that choice is what we are doing but actually choice is there without me or anyone else doing it. We can all choose to do nothing, for example, or we can all choose to exit. The worst scenarios are that we would create silence and /or create a vacant space. This is an interesting response to the criticism that ‘the dancers move too much’.
I have only a few words that I will bring to the rehearsals.
Space / Time=choice
Why do you think the group and Pamela have invited you for this performance? What do you feel you can offer them that is particular/different?
I have been able to perform throughout my career with improvisation as a key factor because I have worked with musicians who ask me to do gigs and because I work solo and because I have had two companies. Europe has allowed me to perform improvisation for a living.
Teaching has been part of my career over the past 10 years or so. I accepted a senior lecturer post at Dartington College of Arts and had five years to conduct research and teach. I had been on the road, performing in many different situations all over the world for 15 years prior to the Dartington post. I was able to sit back and reflect on the work I had been doing. All of my teaching work is based on my practice. That is why I think they are interested in having me there. I am a hoofer, a composer and a poet who has managed to receive some academic accomplishments. The academic periods of my career have been very useful in how I can communicate my work but all of it is based on my practice in front of public.
Is this project especially exciting? What does it offer you? What are you looking forward to?
I am looking forward to working with the trio (solo) of Ellen Knops (light) whom I have worked with for many years with MAGPIE Music dance Company and in other solos and with Lori Freedman who I have worked with in Europe. Lori is a marvelous, creative musician. Should be a fun trio (all the girls!) I am also looking forward to meeting dancers in Montreal who have interest in this approach to work but, as I said before, I am quite limited in what I can get involved with. I am prepared for the limits to be questioned n the rehearsals and that is exciting. I am always excited by a good question! I have worked with Buniot in Hamburg October 1998 or 99 And I look forward to working with him again. I have known Dena Devita off and on for a long time and I do so admire what she has accomplished in Montreal and am very happy to be invited into the organization she has established.
Is your own solo section choreographed or will it be improvised?
I have poems that I have written and memorized from different projects over the past five years. I will let those poems and text come as my memory allows in the Montreal solo performances and invent where the public mind leads me. We will not have an order, sequence or cues. The only set materials will be the text.
What is special about an improvised performance – what do you feel it can offer an audience? Do you feel it is accessible for an uninitiated audience (uninitiated to improv)? Do you feel they have to watch in a different way?
People choose to go to see a dance performance or a theater performance or a music performance as an individual but they are also choosing to gather. That choice to gather is what I work with. The public is a gathered crowd. I want to communicate my esthetic and my ideas. ‘Chance’ is my esthetic and I write poems in order to communicate themes. But the themes and the way I use ‘chance’ have shifted from year to year.
What remains the same in my work is that the people gather. I listen for the mind of the room. The mind of the room is the public mind. My mind is fixed on the gathered crowd’s mind. I love creating ‘crowd panic’ by isolating an individual public member, or by cracking a joke, or by doing anything that fragments the space. I use crowd panic so that the public can find their way to gather and engage with the event. So they can do the job they do so well: gather.
I do not like the attitude where the public is looked at as ‘needing an education’. Every performance is an education for me about how that public gathers and how they can re-gather as I fragment space. The public brings it back, not me. The public is smart. They know what they are doing. The artist is the fool. Their choice to gather remains in their hands from the moment they leave their homes to come to the theater right to the moment when they return to their isolated places.
I would like that what the public realizes when they leave a performance of mine, is that they have been witnesses to something that I promise to never show or do again. I would like that they understand within their own lives that ‘Just because we remember where we live it does not mean we will arrive there’.
Life is as much of chance as it is of order. We all share that wonder of life.