Although “improvisation” is often used as a tool to generate material in choreographed dance pieces or in devising for theatre, the improvisation that I am interested in is practiced as an end in itself. I love watching experienced improvisers performing together. Sometimes it can be amazing and sometimes not: part of the excitement of seeing work being made in the moment is that it is so unpredictable. What especially interests me is the process involved. What I find so exciting is to observe that patterns and forms of organisation that arise when no one is in charge and no one knows ahead of time what is going to happen.
It’s a bit like those moments in scripted theatre when something unexpected happens – if the performer is alive to the possibilities of the moment then sometimes something quite magical can occur. It’s this unique in-the-moment-ness quality that audiences love. Maybe it’s also what draws music fans to buy bootlegged copies of live gigs as well as all the official records – the promise of the unexpected.
Improvised performances and improvisational exercises often use a minimal score to set a frame for what is about to happen – a set time for a piece is an obvious example or a maximum number of people that can be “on” at any one moment is another. For me, the subject of an improvisation is how people make choices in the moment on how to respond to the physical space they are in and how to respond to the choices that others sharing that space are making. Within that there are many skills involved: the ability to listen to oneself and others, spatial awareness and a sense of timing are some major skills I can think of.
What I love about the form is that the skills of improvising are somehow independent of “dance” skills – I’ve seen highly technically trained dancers make a real mess of it while in some workshop situations I’ve seen people “in off the street” make work that’s utterly compelling. It seems to me that improvisation is a whole other layer of skill above that of one’s movement ability or range.
That improvisation is a skill in itself also opens it up for improvisers from different disciplines to share a common language to teach each other and perform together. The most obvious trade is with musicians, and, to a lesser extent, with actors where the practice of improvisation is already well established, though anyone with improvisational skills could join in. I’ve seen some great interdisciplinary improvisational performances.