Improvisation and the sense of imagination

A discussion with Daniel Lepkoff and Lisa Nelson

Contact Quarterly 1992English
Contact Quarterly Vol. 17 No. 2 (Summer/Fall, 1992): 47-50.

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Contextual note
The following is excerpted from a discussion that took place at the Center for New Dance Development (SNDO) in Arnhem, The Netherlands, in March 1990, after a performance of Ball Room, a collaborative duet by Lisa Nelson and Daniel Lepkoff. Ball Room is a scored improvisation: over the course of the 40 minute piece, the dancers generate a flow of discrete, single images. They interact with each other, the space, an assortment of objects (balls, sticks, a pail), taped sound and a pre-set light structure.

LISA KRAUS: My question comes from watching the commitment that never stopped no matter what the action at hand was. That action was completely full-bodied at every moment. I wonder, where does your belief come from? How do you, when you pick up a blue pail, trust that so fully?

DANNY LEPKOFF: There are two things that come to my mind. One is that I feel like it's too late not to have a good time doing what I do, you know, it's too late, I might as well, is the feeling. And then there is the other thought that comes through our rehearsal process and through the work we've each been doing, practicing different techniques in the act of sensing, and I particularly felt tonight's experience of “just staying with something” and watching it grow fat, fatter, around me. 

LISA NELSON: It seems that in looking for an attitude that allows me to continue performing over a period of time, the only attitude that makes me comfortable is that I can be a vehicle for a manifestation of a relationship. That it's not that I am doing it, but that I'm allowing myself to be a vehicle for some communication to come through and that then makes a performance. The fact that someone is there watching it, that creates the commitment. Just by having the two ends present - to know that everything I'm doing is being seen-makes enough tension, creates the commitment. So I practice observing myself, that's my practice. I'm observing myself at the same instant of doing, so that I can play both roles. And the moments when I fade out of focus are also commited moments. I can fade out of focus and be lost in too much information, but since I can practice being seen in that state, then that creates a clear image of that state. It's hard to talk about, but I think probably we all experience moments like that. Right?

The duet is based on one image at a time. Knowing that it takes a certain amount of time for every image to be seen -that is the form we're using. We give each other enough time to sense the resolution of each image that we recognize. This is the way I experience watching things-it takes me a certain amount of time to "grok" an image with all my senses before I'm ready to compare it to the next image, to go on.

Gorm: About the music. It is on tape and it's the most set thing. How do you feel about the fact that you don't have a communication with it?

Lisa N: Well, we don't have a symbiotic communication with it, but it certainly affects our thought. Last night, for instance, we hadn't heard it in a couple of months, so we knew it less well, it was as if someone were playing with us. Tonight I could anticipate better what was coming, which changes my thought. So in a way, it still has a flexibility, a fluidity. If we were doing it every night, we might want to change it more often. It's nice to have an element that doesn't change in itself, but you experience it so differently every evening. 

Danny: We are attempting to be very specific with these endless choices, so it's nice to have something that's fixed, that you decide on before you perform. It gives a framework that helps me pace myself.

Lisa N: Also, the lights, the light states are fixed, which we can anticipate as well. Over a period of time we know that certain major changes are going to be occuring, so I think “if I stick with this image another 30 seconds, that light change is going to happen” and I can just stay with what I'm doing and let the whole space move around me. So there are a lot more compositional thoughts that come into play, the more fixed elements there are. 

Voice: How did you decide which sounds to use?

Lisa N: We started from the beginning and we kept adding sounds and adding silence.

Danny: We had certain sounds on hand. How do you make the choice? It's the same process, the sound is an image. I don't know, there is a process of making a choice.

Lisa N: The sounds come from sound stock, stuff Danny and I had collected. We had some interesting psychic moments during making this. I remember I said, "I hear the sound of someone walking in the leaves and a child's voice" and Danny had a tape on hand of a child walking in leaves. I mean, it was a wild moment, that kind of free association of textures and space and location and environment. 

Danny: Making the tape was, in a way, parallel to the way we are improvising-a sensibility in the auditory images, of single images. 

Lisa K: Sounds like it's the same process as making the performance, but once you've done it, you have it and you stick with it. 

Lisa N: Yes, although, if we had a little mobile sound studio we could make a new one every night.

Cathy Weis: It seems to be that you're just as surprised as we are about what happens. You keep it moving at such a pace for yourself that that surprise keeps you focused on what's going on all the time, and that's very exciting to see from the audience.

Lisa K: Do you work a lot with eye focus?

Lisa N: I do. 

Danny: We've done some exercises with working with vision in an open way, and we worked with our eyes closed a lot.

Lisa K: Is there a way to prepare that has to do with focus and the eyes. 

Lisa N: Just a lifetime working with vision. Actually the way we prepare together is to play this game. We have a number of rules for this score including calling numbers when we recognize endings, so that we can start to see what our individual pattern is, what each of our rhythm of image-making is. And we work with our senses in the space, shifting our attention from one sense to another. And we practice stopping together and starting together, very simply synchronizing the impulse of movement and stillness.

Danny: I feel really good doing this work; I like it a lot. Feeling that your body, your whole being organizes itself, without putting it into organization. The way you're looking at me now and listening to my voice and looking at me so you can listen to me is a particular organization of your functioning and it causes your head to be in a certain position and your body to be in a certain way. It becomes possible that such ordinary, basic things can be observed and appreciated, with some kind of consciousness, as forms. And once they're conscious in some way, and witnessed within yourself, you can frame them -and that's a practice.

When you close your eyes, because you alter your environment so much, it's a new experience to orient yourself, so you can really witness how you organize yourself. It's clearer. The eyes are so fast, that it helps to really slow down to notice what you 're seeing and how your other senses are present. I find it really fascinating.

Lisa N: It's a lot like when children play. Being familiar with the experiences we had when we were younger, that kind of curiosity in making contact with the environment-taste everything, hear everything, make noise, see if you could hurt it, see if it could hurt you -that interaction. It's not just that you 're doing things to the environment but it's doing things to you, and that's kind of a magical state of play. When that magical state of play comes into play it makes improvising feel as if the space is improvising you. You don't have to make anything up. There is great fun in that because it seems so simple. It's pretty matter-of-fact, not anything mystical. Going through a lot of mystical practices trying to figure out what we've been doing over years and years of improvising, for me is coming down to something very concrete and easy enough for a child to do. That's sort of the thrill now for me, coming upon some very simple forms which you can get into on any level you want. And trying to make that accessible for the viewers to experience those states.

Tom: It was a contrast for me to see it, contrasting to other work I've seen in the past where there seems to be a lot more play with violent states or really negative states. I kept on expecting the sticks to start doing some hitting or something because that seemed to be kind of in vogue at a certain point. And I was wondering if you were working with some kind of boundaries where the movement seemed to all be very personal and very gentle. 

Lisa N: It seemed a little gentle to you... Well, maybe it was, yeah.

Danny: Do you mean that there were times when it could have been more violent and it wasn't?

Tom: I was just wondering if that was the way it was tonight or if there is actually a rule about that? 

Lisa N: The possible range that could come into the relationship, let’s say within 29 minutes, we don't decide in advance. We allow the mood to play. There are a lot of conventions at play in the relationship. In the conventions of our real relationship, we wouldn't tend to smash each other, but that doesn't mean that we wouldn't be free to get into an image like that. I feel the tension. I like when the tension gets to certain places where the range of mood can really alter drastically.

With a basic skill in improvisation, you can always redirect the impulse to get into confrontation as soon as you recognize it-it can go in a million directions, other than just out and out confrontation.

Tom: It's so much an ethical decision at that point, you could be holding a knife and you could cut something, or you could chop ...

Lisa N: We have certain habits in our practices that make redirecting that particular impulse very familiar.

When people first improvise, they almost always get into confrontation. It's the first thing that happens when people get the freedom to play. But it goes away pretty quickly when they see new options, and there are a million other options, so maybe every time you get into that rhythm with somebody, you look for another one.

Danny: Our duet is not about anything. It's about the moment, it's like Lisa said, a vehicle, a vehicle for what's coming through right then. It's not being taken anywhere, so it feels like there is some kind of truth in that. If there was tension, there would be tension. If there isn't, there isn't.

Lisa N: You can generate the tension yourself, that's an option.

Danny: When we work together I'm not thinking about our relationship. I'm thinking about the elements that comprise the activity and the involvement in those elements. That's something that frees me. Lisa, when you were lying on the blanket and I went over you, to me it was like making love. But that went through me -and what I was working with was feeling my weight settling and pressing into your body and coming up. Working with those sensations, that image passed through, but I didn't start to think, "Oh, now I'm showing making love." But having that sensing anchor gave the freedom to just go there and have that come through. I enjoy that.

Tom: That was one moment that stood out for me as a kind of representation of the efficacy of this kind of work because I could see you doing all that and I got the whole psycho/ physical/societal/social meaning of what you were doing right then and then it just went into something else, and it was kind of satisfying.

Lisa N: Yeah, we're not involved in a kind of descriptive reality but I think that we register those relationships when they occur as much as you do and then we allow ourselves to modulate into another.

Tom: It's something I like to share. 

Lisa N: Yeah, great. So it has an abstract level of relation.

Danny: That's the idea. You, the audience, are doing the same work that we're doing. There's an invitation to work on the same level.

Lisa N: That we really are engaged in the same process as the audience.

Lisa K: So, for you, part of the practice is seeing the image and then coming back to sensation?

Lisa N: Actually, for me, the sensation is the image. That's very important. The sensation is the image. To me this is what dancing is. It's physical sensations that are images. The thrill of seeing sensation manifested in anybody's body is what I think dance is. And going through years and years of training, doing all kinds of dancing, it just keeps coming back to that particular focus. Because we could do the same activity as we're doing here, and focus on something else and perhaps it wouldn't be dance. It would still be imagery, but maybe that's what makes me so sure that I'm dancing, is that what I'm doing is experienced so physically. All the sensorial images are experienced physically-the visual images, for example: in the way I'm looking, the feeling in the muscles around my eyes, my posture. Reading my physical sensory experience in this way is so engrained in my practice. It gives shape to my desire, it directs my action. It gives me instructions.

Man: What you said about the level on which children play ... I had that association tonight. Looking at kids, seeing them just doing, without having an idea why-they're just playing and they're enjoying it. Then everything becomes possible. Seeing you tonight, using very simple things, seeing what you were doing with them, I could let go of the idea of grownups that should do certain things or do them in a certain way. Seeing you do the things you were doing just opened up so many possibilities, so many new things you can do with objects, with touching. And that gave me joy-a sense that you can look into the world and suddenly things open up. I think it's great to look at dance, or painting, or whatever, and get that feeling from it, because then it's so much connected to life, it really fills you.