The limits of improvisation are not clearly defined, and its theoretical complications even less easily unraveled. Its nuances far surpass any immediate attempts at definition, just as its influence reaches across, around, and through disciplines. However, in an effort to discuss the possible implications of improvisation as a politically meaningful practice, I believe it is appropriate to begin with an exploration of the body. Whether in dance, music, or theatre, improvisation is highly physicalized, and its somatic implications have perhaps been under- explored in many past attempts at theorization. Secondly, its scholars must examine whether in the improvisatory act, the body and mind become intertwined and ultimately transcend traditional notions of physical-intellectual dualism. At the core of improvisational theory there seems to be an essential resistance to improvisation’s inherent ephemerality: the elusive, extraordinary singularity of the moment in which improvisation resides continues to evade most attempts at capture. Altogether, improvisation’s many gradations and subtleties make it a meaningful and often contentious source of debate.
The products of improvisation seem to strike a chord within the collective consciousness that illuminates some fundamental aspect of the human experience. Even so, though improvisation has long been utilized as a tool in the process of choreography, it is still resisted as the substance of the performance itself. To put improvisation on a concert stage is an enormous risk: for the audience, there is no way to anticipate what will emerge; for the performer, whose performance will not only rely on vulnerability but will inevitably be inseparable from his or herself, improvisation can be intensely intimate. The element of unpredictability in improvisation is often a source of discomfort. It holds the almost certain promise of unbalance, of disorientation, and thus also an ability to shift the notions of control that define and often confine the human being. Consequently, I have come to believe that improvisation can be politically meaningful because of its potential for dissonance, its singularity in the moment, and its ability to destabilize authority and allow for alternate definitions of equilibrium.
The Body vs. Mind Debate
Perhaps because the mind is the most immediately evident source of reasoning, human beings rely on it as the central source of consciousness. We have rarely allowed for the possibility of a bodily intelligence—the hope of reaching an understanding through any means other than the intellectual and thus easily documented. I am reminded of the words of Barbara Browning: “There are things I learned in Brazil with my body,” she wrote, “and some of these things it has taken me years to learn to articulate in writing. But that is not to say that they were without meaning when I could only speak them through dance” (Samba: Resistance in Motion, xi). According to the kind of horizontal thinking that dualism promotes, the mind is somehow more reliable, more intelligent, and more holy than the body is. In Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, Elizabeth Grosz writes, “Dichotomous thinking necessarily hierarchizes and ranks the two polarized terms so that one becomes the privileged term and the other its suppressed, subordinate, negative counterpart. The subordinated term is merely the negation or ￼denial, the absence of or privation of the primary term, its fall from grace” (3). These definitions name the body as “a brute givenness which requires overcoming, a connection with animality and nature that needs transcendence” (4). In other words, while the mind is equated with spirituality and intellect, the body is relegated to sin, animality, carnality, and decay, and is left to the tangible world alone.
If the body is seen as a conduit for the animal’s earthy, instinctual response, the loss of mental control that improvisation offers allows for the possibility of aggression. The animal thus seems the antithesis of rationality, a quality that is privileged in Western thinking because of its relation to intellectualism. Improvisation threatens the foundations of humanity’s superiority; the means by which we have defined ourselves are suddenly erased and new energies privileged in their stead. The ability to let oneself fall, carried by the unrepeatable force of the instant, and be thrust into the next moment is a power we have pushed away throughout years of establishing critical, technological, and cerebral capacities. However, that fall requires an instantaneous union between spiritual, intellectual, physical and emotional boundaries, drawing the self together in an immediate, all-encompassing reply.
The Choreography of Power
Everyday life can be seen as a pre-choreographed performance. Human activity is shaped by learned techniques, which in turn are decided by gender, race, heredity, social status, origin, upbringing, schooling, clothing, and further physical training. From this vantage point, both personal and administrative hierarchies begin to emerge from the woodwork. In his introduction to Taken by Surprise: A Dance Improvisation Reader, David Gere writes of the small deviances from his daily routine as minor improvisations (xvii). However, we cannot merely equate ￼improvisation with noncompliance; following this logic, it could be said that even highly choreographed public protests are a form of improvisation, merely because of their resistance to established structures. However, I think there is something to Gere’s claim that his little quotidian rebellions are improvisatory in nature. As Michel de Certeau writes in his Practices of Everyday Life, “If it is true that the grid of ‘discipline’ is everywhere becoming clearer and more extensive, it is all the more urgent to discover how an entire society resists being reduced to it, what popular procedures (also ‘minuscule’ and quotidian) manipulate the mechanisms of discipline and conform to them only in order to evade them . . .” (xiv). These deviances from the ordinary, these improvisations, may be how human beings “resist being reduced” to mere chess pieces, and retain the essential experience, or at least the appearance, of free will.
Society profits from the choreographed consistency of its citizens, especially in the workforce. Improvisation—along with the uncertain future it holds in the moment of decision— brings with it the possibility of dissent or protest, and allows for multiple decisions to be made in the moment—like Newton’s apple, mid-fall. As Robert Turner writes for Dance Research Journal about Steve Paxton, one of the founders of Contact Improvisation: “[he] also explained that emancipation or constraint in our movement and contact was a form of political power: “We are conditioned to voluntary slavery. In a democracy, dictators must demand that others be slaves; fortunately for the dictators, the American life produces slaves who are unaware of the mechanism of that production” (124, Dance Research Journal). In other words, the exclusion of the body from popular and political discourse may have effectively suppressed attempts at social movement or change. In this way, improvisation can be seen as a threat to existing power ￼structures, especially when seen as a series of alternative patterns in the tightly-woven fabric of everyday life.
Improvisation also poses a challenge to another Western obsession: a belief in the necessity of documentation. There seems to be a common conviction that an experience gains both popular and historical legitimacy only because of its official classification and repetition to future generations. By its very definition, improvisation denies the written record. In fact, the substance of improvisation, the very core of its being, is not possible within the structured confines of the traditional archive. As Peggy Phelan writes in Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, “Performance’s only life is in the present. . . . [it] cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. . . . Performance’s being . . . becomes itself through disappearance” (146). She continues: “The document of a performance then is only a spur to memory, an encouragement of memory to become present” (Phelan, 146). If the improvisatory act is recorded, the work produced is then disparate from the original and becomes its own object. Therefore, improvisation’s substance is the stuff of the instant—that which cannot become immortal. Its ephemerality forces us into a confrontation with the present moment, while effectively reminding us of our own mortality.
Leaving Room for the Unexplained
Can we witness something else at work in improvisation than merely the products of the human unconscious made manifest? Is there perhaps some great, spiritual source of energy from which the stuff of improvisation springs? Some are in favor of such a wellspring, while others ￼protest its existence, suggesting that improvisation is very rarely original and allows for nothing more than the regurgitation of information that has been consciously or unconsciously imbibed throughout the course of a lifetime. Gary Peters, author of The Philosophy of Improvisation, considers this problem: “Think of the dubious automatism that is too easily and too often promoted as a quasi-spiritual force surging through the veins of the improvisor without regard for the manner in which the automatic is, in truth, the product of training, rote learning, and an absolute embedded-ness in the given to the point of forgetfulness” (118). However, I feel that the possibility of mysticism in the improvised should not be discounted. Jazz, a primarily improvised form, has evolved into a spiritual expression for many artists. Arguably, the stuff of spirituality is just that which improvisation produces, perhaps as a result of the mining of human emotion and consciousness that it necessitates.
What Are We So Afraid Of?
There is something essential about improvisation—something at its very core, transcending genre and form—that frightens us, that unsettles everything we know to be secure. In it lies the prospect of disharmony, and the distinct possibility that we will be faced with our own imperfections. There is some reminder of death in improvisation. This could be due to its ephemerality—its evocation of our own corporeal impermanence. It might have something to do with our relationship to temporality, at one minute bringing us back to the liminal stages of childhood, and at the next thrusting us into the present, hurling us into the certainty of age, of our future bodies. It might be related to vulnerability and to an emotional and spiritual flaying that lays us bare and undefended by reason. Or it might force some recollection of connections to our animal selves—the flesh-and-blood fact of being or having bodies that many use intellectualism and art to try to escape. Improvisation takes courage. But if we so choose, we can use its uncertainty to regain power in our own lives. It can inspire a revision of dualistic principles, allowing for the development of a bodily consciousness. And ultimately, in improvisation lies the potential for humanity to shape an accepting society with the ability to choose its future, even in the midst of falling.
Browning, Barbara. Samba: Resistance in Motion. Indiana University Press, 1995.
De Certeau, Michel. “Walking in the City.” The Practices of Everyday Life. Berkeley and Los
Angeles: University of California Press, 1984.
Gere, David. Taken By Surprise: A Dance Improvisation Reader. Eds. Ann Cooper Albright and David Gere. Wesleyan University Press: 2003.
Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Peters, Gary. The Philosophy of Improvisation. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance.
Turner, Robert. “Steve Paxton’s “Interior Techniques:” Contact Improvisation and Political Power” Dance Research Journal