Movement Improvisation Techniques: Exploring Art & Human Ecology

When I sat at my desk this morning, I intended to make some notes for the improvisation workshops I’m teaching this summer. As I typed though, I found myself contemplating improv’s multiple roles or functionalities in my dance experience over the course of nearly twenty-seven years. Instead of the notes I’d intended to write then, this short essay began to take shape as a means of encapsulating the three main components upon which I have built the theoretical framework of my improvisation practice: technique, art, and human ecology. This essay is not a cohesive, complete presentation of that framework, but is rather a starting point for what I hope will evolve into deeper writing about movement improvisation.

I was first hooked on dance improvisation as a high school student in the Walnut Hill School’s summer dance program. Improvisation was only a component of one class that summer, but it was enough of a taste of making my own movement that I couldn’t wait to learn more. That chance came when I was a college freshman at Shenandoah Conservatory. Looking back through my undergraduate dance experience, my favorite courses were improvisation and the composition sequence. I found in those courses the opportunity to explore dance as art in ways that ballet and modern techniques or performing someone else’s choreography didn’t provide, and I relished the fact that they allowed me to explore myself and the world around me in new and altogether exhilarating ways. I was fortunate that my first improvisation teacher, Robyn Scroth, taught improv for its own sake. That hasn’t always been the case though in college dance programs, as Peggy Schwartz pointed out in her article “Action Research: Dance Improvisation as Dance Technique” (JOPERD, May/June 2000) when she noted that, “….in most college programs and private studios, improvisational dance, if offered at all, was considered an incomplete form, to be studied in the service of more mature dance development or used by dance therapists.” Schwartz recounted a frustration that many improv artists and teachers experience at some point in their practice: while she wanted to embrace improvisation, she felt divided, “I thought,” she said, “one had to choose between being an improvisational dancer or a technical dancer. There was a part of me that believed that if I committed myself to the exploration of improvisational forms, then I would simply be side-stepping the hard work of being a dancer.”

And, Schwartz wasn’t alone in those concerns. In fact as a college student in the 1990s, I often encountered teachers and professional dancers who talked about improvisation with great condescension, as though it was not a legitimate way of preparing for dance, let alone a legitimate dance form in its own right. At Shenandoah, however, I had the good fortune to work with three faculty members who encouraged me to challenge those negative perceptions of improvisation, and to move more deeply into an exploration of how improvisation might influence my dance experience: in undergrad there was Schroth (who taught solo improvisation) and Brad Stoller (contact improvisation), and Jane Franklin, who was a major influence in my graduate experience, often incorporated improvisation into a number of courses I took with her. At that time, I was also exploring site-specific dance, dance theatre, and performance art as major components of my artmaking practice—and improvisation informed a great deal of that work.

Until my second year of grad school, my work with and thinking about improv was entirely practical, art-driven and utilitarian. That year, someone outside of school pressed two books into my hands: Anna Halprin’s Moving Toward Life, and Andrea Olsen’s Body Stories. Through the writings of those two major thinker-dancers, I came to understand improvisation as a theoretical framework for examining ourselves and our world. Improvisation is not simply a tool for generating material that is developed later for a set/structured dance (though it is useful for that purpose). That is only the surface, only a starting point. Improvisation is a technique (or, perhaps more accurately, it is a system of techniques) in its own right with multiple purposes or practice intentions. Specifically, through improv, we can engage in body-based research. We can explore the intersections of the internal landscapes (psycho-emotional and anatomical) and external landscapes (be those urban or natural settings). This research may have a singular/individual focus, or it might be communal in nature (perhaps involving contact movement, perhaps not).

Like structured modern dance techniques, improvisation techniques encompass a variety of pedagogical practices and have historical roots that run deep into the late-19th century (at least as far back as Dalcroze’s eurythmics). Many of the early pioneers of modern dance utilized improvisation as they developed their own movement vocabularies—Lester Horton found it so important to artistic development that he incorporated improv into his daily teaching practices. That instinct in the early pioneers to improvise was critical and organic, as Margret H’Doubler noted in her book Dance: A Creative Experience that, “…you are your own textbook, laboratory, and teacher.” Halprin was an early pioneer in improvisation as a technique and artform in its own right, and became one of the first internationally respected teachers to develop a pedagogical approach for teaching improv. Other leaders include (but are not limited to) Barbara Dilley, Simone Forti, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, and Daniel Nagrin.

Halprin was also a leader in bridging improvisation practice with experiential or embodied research practices that we might call environmental dance. Because of its potential uses for embodied research in artmaking and performance, various therapeutic practices, community-building, spiritual and ritual experience, and environmental studies, improvisation can be seen as a somatic practice. Body-movement-based research (or body-oriented theoretical practice) is therefore a creative technique for exploring human ecology. In fact, Olsen’s work in experiential anatomy utilizes improv as a means of exploring and listening to both our bodies and our environment, as it roots movement practices in the interdisciplinary study of human ecology. With improv then, we see one of many intersections between dance (movement-based art) and the humanities—dance theatre is another great example—where the generation and exploration of movement is both an examination of and commentary on the human condition.

To paraphrase Dilley, participating in actions of moving mind/thinking dancing as it were encourages an integrated bodymindspirit actively engaged in the present moment. Generating movement in that present moment as the bodymindspirit responds to prompts requires sensing, perceiving, and doing—what Erick Hawkins called think-feeling. H’Doubler instructed that, “…dance education must be emotional, intellectual, and spiritual, as well as physical, if dance is to contribute to the larger aims of education—the developing of personality through conscious experiencing. It should capitalize every possible resource, selecting and integrating the contributions into a totality.” Sensing, perceiving, and doing (set in H’Doubler’s context) allows us to feel rooted and at home in the moment, to honor that moment, and to honor ourselves by “being present in the now” rather than detached from it as we so often are in the western world.

Improvisation and composition are my favorite things to teach in the studio for the same reasons that I embrace(d) them as a dance artist and human being. Seeing my own students engaged in body-movement-based research and answering the challenges that this path presents is one of the most fulfilling aspects of being a dance educator. There is nothing like watching a student discover themselves as they discover the world through the process of seeing, perceiving, and doing that is body-movement research. For artistic purposes, improvisation techniques allow students to gain a sense of their movement affinities and personal patterns, and those techniques push the students to develop their own movement vocabularies and ways of dancing. As somatic practice though, improvisation techniques guide students into being more compassionate with themselves, with others, and with the environment around them. The aesthetics that a dancer explores through improv then are their own and can change or fluctuate based on their own shifting ideas and perceptions, therefore connecting back to H’Doubler’s description of the body as textbook….though I would say, bodymindspirit as textbook.

Recommended Reading:
Anna Halprin. Moving Toward Life: Five Decades of Transformational Dance
Andrea Olsen. Body Stories: A Guide to Experiential Anatomy
_________ . Body & Earth: An Experiential Guide
Kent de Spain. Landscape of the Now: A Topography of Movement Improvisation