the improvisor

the international journal on free improvisation

Impnotes.jpg (5397 bytes) WE've MOVED 

see new address and contact email  in ABOUT US   




Hot Links

About Us

What's NEW?



      Response in defense of "process oriented" work
                              to the Arts reviewer of The Birmingham News

          b   y      S  u  s  a n    H  e  f   n e  r


Dear Ms. Raabe,

I've been thinking about your dislike of the piece I choreographed last

summer, Forest Rising, which you called a questionable use of state

funds. I think the dialogue surrounding this issue is important, so I've

decided to share the history and purpose of the piece with you. With a

little more information perhaps you'll find some answers to your questioning.

I grew up in Birmingham, and I love the people there very much, especially

the artists. I decided to choreograph Forest Rising after noticing very

few people of color involved in the annual improvisation festival. I've

been casually mentioning that things weren't right to the other

participants for a couple of years, my old friends there, and the

organizers. Some people gave feeble excuses that black artists are trained

differently, wouldn't be interested, etc. Others really wanted things to

change, but just didn't know how to go about instigating more interaction

between people of different backgrounds.

I set out to change this, by choreographing a piece for 10 dancers in a

special outdoor site: some foundation ruins at Sloss Furnaces National

Historic Landmark. I decided to make the piece itself about overcoming

oppression, and make special efforts to recruit black dancers. I figured in

representing cooperation and community, we'd have to literally create close

relationships in our own group. My main goal was for people to make

friends cross-race and include each other in future projects. I prepared

for a year, calling up people, getting the sponsorship of the Birmingham

Art Association and Sloss Furnaces. I made myself a five-week residency in

which to create the piece, and absented myself from my work in New York

completely unpaid.

My dear dancer friend and cohort, Leah Chevalier, went with me as assistant

director. Leah is an ace dancer of African heritage. We were ideal allies

for the project in Birmingham, which brought up huge feelings for both of

us about battling racism. We didn't think it would be easy.

One of the first obstacles I had to overcome was the skepticism of whites

about the project. They waffled more about joining the project than people

of color. I think the prospect of confronting their own racism, and working

closely with people of color was terrifying. When I advertised the audition

as being for dancers of all ethnic backgrounds, even one white dance leader

who was trying to be supportive referred to my project as being for


Gathering the cast took effort. I made personal appointments, worked around

people's schedules with childcare, and made contact by phone and mail with

community dance teachers explaining my project and point of view in a

straightforward way. I explained the necessity of having an audition: to

see the dancers' strengths and be assured they would be safe in the

demanding environment, and for them to audition me, see my methods and

decide if they would like to work with me. I apologized for the low pay and

assured them of my great respect for artists and my efforts on their behalf

to secure funding in what is an irrational and non-workable system.

Sitting in a circle, we introduced ourselves, said where we were born and

raised, and what we love about dancing. I figured being dancers would be a

natural point of solidarity. I had them break into small groups of 3 or 4

to solve a movement problem together improvisationally, to give me a chance

to see how well they listened to each other's input and cooperated in a

group process. At the end I started a trend we kept all month: I asked each

person to mention things they enjoyed about the evening and to say

something appreciative about the person on their left. I explained how as

artists we're generally real hard on ourselves because the society

perpetuates harsh criticism, and that this would help. This practice set

the tone for a supportive, safe environment.

I picked the people who seemed like they had the best shot at working well

together for the project 7 people of color and 4 whites, with a 32-year

age span. Brandon, age 14, is a student at Alabama School of Fine Arts. He

and his two 16- year-old friends Alexis and Vanessa, who were also in the

cast, praise-dance together at their church. Lavondia leads an African

dance troupe and teaches at Miles College; Mishra, Kristin, and Mary dance

with Southern Danceworks (Mary is the former director); Deborah teaches at

the University of Montevallo. Ginger produces local variety shows, and is

an improvisor from way back. I invented a narrator role for Neko, an

experienced performance artist. Leisha, a local poet, (and college

professor) wrote the text.

In the 2nd rehearsal I gave them instructions for sharing 5-minute

listening sessions in pairs, which we continued to do every rehearsal from

then on. They took turns listening to each other with complete respect and

without interrupting, as a way of clearing their minds for the rehearsal

process, and to practice listening to another artist the way they need to

listen to themselves: non-judgmentally, so their ideas as improvisers and

collaborators would be free to flow. This idea was based upon my work as a

teacher of Re-evaluation Counseling, which is an organization for world

change using listening skills. "RC" ideas inform my work's liberation

theory content, as well as its' process, and listening is a large part of

what we do.

The listening time was by far the most popular part of rehearsal. People

complained when it was over; depicted it as the best part of their week;

spontaneously asked if it could be confidential the 2nd week; and some

people began to express emotion in their sessions soon after. I had them

change partners for the listening each time, so everyone would get to know

everyone. Around the second week, Mishra commented she already knew this

group better than she knew the members of her other dance troupe after

working with them for two years. A little listening goes a long way. Four

of the dancers, who are also choreographers, eventually began to use the

listening process in their own work as well, and reported good results.

Early on in the rehearsal process, I set up an improv in which they were to

enter the performance space by climbing over a wall and appearing one by

one. On their own, they appeared in their societal pecking order: most

experienced white dance leader first, youngest female person of color

last. I was disappointed, but had to face the fact my cast simply didn't

have the information they needed to do things differently. I wanted to make

people more aware without blaming people or kicking up enormous self-hatred

and shame, and move things forward for a group that basically has had very

little opportunity to do identity work.

I tried some things. I gave a little talk about oppression the class

system, our natural tendency to be close and cooperate, how we're fed

misinformation about other groups, the divide and conquer strategy. How our

making friends and creating a work together is a way to fight that, and is

significant. I gave a local example: in the Birmingham Civil Rights

Institute, there are laws from the 40's and 50's displayed outlawing people

of different races from playing cards together, playing softball together,

being seen in the same restaurant, etc, among countless other

things. These were the harsh strictures devised for keeping us apart, and

it took harsh strictures because our natural tendency is to be close.

Everyone was stone still during my talk. I think it brought up huge

feelings of terror and rage, usually kept carefully concealed in Birmingham

polite society. Although it seemed to paralyze people, I thought at least

I've openly stated where I'm coming from. Someone later referred to class

oppression in a way that showed she very much understood that talk. But I

decided to try concentrating more on their actual relationships from then

on, instead of talking more about oppression.

During improvisations set up to gather choreography, the younger people of

color looked a little lost, while the more experienced folks looked like

they weren't exactly working together to create something. They were in

competition to see who could come up with the best dance moves, the most

daredevil use of the space, etc. Maybe they thought there would be "stars"

that got all the good roles, and the rest would blend in as chorus, as in

the classical (and classist) dance tradition. To clear that up, I explained

the piece was about cooperation and community, that each person is valued

for her or his unique contribution, and that I would make sure each person

had something special to do based on her special qualities. I see my job as

choreographer to get to know and draw out each person's skills.

Then I consulted each teenager, and asked him or her to pick a buddy from

the experienced folk. I encouraged them to put themselves in the center of

each improv, told them everything they did was visible and important, and

suggested anytime they felt lost or "out of it" they could grab their

buddy, ask questions, or connect physically. The older buddies were honored

to be asked, and reassured at having their skills recognized. Thinking

about a young person as we did stuff helped them begin thinking about the

well-being of the group as a whole. Things seemed to relax after that. It

was a definite turning point.

In forming the actual structure of the choreography in my mind, I thought

of how to use people's skills, what would challenge each person, and what

would be the opposite of where they struggle as people. I structured a

loose through-line about a band of people who traveled from far away,

escaped from an oppressive, irrational society, (ours) and camped out in

the burned-out forest environment for a time to put their heads together

and come up with some rational plans for a better society. I had gymnastic

Mishra appear first as the scout, climbing, perching and scanning the

landscape from the top of a tall column. The others entered, helping each

other over the wall, and ate, slept, dreamed transcendent dreams, worked,

hunted, fought, listened to each other, fell in love, played, perched on

the top of the monoliths as birds, and flew away transformed. I put in

lots of contact, tenderness and lifts so they would physically and

psychically have to rely on each other. I gave a woman who has been hurt by

the "mental health" system and left feeling passive a dance of anger,

release and healing. I gave Lavondia a tree to plant and a dance of growth

to show her spiritual side. Mary represented greed, stole oranges, became

isolated and was eventually welcomed back into the group. Young Alexis

stopped a chaotic fight, emerging as a powerful leader. Brandon and Ginger

had a shy, tender duet representing overcoming racism.

The music was composed after the piece was structured, and performed live

by four improvising musicians on violin, viola, voice, guitar, cello and

percussion. It had elements of Klezmer, medieval and ancient music, and

Eastern European influences. The dancers sang around a group campfire

scene, as well, in strong, clear, well-harmonized voices.

In the final 2 weeks of the process the cast grew closer although I wasn't

able to give them any more direct attention around their relationships; I

was too busy choreographing, leading music rehearsals, editing the text,

helping paint costumes, and trying to make ends meet financially. I was

honest about my struggles in the listening time I shared with them I

remained just another human being like them in spite of being the

designated leader, and delegated as much responsibility as I could to them.

As the show approached and people got scared, patterns of bossiness and

urgency began to come out toward each other. They were showing how much

they cared about the piece, too. I told them it was nice to care about the

piece so much, but our relationships actually come first, because they will

continue. I asked each person to chose someone they'd like to get closer

to, and say why.

Showtime came; the dancers were beautiful. They meshed as a cohesive group

and really threw themselves into the performances with total commitment. I

was sweating in the pit with the four musicians, calling cues, setting

tempos and assisting with percussion. We sold out, even though people had

initially expressed concern I would stage a dance show three nights running

in Birmingham; we had to turn people away. The audiences were very moved.

Some people cried; a black minister said she was going to base her next

sermon on it.

Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised when you, Nancy, a conservative white

critic, panned Forest Rising. I've never seen a worse review; it was

almost laughable. It belittled the piece, and sarcastically praised the

fine view of passing trains. (I actually loved the ambiance of the passing

trains.) There was no mention of race, or the significance of being part of

a mixed-race audience. I was worried that it would confuse the cast or hurt

morale. I wondered if I should talk about artists' oppression, art vs.

capitalism, or even waste energy mentioning it.

I didn't have to worry. After our usual opening circle and go-round for the

dancers to say one thing they did particularly well in the previous

performance, Brandon spontaneously suggested we do another go-round for

people to tell all the good comments they heard about the show. It was

obviously aimed as an appreciation and morale-booster for me; and I was

moved doubly, because it was the first time the group had decided for

themselves on a go-round, and had moved in a forward direction on its own

power without my instigation. The group had acquired a life of its own,

separate from my or Leah's direction.

At the cast party, at my parent's home, people got to relax together, watch

the video, laugh at "mistakes", appreciate each other, and interrupt

self-negation. My friend Ladonna, the music director, an art leader and

instigator of many Birmingham events, glowed about the success of the

project and talked with others about the need to continue working together

cross-racially. Without my saying a word, three people vowed never to let

the black and white arts communities in Birmingham lose touch with each

other again. Several of the dancers thanked me for a life-changing

experience. I plan to check in with this whole group and do reunions when I

go back to Birmingham yearly.

Many of us learned much from Forest Rising. It wasn't perfect; there are

many things I would have done differently with better funding and more

time, such as build a larger platform for audience seating, so more people

could see it. But it was a great way for me to express the love I feel for

the artists of my hometown, and give them every tool I could pass on for

greater solidarity. In hanging together I'm sure the power of Birmingham

artists will overcome the harsh criticism of those that want things to stay

safe, familiar, and forever the same. However, it is necessary to speak up

and defend the BAA's right to present and be funded for challenging,

multi-racial, process-oriented work.

Susan Hefner

New York City


the improvisor
The International web site on free improvisation

[Home  | Articles  |   ReviewsHot Links   |   About Us]