The students arrive at the first rehearsal, a little nervous and unsure what to expect. I have asked them to bring a notebook and something to write with in to the studio. Just by chance, most of these students have never been cast in any of my choreographic works before. And, for some, this isthe first time they had been cast in faculty work in college. The rehearsals arefor our Faculty and Guest Artist Dance Concert, but also for their ‘Practicum in Dance’ course. There are two seniors, two juniors, one sophomore and two freshmen. This cast has more underclassmen in it than I typically work with for my faculty concert pieces and I briefly wonder how they will approach this particular challenge.
They take a seat on the floor in the studio facing the large television on the wall. I explain to the dancers that with this piece, I want to explore creating choreography in a way that is different than what they might be used to. I want to explore movement using some of the Improvisation Technologies, created by William Forsythe, the Director of the Frankfurt Ballet for over 20 years and current director of the Forsythe Company.
I explain that while on sabbatical the previous year, I began to study a different way to observe movement and create relationships between the movement, the dancer and the space and I was interested in using these concepts in a piece of choreography. I had found that they changed the way I went about creating movement patterns and thought the same might be true of the students. I can see that this is going to be an assignment that will push these dancers to new places in terms of comfort and artistry. Although I am also the choreographer of this piece, the teacher in me smiles at this opportunity.
The Improvisation Technologies were developed by Forsythe to “derive unexpected kinds of movement from the vocabulary of classical ballet”. They are very complex and could be studied and examined in depth for years. As they mostly involve the relationship of different parts of the body to each other, they do not have to specifically be used in ballet choreography. I chose only a few of the more basic concepts from the ‘Technologies’ that I wanted the students to explore. We began by watching the DVD of Forsythe explaining and demonstrating each of the concepts that we would use. The two main concepts we were using were called Lines and Rotating Inscriptions. Lines deals with drawing lines (through movement) in space from one body part to another. Rotating Inscription is the ability to write (words) with virtually any part of the body and with as many parts of the body as possible- not just the extremities.
After watching each video selection, I had the students write some notes and then begin to create movement that was associated with the concept just presented in Forsyth’s video. We repeated this for a few different sections of the video and for the first few weeks of rehearsal.
Some of the students jumped right in and I could see their excitement at being challenged to think about creating movement in a different and very abstract way. Some of the students moved hesitantly. I could tell they were worried if they were doing it ‘right’. By design, there was no meaning or emotion behind what they were creating and for some this was liberating and for some it was very scary.
After each session of improvising on one of the concepts from the technologies, we would come back together as a group and discuss the experience that the dancers just had. Their comments reinforced what I had observed as I watched them move though the space. Some dancers felt that with creating the movement this way, it was harder to find movements that really traveled through the space. They felt the movements they were inspired to create this way were more stationary, which was not a bad thing but just different from their habits. Some of the younger dancers commented that after a few minutes of improvisation, it felt like they ‘kept doing the same thing’. A couple of the older dancers with more composition and improvisation experience felt that these structured improvisations were really helpful to break them out of their personal movement habits. One of the larger challenges for all of the dancers was writing with the body. They often fell back in to using arms or legs as the part of the body that was doing the writing instead of, for example, a hip, the head or a knee.
We discussed the concerns the students had and over the next few rehearsals, continued to explore the concepts and, with this, all of the dancers comfort level with the work increased.
For the students, this project continued to challenge them as we moved away from improvising to working with the set material that was becoming the structure of the piece. The movement did not always have an organic flow to it because of the way that the choreography was created. This made, for some, remembering the sequences more difficult.
Having never worked with the Improvisation Technologies in a piece of choreography prior to this, I had mixed feelings about the result. I was really pleased with the way that the project opened the students to other ways of generating movement through improvisation. It really helped the students became more comfortable working with abstract movement because it gave them ‘rules’ to consider while creating their material.
However, because I used some of the material that students generated in the choreography, and they were still in the infancy of using these concepts, in my role of choreographer, I felt that some phrase work could have been more sophisticated. In my next article, I will explore seeing and reacting to this work simultaneously as a teacher and a choreographer.