Forty-five minutes into my first class with Chisato Ohno, I remember thinking to myself, ‘why are we still doing the warm up…?’. That was a good few years ago, and now Chisato’s Gaga–based class is one of my favourite and most valued to go to. This improvisational technique is a movement language, developed by Ohad Naharin, Artistic Director of the world-renowned Batsheva Dance Company in Israel.
The language used within a Gaga class encourages flow and complete fluidity in the body, with form and set exercises often as a secondary concern. And when a set exercise is subtly introduced, the ease of movement and release in the body as a result of the improvisational exploration is incredible.
Recently I attended class with Winifred Burnett-Smith, a dancer with Hofesh Shechter Company. Expecting hardcore floorwork and thighs of steel by the end of class, I was pleasantly surprised and refreshed to find the effortlessness with which my body performed the set phrases of Hofesh repertory, following a similar Gagaesque opening to the class (as of course, Hofesh’s origins are also with Batsheva).
I’ve known for many years throughout my experience of teaching integrated dance that improvisational exercises are a much more successful way of introducing movement and dance, an understandably alien thing to many people! To offer up an image, shape, idea or piece of music to explore at one’s own will presents much less pressure than ‘learn this dance and do it in front of everyone else’.
The wonderful young people that make up the StopGAP Youth Company have come to define improvisation as ‘make it up’, or ‘do whatever you like’, ideas which I’m happy for them to stick with as they investigate new ways of moving and responding to images and tasks. It allows freedom and individuality, minimalises embarrassment, and removes any concern of getting things wrong.
On my way to an audition recently I received a text from a friend: ‘Just shake it’, it said. As it turned out, this was great advice, as in addition to a well–executed phrase of strong choreography, what the panel really wanted to see was improvisation to a chosen piece of music. So, I ‘made it up’, I ‘did whatever I liked’, I ‘shook it’. And I got the job.
I wonder, though, about the role of improvisation in performance. I think this must prove to be a much tougher task than improvisation within a class setting. Is it fair to one’s audience to demonstrate what is essentially one’s own personal exploration? Or is this what makes such a performance more interesting? Of course improvisational performances still have to be rehearsed, and so presents itself the challenge of the material being fresh each time: each time must be as the first time, as with performing scripted text.
I think, when watching an improvised performance work, I enjoy the knowledge that the performer may not know what will happen next; in a way it perhaps makes me feel more part of the performance than when watching a carefully choreographed work. I think we get more of an insight into the individual when watching someone improvise. Performance in general either leads the performer to become something completely other than themselves, or to expose something quite personal. And perhaps through improvisation they are more inclined to reveal something of themselves; the spontaneity does not provide such a mask.
Certainly when teaching I use these improvisational tasks to get to know a new group, to suss out how each dancer responds, and what they’re comfortable doing. And I observe self-confidence grow, and see delight in movement. There’s a lot to be said for ‘making it up’.