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Flash Review 1, 12-3: Improv Club
At the Theater with Movement Research

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2001 Josephine Leask

NEW YORK -- It always strikes me as unusual when improvisation is performed in front of an audience in a theater setting, as originally it was never a form of movement that was intended for the stage. Rather improvisation was a denouncing of hierarchies that traditional performance demanded, a stripping down to the bare bones of dancemaking and a way of finding movement that was free from the restrictions of learnt steps, dynamics and gesture. Improvisation was an organic studio process through which the spirit of dance was released spontaneously.

However, improvisation as performance is becoming more popular as events like Movement Research's annual festival prove, in a reflection of the growing interest in process-led dance in which the actual making is more important that the finished product. Just as improvisation has enriched performance by freeing up the body and playing with the unpredictable, so have performance concerns made improvised movement more interesting to watch. There is a tendency for improvisation to be too inward looking and self-indulgent because it is so much about reflection and tuning into the body or its immediate environment, but when an audience is present that focus has to change. Improvisation fails as performance if the audience is left in the cold, but New York improvisers know better than to do that.

The festival kicked off Thursday at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, with a seasoned group of improvisers and celebrities of the New York downtown dance scene. Three pieces were presented and central to all, so often lacking in dance, was humor.

Darrel Jones and Jeremy Wade joined forces with musicians Michael Floyd and Qasim Naqvi in "Shits Creek." Ambling into the space, in slapstick style like the Marx Brothers the four performers operate as a comical team. Intriguing noises and mixes, which are emitted by Floyd on the computer and loud thrash from Naqvi on the drums, make for an eventful electronic sound score. The two dancers, in a journey through a Rogues gallery of impersonations, convey varied hues of characterization and dynamics as well. Nothing is predictable here. They surprise us like circus performers, slipping through improvised identities with a boisterous flair, aided by dynamic sound and lighting.

A very different energy is transmitted by Sara Shelton Mann and Jon McNamara -- one that is intense, contained but also edgy and wild. Mann performs a solo which draws on the Zen energy of Tai Chi, but takes it into a more aggressive, whipping dance which is more "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" than Buddhist meditation. Her spiritual whirlwind is broken by the appearance of McNamara, who enters with a large handbag, sits down and prosaically empties its entire contents. Mann transforms into a materialistic girl, unpacking her wallet, counting her money, sorting her credit cards and then playing a round of poker with them. This interlude abruptly ends and the two women go off into their own driven dances. The relationship between the women is curious, as McNamara creeps around Mann with reverence, always looking to her as a disciple looks at her guru. She seems more hesitant than Mann, but when she lets go, she too performs a highly unique and forceful dance. "The Bell Loved Dance" doesn't loose my attention for a second, Mann maintaining eye contact with the audience throughout.

Finally, a group of five very individual performers including John Jasperse, Paul Langland, Osmany Tellez, Astrud Angarita and Margarita Guergue are led by improvisation maestro Kirstie Simpson. "Scratch" takes the form of a true jam, with some of the dancers waiting at the edge of the space for the appropriate time to join in, and contains the highs and lows of the improvisation experience. We see glitchy moments when the movement gets stuck and doesn't go anywhere, beautiful accidental connections and playful phrases. The most intriguing thing about "Scratch," besides the live DJing by Hahn Rowe, is watching the interaction of the performers and witnessing the spontaneous decisions they have to make in real time without the safety net of set dance steps. This creates an element of surprise which keeps the dance fresh. When the dancers occasionally get knotted up, Simpson is there like a flash to untangle them, and keeps the show rolling. Rowe excels here as he spins subtle sounds and feeds them into the group, watching and waiting, gauging the appropriate time for his sound intervention. The joy of improvisation as a dance style is that it is compatible with a variety of other art forms, and opens up opportunities for experimentation in music, text, visual art and mixed media.

Movement Research's 10th Annual Improvisation Festival continues through December 8 at various venues.

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