This post summarizes my experience in Improvisation with Bebe Miller this semester, alongside an exploration of Meg Stuarts explorations on state.
This semester felt, in many ways, a return to my body after a prolonged period of injury, surgery, and recovery. The remnants of my physical pain, and the emotional textures that accompanied it, were most present in improvisation than in any other course. Injury feels so claustrophobic and boring after a while. The way in which it defines your experience and your body feels unshakable at times. I am happy to say that exactly one year since my shoulder surgery, I feel liberated from those trappings, and this improvisation course was a big part of finding that freedom. Because improvisation requires such opening, such courage, it became an ideal path for confronting how my injury had changed me, for good and for bad. Throughout the semester I feel that I reconnected with effort and physical challenge, established new ways of engaging others, and re-invited play into what I do in the studio.
One of the first things I realized in this course was that I wasn’t going to be able to rely on some of the physical habits I used to lean on pre-injury. Whenever I improvise, I almost always begin distally, moving my arms and legs, often in linear or spiral pathways. I realized instantly upon return to dance this semester that I needed to find some alternative ways of initiating and energizing my improvisation practice in order to protect my shoulder. Among them included finding my weight, allowing my torso and chest to participate in what my arms were doing, and experimenting more with back space. I have noticed that an attention to rhythm can also help me avoid throwing my limbs around in unsafe patterns. The focus on rhythm allows movement to come from the core body instead of the ends, a pattern I noticed in doing “Moving Nonsense,” Meg Stuart’s exercise where you speak gibberish for 15 minutes and then place that gibberish in the body. Nearly every initiation came from my chest or belly. Of course, the connection to speaking would naturally involve the organs that participate in the voice mechanism, but I think the varying rhythmic structure also required movement that was closer to the heart, and to the breath, as well. After doing the exercise, I realized how rhythmically predictable my improvisations often are. Placing movement close to the core body changed my internal sense of timing.
In another of Meg Stuart’s exercises, “Moving the breath,” I was reminded me of how breath and emotion are connected. If you manipulate the breath in certain ways, you can replicate familiar feelings of anxiety, happiness, and fear. These emotions have deep connections to sensations in the body, so as I was experimenting with panting, holding my breath, pretending the breath had been knocked out of me, etc., I noticed very real places in the body that awakened and necessitated some type of physical response to alleviate or maintain the original sensation that the breath manipulation had caused.
For the first half of the semester, I felt quite resistant to the demands of physical effort. I was obviously experiencing some fear about protecting my shoulder, but I also felt it unnecessary for vigor to always be a common denominator in improvisation. In performance, I am often disappointed by dances that are arbitrarily physically exhaustive, and I felt similar about my own improvisation practice. However, I found that connecting to breath, and even more importantly as Meg Stuart notes, emotion, provided an appropriate impetus for escalating my physical engagement. Once I became more trusting of my body, I was able to come to improvisation with a curiosity about what I was already feeling that day. It doesn’t have to be cathartic: one doesn’t have to be angry or upset in order to find meaning in exertion, but bringing my whole self to the room allowed for a deeper range of experience and expression. I actually found that this deeper awareness of my own experience helped me open up to others in the room. I become more open to contact and touch, and I started approached the improvisation with more of a compositional eye. At this point in my life as a dancer and yoga practitioner, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that connecting to self, in a way that is beyond my physical sense of muscles and bones, is a necessary component of being able to fully engage with others. And yet, it’s all too easy to forget to do so. That is why we practice.
While performing another of Meg Stuart’s exercises, “Morphing,” I was reminded of a question that came up the first day of class: Is there a difference between “performing,” and simply “being” ? In this exercise, I chose a series of gestures and performed them over and over again, slowly, never fulling reaching a pose but always letting it start to transform the second the I arrived. I happened to be doing this in my living room in front of the window. The natural light was gently resting on me as I shifted from one pose to the next, and I felt visible even within the walls of my apartment. No one was watching me, but somehow I felt that tingly feeling that comes from performance. In the slowing down of gesture, there is a transformation that happens, an extra sense of being alive. In the restriction of having to only do a certain prescribed set of movements, I felt a freedom of experience. Somewhat like yoga, knowing what the body is doing encourages the mind to rest in a way that allows for the present moment to be endlessly fascinating. Arrivals disappear, and the mind becomes occupied with the in between.
The “in between” is something I’ve had to remind myself of repeatedly over the course of the semester. This fall presented many challenges for me: returning to dance after injury, changing my whole life to move across the country for school, being a student again, navigating new relationships, and figuring out how to maintain old ones. Meanwhile, I have been experiencing all of this within the context of some pretty serious societal turmoil: violence on campus and across the globe, political upheavals…it has been strange at times to make sense of what we do in the dance studio all day long. Why do we do it?
But in those moments when time slows, when I can actually rest in the present moment, sensing my own breath and feeling the light in the room and forgetting what came before and not caring what comes next, I know that what we do is important. Whether it feels like “performing” or “being” (and I still don’t have an answer to how/if they are different), these types of practices directly correlate to how we manage fear, directly encourage our empathetic response, and open our senses to what is actually going on around us and within. Paying attention to the space and time between an arrival, a choice, a path, gives us the freedom to make kinder and braver decisions. In yoga it’s often called “the middle path.” Not too strong, not too soft, but somehow containing both ease and effort at the same time. I have a tendency toward preferring ease, but taking this course at this particular time in my life and in the world, has reminded me of when effort is appropriate and necessary. We do these things, both effortful and full of ease, with our bodies, in studios, and with others, to practice being awake.