IMPROVISATION IN PERFORMANCE:
a discussion with Barbara Dilley, Nancy Stark Smith and Ruth Zaporah

In July, 1990, the Movement Studies Program of The Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, hosted a series of seminars with their summer faculty. What follows is an excerpt from the panel discussion with Barbara Dilley (moderating), and guest faculty Nancy Stark Smith and Ruth Zaporah.

BARBARA DILLEY: I'd like to welcome both these ladies, who have taught here at Naropa before; Nancy for many years and Ruth for the third time. I would like to ask them about the relationship between improvisation and performance.

NANCY STARK SMITH: Ruth and I had a really interesting discussion after our performance last year. We realized we didn't have the same assumptions about what it meant to improvise in performance. I think it had something to do with autonomy, with the choices that you make as an improvisor in performance, and it had to do with physical contact. Simone Forti was also in the performance and she's familiar with contact improvisation, but also with physical contact in general in performance. We had talked about a few rules: we weren't going to talk in the performance, and we weren't going to get into physical contact, or was it contact improvisation? We immediately got into both. I don't know it I can sum this up, but it had something to do with the ability to continue to make your own choices when you improvise with others, and when you make physical contact with someone, in what way are you directing them or making them have to play your game. How do you work with each other's material? When are going to far? When are you making decisions for your partner? When are you boxing them in? And when are you too distant? When are you just sort of not relating to each other?

Barbara: In the work I've been doing this summer I've thought a lot about this because I see it happening in any kind of improvisational situation. What is the commitment that people believe they have to make as soon as they establish a relationship with someone in an improvisational environment? What do we bring to that commitment that is extraneous, conventional, social and personal history... all those things come up for me. I think it really has to ve addressed because improvisational forms need to have a broader vocabulary. For instance, when there is a strong contact improvisation vocabulary among a group of students, that tends to be what open improvisation becomes, because that is the most familiar vocabulary. I think there are a lot of improvisational vocabularies and that there could be some goal of expanding the vocabularies.

Nancy: Is an improvisational form a language? How doe we cross languages? How do we communicate with each other when/if we're working in a different language? Ruth?

RUTH ZAPORAH: I think that if you're improvising with another person you're in a relationship. What applies to improvisational relationship is the same as applies to any relationship, no matter what the form of exchange is. I see that there is a common language that we all struggle with. Any of us who have been in relationship know the struggles and the challenges that relationship presents to us. And those same challenges present themselves to me if I am improvising a performance with another person. There's a kind of relationship, that some of you might be familiar with, where all the time that you're together you're talking about your relationship. Or there's another kind of relationship that is like carpenters building a house. Here they're not arguing about what kind of nails to buy. Their focus is on building this house. It's not about their relationship. They're past that place already. The kind of improvisation that I like, that I have preference to do with other people, is where it's about building the house. It's not about are we gonna build it may way or are we gonna build it your way.

Barbara: But wouldn't you had to have sat down and talked about what kind of house you wanted to build before you started to build it? If you are taking about protocol of relationship and improvisation, there has to be some kind of social form. You have to introduce one another and find out what you're interested in and try to articulate the kind of house you would like to build together.

Ruth: That can be. And sometimes you just wing it and dive in. Sometimes I have dived in with people and it's like a castle gets built. It's about our mind energies kind of cooking. And at other times it's about us never getting a house built because we're always blocking each other, countering each other, pulling stuff away from each other, manipulating each other.

Voice: If you're both hired on to make a house and Ruth is an experienced wood carpenter and every house Nancy has ever made she built out of stone, then there is a language problem. Then you need to move back out of boards and move back out of stones and just move into putting things together; letting go of the language of boards and letting go of the language of stones and finding a more primitive level.

Ruth: Could you not build a house of stone and board? There's something under the stone and the board which has to do with intention. If my intention is to be in control then I'm going to get stuck in the stone and board routine. If my intention is to take whatever resources are available in a positive and accepting way without resistance, control, or manipulation, then whatever resources are available end up building this crazy kind of house.

Barbara: I think that you have to have some conversation–set up some rehearsal environment. What is the common modality? Whether it's sitting-around-the-table-having-coffee rehearsal or whether it's actually spending months mushing around in the space and getting to the most difficult places of your self-consciousness or of your boredom or of your irritations, or whatever, with the process, then moving beyond that and having that as a basis for improvisational material.

Nancy: the Grand Union dance/performance collective was a great example of very different materials coming to bear in a dance/theatre improvisational situation, which I enjoyed tremendously. In their work I saw a lot of "blocking" and "countering" going on. I think when you have those difficulties it does drive you down into what is more fundamental–‘What is performance? What are you doing?', rather than ‘Is this improvised or isn't this improvised'.

Voice: Do you have a specific definition of improvisation?

Nancy: There is a full spectrum. It isn't one thing. Even when you say ‘totally open improvisation', that's relative. I mean, you've got your tools, you've got your assumptions, and you've got your setup. There are some people who might make an improvised piece that has some very specific guidelines: they're going to work with this image for five minutes, then they're going to shift to this, and then this person is going to come in. They set up a structure of some kind, whether it's an idea, or a personnel structure of who's going to do what with whom; or who's going to be where; and is there going to be music? Besides that, they don't know how they are going to work, what's going to happen. Everything between really set movement to utterly no plan. But you have all your history of your way of working. That's a lot. I used to think that when I went out to do contact improvision that I didn't know what was going to happen. Well, I didn't know what dynamic would happen; I didn't know what kind of relationship would happen. But there was a lot I did know that I didn't even realize I knew, that I was assuming.



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