Overexposed, yet rarely seen. Dance improvisation as performance in the Australian context

In This Article

Open improvisation

To claim open improvisation as a performance form in its own right is contentious given the multiple ways that improvisation is used in dance. But this approach to improvised performance—in which the performer walks into the performance space largely without pre-determined structure, movement or intention—has had a committed (if small) following of both performers and audience in Melbourne since at least the mid-1980’s. Performance nights such as Conundrum, A Year of Fridays, and The Little Con, usually taking place once a month in small studios, have emerged, sustained themselves for periods of time (often many years) and then disappeared. This approach has also spawned performance events in other Australian cities, such as Whip It in Sydney. Despite starting in the 1980’s, the performances generated in these communities have largely struggled to find full validation within the dance sector in Australia. The form has rarely featured in mainstream theatres, festivals, or programs that also attract funding, publicity campaigns and critical reception 1 . In part, this may be because of the difficulties some audiences, and perhaps other dance artists, have in accepting both the aesthetic implications of improvisation, as well as the terms of engagement that improvisers themselves value. There is also an intermingling of theatre and music improvisers, alongside the dancers, which possibly has diluted specific differentiation or acknowledgment of the dancers and their work. Alternatively, it may be because improvisers in Australia who practice open improvisation have been reluctant to critically examine their own interests or assumptions about their practices, thereby diminishing the form’s potential resonances, connections or frames of reference. To say it is ‘open improvisation in performance’, comes with an acknowledgment that this form is underpinned by practice (that improvised performance ‘comes from somewhere’) and that practices are often variable. It is this variability of practice which potentially defines differences between the different individual performers/performances.

This article seeks to respond to questions about open improvisation as they apply to the Australian context. The first point is that identifying and understanding the values of improvised performance might improve its reception, particularly in the Melbourne context, but also in Australia more generally. But is it also possible that individual improvisers within the Melbourne improvisation community do not seek to define sufficiently nuanced practices? Their more ‘community-oriented’ practice remains a common, yet often unquestioned one, and defined by an accepted set of principles. Could then, a differentiated range of practices by individuals lead to a more attributable presence for dance improvisation artists and their work?

Little Con

The Little Con flyer 2009. Design & photo: Heidi Romano

I begin this article by briefly discussing the notion of ‘flow’ in dance improvisation as one of the attributes that has so often motivated practitioners. Equally, the sense of flow as self-absorption, as a loss of consideration of the audience, has also sometimes undermined improvisation’s regard in performance.  I then move to detailing a debate about the effects of Australia’s distance from contemporary dance activities in America and Europe as a way to frame how dance improvisation is often both practiced and regarded in this country. The article then considers how a local practice—a particular approach to improvised performance in Melbourne, Australia (of which dance is a substantial component)—might better acknowledge that the Australian situation is inevitably in dialogue with an expansive international field of contemporary dance practices, and that the local improvisation scene might open itself more effectively to this field. I then chronicle the activities and aspirations of a specific improvised performance event within the local Melbourne context known as The Little Con. Given that I was a founding member of this event, my perspective is that of the insider reflecting on what occurred. I finish the article with a discussion of the different capacities that choreography and improvisation provide (if these can ultimately be seen as different) for artists to generate a distinctive ‘signature’ for their work to the point that improvisers often struggle for recognition on this basis.

Open improvisation is a specific approach to improvisation that many but not all improvisation artists utilise. 2 Open improvisation operates without the use of scores, leaving all decisions regarding space, timing, movement quality, relationships, and so on to be made during the unfolding of the performance. It does not mean the resulting performance ‘comes out of nowhere’ and practice and skill are required. However, it is possibly the approach to improvisation which draws the most criticism or misunderstanding. Because of the emergent nature of open improvisation, in which structure, content or temperament is being determined spontaneously, the resultant movement can lack definition or clarity. This is something Dana Reitz comments on when she says that dance improvisation ‘has the look of not being difficult, intellectually or physically, or clear or progressing. It kind of swims around itself and it doesn’t seem to have a direction’ (Dempster & Reitz 1991, p. 33).

Performance improvisers are often attracted to the form because of the possibility of experiencing an unselfconscious flow of movement and feeling. Immersed in an activity without qualification, they are aware of their actions yet they are ‘being moved’ by these, rather than actively seeking them out. But this ‘flow’ of movement has also been criticised by certain artists as something which dulls the senses when watching improvisation. The potential lack of clarity Reitz describes as ‘swimming around itself’ seems to have given this aspect of improvisation a bad name, making artists like Reitz reticent to promote their work as improvisation.  Trisha Brown, for example, was suspicious of the open approach to improvisation when this functioned as an unguided performance of ‘self-expression’, which she labelled “therapy or catharsis or your happy hour” (Brown cited in Foster 2002, p. 50). Brown, who appreciated improvisation’s possibilities, preferred to establish structures for improvisation during her period of experimentation with the Judson Dance Theatre. For Brown, the dancer‘s disciplined encounter with structure, leads improvisation away from therapeutic associations of individual authenticity and toward the aesthetic dimensions of a ‘choreographic’ sensibility (Foster 2002, p. 28). Similarly, for Deborah Hay, performance as practice, through its multiplicity of perceptual encounters, does not assume a singular and irreducible ‘being’ who in any given moment is just ‘going with the flow’ (the flow), but is actively engaged in a constant repositioning of identification. For Hay this arousal of curiosity and responsiveness in the dancer creates a subsequent extension of being, and of  …possible worlds beyond the physical choreography of a dance” (Hay 2001b). As a result, Hay attempts to interrupt the experience (or notion) of flow so that her dancers can be alert to multiple possibilities rather than singular ones.

Sally Banes states that there was a resurgence of interest in improvisation in the USA in the late 1980’s and 1990’s after the surge of the 1960’s and consequent lull in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. ‘If many dancers in the sixties saw situation-response composition as a way of accessing “authentic” self, postmodern culture in the eighties and nineties declared that there is no singular, authentic self but only a fragmented multiplicity of shifting identities’  (Banes 2003, p. 81). The sixties’ desire for authenticity has also been associated with ‘going with the flow’, something Hay warns against. But is it the ‘flow’ of improvisation that is reflective of (singularizing) self-indulgence or can flow also enable an opening or expansion of possibilities? Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow is applicable to any activity which produces ‘the holistic sensation that people feel when they act with total involvement’:

In the flow state, action follows upon action according to an internal logic that seems to need no conscious intervention by the actor. He experiences it as a unified flowing from one moment to the next, in which he is in control of his actions, and in which there is little distinction between self and environment, between stimulus and response, or between past, present and future. (Csikszentmihalyi 2015, pp. 150-151)

This sensation is often a marker of peak experience in improvisation (Foster 2015). Yet being unselfconsciously involved in open improvisation is also susceptible to an attitude, as Brown and Hay’s critique might indicate, which aligns open improvisation with a lack of rigour, or of self-indulgence. This attitude is, no doubt, accurate in many cases. But I would argue, that this attitude also disguises the many forms of foundational practice in improvisation which have created a changeable or fractured body, when flow is present.  The improvising dancer who experiences flow and is ‘moved’ by their physical experience, rather than consciously moving, can be taken beyond their perceived limits or even beyond the self to a degree. For example, utilising Csikszentmihalyi’s concept, Urmston and Hewison write about flow as a necessary condition for overcoming the fear of the physical risks involved in learning Contact Improvisation (Urmston & Hewison 2014). As such flow is a channel to embodying, and therefore to understanding, the practice of Contact Improvisation. When open improvisation is rigorously practiced a diversity of specific embodiment and performance presence can also be developed through its operations, the performance of which Louppe acknowledges as analogous to an écriture or choreographic signature (and to which I return later in this article) (Louppe 2010, p. 162).

The Australian Context

My background is as a dancer and choreographer in the Australian contemporary dance field. 3 If I reflect on my own encounters with artists from Europe and the United States, they have been intermittent and rare compared to the amount of time I have spent practising within an exclusively Australian context. Many Australian dancers assume our practices are similar, or exist in response to international developments, but we cannot always be sure. Despite a more sustained crossover between Australia and the other dance centres today, geographical isolation is still a reality. Not all Australian dancers can gain ready access to intensive experience of the intricacies and density of contemporary dance activity that crosses between the Unites States and Europe. Do mistaken assumptions about how international artists think and practice blinker local artists to the wider implications, debates and aesthetic positions within which our activities might be understood? Should a positioning within the international field be important for local artists? Unless the comparisons between the local and international spheres are made we cannot know how they intersect or how progressions are made. This point was taken up in the Talking Dance forum at Dancehouse (Melbourne, 1993) at which New York-based dance artist Douglas Dunn was the guest speaker. Audience member Sally Gardner made the point that “…in performing and creating there is a need for personal closeness and an understanding of the personal vision or whatever it is, but it seems to me that that can be balanced by a kind of distancing that comes from a knowledge of what has gone before or what others are doing and that distancing is very freeing” (Dunn 1994, p. 57). For Dunn, his immediate context for making work was always the most appropriate. Yet even though he is based in the modern dance capital of New York, this context comes with the potential for a loss of continuity.

So there is a kind of decentralization and a localizing going on which is socially very positive….But aesthetically I would consider it an interruption, for the moment. There was a kind of interesting line of progress in modern dance that I saw and took part in, which doesn’t really exist right now…the kind of atmosphere in the sixties and seventies, of real, marginal but intense interest in aesthetic progression is really hardly existing at all now. (Dunn 1994, p. 54)

Perhaps then, aesthetic continuity is always a potential issue for dance? But as Gardner’s comments indicate, a particular challenge exists in Australian contemporary dance in understanding historical lineage of a form developed in the United States and Europe. The pioneering roots of particular practices or discourses, while appreciated, are not taught in this country with full knowledge of the context in which they were developed (Dumas 1988). These roots have become unrecognisably entangled such that the transmission of particular values cannot always be directly attributed to a particular source with its original context no longer remaining in view. With this comes a conglomeration of various, obscured influences, which in the United States, for example, would be more easily attributable to a particular lineage of practice and to a body of critical and theoretical discourse (Dempster 1987, p. 6). Elizabeth Dempster makes this point as far back as 1987 but it remains relevant today:

The story of the development of contemporary dance in Australia is at the present time a shadowy one, an imprecisely drawn collection of disparate tales of immigrations and emigrations, of dislocation, appropriation and adaptation. It is a narrative marked by borrowing and bricolage, where source and original context are sometimes acknowledged, more often obscured and disguised. (Dempster 1987, p. 6)

In raising this issue, Dempster highlights the manner in which contemporary dance in Australia has become blind to its own origins. The danger is that assumptions about dance practice take the place of a culture of investigation, where questions about how a practice, in full knowledge of its origins, might then be extended under local conditions. Dempster, along with Russell Dumas and Philipa Rothfield, have all made assertions about the impact that ballet has had on dance culture in Australia, such that balletic values dominate to the detriment of all other physical sensibilities (Dempster 1998; Dumas 1988; Rothfield 2010).   The sway this technique now holds is partially as a result of the limited access to, and understanding of, the different qualities of modern and postmodern dance, creating a situation in which ‘difference’ is mistrusted and devalued and a consequent adherence to the ‘generic’. ‘There are many instances”, states Rothfield, ‘in which a balletic sensibility had functioned to dismiss modern dance practice as not dance, unskilled and lacking in virtuosity because it is blind to the kinaesthetic values which underpin that practice—a blindness which derives from its own kinaesthetic specificity’ (Rothfield 2010, p. 314).

Amanda Card has another perspective on the problem of choreographic difference. She notes that a small group of highly skilled professional dancers have become the dancers of choice for many of Australia’s most recognised choreographers, creating a select group of dancers who move between choreographers and their specific projects.

The identification of the relatively small pool of performers being employed by an even smaller group of choreographers and companies will ring alarm bells for some of you. If a small group of expert dancers, our Super Group if you like, are producing a lot of the movement material for a range of choreographers who are predominantly working in a directorial mode, you might have valid reservations about the state of choreographic invention. You could be forgiven for suspecting an emerging homogeneity. After all, if everyone is abdicating responsibility to their dancers, amongst whom there is a replication across a range of choreographers, this fear would seem to be well founded. (Card 2006, p. 32)

More recently, a trend towards interdisciplinarity in dance, performance and live art practices has involved many Australian dancers and choreographers. Dance mingles and merges with other practices, and these practices utilise choreographic principles. In announcing the establishment of the Keir Choreographic Award, Phillip Keir said of the award that ‘we try to focus on choreographic [sic] rather than dance because we wanted it to be seen more broadly—not just one form of dance and try to invite artists who are probably better known in other mediums to get involved’ (Lin 2014). Parallel to this has been an increased Australian interest in interrogating the medium of dance, mirroring the European move during the 1990’s towards ‘conceptual dance’; that is, dance motivated by concepts more than by aesthetic qualities. (Brannigan 2010) In his book Exhausting Dance (Lepecki 2006), for example, Andre Lepecki theorises the diminishing presence of movement in some, largely European choreography, as challenging the centrality, or even necessity, of movement to dance. But, as Erin Brannigan points out, both of these developments have also produced a degree of anxiety amongst Australian dance practitioners about the continued integrity of dance as a discipline. ‘This disciplinary unease is reiterated in [Australian choreographer Helen] Herbertson’s observation that the essential characteristic of ‘physical specificity’ that defines the form is also in danger of becoming simply a “tool” for other art forms to use’ (Brannigan 2010, p. 7). If other performance practices lay some claim to the choreographic order, and if dance foundations in movement become shaky, what gives dance its constitutional distinctiveness?  Dance has also become an academic discipline, taught within Universities, and as such subject to the expectations of scholarly engagement and theoretical objectification.  In contrast to ‘in-body research’ (as Elizabeth Dempster phrases dance’s production of somatic knowledge), in academia the dancer must ‘…master the relevant metalanguages and demonstrate competence in the reproduction of valued theoretical registers of writing and commentary’ (Dempster 2004). In the convergence of dance with other, more powerful, systems of knowledge or practice, dancing itself loses some of its claim to distinctive authority through adaption, modification or translation.

If there is a difference that the discipline of dance possesses, it deals with the question of how to dance (this difference). Each artist, who understands him/herself as a dancer, animates this question through the nuancing of differences in the act of dancing itself. It is debatable whether this emphasis on nuancing artistic difference has not been adequately accepted (or perhaps lost) in Australia. But it is my proposition that this emphasis has been significantly absent from the dance improvisation scene, particularly as I’ve experienced it in Melbourne, and this absence has led to a lack of critical validity for open improvisation in performance.

The Melbourne improvisation scene

Improvisation as a performance practice in Australia occupies a curious position in this debate about choreographic difference and distinctiveness. Improvisation has recently enjoyed some popularity amongst Australian choreographers who have not previously been adherents or consistent practitioners. For example, Melbourne choreographer Luke George asks in the program notes to his 2010 work Now, Now, Now, ‘Can we be in the now?’  By utilising improvisation within a choreographic form, he seeks heightened ‘presence’. Yet improvisation is not fully accepted as the sole means for giving definition to a choreographer’s ideas and it maintains a subsidiary role as choreographic tool.

Long-time improvisation practitioners in Melbourne, those for whom practising improvisation has always been the core motivation, such as Al Wunder, Peter Trotman, or David Wells, rarely speak directly into the contested space of the wider Australian contemporary dance field. 4 These practitioners may not see dance as the best context for discussing issues central to their work. But how then can an improvised performance practice help define and detail difference in an Australian context in a manner that both includes dance and that acknowledges debates and developments from other parts of the world?

Some of my improvisation experiences have also been specific to a small, almost insular section of the Melbourne improvisation ‘scene’. I am deliberately drawing a distinction between the improvisation and contemporary dance scenes as a gap exists here, despite a fluid and overlapping boundary. While there are many artists who utilise improvisation in their dance practice, in Melbourne a separate kernel of activity exists, currently basing itself mainly at Cecil Street Studio (Fitzroy, Melbourne) 5 . It is a small, tightly knit, egalitarian community that privileges low-cost live performance, participation, and an almost familial relationship between performers and audiences. It prioritises ‘practice’ over ‘training’ and participation over artistic profile. Most members of this community do not apply for arts grants, they maintain other jobs and while being very committed, do not necessarily see themselves as integrally connected to the ‘professional’ contemporary dance sector. 6 The community includes performers for whom text, music and voice are central as well as movement or dance. Artists and groups such as Peter Trotman, Noelle Rees-Hatton, Andrew Morrish, Born in a Taxi, 5 Square Metres, State of Flux, David Wells, Alice Cummins, Kevin Jeynes, Sally Smith and many others have regularly performed or taught classes at the studio. The Contact Improvisation scene in Melbourne also has strong ties to this community. 7 The Cecil Street scene has largely emerged from the teaching and performance work of expatriate American Al Wunder, who has held improvisation classes and performances in Melbourne since 1982 through his organisation Theatre of the Ordinary. Wunder was originally a student of choreographer Alwin Nikolais (who used improvisation as a basis for learning dance technique) in New York. Wunder’s approach to improvised performance now encompasses any medium (voice, music, text, movement, or combinations of these) according to the interest of the performer, and his approach, disseminated through his teaching and his classes, is particularly accessible to beginners (Wunder 2006).

One of Wunder’s primary teaching methods is the model of ‘positive feedback’ after the performances, which form part of his classes. The performer receives, from other participants, their reflections on what was ‘liked’ about the performance (specifically without any reference to what was ‘not liked’). This process is not entirely uncritical but certainly very biased towards the positive. Such an approach to learning about improvisation is seen by Wunder as necessary in facilitating the risky prospect of open improvisation. It is premised on the belief that when positive experiences of improvisation override negative ones, a more productive environment for learning is created. Wunder suggests that the negative ‘…imposition of judgment over oneself can slow down and even stop the intuitive creative process’ (Wunder 2006, p. 122). The positive feedback model pervades much of how improvisation is practiced and how it is received in this community. The model engenders an egalitarian culture of acceptance and integration of all who perform. While its value for beginners is particularly clear, does it also create resistance to a more critical engagement with improvisation? Everything becomes ‘likeable’ because the frame of reference is always ‘What did you like about this performance?’

The Theatre of the Ordinary classes have facilitated an entry into performance for many people who did not have previous dance/theatre/voice training, as well as a new context for those who do. The most successful proponent to emerge from this scene has been Andrew Morrish who has gone on to an international career as virtuoso improviser and skilled teacher, based on his mercurial capacity to improvise with language as well as a strong commitment to movement (Morrish 2000). But there are many other performers who pursue improvisation in performance in the form that Wunder has established. The most consistent forum for improvised performances in this community has been the monthly (or weekly) event in which individuals or groups share billing in performance evenings as a way to gain necessary experience of performing. For example, Conundrum, hosted by two improvisation groups—the theatre group 5 Square Metres and the Contact Improvisation group State of Flux, but involving numerous invited guests - ran on the last Sunday of every month from 1996–2006. The Year of Fridays (1997 at Cubitt St Studio) ran for a full year every Friday evening with a mixed billing of variously consistent or occasional performers. Other more recent collective events have been The Little Con and Up the Ante. Each performer or group in a group show is allocated an approximate amount of time in which to perform, and an order of performances is established on the night of the performance. The performers mingle with audience in a studio setting where everybody sits together to watch the performances.

These performance events seem to share a number of implicit protocols about improvised performance, some of which exist as foundational principles but others are perhaps the result of habit rather than artistic choices. Perhaps the habitual attributes aren’t always ‘protocols’ but may simply be responses to the conditions of a lack of time, money and critical engagement and that have solidified into assumptions over years of doing it in a certain way. In my experience, the single most influential convention is that the genesis of improvisation is openness of intent, usually without the use of specific scores. ‘The performer has, by holding the performance open to their choice making, stated that the performance is a forum in which something will really happen…They have deliberately decided to not decide until they are in the moment of performance’ (Morrish 2000). The improvisation is the performer’s discovery of emergent material; the way to improve one’s capacity to discover material, or allow it to emerge, is to practice in performance. ‘Open improvisation’ could also be seen as what Joe Kelleher describes as a practice of exposure, not as in a confessional sense, but in the sense of the performer’s exposure ‘…to what surrounds them, everything that is there, as if the furthest things in the universe—the furthest and least likely to be called upon…are no less in reach than the most immediate’ (Kelleher 2012). Open improvisation involves an unremitting scanning for the points of interest this exposure can create (imaginative, physical, psychological). The dancer attempts to remain attentive to the inexhaustible question ‘What is this?’ That which imaginatively rises up and physically takes hold becomes the substance of the improvisation.

Audiences for this kind of improvisation in Melbourne, often performers themselves, accept that the performer may not always succeed in finding ‘interesting’ material; that the performance may in fact, drag. ‘Failure’ is tolerated in the particular audience-performer contract the form creates because there is an understanding of how challenging it is to be consistent in this pursuit and because ‘practice’ and ‘performance’ have been combined into the same entity. Virtuosity in improvisation relates less to physical or technical ability and more to a capacity to sustain an unfolding of spontaneity. Theatrical presence and the temporal shaping of an improvisation are also emphasised. ‘In improvisational performance practice the performer’s ability to find material is endorsed and it is these skills which form the basis of becoming an improvisational performer and…which have to be honed and refined in the search of satisfying theatrical experiences’ (Morrish 2000).

An ethos similar to that of Contact Improvisation in its embracing of ‘no fault dancing’, of being ‘released from judgment’, is also strongly infused in the practice (Novack 1990, p. 174). Value and skill is ascribed to ‘finding material’ and to the presence of the performer in doing this. Yet the aesthetic qualities within each performer’s improvisation that might define it as discrete and discernible as a ‘work’ ironically exist within a relatively stable, even predictable, theatrical format. The format entails usually short ‘open’ improvisations (in solo, duet or small groups), often accompanied by music, and in an intimate, if theatrical, relationship to the audience. Audiences occupy the same space as the performers, with the next performer ‘stepping out’ from within the seated audience to begin their performance. 8 The consistency of the format, in turn, affects how this kind of improvisation performance is ultimately received and understood. Certain performers such as Peter Trotman and Andrew Morrish (either as the duo of Trotman and Morrish or as solo performers) or the collective Born in a Taxi have presented distinctively crafted (but improvised) works (with, for example, the improvisation a response to a specific author or genre of fiction writing) and attracting a strong following. But the majority of performers are not professionals and do not present ‘stand-alone’ critically resonant performances. They are committed instead to a communal engagement more akin to the practice and presentation of Contact Improvisation.

The Little Con 2008. Video still: Dianne Reid

The Little Con (as a ‘sub-group’ within the Cecil Street community), while generally fitting this template for improvised performance, also attempted to differentiate itself. Established in October 2005 as an ‘improvisation event for dancers’ (as opposed to a more hybrid, theatrically focused encounter) The Little Con aimed to provide a practice forum for improvisers who wanted to preference and explore the aesthetics of a solo movement practice over text or narrative-based responses. Founded by Paul Romano, Dianne Reid, Joey Lehrer, Grace Walpole, Ann-Maree Ellis and myself, it also invited numerous guest performers to participate in the monthly performance, usually (although not exclusively) at Cecil Street studios. 9 Attended by small audiences, The Little Con always seemed more serious than say, Conundrum; less conscious of engaging the audience through humour, more directed to ‘pure’ movement, less ‘entertaining’ but perhaps more exploratory and with a focus (at times) on trying new formats for the performance of improvisation.  The event toyed with different contexts for performance such as large, multi-performer events happening simultaneously in several spaces, a site-specific event in the streets and gardens around Cecil Street Studio, ‘conversations’ between dance and technology or dance and writing and other experimental contexts.  For a time, artists were invited to write a response to that month’s performance (but not perform) as a way to extend the encounter that audiences might have with the event but also to foster critical appraisal or creative responses.  To promote the event and document the activities and writing The Little Con website was established. 10   To an extent these measures were an attempt to ‘draw in’ people of significance who could engage with what we were doing and so help develop a culture towards improvisation both of appreciation and of rigorous appraisal. The Little Con continued until 2011 although a brief revival happened in February 2013 (with a single performance) and two Little Con-ferences have been held in 2014 and 2015 (organised by Dianne Reid and dedicated to workshops, performed presentations and papers about improvisation).

The Little Con

The Little Con flyer 2006/7. Design and photography: Heidi Romano

Despite the attempt to distinguish The Little Con from other performance events of this kind, it was effectively seen by the wider contemporary dance sector as the same as the others. This was evidenced by an absence of critical interest in the event despite the participants’ seriousness of intent. 11 As with the other collaborative improvised performance events, where individuals (or groups) were given no specific attribution beyond their name, and where variations from the format were the exception, different performance events were effectively rendered as equivalent. Anecdotally Conundrum seemed to be assessed in the same way as The Little Con and once you had seen one event you understood what the next one would be like even if the individual improvisations varied enormously. Certainly, considerable differences existed between performers in terms of skill, approach and temperament, and the quality of individual improvisations was very inconsistent. Despite this, there was little capacity for recognition of a discrete improvisation (within the collaborative event) or for critically evaluating a performer’s capacity. Individual performers could not use the performances to make their mark in the broader contemporary dance sector. Here performers struggled to lay claim to a specific performance sensibility for their work as improvisers, and as a result have struggled to attract critical credibility or profile in the wider contemporary dance sector.

Paul Romano (The Little Con, Cecil Street Studio, 2009). Video still: Dianne Reid

Improvisation and choreography

While distinctions between improvisation and choreography are ultimately less useful than say, distinctions between individual artistic practices, differences do exist in how the two approaches are perceived. Part of this is what Steve Paxton refers to when he says:

If the problem with technique is that it builds clones – we’re kind of building little replicants in the same ways, to keep the technique itself the same – the problem with improvisation is that you have no companies, you have no references. On the one hand you have companies that are too much the same…and on the other…you have no rigor. (Paxton 1997, p. 53)

It is the perception of a lack of rigour that has beset improvisation as a form. ‘Improvisation does seem devalued’, claims American improviser Dana Reitz. 'The word doesn’t indicate necessarily the work that’s involved’ (Dempster & Reitz 1991, p. 34). In part, this could be a lack of awareness on the part of audiences as to how improvisation should be assessed. Improvisation does not privilege repeatable forms as a way to organise movement qualities and so make the dancing more ‘legible’ or subject to ‘study’ (if that requires repeated viewing).  In music or theatre, improvisation is often employed without a complete abandonment of a conscious structure. ‘In dance, however, the act of improvising (has) often connoted an even deeper immersion in the chaotic evanescence of physicality, one that was dismissed as insignificant by many’ (Foster 2002, p. 30).

The historical, if disputed, assumption about a work of choreography is that it is pre-determined and that it is ‘made’ and not spontaneously ‘performed’. “No dance can be called a work of art if it has not been deliberately composed and can be repeated” states Susanne Langer (cited in Louppe, 2010, p 162) and this attitude has been remarkably prevalent in dance. Seen in this light, performance improvisation, in its open form, is problematic. It is resistant to the call for authorial attribution in the marketing regime that requires the promise of ‘a work’ that is a visible reproduction of what was presented in last night’s performance  (Buckwalter 2010, pp. 7-8).

As Laurence Louppe sees it, to be taken seriously in the modernist tradition from which contemporary dance stems, performers must ‘give signature’ to their intentions and artistic processes. This is problematic for improvisation artists who paradoxically perhaps have more in common with an archaic model of dance:

…a dance without works (oeuvres) where the performer, overexposed and magnified, is all there is to see. In the traditional courtly dances (danses savantes), no matter how beautiful and intelligent they are, the dancer ‘contains’ the whole dance. There is no écriture to make of her something other than a faithful and sublime executor, a sort of ‘presenter’: whereas the contemporary performer is the ‘producer’ of the movement that inscribes her in her own history, a body at work in her own thought where it recognizes itself. For the dancer as for the dance, these archaic structures are still too close and too threatening for it to be possible with impunity to annihilate the role of choreographic creator, a role which belongs to modernity and where all the partner/collaborators are engaged around a singular artistic philosophy. (Louppe 2010, pp. 179-180)

The conception of écriture, as Louppe describes it, potentially challenges how performers approach improvised performance. Performers often practice performance as a way to fulfil improvisation’s inherent promise (of spontaneity and surprise) through the dynamic situation of audience-performer interaction and as if this ‘contained the whole dance’. The audience demands that the performer ‘steps up’ and claims a presence before them. But the audience sees nothing of the work that develops and sustains a specific body or a specific presence. Without practising the conditions which give identifiable, referential qualities to a dancer’s movement, presence and intent, does the dancer effectively remain invisible because they have not stamped their work with a distinctive écriture? For an improviser, it is the conditions of the practice, that to which he or she determines must be consistently returned, which constitutes what comes to be known as ‘the work’ and thus that which can confer artistic visibility.  Each project should therefore have its own practice, even if this project is sustained over many years.

Dianne Reid & Shaun McLeod, The Little Con, Cecil Street Studio, 2008. Video still: Dianne Reid.

Artists such as Deborah Hay or Dana Reitz rail against the easy division into categories of improvisation and choreography, and have practiced without making reference to these terms (Dempster & Reitz 1991). The emphasis and allegiance is not to the category or associated techniques, but the intentions and aesthetic of the myriad individual artists; the specific requirements of their projects that will determine how the dancing manifests (Buckwalter 2010, p. 5). Danielle Goldman also points out that the dominant understanding of improvised performance as a spontaneous mode of creation, free from script or score, is also too simplistic given the range of improvisation practices where the overlap at the margins between improvisation and composition is in constant flux (Goldman 2010, p. 5). Louppe’s earlier citing of Langer sets up her plea against the traditional rigidity about how improvisation is seen to function in this bifurcation:

Improvised moments can be part of the écriture of a piece and even give it its structure, its plan, its temporality. This does not prevent the work existing as a complete artistic entity: not in terms of a definitive ‘form’, but in what is much more important, namely, the depth of understanding around a common project, the qualities of phrasing and of mutual attention. (Louppe 2010, p. 162)

As if in dialogue with this statement, Australian artist Rosalind Crisp calls her work ‘a choreography of beginnings’ stating that the work is not improvisation at all despite her long held association with improvisational practices (Dawkins, Crisp & McLeod 2011). This perspective is the outcome of Crisp’s deep investigation into the implications and manifestations of attention and the consequent impact on her dancing. Her example is interesting because of her clarity that she makes ‘works’ of dance but with a loose structural integrity so as to leave multiple openings for the open play of attention. Her perspective has surfaced because of her long-standing investigation into improvisation and how the quality of her attention threads through her dancing as '…both rigorously identifiable and constantly mutating’ (Crisp 2009).

The contribution of experimental choreographer Deborah Hay also provides a salient point of reference here. Hay’s performance practice involves a strong commitment to, if not strictly speaking improvisation, then to the autonomy of choice for her dancers. Hay does not strictly speaking ‘tell her dancers what to do’, but provokes or directs the ways in which they might think about, or attend to what they do  (Hay 2001b). Given the spontaneous generation of the movement by Hay (or the dancers) and the indeterminacy of the outcomes, Hay’s work bears many resemblances to improvised performance. Yet her work is rendered choreographic by her determination of a ‘…concrete set of conditions, a strategy that guides [the dancer’s] attention’ (Hay 2001a, p. 10) and which “forms and sustains” his/her body imaginatively  (Hay 2001a, p. 8). Hay has what amounts to a specific theory of the body-self such that the body is both material and immaterial and cannot be instrumentalised. The specificity of her scores activates the dancer’s perceptual awareness over the durational arc of the performance, directing the dancer to continuously attend to the feedback each component of the score elicits. For Hay, a very specific practice, postulated as responses to seemingly unanswerable questions, leads to the realisation of a specific work. Her practice ultimately gives shape to a detailed score for each titled work thus giving identity to this work as a choreographic entity. ‘What if every cell in the body had the potential to get what it needs, while surrendering the habit of a singular facing, and inviting being seen?’ is the perceptual practice relating to the group dance O, O. Performed in the round, Hay’s score for O, O is a much more detailed document with metaphorical commentary, directions for entering, tasks for occupying the dancer’s attention in time and space. 12 Yet it is grounded in a practice of perceptual discernment which creates the bodily substance of the dancer’s presence. The scores specific to each work create a choreography of ‘…tricks and traps that challenge a performer’s awareness and loyalty to the form’ (Hay 2001a, p. 13).

‘Loyalty to the form’ is distinguishable from the traditional notion of loyalty to the dancing, that is, to be to stylistically authentic: to perform the movement according to choreographic intention and resulting in the inscription of an aesthetically defined dancer. Hay does not prescribe what the movement should be or be like, but radically, turns the performer toward the ongoing task of performing his/her perceptual discoveries without attachment to sustaining an aesthetically coherent, historically reflexive body. Hay’s disruptive claim:   

…the tyranny of the myth of the dancer as a single coherent being—a basic element in dance training in the west. The effects of this idea can best be observed in the photographs in New York’s Dance magazine, where images of erectile dancers follow one another, page after page. My vision of the dancer, through the intervention of performance as a practice, is as a conscious flow of multiple perceptual occurrences unfolding continuously (Hay 2001b)

The improvised body is also often premised on a belief in singularity—that of the individuality of the performer. Solo dance is certainly based on the singular presence of the individual performer. Ros Warby, an artist associated both with Hay’s work and her own, states that she values solo dance because of ‘the opportunity it provides to see a performer’s attention’, and the movement and changes this involves, uncluttered by the choreographic complexity of multiple bodies (Dempster 2014, p. 32). But a singular presence is not necessarily the same thing as a singular self. One of the tenets of improvisation, powerfully held in therapeutic contexts, but still prevalent in performance practices, has been to spontaneously reveal the ‘authentic self’ of the mover - the ‘real’ person. But the improviser’s susceptibility to habit and the inherent limits of ‘self-expression’ in creating art makes Hay’s critique of the “choreographed” body, equally, if not more appropriate for improvisation. ‘History choreographs all of us, including dancers’, she says (Hay 2007). John Cage and Merce Cunningham’s emphasis on indeterminacy is not the same thing as the unpredictability improvisation allows, ‘…because the unpredictable is in fact highly determined by the history of the “me” who improvises, and allows an already inscribed movement memory to appear’ (Louppe 2010, p. 52).


As far as dance improvisation goes, clearly there have been (and are) multiple approaches by different artists which indicate the complexity of the form. I have indicated that there are lineages of interest and influence in improvisation; that improvisation has ‘come from somewhere’, and that the approaches of certain artists will influence how others practice it. But improvised performance also throws the individual dancer into complex, immediate situations of choice about how to improvise the body-self. These situations compel the dancer to be physically responsive, to be ‘present’ in the moment, or else risk losing sight of what they are actually involved in. Improvisation in performance then is dialectically poised between the personal and the public as much as it is an encounter between individual performers and an audience. Personal experience is inextricably connected to this poised encounter, yet the personal can speak to contexts, whether research or performance contexts, that reach beyond the merely self-gratifying. The personal situation of where I live has undoubtedly had an influence on how I and other Australians have experienced improvisation, giving this a local flavour. But as this article indicates I have attempted to situate and create value for a local practice by applying a broader set of references, thereby acknowledging that a wider continuity of practice could enliven both my own and other local practices of improvisation. Perhaps improvisation has also suffered from a lack of appraisal elsewhere in the world, and if Steve Paxton is correct, then open improvisation is in need of sustained critical engagement more generally, particularly if it is to assume the credibility of other forms of dance and performance. This would suggest that any unapprised ‘flow’ in improvisation practices, from approaching improvisation as generic, might benefit from critical ‘punctuation’; that is, as critical interruptions to assumptions about how improvisation functions that might spark new thinking or new horizons for the form. If critical frameworks are required for improvisation, these need to be particular rather than generic. If being local presupposes an assumed spectrum of kinaesthetic or aesthetic values then these should be tested, so as to determine what might be appropriate for each practitioner or project.


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