Conversation with Lisa Nelson

Nouvelles De Danse 1997English
Nouvelles De Danse No. 32-33 (Summer/Fall 1997): 66-82.

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"When I improvise, there is a lot more that I'm deciding not to do, than I am deciding to do in my body."

During the "Montpelier Danse 96" festival in France (June 21 - July 7), Lisa Nelson and Steve Paxton performed "Excavations continued", a piece created at the Grammont Theater during the festival, in collaboration with Michael Mazzola (lighting designer) and Richard Nonas (visual artist ). "Excavations continued" was performed two evenings in a row (June 27 and 28). This conversation took place the day of the second performance 



How did you come to improvise?

I started dancing very young with a wonderful teacher in my neighborhood. When I was eleven I went to Juilliard1 to study ballet, Graham, music theory and composition. I studied with Pearl Lang, a Graham dancer and choreographer who told me that I should set the movements of my dances which shocked me because I felt that the dances I made were already set and repeatable. So I taught myself how to set every movement in my body, memorizing it, building it that way, but I still kept an open area.

I continued with my formal training at Bennington College2  which was the only college where you could do choreography at the time. I left Bennington College in 1967, to come back in 1970. Judith Dunnhad come there to teach in 69, and made improvisation part of the curriculum. I was happy for that, but I didn't think much about improvisation, it was so natural and so available, it didn't seem that anything had to be rejected in order to do it. So I primarily worked with musicians, I worked with my voice, and with other people, both improvising freely and making structures for dances.

In 71 I joined Daniel Nagrin's company in New York, which was called the Workgroup4. We were experimenting with theater-based interactions and worked with a very open physical vocabulary instead of verbal texts. At that same moment I knew that , Grand Union5 was happening but I never saw them. When I was a child I knew about Judson Church6 because one of my teachers at Juilliard was involved and he would tell us stories about these performances, which always sounded interesting. I saw something at Judson in 66 that was quite wonderful, a cafe owner who did a roller skating solo piece to Ravel's Bolero, and I loved it.

My generation is some ten years younger than the one involved with Judson, and somehow I just assumed the break in the culture. All this freedom didn't come as any shock or any change.

I wasn't involved so deeply in technique because while I was studying it I always made my own movement, it was natural to me. Improvisation is not the central issue for me. I don't talk about it that way. What I know about it is incredibly rich and analyzed but it's an assumed value and it's not the value that I'm most interested in bringing to people's attention. I'm not making dances to make improvisations, nor am I making improvisation to change the way people think about dance, I don't think of it that way. I'm more concerned with composition and how things are perceived.

In fact when I go see a performance I don't care whether it's improvised or not. I'm very happy when performers make decisions at all, and now I read spontaneity in a very different way. Whether you make a decision at this moment, or whether you've made a decision last week or two months ago doesn't concern me. I don't like something better because it's improvised. But while watching an individual who's improvising I can get very involved in what kind of choices they're making and enjoy it really deeply.


When you work on a piece, do you usually collaborate with other artists, such as visual artists, musicians, lighting designers ... ?

I do both. I often work solo, which is not my first choice. When I work solo I usually make my own sound. I construct the space myself and if I use any setting I find it near the place where I perform. In the solo work, I'm working on a very specific question which helps me to find a relationship within my body and between my body and the environment I'm dancing in. So I set a score for myself that provokes and describes such a relationship, and this is what the choreography is, why something happens.

I narrow it down to a very specific focus. For example, in one piece I work with how I sense my visual activity-the way my eyes work in relation to my breathing, and that's the score, that's the choreography and it gives a certain result. Now this relationship is very familiar to me, I know what my limits are and what it can more or less produce in performance.

During the last few years I've been using a group score I call a Tuning Score. It's really just a description of the activity of learning, it's taken from what we are doing naturally with our senses -how we construct, and then set up a way to communicate about, it's about our sense of organization. It's like an idealization of a group, everybody directing at once and taking responsibility. It's what everybody does when they're improvising anyway, but in this case it's slowed down, way down, so that we can see what we're actually doing and work consciously with the consequences.

With this work and the solo work, I'm focusing more on the dialogue of being seen and seeing at the same time. It's first about measurement, how long it takes for something to appear, not just for the physical sensation to have meaning, but also to be seen from the outside. I've noticed my own pattern of letting movements be seen, for as long as it takes or as short as it takes. So I set up a special kind of space to make that visible to an observer.


For each score you set up, is it like going a little bit further in your exploratory work.

It's a reason for working and seeing how the work manifests as theater or as dance, and to see what changes in the body, because the more you improvise the less you can actually do it. You know so much, so you have to constantly shift your perspective to learn something else.


Do you look for the unknown when you improvise?

Yes, I think of it as the desire to learn, and the unknown is sort of that place. I don't improvise to lose myself at all. I did once long ago and I used to call it dancing. I interchange the word "dancing" with "improvising" because some things people call improvising I call dancing, and some things people call dancing, I don't call dancing at all, but simply moving the body around. It's an interesting question for me over and over-what is dancing? Sometimes I make a score that doesn't provoke me to dance, so first I have to find out whether I can dance inside a certain focus.


Do you practice in the studio?

I never practiced much in the studio, until I built one with Steve Paxton in 1988, and that made it possible for me to work with other people. This was the beginning of the collaborative research/performing group Image Lab7 (with K.J. Holmes, Karen Nelson and Scott Smith) working with the Tuning Score. Before then, because of my choice to live in the country and be on the road to work, I had to make things very quickly, there wasn't really work time. Working with other people became very unsatisfying because we would start a collaboration, we would perform it, and then when the work was just started, we would have to stop. That became very frustrating and I didn't want to work that way anymore. But my experience as a performer is completely different than the studio experience. In performance there's the necessity for a full physicality whereas in the studio I can just experience how it leaves and returns, and this is something I'm not interested in presenting to the public. I really want people to see movement in another way, I think movement is so interesting! I see that not many choreographers are that interested in movement, they're interested in the movement in space, making things happen in space with bodies. The detail of movement is of great interest to me.


But a performance like yesterday's included some visual work too. For that piece in particular, you've worked in collaboration with Steve Paxton, Michael Mazzola and Richard Nonas. Was it the first time "Excavations continued" was performed?

It was the first time and we came together four days ago. I helped Steve make the soundtrack right before we came, this was the background. We didn't know what Richard would do, although Steve invited him knowing he works with natural materials. We looked at the theater together, we looked outdoors and found rocks, stumps and other materials that Richard liked. We worked from talking because we didn't have the theater to try out things. Once we got into the theater, we all looked at the objects we had found and worked with them, talked about how they felt and moved them in various places.


It's quite something to be able to talk about the work beforehand.

Yes, how we can imagine what the consequences of a space are and its scale. We each come with our own experience and it's a simple dialogue because we each have a process. When we discuss something we can articulate what we imagine, what the consequences of such a thing will be. For example, when Michael sees an event that he has to bring light to, he has his own language and his own desire to try things. We can also extrapolate and say, "No, this won't be that juicy," but we know it's all in the head at that point. Once we arrive in the space we start working and all these other possibilities come in. So last night was the very first, before that we didn't see very much how this piece would work. This afternoon we'll get a chance to play with it, look, show each other things, and then we'll have more information.


Compositionally and movement-wise, were there any decisions made in advance?

We found the event of making the fence and we set a couple of images, like the horse and my work with the hat. We knew it would begin with Steve's solo, and made a general time for me to solo and then everything else was unknown except for the soundtrack that was set.


Nothing about the movement quality?

Nothing about the quality of movement, the interaction or the movement itself.


Nothing about the dance itself?

Nothing about the dance itself, because there Steve and I know the language but we don't know what the other will do with it 


How long have Steve and you been working together?

We've known each other and have been dancing together since about 73. We made a duet in 79 called "PA RT" that we still perform. Steve and I made another piece in 88 called "Population" from which we recycled the soundtrack for "Excavation continued". We've also seen each other's work throughout all these years, so there is a lot of shared information.


You say you don't know what Steve will do. Knowing each other's work so well, do you still get moments of surprise?

It's all a surprise at this point in the piece. I don't know whether Steve is going to dance a lot, he doesn't know whether I am. He doesn't know whether I'll be just a part of the environment. make myself into an object the whole time, whether either of us will get involved in some internal character, like it seemed that Steve did last night. So it's completely unknown what our internal track might be on any night, especially because we each have a complex experience and process of surviving these situations.


Is it really a question of survival?

Oh yes, definitely, because it's so much reading, we just read and read, at least this is how I call it. I'm reading my body, I'm reading the space, I'm reading my senses and feelings-what I'm remembering, how I'm laying out forms. I recognize something, I can repeat something.


Can you make the distinction between reading and listening?

Listening is a more open state that's going on as well. It's like when you jump into water and you don't know whether it's going to be hot or cold. Listening is much more an animal state, you don't know what features you're going to find, there's no interpretation yet you're letting things go through you, you're listening and you're following, so that's one level. But when you're reading you're making sense of things. If I make an action I may read it as linear, from what has been laid out before. But I mean linear in my experience of time, so the action might arise as a kinesthetic action the first time. But I remember that action so I can repeat it later with a different quality in relation to another aspect of the environment-the space, my partner, etc. The same action becomes layered with meaning. Reading for me is a kind of compositional activity and listening is a much more sensory activity, so they're kind of in dialogue with each other. There's another skill which is very important in order to learn, and that is inhibition. There is a lot more that I'm deciding not to do, than I am deciding to do in my body, because there is so much in every moment of a gesture in the body, that the action of inhibition creates an echo that appears as a movement.


So it becomes more readable for the audience.

And surprising for me, I'm not just going blah ... blah ... blah ... When bring myself to stillness I can feel the consequences without carrying them out, I can leave the time for this action to return to me. I wait, I listen. It's a current. I' m very aware of that pattern now. If I don't inhibit I can't learn anything because I'm making too much noise, and I can't listen either. It's a fabulous thing, in particular working with Steve because of so much history-from seeing each other, knowing what each other is working on and doing these duets together. We find ourselves in situations in the dance that we both recognize, they're like a photograph of a dance twelve years ago, and we both know it, it's like a crystal, "How did we get here, how do we get out of this?" It's suddenly shocking to realize that some things never change. Some moments keep coming back. The last moment of the piece last night was like that-the very last moment where I wound up taking a nap on Steve's back, that's a reference from the past. So there is a lot of internal memory.


When these situations happen, when you remember them from before, do you consciously shift to something else?

That's when you have to go into listening, that's when the inhibition comes. Because there is something else that comes right after, that could be automatic and will just roll out. But if the idea in the body is allowed to flow out without you pushing it, if you let it continue, then the next thing that happens will come from the moment.

It's impossible for an audience to make a distinction between what is spontaneous and what is predetermined. Could you know that last night's performance was improvised by watching it once? I don't know how one could know.




1. Juilliard: school for performing arts in New York City.

2. Bennington College in Vermont (USA).

3. Judith Dunn danced with Merce Cunningham's company, she took part in the composition class taught by her husband, Robert Dunn, and in different Judson Church Dance Theater performances. She taught at several universities, such as Sarah Lawrence College and Bennington College.

4. Daniel Nagrin danced with Helen Tamiris in the forties. In 1970, he founded the Workgroup, an improvisation company. His improvisational forms were inspired by the Open Theatre.

5.” The Grand Union was a collective of choreographer/performers who during the years 1970 to 1976 made group improvisations embracing dance and theater in an ongoing investigation into the nature of dance and performance. The Grand Union's identity as a group had several sources: some of the nine who were its members at different points had known each other for as long as ten years when the group formed. They had seen and performed in each other's work since the Judson Church days. Most had studied with Merce Cunningham, and three had danced in his company.” The Grand Union's members: Becky Arnold, Trisha Brown, Barbara Dilley, Douglas Dunn, David Gordon, Nancy Lewis, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Lincoln Scott. ("Terpsichore in Sneakers" by Sally Banes)

6. Judson Church: see note 2 on page 23 (conversation between Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton).

7. Image Lab is dancers/choreographers Lisa Nelson, K.J. Holmes, Karen Nelson and Scott Smith. Their many years' collaboration explores the theater of the imagination through the practice of an improvisational composition score - The Tuning Score. The score makes visible the dancer's unique sensorial dialogue with the environment. Each performer, through verbal cues and actions, continually tunes the collective image to their own desire, making evident the nature of opinion and consensus, and our ways of navigating through and constructing a life for ourselves. Image Lab brings this practice to the public through an Observatory, a unique adventure in dance performance. As observers, the audience is invited to be co-travellers in this process, to enter into the nature of their own seeing, to witness the skillful play of their own imaginations." (Lisa Nelson's performance and workshop flyer)