Need to Know

A conversation about improvisational performance with David Zambrano, Mark Tompkins & Lisa Nelson

Contact Quarterly 2000English
Contact Quarterly Vol. 25 No. 1 (Winter/Spring 2000): 29-41.

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A few years to back, I was surprised to notice a slew of improvised dance performances popping up in high visibility venues across Europe: in Holland, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Portugal, Belgium. In my experience performing scored improvisation in Europe over the past 25 years, this apparent wave of mainstream popularity for improvised dance performance was a first.

I've often wondered when this audience would make their debut. And where. In what context? From what I could gather, the current improvised events were of a very particular sort jams, with dancers and musicians, often including the collaboration of light and other visual artists, in theaters; in a sense, spectacles. With a little asking around, I discovered that other than these performances, the assembled casts had no ongoing working relationship as a group, and certain of the dancers had never performed improvisationally before.

Although my own improvisational pursuit has been choreographic and I've long ceased jamming in public, the sudden visibility of improvisational dance, of any sort, caused me to take a step back and reenvision my relationship to this subfield I've lived in so long.

To shed some light on this moment, I turned to my colleagues, some of whom were involved in these events as performers or co-producers, sometimes both, all longtime, committed practitioners of improvisation. When, in October '98, I joined two of them - David Zambrano and Mark Tompkins - at a two-week international retreat for improvisors in Venezuela (the Sexto Encuentro Internacional de Creadores in the countryside of La Llanada), I showered them with questions.

David and Mark are both performers, teachers, choreographer/directors and producers of workshops and festivals. Both work internationally. David is Venezuelan-born, moved to New York in 1983 where he worked for many years both solo if and in the companies of Pooh Kaye and Simone Forti, and is currently based in Amsterdam. He works solo, directs group works, and collaborates with other artists. He states that he "believes in improvisation as an art form, and choreography as a vehicle to further develop improvisation." Mark is U.S.born, has lived in France since 1973, began improvising in '78, cofounded l'Atelier Contact, and founded his performance company I.DA. (International Dreems Associated) in 1983. Parallel to his choreographing and directing, he has pursued research in improvisational performance through teaching and collaborating with artists of many disciplines. Mark and David were both members of the music and dance improvisation group Klick Clique.

The following are excerpts from a morning's conversation. I was hungry to discover their motives for improvising in public, their current direction, desires, or vision, their perspective on the field and its potential for development. What I find embedded in their stories are classic descriptions of making and surviving improvisational performance and a snapshot of surviving in the field-at the very least, finding and creating opportunities to dance.

Lisa Nelson




Oct. 9, 1998

La Llanada, Venezuela


DAVID: I don't really know why this work is called "improvisation," because when I first went to the States from Venezuela, I was already playing in many ways, very similar to now, but the difference is that now I know a little bit more about bodywork and how I can channel things. I still am learning, but somehow that same playfulness had to be defined in the States. But it's a tradition to improvise in life. It's not something only from this century that's called "improvisation in dance." If you take improvisation as living your life, it's a tradition of doing things, and different cultures improvise more than other cultures, for example. This is merely how I relate to life. It's not something new. But it's like a new old game, because the body of information now is different. Body awareness and socially and culturally and all the events that are happening around the person are different.

What I see happening is that people are really getting excited to present improvisational thinking in performance. Also, that every part of the making process is possible to perform, as long as you are aware of what you're doing at that moment in relationship to your surroundings. 

LISA: David, in relation to improvisation, can you describe a bit how you approach teaching?

DAVID: What I really like is to create a situation where people can feel that they are moving and playing with others. In those situations where I can work with a specific group for maybe a week or two weeks, we can start developing systems for designing how to shape our energy, how to shape our way of thinking through the body, and then maybe composition ideas start or some specific movement qualities can come, and then we can study those. We do movement studies afterwards. But first I love to just play with people in a room. And I found that one of the best ways to do it is if I’m involved in it.

LISA: Yeah, so you can read it from the inside and the outside at the same time. 

DAVID: Yes, also because I feel like when I get involved in it, I can go to people’s worlds. You know, if I bring my center close to their center and dive into it some way, I can figure out how to help them. Moving physically has been the best way to bring people out and guide their information. Actually I learned this from watching Simone Forti move. When you watch the person who is teaching, whatever they are teaching, how the information travels through their body, especially if it is improvisation or just dancing, you see and then you understand, and you believe in it.

Recently, I had a four-week workshop at P.A.R.T.S., a school in Brussels, and that was great because I had twenty-five people, six hours a day. In the beginning of the class we would do just a simple touch in some way. Every day we would change the way of touching. After that, we'd do something similar to the scramble game that I learned from Simone, where the instruction is to move continuously through the spaces between the other people moving. But I like to call it "Passing Through" because you pass through your life, you pass through bodies, you pass through things, you pass through, you keep going, something comes from nowhere, something goes to somewhere, you pass through things. We'd do that for two hours. For example, we'd do one-half hour, stop, one-half hour, stop, twenty minutes, and then we'd come back and do specifics. For instance, I would see, through the doing and watching people, that maybe we need to work on spirals. Finding the powerful tool of the spiralling, how you transform yourself into something that can really help you to pass through.

LISA: The metaphor or image of "Passing Through" reveals some physical relationship in the body? 

DAVID: Yes. And also I teach that everything is possible, but at the same time not. You have to choose. We need to learn how to choose. And that's very hard to teach [laughing].

A lot of dancers see improvisation through their teachers or in their schools and a lot of times it's like you can just bauble around, you just play in an imitation of play. It’s an imitation of life which is very different than when you really get into it.

Now especially, and more and more, since for maybe the last five years, improvisation and contact improvisation and body awareness are much more popular in most of the schools. The people from the classical way of thinking about dance are coming to people who have been investigating or doing, whatever they call it, a freer way of thinking. And they're asking, Can you help?

Some people already have charisma in performance, or can make decisions that are very exciting for others, you know. But still, some tools can be helpful. So that's what I end up teaching, some tools for people to use in their regular life. And by doing that, I think we take whatever we call dance nowadays to other communities besides just to people who want to perform dance.

Then, after working for awhile, I will ask, Now how can we design this to present it? I'm also very interested in designing movement to present onstage. How can you use whatever is proposed to you for your own experience? You look at your personal life, your personal way of making choices, your life information-if you're thinking that improvisation is your life, for example. In fact, that's why sometimes I say I cannot teach improvisation because I cannot teach you your life. That's you. 

LISA: Well, you already know how to improvise.

DAVID: You already know. Now the question is: How can we bring out all the life experience into the now and use it?



LISA: Mark, what do you see happening in France these days?

MARK: In France, people were always using improvisation, but always as something before the performance. You used it in the studio to work on something, but at some point you shifted into composing. And then there was a big separation. You went from the mind of saying: Now we're improvising, to: Now we compose.

What's happened in the last few years I think has grown partly from the work that I've been producing. Specifically, in '95, I organized a workshop at the TCD, Theâtre Contemporain pour la Danse. It lasted four weeks and people saw and tasted five people's universes about the topic of improvisation. I brought David, Julyen Hamilton, Frans Poelstra and Alessandro Certini, in addition to myself. And they saw us work together in performance with musicians Johannes Bauer and Dietmar Diesner, who were also working for many years in improvisation, and Alain de Cheveigné, who improvises with light, and I think it made an explosion and implosion in people.

From that workshop, about ten people were so affected that they created a group in Paris, similar to l'Atelier Contact in the early '80s. They went into process as a group with all the social politics of who belongs, who doesn't belong ...

And they started to make things together, and subgroups formed, and for three years now there's a generation of people who have made a very specific choice about the direction that they want to go. And they've been going out of France, because in France it's very sporadic, so they have to go to Belgium or Spain or Germany or they go to the States to get the information. There's a kind of undercurrent, for they've made a chain reaction to people who are in the other world, who are choreographers with reputations who've started to check it out themselves and go to work with Julyen or Simone or with David. For others, it's just a trend, it's a thing to do.

And now, in this specific moment in '98, the wave is becoming more visible, and so it's interesting and important for me to make a festival again in France that deals with some of the same questions as in '95, but with different people in a different context. It will be in Paris the whole month of November '98 with Simone Forti, Lisa Nelson and Steve Paxton teaching. Performances will go through the last week with them and others. The enormous response to the announcement of this event has made very visible the desire of a lot of people, and a certain expectation of what will happen. Much more than in '95, when people came with no expectation, now there's a great expectation and I think there are a lot of bubbles to pop.



LISA: I'm curious what you see, what you are looking for, when you're looking at improvised performance? 

DAVID: How people are making choices. 

LISA: You look at the details ...

DAVID: The whole thing also. The whole thing and the details. If people do a shift in their physical, emotional, spiritual way of dealing with energy, if they make a shift and you say, AH, they are going somewhere, they are passing through things ...

LISA: That's a practice in your teaching. It's also what you look for when you watch a performance? 

DAVID: Well, it varies. For example, sometimes I see that people are exploring a specific quality, and somehow some improvisational states are happening. So I can see like that or I can see also if people have some score, some compositional rules that are decided beforehand, and they try to figure out how to play with that.

And sometimes it's just hard to describe, it's just magic. You see two individuals put it together on the stage, there's no score, nothing, and they try to figure out how to deal with each other. And, by the way, this is the one most exciting for me to do. Because it's like you are going to present each other's perception of life. How you exchange information and take from each other to develop, to make situations happen, but at the same time without deciding ahead. It's hard to describe, but when this happens it's like somebody passes through you and you say, Hey that person's coming with a weird face and what am I going to do with this? Aaah! You know, something changes and makes you go to other places. It's hard to describe, I'm sorry, but this is like magic. And this I'm really excited about. 

LISA: And you can watch a performance of people improvising with the hope or expectation that's going to happen? 

DAVID: No, it's hard to say. Sometimes I know a little bit of the background of the performers and I'm already a little bit prepared, because of my experience, and I expect some things to happen. For example, if it's a group of contact improvisers doing improvisation, I know somehow that some contact improvisation will happen. If I come to see some people from William Forsythe's company improvise, I know certain kinds of ballet lines will appear. But sometimes inside those performances some people shift into something else and maybe after ten minutes, twenty minutes, it takes me to another place, and I have to throw out all my expectations. Something's happening here, I don't know what it is, so I can't think the same way I did when I arrived at the performance.

Or sometimes I hear that certain musicians are simply going to get together for the first time. And, wow, that's very exciting. 

LISA: I'm also curious about the whole: what a performance is. And I think what you're describing is going to see a certain kind of improvised performance, where you can enter into a dialogue with your own expectations and the potential for this thrilling magic to occur within the whole context of forty minutes, or whatever the setup is, in the theater with an audience.

For me, my experience of looking at most improvised performances-the anthropology of it, the bigger picture of what it is as performance, and what it can offer me to learn about magic, which is also compelling to me-is almost always the same, and I wonder about this. The conventions that it sets up are as strong as those of classical ballet, and reminiscent of jazz music performance. You described a passion for looking at the details of this very complex machinery of dancers interacting, musicians interacting, in a space. I watch it as a ritual of behavior in a subculture that I'm a part of and I guess that the motive to do it is partly to make opportunities for dance behaviors, interpersonal behaviors and spatial behaviors. And what I see, for example, is unison or not unison, synchronicity, initiation, style, taste, and sometimes fabulous dancers who would be interesting to watch doing anything. But I'm still caught in wondering why there aren't more varied expressions, manifestations, of improvisational behavior, as we do it in dance. That pushes me. 

MARK: Why what? 

LISA: Why the whole almost always looks and feels the same in terms of the way time passes, the kinds of decisions people are making, how many. For example, I don't see a lot of examples of limiting the movement material in performance, which can make a very different statement, a different image. I've made a score to address that in performance, working with tiny units of movement.

I guess I'm impatient. For example, when I saw Klick Clique, with you two and Johannes and Dietmar, perform in Danspace in NY a few years ago, knowing your sophistication and experience with improvising, I was disappointed. Not because it didn't reach the magic requirement the night I saw it, or that it was a bad improvisation, because I don't care much about "good" improvisation, but because I could only wonder why you were doing that exercise as performance. I wondered what you liked about it. How long do we show this, as a proposal, as performance? 

DAVID: Ah, that's also a question for me, how long we show this. But why we like it ...



DAVID: I think it was around the time I met Mark that I got into performing improvisation with a group- two dancers and one musician, for example. Because with Simone Forti's group, we would do special structures that were set, even though there was a lot of improvisation inside. And it was not really my way yet with Simone. I was doing her way. With Mark and Frans, sometimes Sasha Waltz, but with the musicians especially, I started performing in a group situation in a quite open structure-more like my style also, my aesthetics, my taste. And that was really good.

Before that, I would perform, for example, with Jennifer Monson, and we would do solos with a musician, or I would do solos with live musicians or recorded music. I had a great time doing that, but I felt after awhile that I knew this so well, there was maybe something else, and I would like to try to get stimulated onstage with other people. And then, with Mark, we did the group Klick Clique for awhile. And then I went to do things with Katie Duck and her groups in Amsterdam and I had a great time. But the group situations with more than five people, for example, were quite difficult to handle. And these last two years I've done a lot of group situations and I would say maybe half of one night there is something happening, with connections between the people performing, but a lot of times it's more like fighting to find out what we're doing there.

I find it's very important to have a basic structure when it's a big group because there are so many possibilities. And I don't think I've ever been in a big group where we've had no structure and we go onstage and something happens. Most of the time it's a big chaos, in a way that gets lost. It's hard to grab and use it for designing something together.

LISA: Yeah. Another impetus for me in terms of designing structures or scores is how to assess the work. What do you talk about after? With certain structures, you talk about your life experience, or you talk about what you learned. But what are you actually talking about? When you perform, you see it from the inside, so do you talk about the internal mechanics, or your enjoyment of things coming together, or where you got lost. .. ?

One of my solutions was to make a score in which pretty much every decision that gets made is trackable, both seen from the outside and from the inside by the performers. Everyone works the score from the inside and outside, and we're all focussing on the image that's being made, the whole picture. As you're working it, making it, you're assessing your opinion about it, exercising your aesthetic. So discussion afterwards can be very specific, and you can recall your strategies for surviving the decisions that are constantly being made, and you can hear the unspoken desires which came up, and that can inform the next run. It becomes an aesthetic discussion, in a sense, rather than simply a personal process discussion.

DAVID: Yeah, because then you have a common background to refer to. 

LISA: Also, you're really talking about the consequences of your actions, what happens when this happens. And recognizing patterns that arise. 

DAVID: But I've never worked with a group of improvisers for long periods to exercise structures or scores ... 

LISA: Except certainly in your classes. That's where I've been able to develop group scores. 

DAVID: Yes, and also maybe with Mat Voorter and Tomas Hauert. We worked for two years, but it was a special movement study we were working on: how to work with people while connected with two hands, like couple dancing. It was a question of keeping in touch. In contact improvisation, you keep in touch sometimes with your whole body, but this was more like talking with your hands keeping in touch. By doing this over time, we got very fluent in this specific way of improvising, where you didn't need any steps, you just touch hands and then you go together into unknown things. But it was still very specific. I felt like we got very far. But it was a movement study, you know. I called it Ballroom.

I've never had that with other improvisers. Not even with Jennifer Monson, who I've performed with the most. We'd meet right before the show and then we'd go and perform. Which is very exciting. But we always talk about the possibility to find the time and space to work together and develop our interaction, so we can go onstage and say, OK, we don't need to make any structure today because we already have a lot of things in common. I've never had this.

Also, in Klick Clique we never had this. We would make the structure right before the performance and we met every four months. So I think, next year when I am in Amsterdam for four months, I would love to gather a group of people to work on some movement studies to help our improvisational work get farther onstage. But it's always very hard, because when you apply for money for working this way, it's very hard ... 

MARK: I get the money to do something else, and I do this under cover. 

DAVID: That's what I did with the festival I produced in Venezuela. I always got money for something else and then I just brought everybody from everywhere to work on these things that I wanted. But after five years, they found out and wouldn't give me money anymore. 

LISA: I've always used my teaching for research. Because I don't like to teach. I like to research. I like to focus on learning something that I need to learn. I like to find a way to bring people into their own process and then I can make things I love to see. 

DAVID: For me, teaching without researching is no fun.

LISA: So I'm thinking that when I stop performing, I'm going to stop teaching.

DAVID: Then you'll find another way to do research. But that's a good question. When will we stop performing? 

LISA: I'm warming up for stopping. As I get more desperate, I get more active, I want to know more, do more.

DAVID: I'm thinking of something that you said about finding other ways. There are always different ways to deal with the same things. How people approach things is always different, but it's also the same thing. Like unison, or "giving and taking," happen a lot in improvisation. It's always the same game somehow.

LISA: It's not the game I wonder about, it's the manifestation of the game.

DAVID: Well, maybe right now the manifestation is somehow natural, or learned behavior that seems natural.

LISA: It becomes a style.

DAVID: Yes, but you can see when it's a style. And you can see when people go out from that style.

LISA: You can if you're looking at individuals, but if you're looking at the whole picture ... We have so much information from our experience of how to look at these details, but I think much of it is invisible to an audience. I mean, yes, they see all kinds of things intuitively when a performance doesn't have a storyline and they're free to look. But because most audiences see so little improvised movement, they don't even know that dancers are actually doing informed movement practices. I mean, I could watch you and the thrill of watching you, your body, your spirit, whatever, all your shifts, making decisions, I can follow the details. For me it's so rich, but I propose that this is invisible to most audiences. And in watching people make performances, the improvising junkies, even when they are informed by being teachers themselves, I feel they don't recognize how incredibly detailed their work is. And critics, forget it, have remained so uneducated. They can't inform the public about how to look.

DAVID: Yes, but it's also true that a lot of critics write based on what they have read, and also with a very strong classical way of seeing performers.

LISA: Well, they don't practice watching. They come very infrequently, and are left with seeing through psychology or anthropology or the history of art, but they have no idea of this shift that you were talking about that has come into dance training, this body information and these details of what is a physical human being, animal, etc.

This lack has led me to want to slow improvisational performance down, to embed it in a kind of lecture-demonstration. To make the decision-making of the performer-what we're experiencing and doing-audible. For example, calling, "Stop!" or "Restart!" to change the situation. All of it out loud, so that the communication gets really hot, and you can stand behind your decisions with action. And then an audience starts to understand, get curious. Because I want something to change, I feel the need to inform, to bring the richness of new ways of behaving that we've learned through these body systems studies to connect with the psychology of behavior and living. And I also want to make a different picture, a different image, to change our perception of time.

MARK: But I don't think that's true, what you said about it not being visible. For example, that's why I like PA RT, [your duet with Steve Paxton], because you make it visible, you make the invisible visible, and I think people do see it. They may not know what to do with it, or where to put it, but I think they see it.



LISA: Can you describe what the Klick Clique context was for you?

 MARK: Well, it started in Belgium with David, Sasha, Frans, and musicians Johannes and Dietmar, and two other musicians from Berlin. And then Frans set it up in Utrecht with more people: with me for the first time, and Gannie Heggen, Alessandro Certini, Julyen Hamilton and others. And then there was Berlin. By then it was becoming a group of people. And then, Paris.

DAVID: By then it became important that whoever was making it happen in their city was selecting who would come.

MARK: David selected in New York. And then in Tremblay, France, I brought a lighting designer, Alain, into the picture, improvising light. And now nothing's happening 'cause we've all been to each other's cities.

LISA: What was the function for you?

MARK: For me, it was working with an undefined but chosen group of people on doing a live gig. The parameters were: meeting somewhere, rehearsing, doing it, rehearsing, doing it maybe two or three times, and talking very quickly about structure/not structure-who has a structure, or, if nobody has a structure we just leave it open ...

LISA: And what did you talk about afterwards?

MARK: I don't think we ever talked as a group. But we talked individually. I talked a lot with Frans ...

LISA: About the outcome, or the process?

MARK: Both. With Frans and me, something very personal between us that had been unspoken became spoken. We had a very strong intimate relationship that we liked to make visible in front of an audience, in which we were willing to allow anything to happen. And we made an agreement that in Klick Clique we could do this.

And also, Johannes's scores were very interesting to me because, as a musician, he's been involved over the years working with a lot scores for musicians. He made scores were always really interesting.

DAVID: Yes, those were among the best scores, also because, for my taste they were very musical. I have to tell you, I’m not so good at making scores, because I love to just go and let the score appear.

LISA: You like to discover the strategy inside it…

DAVID: Yes, I love to work like this. But in a group situation and also for people watching, sometimes it helps us when we have a frame to hang onto. In case of an emergency, we know we can always go back there if we get lost. It doesn't work all the time to discover, from nowhere, natural scores onstage. That sometimes is difficult. But Johannes's scores were also quite open.

LISA: What were they?

MARK: A certain activity for this much time; another activity, this much time; another activity of any length, and when it ends, it's finished ...

LISA: And the activities were physical activities?

DAVID: Yes. I remember one score he made was like one-minute things eight times, and then five-minute things four times, and then twenty minutes one time, and that was it.

MARK: And he would also propose musical terms like five-minute group crescendo, or everybody one-minute counterpoint, for example. In dance, it's hard to find words that everybody understands really quickly, 'cause it gets very general, like "energy" or "duos and trios." Whereas something like a quality or time limitation, five-minute legato, is already there and everybody gets it. I may not do it how you do it, but we know that we have a common language.

LISA: In terms of the outcome, did you ever talk about what you were offering the public? What kind of meal it was?

DAVID: As a group, no.

MARK: Well, the way I felt was similar to the musicians. For them, it was a gig like they'd done all their lives, and it was something you just did because it was time to begin, and then it was over and you went and had a drink and talked basically about other things.

DAVID: But, for me, the combination of people was also very important, especially with Frans, Mark and the two musicians. I like so much how they do things that it was not necessary to discuss how the performance was, how people liked it or not. It's personal taste. And clearly jazz like this is working already for the public, and I like to support it. When there are very strong performers, very strong individuals ...

LISA: ... there will be a dynamic interaction that will be interesting to see and hear, and that's enough of a context for you?

DAVID: For me, that was enough.



LISA: I wonder about this current wave of interest in improvisation in Europe. The people who are studying now are imitating everything they've seen, and practicing these things they've learned. However, we didn't learn it that way. We had to make it up, and synthesize it and invent ways of learning about it, without visual models. So now, in this time when there's this new interest, what models are people being exposed to?

To the general dance audience, improvisational performance is still considered experimental, even after thirty years of practice, and few venues will produce it. I'm concerned that the current fashion, which is putting improvisational performance on the map, exposes people to a very basic level of improvisational behavior that seems to have given dance improvisation an uncertain reputation, a bad name, from the start. I mean, Crash Landing, for example, which is highly produced and gets high visibility, is extremely basic, highly undeveloped. As I understand it, they gather a bunch of people together who don't share a lot of information and skills, put them onstage with a full production-lights, sets, music-and see what happens. And people are getting thrills out of watching it. You know, at some point way back that was interesting. For me it's interesting anthropologically, but not for its proposal to the culture right now. It ignores so much development.

MARK: Well, I don't agree. Have you seen Crash Landing?

LISA: No, actually. What's the set-up?

MARK: Crash Landing, as far as I understand, was initiated by Meg Stuart, David Hernandez, and Christine de Smedt. And it is presented periodically-in Leuven, Vienna, Paris, Lisbon, Moscow-as a project of Damaged Goods, Meg's company in Belgium, which has quite a large following and production capacity. The three directors are always trying to figure out what they want it to be. And the basic format is to invite some dancers, musicians, and visual artists, to work together in a given space over a specific period of time.

When I was invited in Paris, many of the other people invited were absolutely not improvisers, in the sense that they had little or no experience whatsoever. Most of the ones from Paris were up-and-coming choreographers. They were invited as either complete participants or as X-factors, which meant you came in for only one night's performance.

LISA: Do you know what the intention of the experiment was?

MARK: I believe that the intention of the experiment was to see what happens when you get a group of artists together for approximately one week and you have four days to work together to figure out what your subject is, and three days to continue to work together with people watching.

I would say that Crash Landing is a very interesting seven-day score and that what you see in the moment of performance is the tip of the iceberg. Everything is geared so that the tip of the iceberg will be visible. And depending on who's doing it, the level is very different.

LISA: And what leads them to choose the people whom they choose? To mix certain kinds of experiences, backgrounds, and hope it will be a volatile mix and make a good performance? I just have to say, I read the promo for the first and second Crash Landings and, on paper, their proposition about the work was totally produced; it was a product. Perfectly contradictory. The way they wanted it to be talked about, the language they chose to promote it, told you everything you might or might not want to feel about it. Told you what you were going to see, what it was going to make you feel..

I was astonished by the language because I've never seen post-performance critical writing about improvisation come close to that. I was astounded by what could be written about improvisational performance, and could only wonder why critics can't write with the appearance of that intelligence after they've seen something. The reviews I saw of it afterwards didn't approach that scope or depth. So it was a kind of wish list; they invented a way to see it beforehand that, at it's best, could give the artists something to live up to, or whatever. I mean, I had never seen this level of promotional hype applied to improvisational dance before and this was an event for me. On a certain level, the production values take over. It was also funny to see poor little improvisational dance used as a vehicle for a star machine.

MARK: Yeah, that's how I felt in Paris. The whole thing around it ... from the poster that said "Crash Landing-Meg Stuart," which was an issue that David H., Christine and Meg were really pissed off about, because when you go to Theatre de la Ville you can't just be a company, there has to be a name.

DAVID: I must say, for awhile I had my misgivings about Crash Landing. Sometimes I asked about presenting work to producers who I know from some festivals, and they'd say, No, we don't present improvisation. When I performed with Frans and the musicians at a festival in Berlin, after a good performance, the director said he would never present something like this again because he doesn't like improvisation. And I remember when Meg first arrived in Europe and I went to see her perform and afterwards when we were eating with, I think, her manager, he said: How is Jennifer Monson? And I said: She is really good, she's fantastic. We just performed together and I love her way of performing. And he said: She's a great artist, but it's a pity that she improvises. And now to see the whole Crash Landing coming after that, I wonder why. It's interesting to see how people change.

But also I realize, and I think Julyen Hamilton also has been saying this, that maybe in the next century improvisation is going to have a big impact on people. In two or three more years, as I see things happening, body awareness, contact improvisation, and improvisation in performance are going to be a big hit.



LISA: Mark, tell me more about the performance.

MARK: I only saw it somewhere in between being "in" and "out" of the performance in Paris. The context was very specific. It was in Theatre de Ia Ville, a proscenium theater with one thousand seats, and thirty years of dance history ­ modern dance, contemporary dance, theater, music. So it was very significant that the power person, the theater producer, decided to invite this project to that space. I recognized the risk and the danger involved in that proposition being taken as the thing. This is what improvisation is. So the position that I chose in relation to the performance was to have an overview, to be an outside eye. To do this I chose not to dance, but instead to pass through, to be in between, a go-between-between the light, the stage, the set. Collaborating with Alain, who was doing the light, collaborating with the directors ...

So my task there was to see if I could just not do anything, but to watch and listen and ask questions individually and to the group about what was going on in the process and who was making what decision at what moment and how that created a shift in the group mind and in the individual mind. And I felt like a psychologist in a way, because when I saw an individual having a very difficult time, I would go and say, What are you doing? Oh, that's interesting, and ...

LISA: During the working sessions you were doing this?

MARK: All day long. For me, the performance was one week, 24 hours a day.

LISA: That was the working context?

MARK: Well, it was for me. I think some people thought they go to work and they work and then they stop and they're not working. For me, there was no separation. We had four days of setting-up. Dance, music, light, objects, costumes and technical things were happening throughout the day and evening, and then we had three days of the same, but a thousand people came in the evenings at a specific time to watch it happen.

LISA: So you took this role throughout? That was your score?

MARK: Yeah, I called it "The Witness." I said, if you want a name for it, I'm The Witness. I also was engaged in the sense that if I really felt that something wasn't happening, I would initiate something to make a shift. And the most radical example was in the performance of the last night. I got very angry, and I was with Alain at the lightboard and I said to him, Blackout! Blackout, just erase it! Let the whole thing start over again. And I felt maybe I shouldn't impose on Alain, it's his thing and if he wants to make a blackout he makes a blackout, I shouldn't be telling him.

LISA: He's gonna take the heat for it?

MARK: Yeah.

LISA: However you did, and he did?

MARK: No, he did everything but one light.

LISA: Alright Alain! It must have been wonderful for you, 'cause it changed everything. Just what you wanted, right? But with a twist. That's a magical moment.

MARK: There were many, many magical moments. But the whole event was incredibly interesting, in fact, very similar to being here [at this Encuentro in Venezuela]. You get together a group of people and nobody knows why they're together, but they've all agreed to come and spend this time together in this place and try and figure out what the fuck they're talking about. And there, in Paris, what was specific was the sense that everyone knew it was a big gig, that a thousand people were coming, that very important critics would be writing about what it was or what it wasn't or what it should have been, or shouldn't have been, or what it could have been ...

So there was a very big pressure, very strong responsibility felt by every participant on different levels. For some people it was just a gig. For me, it was complex. Meg invited me and when I showed up, she said, It's great you're going to dance, and I said, Yeah, but I may not be visible for the audience, you know, but I'll be visible for everybody else. And she said, OK, that's alright. But about three days into the thing, we were doing an afternoon session and I was watching, and she said, When are you going to dance? And I said, I am dancing. And she looked at me and said, OK, I got it. And I ended up being visible in one performance because of something that happened that needed to be addressed and I addressed it.



LISA: Which was ...

 MARK: ... during the first performance, which was the most exciting as a spectacular event and as good an improvisation as they go, because it was fresh and there was no history and it was just what happened. About one hour into the performance, there was a moment where the space was really diffused, little things happening everywhere, but nothing really exciting or not exciting. And at that moment I was onstage in the wings, 'cause usually either I was with Alain at the lightboard to see the whole picture or I would go in the wings, and every once in awhile I would go onstage and sit in a chair or on a big sofa there, and sometimes, but only in the work sessions, I would wander around in the space and watch from inside what people were working on.

At that particular moment I had called an intermission. We had made a group decision that if there was a need, there could be an intermission, but things would just go on. If there were functional things to be moved onstage, the technicians would come, and performers would go or stay, continue performing or not performing, whatever. So I gave the instruction. It was more or less a group decision, yet I had the responsibility to announce to the audience that this was an intermission, it would last fifteen minutes, they could stay or go, but we would just continue whatever was happening. And suddenly a woman in the audience stood up and started screaming, Meg! Meg!, and ran down onto the stage and started ripping off her clothes and went into kind of a trance performance traumatic therapeutic expression of something. And the whole space was electrified. She made herself very visible, and everything went Kkzzzsstt!

I was offstage when she came and she was writhing and just really going for it and it was totally fascinating, incredibly wonderful theater. But at the same time I was very aware that every one of the performers was totally freaked out and I looked at Meg who was on the other side of the stage from me and she walked offstage. And I thought, Hmm, this is not good. And then Meg came back and she was sitting on the side, not really visible to the audience. The stage was completely open and there were objects around, there were musicians in the space, and we had taken out all the curtains so you could see the walls but you couldn't see everything offstage, you could hide in corners and things like that. And I'm looking around and I see everybody was frozen. And the woman was starting to really freak out, it was going beyond theater, it was going to a weird place. So I said to myself, I can't make this decision because it's not my game. So I walked across the stage to Meg and I said, What do you want? Do you want her to go? You want her to stay? And Meg said, I don't know, I can't make any decisions.

And then I looked around and said to one of the performers, Do something! And there was an area of clothes hanging on racks on both sides of the stage for us to use. And he took the coat rack and meanwhile the woman had moved around the stage and fallen into this kind of hole that we had built, a big square where you could go down a little bit, disappear into, or come out from. Originally we had made it for the musicians and then they decided they didn't want to be stuck together, but we left the hole. So she had done some stuff with popcorn that was all over the place and she was in this hole, and the other performer came over and he dumped the whole rack of clothes into the hole, he buried her, and then he walked off. She popped up out of the hole and she was wearing a wig and a big overcoat. She'd dressed up, but she was still totally in it. It was great, her choices were great. Except for being a little bit in outer space, she was really happening. So then I thought this could go on for quite a long time if somebody doesn't find a way to confront and shift it.

LISA: Dogs and babies and crazy people onstage: no one can compete with them.

MARK: And then I thought, Shit, nobody's going to move.

LISA: And Alain couldn't fade to black?

MARK: He could have, but he was as freaked out as everyone else. And he probably was very excited because it was very exciting. So, I thought, OK, apparently nobody is going to shift and this woman needs a shift, and it can't come from inside of her because she's not connected. So I decided to go and I went to where she was doing her thing, and by then David H. was coming also, little by little, and I came very slowly, and I thought, Oh, maybe he'll go and then I can just go away. And then he got to a certain point and it was like a magnetic field, kzzst kzzst kzzst, and he couldn't get in. And then I thought, OK, I go. She was facing him with her back to the audience and I was coming from the other side, so I came and I just embraced her from behind. And it was like holding somebody who was in a trance, so I thought, I'll just wait, there's nothing to do except see if I can hold onto her. It could have turned into something totally aggressive or something else. And then her twitching slowed down a bit, calmed down, and very slowly she turned around, looked at me, and then she took my glasses off and put them in her pocket. And then we did a slow dance. And I started to move off in the direction of the wings and she started to resist, and I thought, OK, let's just stay here for awhile. And we were slow dancing. And then I sensed that Meg was in the hole and she had started something and I could feel it getting somewhere so that something was shifting, and I thought, OK, we'll just stay here, I may be here the rest of the night, but that's alright.

And then other people came back in and finally I thought, I don't want to stay here the rest of the night. So I said to the woman, Thank you and goodbye. And I left, and when I got offstage I couldn't see anything because I didn't have my glasses. So I went back in and I said, Do you have my glasses? And she gave me my glasses, and I said, OK. And then she stayed through the rest of the performance, but in a different way, not interacting, no one wanted to deal with her, but she didn't take the center of attention anymore. She just kind of spaced out, other things got more powerful. And it actually gave an incredible energy to the performance, because what happened from then to the end was that people really did what they were doing, they really did it.

And the final thing that happened, when the show was over, and there was the bow, one of the musicians, Hans Rowe, was being DJ and he started to put on some music again, and from the bowing it went into dancing, into seeing friends and bringing them onstage, into 200 people dancing onstage. And the director of the theater was going into total schizophrenia, thinking: This is so incredible, 'cause it had never happened in his theater before, like a happening; and at the same time he was totally freaked out with security: Things will get stolen. So I said, Tell your security people to be aware, but just let it happen, be cool and enjoy it.