Dance Improvisation Fest | Preview
Three performers kicking off Chicago’s first improvised-movement fest defend their craft and explain their methods.
While improv comedy enjoys a certain respect—especially here in Chicago—improvised dance battles a “crunchy granola” reputation. A first-ever festival of the form here, featuring artists from around the country, could (and should) change all that.
Meet curator Lisa Gonzales, of improv quartet the Architects; independent artist and Bebe Miller Company member Angie Hauser; and musician Mike Vargas, 12-year partner of Nancy Stark Smith, an originator of Contact Improvisation. All perform and lead workshops in various venues Sunday 12 through June 19.
What’s something that keeps improvised dance under the radar?
Nobody’s going to tell you what to pay attention to.
How do you keep it fresh?
We really try to pay attention to our shtick. This Southern-lady persona [Laughs], this hilarious thing, came into the performance and after two times, we said, “That is a shtick. We can’t do that anymore.”
Is there any trepidation about “running out” of material?
Yeah, absolutely, that’s part of the risk. Before we perform, one of us will say, “I got nothin’!” And then someone else will say, “Whose idea was this?!” [Laughs] That’s why you practice. The point is to become present with where you are, and to notice that that in itself is inherently a source.… Inspiration is always there in the life of the form that’s emerging. There’s always…a pushing to develop the tiniest thing that you’ve noticed. It’s an enormous challenge but, in another sense, it’s a delightful way to move beyond yourself, through constantly connecting to forms as they appear.
In terms of techniques, it sounds as if you and your partner Chris Aiken’s work is “mixed-media,” so to speak.
Absolutely. We’re both grounded in Contact Improvisation, but I have ballet and postmodern techniques as part of my palette, too, for example.… There might be a night when we never touch each other.… Even though Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg were working at the same time and under the same umbrella, you wouldn’t call their work similar. It’s the same with us [and the catchall “improvised dance”].
You talk about incorporating objects and “dressing the space” as a way to trigger movement ideas. Do you ever perform in an empty space?
We have a strong connection to design principles—that’s a big part of what we do. If it’s an empty space, we might do that with light, work closely with a lighting designer to create multiple spaces with light, with the desire to create a sense of place. It can be more three-dimensional or elaborate with what you might call “props,” or objects, but sometimes we do all that just with light.
How is what you do as a musician informed by working with dancers?
I am dancing, when I’m at the piano. After 50 years, it’s like it’s an extension of my body. All of the physical and neuromuscular activity that goes into my choices comes from the same places that it does with dancers. I’m just using smaller muscles. [Laughs]
Do you watch and try to match with music what you see?
When I’m playing with Nancy and a room full of Contact improvisers…there’s no way I can keep track of all of those dances going on at the same time. It becomes more of a conceptual exercise. Visual or even just energetic information coming from the room gives me a sense of arc.… On the other end, you have a “ballet model,” you could say. But [with these groups], you have a [John] Cage and [Merce] Cunningham model, where it’s more multi-centric, where no one image or element in that image is dominant, or determining the rest of the activity in that image.
How spontaneous is it, really?
Where would you place what you do on a zero-to-ten scale, zero being “perfect strangers with no plan whatsoever,” and ten being “completely choreographed performance”?
Chris and I aren’t perfect strangers, but the real-time choreography you’re going to see is completely unscored. It is rehearsed and researched.… Let’s say three.—AH
Fifty-fifty, I guess. We revel in improvising within set parameters. That’s the beauty of it, not worrying about what you’re doing in a macroscopic way. Committing to a domain, so you can really get into your decisions about the details and the subtleties.—MV
We’re between a five and an eight.… We appreciate the history we have together [since 1999] and what that allows us to create.—LG
What makes improvised dance relevant today?
It asks that you remain present but not let yourself be overwhelmed or obsessed with the moment. There’s a constant relationship between the inner and the outer. “This is my experience, and this is how I affect the world around me.” …It honors the fact that there’s very little that we can control, that nobody holds all of the rules, that nobody knows exactly what’s going on.—LG
It is and always has been embedded in what [dancers] do. It’s just becoming more validated as its own thing and, to me, there’s nothing greater than watching talented, highly skilled artists work it out right in front of you.—AH
It encourages people to develop more actively their ability to look at something unlabeled and make sense of it, or, more importantly, to suspend the need to have to make sense of it. Being involved with it as a serious pursuit, as opposed to a frivolous or masturbatory activity [Laughs], is healthy and, for the right people, it dawns on them: “What if I dared to be that creative? What if I worked on making decisions that quickly and that beautifully, with such grace?”—MV
Eight days of performances, workshops and more kick off Sunday 12 at Links Hall, and at Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology.