Improvisation in dance used to have a bad rep (in college, Twyla Tharp walked out of a class when asked to “be a cloud”). Since the ’60s, the return to improv as a classroom study, a compositional tool, or the basis of performance has spawned forms (contact improvisation) and companies (the Grand Union). I’m a sucker for improvisations: the structured kind, like Dana Reitz’s solos or Steve Paxton’s music-based ones, and cut-loose jams. I still remember a profound duet that Ralph Lemon and Bebe Miller performed at a years-ago edition of Movement Research’s annual Improvisation Festival. I’m excited by the alertness and the wiliness that it takes to respond to the moment.
Group improvisations tend to be playful and experimental. The performers behave as if they’re thinking,”What if I tried this?” And, “What’d he do if I jumped on him?” The outcome of such risks can be entrancing, although the possibility of self-indulgence or sabotaging a colleague’s choices always looms. And sometimes, improvisations don’t take fire. I felt this on a Friday night at the 2004 edition of the Improvisation Festival during Descending Matter: (between states), performed by Astrud Angarita, Sigal Berman, Rebecca Serrell, and Osmany Teller. Perhaps the title was a key, because their gamboling, noodling around one another, and intermittent soloing had a kind of slackness, a diffidence. There were props, including an ironing board and a bench, that held court in St. Mark’s while we listened to a voice speaking (I think) Portuguese and cased a guitarist, who sat attentively and plucked one string just as the session was ending.
In Temporary Relief From Objects and Events, that same musician turned out to be Douglas Henderson, messing sand and pebbles around on a mic’d table and making a loop of the result to goad Minneapolis-based Morgan Thorson into a stumbly dance with many falls. He stroked a wineglass while Thorson fell into another dazed eruption of movement, as if all the assorted trunks and pieces of audio equipment onstage had addled her equilibrium sensors.
The downtown dance world is always thrilled when its stars turn out to jam, especially if they’ve never improvised together before: Mark Dendy, Pooh Kaye, Sally Silvers! They began elegantly in a line, all wearing black pants and white tops, advancing toward us to lush orchestral sounds, looking terrific. But after the music cut out, one of them said reprovingly: “We’re supposed to do that in time,” and the self-deprecating tone crept in periodically (“It’s not as easy as it used to be”). When black garbage bags dropped from the St. Mark’s balcony, the three began an orgy of crazed thrashing around, strapping on foam rubber mattresses, rolling one another up in them, turning Dendy into a black plastic bundle, doing things with a red cord, kibitzing. There was even a surprise streaker. Of course, these pros were often truly witty and ingenious, and always entertaining. I wondered, though, if they’d ordered up all the props and sudden music changes because they didn’t quite trust themselves to hold our attention by just moving. They needn’t have worried.
Another divinely disparate bunch—Louise Burns, Seán Curran, Kenneth King, and Sarah Skaggs—also either lacked faith or went all out for a postmodern layering of texts. Watching how Curran’s fast feet dialogued with Skaggs, enjoying Skaggs’s apparent fascination with the always inspired ditherings of Kenneth King, or wondering if Burns was going to be a loner throughout (she wasn’t) turned problematic because of the simultaneous patter of Carla Peterson, the executive director of Movement Research, and Lucy (The Factress) Sexton. Peterson talked entertainingly on a variety of subjects, professional and personal; but Sexton knows how to work a mic and shake up a crowd. We learned something about her and her kid and more about women who shave (she devoted a lot of mildly scornful amazement to the “postage stamp pussy”). At one point, I thought that King, dancing close to her, was going to magic her into some other state, but no. And, although Sexton did casually get naked for a few seconds, I was more interested in watching Curran making like a b-boy on the skids. The four are wonderful performers, and they worked wonderfully together, competing texts notwithstanding.