“To find new things,
take the path you took yesterday.”
– John Burroughs
In my series on musicality, I described improvisation as one of the five elements that comprises musicality. I defined improvisation as the process that brings life to the other four elements (our creative, emotional, somatic, and relational impulses) by following the invitation of the moment and the environment. Although improvisation is a different form of dancing than choreography, the improvisational element of musicality is equally essential to both. In fact, all aspects of the choreographic process require improvisation for choreography to be musical and full of life. Let’s explore three stages of the choreographic process that can tell us more about the improvisational element of musicality. The first aspect is improvisation itself, but as we will see all three aspects have improvisation – the life-giving element – at their core.
Note: This article is built on the principles laid out in The Five Elements of Musicality, Part 6: The Improvisational Element.
Musician Igor Stravinsky wrote that musical composition is selective improvisation. We can equally say that choreography is selective improvisation. Really, the same applies to any creative endeavor that results in a finished “product.” For example, the article you are currently reading is itself a selective improvisation. What takes you five minutes to read and create a mental picture of my message in your mind is the result of hours of thinking and writing about a single topic. Similarly, choreography can be seen as a milestone of improvisational achievement, the result of hours of improvising with a single piece of music.
The best of one’s creative, emotional, somatic, and relational elements arise from the life-giving improvisational process, not from detached intellectual planning. Therefore, improvisation is essential to developing good choreography. Let’s return to the musical analogy for a moment: “If you want to be a composer, constant improvisation is the way to go,” writes Barry Green in The Mastery of Music: Ten Pathways to True Artistry. “We need to welcome all kinds of ideas – and the only time to welcome an idea is when it pops up. [Musician] Fred Hersch is a great believer in the spontaneity of improvisation. He says that nothing in the world compares with the freshness and immediacy of hearing something that is not planned in advance.”
Improvisation is the seed from which choreography grows, ensuring choreography is organic and full of life. In The Intimate Act of Choreography, Lynne Anne Blom and L. Tarin Chaplin write: “The improvisations serve as a preparation, a mental-physical-emotional ‘seeding of the bed’ out of which your choreography will grow. If, as Murray Louis says, ‘improvisation is the practice of creativity,’ then choreography as a skill which can be taught and learned is the means and the method whereby creativity can be structured. This approach then is organic, which is a major, perhaps the major, prerequisite needed to produce solid choreography.” This structuring that Blom and Chaplin refer to – the design process – is an extension of the improvisation process.
Choreography is not improvisation itself, but rather selective improvisation. That a single choreographed dance comes from hours of improvisation reveals how much doesn’t make it into the final product. Evaluating, editing, and refining one’s improvisations is required to discover the best possible creative, emotional, somatic, and relational connections between movement and music to present to an audience. This process requires the same improvisational quality so that the development of choreography is based on expressive choices instead of ego, fear, or self-consciousness. When this process is used, the result is choreography that has life instead of choreography that is rigid or chaotic.
Design may seem to be the opposite of what we do in a socially improvised dance, but in reality we also have a very deliberate and time-consuming design process: it’s called practice. Every moment we spend in class or at home practicing specific techniques, movements, and partner interactions, we are shaping how our impulses can and will express when that improvisational moment happens. The difference between the designing that improvisers do and the designing that choreographers do is that improvisers are preparing for an infinite number of moments (improvised social dancing) while choreographers are preparing for a specific series of moments (performance). These are indeed different outcomes, each requiring a different method and focus for practice, but in both we find the improvisational process at work.
A choreographed performance is usually the last place we expect to find improvisation, but in fact it is essential to a choreographed performance that feels and looks alive. Anyone who has ever performed choreography knows that there is amazing variability in how the movements feel in one’s body and mind from one practice or performance to another. Every single moment requires reconnecting to the creative, emotional, somatic, and relational impulses that first inspired the movement and warranted its ultimate selection for the choreographed piece. This reconnection is necessary because at every moment we’re different than we were before, and these subtle differences require the same improvisational process that socially improvised dancing requires. Eric Franklin phrases this beautifully in his book, Conditioning for Dance:
As every dancer has experienced, certain steps seem to flow more naturally some days than on other days. Often dancers try to master a step by relying entirely on control – that is, they remember what they did yesterday and try to control the movement today based on that memory. This method can be very frustrating, because often it does not work. The body and mind experience subtle changes and adjustments every day. Yesterday’s strategy simply may not be suitable for today’s body and mind… These daily solutions can only be found with an awareness of the body from moment to moment, noticing its responses to the images and thoughts in the mind and finding the subtle shifts and changes that are necessary to master the steps. By habitually putting consciousness before control, you make controlling the body’s movement more flexible and alive, ready to respond to the realities of the moment.
So although the choreography has been created, the expression of the five elements of musicality through the choreographic piece still has to be lived in a unique series of moments. The dancers must continue to “gather the senses” for each new performance, attuning themselves to their moment-to-moment mental and emotional states, those of their partner, the energy and receptivity of the audience, and the subtly nuanced flow of their musicality in those moments. Ego, self-consciousness, nervousness, and being on autopilot all interfere with attunement to these elements, resulting in either a rigid or chaotic performance. The quality of improvisation, on the other hand, allows these elements their greatest life and expression in the moment.
The Differences Between Social Improvisation and Choreography.
In discussions about improvisation, I often hear negative references to choreography, implying that choreography is the opposite of improvisation. When someone sees a dance that looks planned or complicated, they dismiss it with the comment, “They’re just doing choreography.” Or when they see a dance genre that is more structured than their own, they complain that it is more choreographed and less improvised than their dance. In this paradigm, improvisation is seen as creative and expressive, while choreography is seen as planned and stale, a lifeless sequence of movements executed with little variation. Dancing in a social context automatically has more life than dancing that is performed, Argentine tango automatically has more life than salsa because salsa has an eight-count basic, and all of the improvised partner dances have more life than ballroom because ballroom has well-defined figures and sequences. Some even claim that having heard a song before or having danced with the same partner multiple times automatically decreases the improvisational quality of a dance.
But the reality is that a dance that is socially improvised can be lifeless and stale, while a dance that is choreographed and performed for a room full of people can be full of life and in the moment. The six- and eight-count basics of salsa and swing do not guarantee less life and improvisation than the lack of a basic of tango. A couple dancing and even competing in ballroom can be more improvisational than a couple freestyling at a club. The number of times a dancer has heard a song or partnered with another person has no correlation with how improvisational the dance is. It is incorrect – and unfair to a great number of brilliant artists – to equate choreography with being on autopilot, or performance with self-centeredness and egotism.
In his book Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, Derek Bailey writes that improvisation (as a form) is the subject of “widely accepted connotations which imply that improvisation is something without preparation and without consideration, a completely ad hoc activity, frivolous and inconsequential, lacking in design and method.” Contrary to these misconceptions, as we well know and as Bailey describes, improvisation requires great “skill and devotion, preparation, training and commitment.” On the other side of the equation, as we’ve now explored, choreography requires an organic life-giving improvisational process.
This isn’t intended to water down the differences between improvisation and choreography, but rather to understand what the true differences are instead of imagining overly simplistic ones. When we understand the improvisational element of musicality as being the process that brings life to our creative, emotional, somatic, and relational impulses, we can apply that same process to both choreography and improvisation and end up with completely different forms of dancing that both equally have life, in the same way that applying effective teaching principles results in students who dance like themselves instead of all looking the same. The differences that exist are not differences in quality, but rather differences in space, time, purpose, and personality.
In The Intimate Act of Choreography, Blom and Chaplin write: “Often in discussing a dance, an improvisation, or a choreographic assignment, one asks whether or not it ‘worked.’ It works when there is a feeling of satisfaction, of involvement, of communication, and when (in the instance of choreography) something happens between the performer and the audience.” In this light, we see that the greatest fulfillment of the goals of both improvisation and choreography comes from a life-giving process that follows the direction of the moment and the environment.
Let’s wrap up simply with some wise words from Brian Eno: “Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences… [W]hat makes a work of art ‘good’ for you is not something that is already ‘inside’ it, but something that happens inside you — so the value of the work lies in the degree to which it can help you have the kind of experience that you call art.”