writers on dancing


Taking Liberties

11th Annual DC International Improvisation Plus Festival
Various Locations
Washington, DC
October 13 - 18, 2005

by George Jackson
copyright ©2005 by George Jackson

Survivors say that it was the prohibition against improvisation that killed modern dance in Germany during the Nazi period. Because improvisation is impossible to control as a process and has unpredictable outcomes, Hitler's bureaucracy became wary of it. New ideas that might turn up in improvisation sessions could prove to be subversive. Indeed, if that is so and improvisation helps to keep us free, I would like to thank this festival's instigators for 11 years of guarding our liberties. Undoubtedly they had fun too, but this festival's smooth operation over a long period of time must have involved work, in particular from its founder, Maida Withers, and her constant colleague, Daniel Burkholder. This year, I saw only two of the improv sessions: "Breaking the Sound Barrier" (October 15, Jack Guidone Theater at Joy of Motion's studios in Friendship Heights) and "Tilt by mostly men" (October 18, Millennium Stage North at Kennedy Center). Mary Wigman, "the giantess" of German modern dance in the first half of the 20th Century, had believed in improvisation for many years prior to the Nazis. She used it as an aide to open new options in choreographing and as a training tool for her students to counterbalance their strict technique classes. Important as it was in her universe, she did not equate it with choreography and warned of its danger for impressionable minds—instilling bad habits instead of broadening the horizon.

Implied in Wigman's comments is that improvisation, which can benefit its participants, is not spectator fare. Wigman's recommendations and strictures still seem valid today despite improv's status as a performance art. At the Oct.15 event, curated by Nancy Havlick and Heidi Schimpf, there was quite a bit of doodling. What stood out in the group work was Hedi Schulz's "Scuff It Up" for 5 tap dancers. Tap is a technique that doesn't allow for much lazying around, so the energy was high from start to finish. It was too high from one of the men who forced every move. He was an example of Wigman's point about improv instilling bad habits, but at least viewers weren't bored.

There were two solos on this program that weren't strictly improvs. Wendy Woodson did stand up comedy with a word text plus movement and mime commentary. Both deliveries, the spoken and the danced, were expert. Yet the story Woodson told wore out its welcome before the piece was done. Holly Bass's performance piece "america" caught the ambience of the drag queen's world to which she added a pinch of politics.

At the Oct.18 event, curated by Withers and involving male musicians, four male performers and two women dressed in male attire, the start was so smooth and varied that "Tilt" seemed a set work but then the action meandered. I didn't see the outdoor postscript to this indoor "Tilt" that took place immediately afterwards on Kennedy Center's River Terrace. None of what I did see was a revelation, but unplanned, improvised surprises do happen. I've experienced them three times, and in all instances while watching unnoticed. One was a dance warm up in a church gym in downtown DC. The dancer (I think he was the artist known as Ajax) apparently loved playing ball and was doing his stretches, plies and leaps while dribbling a basketball and shooting baskets. He fused the game with the dance seamlessly, elegantly, but stopped when he became aware that someone was watching. Another dancer warming up alone in an astonishing way was the Kirov Ballet's Farukh Rhuzimatov, folding himself like strudel dough, holding that position, straightening and refolding. He did it repeatedly, with varied intricacy and intensity, in an upstairs studio of the Kennedy Center prior to being joined by fellow dancers for a formal class. The improvised rehearsal I'll always remember was for a ballet gala at the Vienna Opera that Elena Tchernichova supervised. Maya Plisetskaya was to dance, of course, "The Dying Swan". It was wintry weather and Plisetskaya knew the steps by heart but hadn't had a run-through with the Viennese cellist. She stepped on stage dressed in a tall fur cap, sweater, close fitting woolen trousers and high boots. Partly marking, partly dancing, she adapted Fokine's choreography to what her clothing allowed her to do. The result was musical and more entrancing than the tutu and toe shoe version that evening.

What about Mary Wigman? What did she do when improvisation was banned? Uncertain is the extent to which she complied. In the late 1930s and early 1940s her school was no longer hers alone. She was confused, conflicted about the Nazis, about her own sexuality, and she was painfully yet generously aware that her art was no longer the very latest thing. Yet when Wigman was alone in her studio it is hard to imagine her changing the way she worked. Next year will be the 120th anniversary of Mary Wigman's birth. Will the 12th Annual DCII+ Festival improvise on that theme?

Volume 3, No. 39
October 24, 2005
copyright ©2005 George Jackson



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last updated on October 24, 2005