Salon NOTEBOOK: Dance Improvisation Fest
by Zachary Whittenburg
The panel of ten on-the-spot choreographers and composers brought together by the first improvised dance festival in Chicago wore garments on June 15 that hit most of Roy G. Biv's signposts on the rainbow. Colors of fabrics on bodies seated in an arc, onstage at the Dance Center of Columbia College, included crimson, an orangey red, a grassy green, primary blue, lavender, black and white. No one wore yellow, but the prevailing energy at that and other events I attended during the week was sunny enough to call the spectrum complete.
As was the spectrum of work on display, excepting culturally specific dance forms that are also improvisational, though this is not a complaint. To attempt comprehensiveness in a first-ever festival would be foolhardy; the Dance Improvisation Fest, curated by Lisa Gonzales, put quality first and struck a fine balance between focus and variety. The field, after all, hosts a huge conversation, proved by the panel called "Ranging Definitions and Curiosities of Improvisation," which concluded the Chicago Dancemakers Forum's 2010-11 Salon series. There are "improvisologies" and "improvisosophies," as Jennifer Kayle reminded us.
Even so, Chris Aiken, while discussing the familial nature of his work with partner Angie Hauser, said, "One of my teachers is sitting right next to me," and put his hand on Nancy Stark Smith's left leg. That gesture set off a chain-reaction of grabbing of teachers' legs, until the entire panel was connected by laughter and touch. As the moment faded, Katherine Ferrier folded over and pressed her palm to the floor, to the Earth.
Aiken continued, on perception and agency--"The world becomes a very, very different place if you change the way you see it"--and on his "deep, deep curiosities about imagination."
"Tips of icebergs," Smith responded, which I remembered later while watching Rebecca Bryant perform Suite Female: Part 1 at Fest event "Duet with Piece of String," on June 16 at Links Hall.
One hundred nineteen lines beginning "The woman who" were spoken end-to-end by text-to-speech software she and collaborator Don Nichols found online. Auto-completing search fields provided the words; some came after typing "The man who" and were simply given two letters. We heard of the woman who leads the church the woman who carries the desert around inside herself the woman who was clever the woman who loves women while Bryant repeated her motions, a little bigger each time. The woman who saw it first the woman who predicts earthquakes the woman who invented sin--Bryant twisted like the agitator of a washing machine on the diagonal, expanding and contracting the length of her torso, extending and withdrawing her hands on this axis, everything coordinated in a full-body gesture--the woman who made the Beatles the woman who cast two shadows the woman who didn't wash her dishes the woman who planted trees...
This was one of the Fest's most strict improvisations, limited in palette albeit exploding with suggestions, the result of choice, a word that came up frequently during the Salon.
"I've gotta say that I'm a choreographer," said Bebe Miller, punching her palm. "Making compositional choices and trying to remember them: That's the deal. What path was that? What state of mind? What state of body?" she asked.
The relationship between inner and outer selves was a motif of Gonzales's statements about the Fest. "It's so easy to forget that our conceptual selves and our language selves are separate from our somatic selves," affirmed Aiken. "Considering that the language that you use to dialogue with your inner self or with others is connected to your relationships with gravity, with sound and with light, sometimes the thing that you need is to dilate out to absorb more. And sometimes what you need to do is contain yourself to focus more."
Later, he observed of his work with Hauser, "When it's going well, we're like tuning forks."
This point was underscored by how many improvising musicians were a part of the Fest: Nichols with Bryant, Mike Vargas with Smith and dancer Ray Chung, Ensemble V with the Architects, Ty Burhoe and Jesse Manno with Aiken and Hauser, Frank Rosaly with all comers in Chicago's Grant Park, not to mention an eight-way music-and-dance impromptu on June 13 called SUPERCOLLIDER.
"In a way, musicians have it easier," proposed Ensemble V's Arthur Brooks. "We have this something between us, can respond through an instrument which hopefully we've mastered." I thought of that statement on June 17 while watching FIGMENT by Chung, Smith and lighting designer Julie Ballard, with Vargas seated nearby at a piano.
Chung, Smith and Vargas had things between them, as well: Years of shared history as artists and performers, the packets of information contained in points of physical contact, and the "instrument" of any space that's been given collective focus. Vargas spread his arms wide to hit the piano's highest and lowest keys simultaneously and then, like a camera's aperture quickly narrowing to capture the perfect shot, he brought his hands side-by-side. Chung and Smith came together at about the same time to slough, sling and somersault off of each other.
FIGMENT closed with a memorable image: Seated facing upstage, the two dancers became silhouettes as a shifting, silvery apparition appeared on video (by Vargas) in the top-right corner--like the stamp on an envelope--of the Dance Center stage's rear scrim. Its glint could have been many things; I saw nacre catching moonlight at the bottom of a shallow tide pool. Afterward, the three performers immediately trotted out to grab seats in the front row to watch the Architects (Ferrier, Gonzales, Kayle and Pamela Vail) perform 9 Offerings Reunions Firsts with Ensemble V (Brooks, Nelson Caldwell, Barry Ries, Anthony Santor and Matt Weston).
That sunny energy saturating Fest events wasn't easy to name, nor would it have had the same name for everyone. After the panel was opened up to questions, a member of the audience asked Smith what role spirituality played in her work.
"I don't have a simple answer for that," she replied. "I had to admit after awhile, when we were writing course descriptions and stuff, that contemplative practice was so deeply in so much of the things that we were doing, and yet we never talked about it." She recalled dancemaker Simone Forti observing, "‘It sounds like you're wanting to improvise from a state of grace.'"
"I felt like I was kind of nailed," Smith admitted.
Aiken's response to a request for further thoughts on agency brushed the same topic's other hemisphere. "One thing I'll ask myself is, What am I doing now that will become an instinct ten years from now? That's where my juice is going.... My agency is continuing to go to my growing edge, knowing that the payback is not going to come for a long while."
Plugging the Architects' workshop on June 17, Ferrier added with a chuckle, "We can give you some tools to answer your questions properly: With more questions."
At venues including Mies van der Rohe's pristine Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology and Agora, Magdalena Abakanowicz's 106 rusting, cast-iron sculptures in Grant Park, the breadth of dance shown over eight days was just the tip of an iceberg--most dance on Earth is improvised, after all. But choreography and improvisation go hand-in-hand, expressed particularly clearly during Miller's solo Duet with Piece of String, and Utopia Parkway, the interdisciplinary creation of seven artists, danced by Aiken and Hauser on June 18. Both were works-in-progress.
The latter began coolly formal, its two dancers slowly revealed by video-projected white zips dividing black, reminiscent of Barnett Newman's 1965 canvas, Twelfth Station. (Media were designed by Priscilla Guy and Nathan Ruyle.) The severity of Utopia's beginning softened as we were given enough light (by Kevin Rechner) to notice more natural textures, including wooden boxes stacked precariously, Andy Goldsworthy-style, and Hauser's fiery red hair. She placed one of ten large, blue-green jugs behind a secondary screen mid-stage on the right; the projector on the floor behind this screen made its shadow loom large. The jug's mottled glass refracted light such that its silhouette appeared to frame the Crab Nebula.
Then, in a dissolution of boundaries between inner and outer, the shadow disappeared, and this blue-green, heavenly body was left floating in space. Nothing remained of a once-solid container except the magic effects of its interaction with light.
Hauser spoke with a group of Chicago artists about the festival after the show.
"Make them do this again!" she demanded. It reminded me of her triumphant, cheerleader fist-pumps and jumps toward the end of Utopia. I remembered how Aiken chose one box to bring with him as he exited stage right shortly thereafter.
The Chicago Dancemakers Forum's 2010-11 Salon series concluded June 15 at the Dance Center of Columbia College, in conjunction with the first Dance Improvisation Fest, curated by Lisa Gonzales and coproduced with Links Hall. More than fifty artists participated in installations, performances, public events, workshops and discussions, in multiple venues around the city of Chicago from June 12-19, 2011. The festival was sponsored by The Boeing Company with additional support from Arts Midwest, Chicago Community Trust, Chicago Dancemakers Forum, Dance/USA, Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, Illinois Arts Council, James S. Kemper Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, National Performance Network and numerous generous individuals.