Improvisation Exchange workshop
What: Improvisation Exchange is a monthly workshop led by artists exploring different approaches to improvisation. On this occasion I was leading the workshop which was entitled 'Improvise from the breath - move from the moment'
Where: Studio at NSCD (Northern School of Contemporary Dance) When: 11 May 2013 11-1 pm workshop followed by 'jam' 1-3 pm
Who: Workshop was open for all levels of participants interested in movement improvisation.
In many ways this workshop was the culmination of the previous workshops I'd been teaching. Read my previous posts here: Mathilde Improvisation workshop, Life Coaching session and Yoga intensive.
As stated in the blurb below, I used my experience and vocabulary from the disciplines of yoga and life coaching as a frame to structure the workshop.
'To listen inwards to sensation and to listen outwards to others and surroundings is the most immediate way to enter the moment. This is the lesson of my yoga practice and work as a life coach for my improvisation practice. In this session, we will start with the breath so that movement emerges from listening inwards and listening outwards, exploring physical play alone and in response to a partner.'
The most wonderful thing about the Improvisation Exchange is the mix of people. Many professional dancers and students from NSCD attend, but also less experienced movers come along and ages range from 18 to 60. It's very beneficial for all participants that the experiences are mixed as everyone brings something different but very valuable to the floor.
I began the workshop with a score I first did with a teacher I met in 2008 called Al Wunder. We started his workshop every day with a score or exercise called 'primary movers', in which you bring awareness through joints of the body and investigate their ability to rotate, lengthen and move through space. You explore the joints as initiators of movement but also how moving them reverberates through the rest of the body. It's a score that sharpens your awareness as the instructions are very tangible. Working with eyes closed can be a valuable tool to bring awareness to inner sensations but also to be less self-conscious about how you move.
Life coaching and yoga in improvisation
In life coaching the use of eyes is an important element when showing a coachee that you're paying attention. The last 'primary mover' "joint" was therefore the eyes. How does movement of the eyes affect the movement of the rest of the body? How does really seeing something: someone's yellow t-shirt, a mark on the floor or a fellow improviser spinning very fast, how does this influence how we move? After warming up body and awareness of others I got the improvisers to return to a more introverted aspect of movement: breath. Coming back to stillness we explored the breath for a while, simply observing and listening like you do in a mediation or yoga practice. The final 'primary mover' was therefore breath. The score was simply to listen to breath and allow it to move you. As soon as you lost the connection with it (you forgot about breath and realised you were moving for other reasons) you had to acknowledge this by coming back to stillness until connection with the breath was reestablished. Then you would start again.
In to partner workImpro Exchange Photo: R. Meneghini
With the same score the participants partnered up and took up roles as 1) mover and 2) witness. The witness role was simply to watch and 'hold space' for the mover to play with the 'movement from the breath' score. We often judge or label things we see as good or bad or according to whether we like them or not. An essential principle in life coaching (and in yoga) is not to judge but to learn to see things for what they are - so, to witness not to watch. A task for both mover and witness was to make a note of something during the minutes the improvisation lasted to afterwards tell the partner in one sentence. Short and sweet. The only constraint was that they had to make an observation stated in neutral or positive terms (I suggested they began the sentence with 'I enjoyed...'). For me this was an important element, as being encouraged to observe both self and others with a 'neutral (or positive) eye' can help us move without censoring ourselves. More about this in a later post!
After changing roles, I added 'vision' and the use of eyes, i.e. the scores from the beginning of the class. While movement from the breath was still at the core of the exercise, how would 'seeing' determine direction and relationship with others? While in this score the witness was still passive, the following score had the witness change proximity to the mover. Very close, as far away as possible, below, above or turning your back. How would this change their relationship?
Initiator and responder
Going in to more direct partner work I introduced another score: 'initiator and responder'. Again an adaptation from Al Wunder, this score invited the witnessing partner in to the movement score. Mover 1 returned to working with their eyes closed moving from the breath/stillness and as a consequence became the initiator of the 'duet'. Mover 2 responded to the movement/stillness - now an active part of the dance. I chose this score particularly because I liked the use of vocabulary. 'Initiator and responder' brings a more non-hierarchical feel to the score than 'leader and follower'. Without having directly encouraged it, many of the duets towards the end had moved in to contact improvisation.The couples still exchanged observations in the pause between swapping roles.
Trio into 'jam'
Towards the end of the workshop we went from working in partners to working in trios. The final score was an extension of the previous one, now with one initiator and two responders. First each trio designated the roles clearly between them but eventually the roles blurred and the participants could then decide for themselves which role to take on; whether they wanted to initiate movement or respond to others. The score was to stay true to the initiator/responder role but at the same time with a constant focus on the use of breath and 'seeing'.
Moving into the 'Jam'
The term 'jam' derives from the musical vocabulary of 'jamming', suggesting a free improvisation without predefined arrangements. In the same way, a dance improvisation jam is a practice session for free improvisation where you can dance on your own or in contact with fellow improvisers. It's often done as a conclusion to a workshop/class and gives each improviser an opportunity to put what they learned in to practice, and also just to play. There is no organised structure to a jam and you can enter and leave the dance space as you wish. What has proven to be useful for the Improvisation Exchange, though, is to kick the jam off with a few instructions so that the free improvisation has a starting point. I chose to let the end of my workshop lead in to the jam by simply suggesting to the participants, as they were still in their trios, to open their eyes and awareness to people in other groups and slowly to let go of the scores I had given them.
This is the fourth of four blog posts about working within my three disciplines: two posts on improvisation (Mathilde impro here), and one each on yoga and life coaching. I decided to keep each post focused on the execution and content of the session and I will continue, in my next post, with a more in-depth analysis. My aim in the next post is to highlight the common denominators between the three disciplines by putting the sessions next to each other and looking at where vocabulary, intention and outcome correlate.
From the month of March through to May this year I have been very lucky to work in all three fields of my interests.
Impro at York St John Uni Coaching at NSCD Yoga workshop Yoga Kula Impro Exchange NSCD
Preparing these different workshops and seminars within a short period of time gave me an opportunity to look closely at how the three strands of interests correlate. Although I put on different hats when shifting between the different types of work I do, the source from which it arises is still me. These next blog posts will be a reflection on each of the workshops I facilitated, with the aim of highlighting their common denominators and understand where they sync.
My first post will be about teaching Mathilde improvisation workshop at York St John's University with Seth Bennett.
Are yoga and improvisation too diverse to be united as disciplines or are they two sides to the same coin? I want to try and find some common denominators for yoga and improvisation and explore why I so passionately practice yoga and at the same time love to do movement improvisation. At a first glance it just seems self-contradicting that two disciplines with such different formats can be so equally pleasing. Here are first my immediate thoughts -in random order- of what it gives me to practice yoga and improvisation:
Gleichzeitig 2, Yorkshire Dance 2008
There are some really obvious overlaps between the two disciplines such as getting my endorphin kicks and playing with the (im)possibilities of the body. Everything to do with the body is inherently about being in the present.
But there is also so much contrast between the two. Ashtanga yoga could not be any more disciplining and regimenting for body and mind where improvisation seems to be the complete opposite, exploring freedom and spontaneity of creativity and movement. Yoga is an internal practice. An internal exploration of time, energy and sensation. Improvisation is an external expression of movement and and an outwards exploration of time and space. Is it just that they satisfy different aspects of me or is there a link that I don't see?
If in doubt about how they may be different take a look here at Kino Macgregor counting the Sun Salutation B in an Ashtanga Yoga class and below a clip from 2008 West Coast Contact Improvisation Festival.
Most of us have a daily routine when we make our way to work. Out the door, to the left, through the park, up the hill, around the corner, cross the junction, to arrive at our familiar destination. Imagine one morning waking up, making your way out the door only to find that major roadworks had blocked your usual pathway. Your first reaction might be that of frustration by being held up... But what happens next when you still have to find a solution to getting to work on time?
This post will take its starting point in the article Constraint Satisfaction by Stephen M. Kosslyn taken from the book: This will make you smarter. The book is a series of short articles contemplating how to make humanity understand the world better. The question posed to 150 of the world's leading thinkers is: What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit? The full article can be found here.
In short the article Constraint Satisfaction discusses "'constraint' as a condition that must be taken in to consideration when solving a problem or making a decision and constraint satisfaction (as) the process of meeting the relevant constraint". So... as an example Kosslyn uses the illustration of furnishing his new bedroom knowing he has a bed with a headboard, a sofa, a chair and a lamp that he will need to fit in. That is already four constraints in place for this task. And by the time he places the headboard against one wall, satisfying the remaining three constraints is easier, as options for where the sofa and the chair will go are limited. As a matter of fact we daily encounter this principle when, for instance, we get dressed and decide "what goes with each other" in colours and style or when we look in the fridge to cook a meal, where the eggs, tomatoes and cheese are getting close to 'eat by' date.
Now you may be wondering how this relevant to improvisation. Well... as I was reading this article my work with the Mathilde improvisation collective came to mind and how we structure our rehearsals. This is what I thought:
Most of our Mathilde rehearsals evolve around task based exercises where we set a number of parameters to which we respond.
Examples of improvisation exercises:
The purpose of these exercises is to create a structure to generate the improvisation. If I'm told to improvise with my right hand on my head, standing on one leg while only making round shapes I have a limited amount of movement options. Kosslyn points out that there are often only a few ways to satisfy a full set of constraints simultaneously. As I aim to satisfy each constraint I liberate my brain and creativity to seek new connections and possibilities. With a given task I can let go of responsibility of 'making something up' and instead concentrate on fulfilling the task that is given and thus allow new movements to emerge. So paradoxically, limitations become freedom.
So the tracks of our physical pathways from home to work, become neural pathways in our brains creating bridges over time that we unconsciously follow unless an obstacle forces us to change them. Constraints obstruct the pathway and hence new connections are made.
Stephen M. Kosslyn finishes his article:
"Finally, much creativity emerges from constraint satisfaction. Many new recipes were created when chefs discovered that only specific ingredients were available — and they thus were either forced to substitute different ingredients or to come up with a new "solution" (dish) to be satisfied. Perhaps paradoxically, adding constraints can actually enhance creativity — if a task is too open or unstructured, it may be so unconstrained that it is difficult to devise any solution."
So although Kosslyn is describing a scientific concept it seems very relevant also for my artistic practice. Concluding that constraint satisfaction is already a part of my improvisation toolkit, the next question is then: how many constraints can you add before creativity starts decreasing? Or when does the constraint become a crutch that restricts the free improvisation? And even more relevant... (how) does improvisation work if there are no constraints at all?
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Here you will find posts about subjects I find interesting and that all relate to my disciplines in dance, yoga and coaching:
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