A Premiere | By Katy Dammers

Photo by Jessica Lutz

This is the work. It’s different in each moment.

I’m writing about a work that has yet to be done, that is lingering in the future.

The website describes AN IMPROVISATION as an opportunity to “set aside your devices and plans and witness what it’s like to free yourself of control.” It will be devised together by Phillip Greenlief, Shoko Hikage, Claudia La Rocco, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener and presented at ODC Theater for two nights in May. And I have a hunch that it is much more (or perhaps even much less) than being out of control. Dipping into these five individuals’ work I sent each of them different questions about improvisation, desire, power, submission, balance, and collaboration. As I wound through their responses another piece has emerged, what might be seen as a prelude to these performances.

You are drawn to a sound or a word or a movement, and you feel compelled to add something to it or blend in with it or oppose it — the mystery of improvisation is what happens once you do that — do you stay there and continue to extend the sequence, or does what you contribute throw the whole thing into a new relief? That all depends on the nature of what you will contribute — what you might add may be akin to a shadow or a cloud that floats above the landscape. It may be more akin to an earthquake …

I see this writing more as a shadow, something that might color your conception, but not shade it fully. Just as each viewer’s perception will be colored by their own history, my own understanding of these artists is shaped by my personal relationships with them as friends, employers, teachers, confidants, and collaborators.

I love these three individuals intensely and trust them entirely, and so that is a big part of the “material” any time I do something with any of them. Everything seems possible. Shoko I do not know, and that’s another form of excitement and trust — in the unknown, in discovery….

Their lives have been braided together: Rashaun and Silas meeting in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Claudia interviewing them as the company disbanded and in the process becoming fast friends, Claudia meeting Phillip on a residency and introducing him to Rashaun and Silas, us all hearing of Shoko fondly from Phillip. These strands accumulate in different ways: Rashaun, Silas, and Claudia created Taste and Way In together; Rashaun and Phillip were both part of Claudia’s petit cadeau; Claudia and Phillip released an album of improvisations together; and Phillip and Shoko have performed together many times. These histories can’t be elided or set aside; their relationships with each other — abiding, growing, changing, fumbling — serve as foundations for their improvisation.

What I keep in mind by improvisation is “feel, listen deeply.”

Rashaun, Silas, and Philip first improvised together last spring at Marfa, crafting a piece together in the rough, windswept landscape of Texas. I wasn’t there, but video documentation and striking photographs show them forging dramatic encounters with the stark and open landscape. Exploring the terrain their bodies newly illuminate the scrub as wide steps and a twirling disco ball pull forward resonances previously hidden.

Since we will be working in a performance space we have never before occupied as a unit, I want to discover what is possible in the space with its acoustics, size, light, and audiences. The smaller the space the more conscious of one another we become. Confined spaces affect performances in the same ways that they can affect societies — as we become more conscious of one another, the more our behaviors address a mode of adaptation and can reflect how people share space.

I’m curious about how these five artists will share space together, carving it out within the theatrical container. In Marfa the audience was mobile, encouraged to bundle up and move through the landscape as Rashaun, Silas, and Phillip ventured forth. At ODC Theater, a room with 170 seats and a traditional, frontal arrangement, their improvisation will arise within a preconditioned space, coded by modes of arrangement and rules of engagement. In what ways might they seek to trespass those, and how might that seeming disobedience reveal the flimsy construction and underlying anxieties that first prompted those regulations?

I like to think of the exploring of the boundaries and the perimeter of “what is included” as part of the work itself. I do think that the practice pushes against whatever conventional experience of space might include and exclude. For me part of all of this is pushing into that space of comfort and discomfort.

That prodding can be alternatively uncomfortable and exciting. It can be painful to push apart that which has stood for so long, but what might it reveal? What might it cede space for? Perhaps this difference could be even better. And yet when dealing with structures — systems undergirded by time and the weight of accumulated effort — change isn’t often something that can happen immediately, and it isn’t usually the work of an individual. What is the alchemy that drives a group to push together, or does pushing in different directions produce an energy that splits apart a foundation?

Improvisation can be viewed by those who do not practice it as formless. I instruct my students to explore ways that the form changes throughout an improvisation, and one way that it can bring change is when a player(s) enters and departs from the activity. Sometimes the thing you add to what’s happening can be so slight that it may go unnoticed, or it could be the kind of thing you would notice if it were not there. There are countless ways you can contribute — to lead or follow or be completely independent of the existing activity.

Each artist will be bringing their respective practices, histories, modes of being, and sensitivities to the space. And while it is tempting to clearly delineate each of their offerings (Claudia — writing, Phillip — saxophone, Rashaun — dance, Silas — dance, Shoko — koto), it ultimately feels reductive. Not only will they intercede these supposedly disciplinary boundaries — Claudia’s writing may echo in the space as loudly as Phillip’s saxophone, Shoko’s playing may have a bodily resonance as affecting as Silas’s — they will also actively resist them — in exploring at each turn what it is to dance, to write, to play music.

I think my relationship with Phillip as an improviser is really easy, it is such a clear thing to have music and dance. With Claudia it’s a little more complex — she’s going to be working with words and words have a certain stickiness and so the expectations around it are more weighted. I don’t know the other musician and that is sort of a wild card that I’m excited to experiment with. We’ll be responding to what each person contributes to time and space.

This push and pull will be a negotiation throughout the piece as the artists navigate their own desires while considering the mix of the overall group. Rashaun and Silas have been exploring the concept of desire lines — alternate, unofficial routes or social trails in nature and landscape architecture — as a means of investigating the individual and collective action of improvisation. Working with them at a residency recently Claudia read and wrote in a public sharing of their ongoing collaboration, charting how the attention of the artist becomes the choreographic material in this practice that maps impulses and intuition amid a group.

The practice is also the creation of a kind of second self that is composed of my awareness of my own awareness, or my attention to my attention. Which I guess is a sort of meditative state, but with the focus on action, impulse, and impulse control.

When I first improvised in college I imagined this second self as a ghost on the ceiling, an out-of-body experience allowing me to telescope back and forth as I moved through the space. The nerve endings of my body seemed to become more sensitive as I continually mapped myself in relation to others, and increasingly defined my own actions as movements against, with, around, over, or through others. These prepositional phrases positioned me in relationship to others, a comparison that can lead to anxiety — a measuring or reaction against.

Often it’s best to do very little when you feel afraid — of doing the “wrong” thing, of having nothing to say, of not being as “good” as the others, that no one is interested, all that tedious narcissistic crap. If you can be still, if you can be silent, if you can listen to what’s happening inside of you while also listening to what is happening around you, then you can reenter the conversation. You can remember you are among others, and take your cues from them, let that communion help you find your way back out of your head and into an active and live exchange.

Claudia described this place of fear as a “swimming” — suggesting that it might be a body of water to move inside, feeling its weight and yet buoyed by its pliancy and cool waves. In improvisation the performers create a thickness, a state that can hold you up. Trusting in that state can be a good reminder of the strength of what has been created, what can be made together.

Nothing is needed at all.

Improvisation can be a reminder that while, yes, it takes training and priming of the mind and the muscles, you have everything you need. There is a sincere pleasure in coming as you, trusting yourself, and knowing that you are enough — that you have the strength to make decisions and respond, even if that response is to be still, to watch.

In this way I believe improvisation can represent or inspire others to create societies of groups that are able to get things done without a plan — without a leader — without predetermined structures.

I said to Claudia once before I took a great leap, “I’ll try it, and if it doesn’t work out I’ll know and then decide something else.” This trying is all you have to do. Inevitably it will yield in unexpected ways, both gratifying and confusing. This building up and taking apart enables an opportunity to explore and create utopias — dreaming and scheming a future through improvisation in the present.

A premiere.

Katy Dammers is the Assistant Curator and Archive Manager at The Kitchen. She also works as the General Manager for Rashaun Mitchell + Silas Riener and is part of the inaugural Dance Writing Laboratory at the National Center for Choreography in Akron, Ohio.

AN IMPROVISATION is presented at ODC Theater on May 19 and 20. For more information, please click here.

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