Musings about the process of creating dance.
Improv > Improve
By Nancy Evans Doede
Why should a dancer improvise? Simply put, to develop a personal vocabulary. In my experience as a dancer, actor, choreographer and director, improvisation is the one tool that has taught me more about how to “be” all of those things better than technique classes, scene study, or preparing for rehearsals.
My mentor, Hanya Holm, often spoke about the need to explore every movement to its extremes so that you have more to choose from when you work. When I had the privilege to study and dance with Nancy Hauser and her company, she infused improvisation into our daily routine. Nancy taught me not only how to improvise, but how to use it as a way to extend my vision.
For me, “improv-ing” is much different than putting on a piece of music and moving to it -- although there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, there is no “right” or “wrong” when improvising. It is a tool for exploration; an immersion in the present tense; an opportunity to expand your own inner and outer awareness of the space within you and outside of you. Just as a writer uses specific language to describe or narrate, an artist who improvises discovers specific language for her/himself.
At NEDT, we are using structured improv regularly in our class and rehearsal process to help us stretch our boundaries and become better interrelated when we dance. Sometimes we use parts of speech such as adjectives or verbs as a springboard for exploration. Sometimes we use more pedestrian actions like walking, sitting, nervous habits -- again, as a springboard to find new ways to move. We always begin our improv session working solo altogether in the space. Sometimes it stays that way, and sometimes we incorporate other dancers in the progression. Starting out solo helps the individual to center and focus inward, helping to remove distractions or a feeling of being scattered. Once the prompt of the improv has been individually established in movement, then it is often a normal progression to involve others and collaborate, further expanding and defining the original prompt. Sometimes, when I lead the improv, I will make adjustments to the prompt while the dancers are improvising, giving instruction or guidance into moving the process forward. Sometimes, I say nothing, allowing the dancers to explore, evolve, collaborate, devolve and organically finish the improv when it has exhausted itself.
Every dance has a core. Every dance is “about” something. Maybe there is no storyline, but movement is language. The core of the dance should inform the movement, which may mean that the choreographer will need to stretch beyond a “style” in order to achieve what the dance demands. Using improvisation in the studio, or asking dancers to improvise in order to draw from their movement to help fulfill the choreography is a great way to bring your idea into reality. The beauty of improvisation as a tool to the choreographer, is that when “stuck” in a choreographic loop, it can free both the choreographer and the dancer by allowing them to stop and return to an organic approach to the concept of the piece. Improvising can bring new movement that the choreographer may never have conceived alone that will take the dance to the next level.
Why should a dancer improvise? TO IMPROVE!
The Big, the Bad, and the Wolfie
The making of “Be Afraid of Virginia Woolf”
by Scot Tupper
After dancing with NEDT for several years, I decided it was time for me to choreograph for a change. Several heavy pieces already existed in our repertoire, so I wanted to do something light, and hopefully fun, for the cast as well as the audience. Fairy tales and nursery rhymes have always been dear to me, and I decided to lean on a well known story to fill in any gaps I might leave as a choreographer. The Little Red Riding Hood story started off the series as there is a lot of room for both humor and athleticism in that tale. The second installment based on the Three Little Pigs was the next logical extension, even if my treatment of it was not. Several little jokes worked their way into the pieces: some obvious, some subtle but perceptible to an attentive audience, some just for me.
The creation process for both sections of Be Afraid of Virginia Woolf, “The Girl in Red” and “In a Pig’s Eye”, was very different than how I’ve worked before, or how any of my mentors worked. Since the pieces are story driven, I started with a live-action story boarding process. I used character placement on stage to shape how I wanted the interactions to feel, then added more specific movements and levels as we progressed. From the outside, it felt a bit like watching a Polaroid develop. From the inside, I may have frustrated my dancers a bit by not giving them specific steps from the get-go. All of the dancers, however, rose to the challenge and brought their characters to life.
By working with such well known stories, the visuals were more important to me initially than specific movements. Consequently, the costumes were developed in tandem with, or even before, the movement. The most innovative costume/dance collaboration was Jenn Logan’s use of the wolf tail. I wanted an oversized tail that she could add femininity to, much like the cat from the Pepe le Pew cartoons. After some brain storming with Jenn and a few trips to hardware stores and fabric stores, the long, springy, furry tail came into being. An evening of Jenn improving with the apparatus brought about a majority of the movements that were ultimately used in both pieces.
For “The Girl in Red” the cloak was a must. Again, the costume dictated much of the movement. In many cases I was choreographing the cape and directing the dancer, Katrina Amerine, a bit like a puppeteer. As the story-boarding progressed, Katrina added more and more of her own character elements bringing to life a Red who was real, brave, and naïve bordering on ditzy; just as Red should be.
The three little pigs started with an even more exact visual seed. I wanted pigs en pointe, with the multiple tutus, and knew I wanted to use Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Three Little Maids from School” from “The Mikado.” I have to again thank Jenn for collaborating on the story-boarding process. The challenge from there was to find the additional music that fit both the narrative and the seed idea. After talking myself into and out of it several times, I settled on excerpts of the ballet music from “Faust.” Not only did I like the music, but also liked the connotation of the decent into hell as the wolf stalked and ate the pigs. Oh yes, in my mother’s version the wolf always ate the first two pigs!
There is more to come in the saga of Virginia Woolf. The exact details are still to be decided: whether she will have a suitor, or if we’ll further explore her taste for mutton and wild game.
Alter Ego for WeAreTheContributors.com
By Jenn Logan
In 2014 I was invited to create an original work for WeAreTheContributors.com, an online space that brings together artists, designers, photographers and all kinds of makers around creative projects to inspire and build community across mediums. We were asked to explore the theme, Alter Ego—to inhabit the mind, space and life of another person or another facet of ourselves. By some odd cosmic coincidence I had just begun to explore a new dance work that explored exactly that, though I didn't know it yet.
What started out as a solo, set on Jen Hunter, about fear became a duet about control....because as it turns out, my biggest fear is losing control. What we uncovered as the piece developed were two very distinct personas that I use to keep my fear in check. There is the external persona (calm, collected, balanced) that I show the world, and the internal persona (pushing, driving, controlling) that gets me through the day — my alter ego. This piece, performed by Jen Hunter and myself, is an illustration of the struggle that's usually, expertly hidden from view.
“I am proud to be an alter ego, but it was a challenging process. Once I realized that I could bring my own passion and my own story into the work, it began to develop a beautiful complexity. Working with Jenn was wonderful. She talked me through her ideas and I was able to understand what she wanted more than the physical dance movement, but what she wanted to get across emotionally. ”
— Jen Hunter
Watch the original Alter Ego here.