improvising to films: exercises in locating the inner structure (part 1)

Getting ready for the Sidewalk Tzara performance tomorrow. Friend and collaborator Jen Green came up this past weekend, so we could spend some time in the studio. A quick little trip we’d planned maybe a month ago, before I remembered there was a workshop at WREN I wanted to take. A hands on workshop in collaboration, a topic, as you know, quite near to my heart. Taught by two visual artists working primarily in paper and fabric, it was a fun afternoon of catching up, experimenting and diving deep into the mysteries of making.

Jen and I had decided to start working on something together back in the fall, when we reconnected after some years of having fallen out of touch. We had no rigid idea of what that working together might look like, just the growing desire to collaborate, like a small occasional tap on the shoulder. We kept at it, kept paying attention to the tap, and kept lightly nagging each other, until an opportunity arrived that we both could say yes to, namely, this funny little gig in Cambridge at Outpost 186. For this first phase of our collaboration, we’ll be dancing to/with films made by George Manupelli.

We’ll be working with two very different films. The first one, Five Short Films, circa 1964, runs about 10 minutes total, and features music by Manupelli, Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma. It feels more like a very loud poem than a film, as it juxtaposes tender and cryptic titles (“I love you, do not be afraid” for example) with the blaring assaults of the stripped down sound score and screaming streams of images created by physically manipulating the film itself with various scratching, etching and soaking techniques.

The second film, August 2009, (which will have its public premier tomorrow at Sidewalk Tzara) runs 18 minutes and is comprised almost entirely of a fixed frame, single shot of a summer thunder-storm in decrescendo, filmed from the deck in Manupelli’s backyard. Bookended by the sound of a typewriter striking each letter of a blunt and brief breakup note, the film unfolds at a rate that tests the patience of most viewers, and offers the opportunity to pay attention to change, narrative, emotion and time in some new and perhaps uncomfortable ways.

So, we head to the studio, to rehearse. (How do you rehearse for improvisational performance, you ask? That’s a question I get a lot, and a good topic for another post!) We arrive, with some questions. How can we improvise, and have a relationship to the films being projected that is authentic, interesting, fresh and conscious without setting any material? The films exist already, and we are not interested in choreographing to them. Nor are we interested in acting them out, representing them through gesture or movement, or any other literal approach to meaning-making. How can we shape an approach that is valid on its own, honors the films and feels interesting/compelling enough on the inside to stay engaged?

Where to begin? With listening. Listening for the impulse to move, listening for what shows up, to what asks for attention. We decide to “warm up into finding each other,” a technique we often practice where we begin as soloists, warming ourselves up from the inside out, eventually finding each other, working together and then, together, finding an end. For example, one might shift and move one’s attention say from breath into bone into muscle into shifting weight, into pushing up out of the floor into noticing the space into noticing the presence of the other in that space into noticing the relationship between oneself and any and all of these things, including the other and then working together to shape what happens from there into finding an end.

Sometimes this process can take a minute. Other times it takes a while to drop in and feel connected. On this particular day, it’s 8 degrees outside and the studio floor is ice cold. We decide to take it slow, and give ourselves a half hour.

Five Short Films

After warming up, we come up with an idea to trade solos back and forth, a kind of simple call and response structure that could travel alongside each of the five 2 or so minute-ish films. In theory, it seems like a viable score. Until we actually try it. Seems way too contrived, artificial, and limiting, especially as we try to more or less hit the two-minute mark with each solo. (note: while we have seen the films several times, we were not actually working with them on this day). And it starts to bring us into territory where we almost feel like we’re trying to match or mark the course of each film, which in a curious way starts to lean towards narrative. And while I can be a big fan of a story, it’s not what we’re after here.

So, we let go of that score. We let go of the idea of trading altogether, and instead try on the idea of replacing. One person enters the space and moves for an undetermined amount of time, playing with moving in and out of stillness. The other person watches, waits until a compelling image takes hold, and then enters into that image, (shape, stillness, what have you) replacing the first body in the space, and continuing on from there. In this way, the duet unfolds, a series of overlappings in the space, informed (but not limited) by the unfolding structure of the films.

Immediately I felt my connection to what I was doing deepen, my curiosity get sharper. It was clear we had found a workable score, one with just the right balance of enough structure and plenty of freedom, one that could hold its own in a living, responding evolving way… and keep opening doors into fresh, unexplored territory.

to be continued in… Part Two: August 2009
and Perception as a Practice of Patience