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.
Impro Exchange May 2013. Photo: Riccardo Meneghini
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.
Workshop blurb:

'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.
Workshop lay-out
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.
Impro Exchange May 2013. Photo: Riccardo Meneghini
In to partner work
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.
PictureImpro Exchange Photo: R. Meneghini
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.


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