Tips & Advice

Improvisation: It’s all inside

DeAnna Pellecchia. Photo by Liz Linder.
DeAnna Pellecchia. Photo by Liz Linder.

There’s an arguably witty, yet wise response out there to the dismissive “My kid could draw that!” – “Well, he/she didn’t.” This is partly a pointing out of how “expressionist” artists, whose work at first might not seem to take much skill, were all classically trained before moving away from that classical mode of creation. That’s true of dancers as well; we must gain a technical framework in order to be able to let it go. With a technical foundation, we dancers can allow our mind and spirit to shine through our highly skilled body. That is when truly meaningful art can happen. It was inside of us all along.

Yet the process of learning how to do that, how to have a foundation of technique let one’s true self emerge through movement, is a difficult process for many dancers. When guided to move within a framework, rather than given the movement step by step, count by count, some dancers freeze – sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally. It’s more important than ever for dancers to rise above that fear and stasis; we’re asked to be more and more versatile and be active agents in the creation of work, all the time.

Postmodernism also continues to evolve, perhaps morphing into a new sort of “Post-Postmodernism” with an eclecticism of movement idioms and approaches. Within this context, choreographers are continuously developing and refining improvisational structures and other ways in which improvisation shapes dance-making. Dance Informa spoke with three choreographers on the roles of improvisation in their creative processes, how they support and nurture their dancers through that work, and more.  

Sheena Annalise, founder, owner and artistic director of Arch Contemporary Ballet (New York, NY) 

Sheena Annalise (right) with dancers of Arch Contemporary Ballet. Photo by Noel Valero.

Sheena Annalise (right) with dancers of Arch Contemporary Ballet. Photo by Noel Valero.

“All of my choreography stems from improvisation really. I don’t come into a rehearsal having planned the movement. Sometimes I have a flow or outline, but the actual phrasework more or less just comes out in a trial-and-error process. I will start moving, and the dancers will follow what I am doing. If I don’t like what is happening, I change it and try something new, or a dancer may accidentally be doing something different and have everyone try it like them. [Improvisation] creates unique movement that is organic to my dancers.

It creates limitless possibilities, because you are able to mold and shape movement and keep pushing your existing phrase-work to a better outcome. Improvising is an improvement to existing work as well, taking a phrase’s bones and adding meat to it. [It] makes room for change. I’m always asking the dancers to use the bones I give them as a direction, and to add the meat themselves. Improvisation is more than just using your dance vocabulary or movement that you are familiar with; it’s about exploring the unfamiliar. It is a chance to test out your body’s limitations, explore what each piece of your body can do and how it moves.

This is difficult for [dancers in] a genre of dance that doesn’t explore this option much in training. I sometimes encourage my dancers with guiding instructions. For instance, I will take something and ask them to make one part bigger, or think about using a different limb to create the same movement. From there, imagination eventually takes over, like a spark igniting a forest fire in the studio.”

Stephanie Pizzo, artistic director and former company member of Eisenhower Dance (Detroit, Michigan) 

Stephanie Pizzo. Photo courtesy of Pizzo.

Stephanie Pizzo. Photo courtesy of Pizzo.

“Improvisation is important in my choreographic process, as spontaneity can shift the frame of the work; the environment and its surroundings can create new unforeseen pathways. The most gratifying aspect of improvisation is that it has no limits! In the moment, in real-time, is when the surprises can materialize. It’s the ‘unforeseeable’ that can transcend the work! As a choreographer, when you can guide your dancers/artists through a structured improv and cultivate movement vocabulary that stretches them beyond their limitations, it can be inspirational. When the artist shares their personal voice, it provides them with a sense of ownership. There is an honesty and naturalness the artist embraces when they are performing.”

DeAnna Pellecchia, founder, owner and artistic director of KAIROS Dance Theater (Boston, MA) 

“When talking about improvisation, I first like to think about how I hated it when first introduced to it in college. I would always skip those classes. Then I got out there in the dance world and found out that’s how everybody works. And I wished I had gone to those classes! I also like to tell my dancers a story of one of the first choreographers for whom I danced. She worked through improvisation, a method called Listening Strategies. It was all scary new territory for me. I asked her, ‘What if I don’t make the right choice?’ and she answered, ‘DeAnna, if you could make the wrong choice, do you think you’d be here?’

DeAnna Pellecchia. Photo by Liz Linder.

DeAnna Pellecchia. Photo by Liz Linder.

It was a huge moment for me, totally empowering, and just shifted everything. It communicated that whatever I did, because of what I already had and who I already was, would be beautiful. That perspective shapes how I work to this day.

By the time a work is presented, it’s ultimately my aesthetic, but it has as little bit of all of my dancers in it. Everybody feels a little bit of ownership, which is validating and empowering. The end goal is for the dancers to own what they’re doing. That brings an authenticity that also comes from a place of vulnerability. I think that the best art has that, because it’s something audiences can truly connect with.”

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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