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the improvisor

the international journal on free improvisation


the improvisor festival

~ a review
and overview of improvisation

by Juanita Suarez



the improvisor Festival (July 30-August 29, 2010), celebrated a unique underground movement of creative activity particular to the town of Birmingham.  Beginning in 1976 and continuing 34 years to the present, dance, music and literary improvisation, inspired by a collective of surrealist writers, musicians and dancers native to Southside Birmingham, generated an indigenous, authentic, groundbreaking period of imaginative work based on collaborations between dance, music, and free writing artists.  In dance history books, this kind of movement was only noted by scholars as taking place in New York City during the Judson Church era of the 1970’s.  Yet, dance history books have proven not to be complete; a gap of knowledge exists in terms of this particular creative era that was part of a national improvisation movement. 

Only known by local witnesses who watched or took part in the work, this form of creative scholarship is noticeably absent from national archives reflecting the history of dance improvisation.  When speaking of ‘those days,’ when dance and music were performed as a freer form of expression, past program director of the American Dance Festival, Arthur Schultz Waber, made his point, stating how “the kind of dance and music improvisation, the work you were doing back then (1978-80), was way ahead of its time” (Raleigh, NC, 2000).

The dance and music artists he was referring to were Doug Carroll, Susan Hefner, Mary Horn, Wally Shoup, LaDonna Smith, Juanita Suarez, Sylvia Toffel (Sycamore), and Davey Williams.   

the improvisor festival   created a historic period of dynamic creative activity with 30 days of live dance, music and poetry improvisation at myriad locales throughout the city.  Directed by Birmingham’s LaDonna Smith, international performer and editor of the improvisor International  Journal of Free Improvisation, the festival drew from an extensive roster of national/international artists from Alabama, New York, California, Washington, Georgia, Florida, Italy, England, and India.  Artists from a variety of disciplines came together to not only perform but to remember, reconnect and establish new, future improvisation collaborations.   During group performances and reflections, it became apparent to all involved that improvisation had and continues to be a vital part of creative growth.   Still, there is more to be said about this little known form of art making. 

One might ask, “What is improvisation and why is it significant?”  First of all, improvisation is about creating out of and being in the moment through performance and can be achieved through voice, movement, text, music/sound.  This medium of expression is not per se function-oriented yet it is very practical.  No product is visible once an improvisation has taken place.  Even so, we (the improviser and viewer participant) can come to know how to solve problems creatively because this kind of work draws from imaginary worlds of possibilities.  Improvisation is not exclusive, since we all improvise every day just to survive, but specifically in reference to the professional improviser, this kind of performer, like an alchemist, exercises a power to change one thing into another. 

By digging into a realm one might call ‘ambiguity,’ where ideas have yet to emerge, the improviser creates a world of their own making.  In essence that is what art making is all about: creating worlds.  Art making is about playing with ideas.  Improvisation is also about critically engaging with the world.  Hence, improvisation is about empowerment, thinking critically, solving one’s problems many different ways. 

“Improv” is a healthy form of activity for the creative soul as demonstrated at the Bottle Tree, August 13th, by performers in “Pico Dorado” from Florida, The Shaking Ray Levis from Tennessee with  the legendary chameleon southerner, Col. Bruce Hampton of Georgia appearing in raw improvisation, and another assembled performing ensemble that has been part of, or fundamental to the Birmingham “improv” scene since the 1970’s.  Four sets comprised the repertory for the evening; engaged and inspired music exchanges between players in tune with each other, playing off of each other’s musical nuances generated a connection between player and audience that was palpable.  It was as if everyone took a journey that ended only when an intuitive consensus had been arrived at by each player, all taking place simultaneously.  

The Assembled” was visually punctuated with an interesting counter point of imagery as presented by Claire Barratt whose striking poses created a kind of inter-textuality to the music.  Jill Burton’s entrance, seductive and enticing in terms of what might transpire added another level of visual tension to the music.  Doug Carroll’s playing anchored the group’s musical foray into an anti-melodic wilderness.  What was most refreshing with all the music presented was the purposeful intent to stay away from the expected, the status quo. 

Improvisation, as demonstrated at Children’s Dance Foundation for “Just Move It!” is so much more than dancers just ‘winging it’ for it involves a piercing attention, a discerning self awareness of time, space and action.  The possibility of formulating unusual yet familiar relationships between individuals/objects/text is intrinsic to the heroic act of creating out of the moment.

 This was seen in a duet between Mary Horn and Sycamore Toffel.  Witty in their breathtaking interpretation of women wearing different leveled shoes, the world they conveyed could have been based on fashion models, or modern Asian geishas, or just two clowns on parade.  To multi-task in this kind of creative environment can be overwhelming to the novice performer because there are so many choices to draw from but for these seasoned performers it is much like white water rafting; the improviser navigates past inflexible ideas (rocks), while maneuvering his/her way down pathways leading to new territories and fresh opportunities. 

The concert could also have been titled “Just Have Fun” for Susan Hefner and Michael Evans created a comical narrative that poked fun at the absurd boundaries existent between performer and audience, and all was done while still keeping a beat.  Working with body limitations can be productive, and offers unique ways of looking at narrative renderings.   

A new generation of “improv” performers performed as well; rising to the occasion in terms of inventiveness was the work of Stella Nystrom, Rhea Speights, Deborah Mauldin, and Ashley Muth.   Butoh entrances with suspensions of time created an interesting tension between Mauldin and Muth. 

A picnic was evoked with the help of food. A cake.  The success of this piece rested in the interplay between the soloist, and the absurdities that could be constrewed from the object of desire,  a live improvisation performance art, call it dance without music, satisfying the appetite of both the audience and the performer.

 If improvising is such an exciting venture, one might ask:  Why is it that many performers do not perform improvisations?  Is it because improvisation is easy to do?  I have heard performers comment, “I can do that!”  “Anyone can do that!”  Yet I have noticed how few do.  Why is that?  First of all, improv reveals to the viewer the nuances of a performers’ life in a personal way, making the performer vulnerable to the interpretation of others, since during an improvisation, no time is available to negotiate our presence, to re-design our selves.  And so, what you see is what you get.  Such a relationship between performer and viewer has been identified by film theorist, Laura Mulvey as “the male gaze” (1973), when a performer evokes a sense of “to- be-looked-at-ness.” Although the “male gaze” applies to anyone who performs in any kind of venue, in improvisation it is particularly applicable since the performer is creating something out of “beingness.” 

In translation this means that the art of improvisation is risky business and not for the faint of heart; the improviser has to be confident, fearless and resourceful.  I notice how control freaks do not fare well with improv since the “known” and “unknown” interface (Foster cited in Gere, xiii, 2003) continuously, reconfiguring each new rising moment with another to become something else.  Improvisation is a kind of anarchy, a performer’s claim to artistic freedom, oblivious to the restrictions of codified art making, and yet sophisticated in how performer identities surface and are negotiated.  Thus, improvisation is the voice of an intelligence that exhibits no vested interest in stereotypical thinking.

I have also heard audiences respond enthusiastically, in turn asking, “How do you do that?”  Audiences play a different role during an improvisation because they are active participants in the creation of an improv, which is why I refer to them as viewer participants.  Improvisation is shamelessly interactive, engaging audiences by sharing narrative secrets, making the audience a witness to the daring and cunning a performer works to make manifest.  At the culmination of a performance, viewer participants cite moments during the performance that even the performer was not aware of, sharing perspectives that privilege the viewer.

As a guest artist for the Improvisor Festival and entering the creative scene from the outside, (I have been teaching in the north for 30 years), I had the chance to see Birmingham again with fresh eyes.  What I saw was a whirlwind of activity that engaged a lot of familiar yet new faces.  Young people, new to the free music scene congregated on floors, attentive to and positively responsive to what they were hearing.  I saw communities of artists come together and exchanging their talents.  I saw improvisations taking place in alternative spaces as well as established venues like clubs and restaurants, in open air parking lots, in children gallery sites and the Children’s Dance Foundation Dance Theater.  Birmingham is an “improv” town that has a growing, vital, unique improvisation history.  The community outreach work LaDonna Smith has invested in has inspired me to ignite this kind of activity in the north.

In closing, the most significant reason why improvisation matters is this:  Professional practitioners of improvisation are comfortable and serious about ‘creative play.’  When a sense of child’s play is evoked, one ‘is in the zone’ of an improvisation because the artist is always striving to draw from child-like resources.  Pablo Picasso must have been thinking about the disposition of the improviser when he once said, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” 

                                                                                                                    Juanita Suarez