Three balancing acts and the disappearance of a Dance
JENNIFER KAYLE, JULY 2019
Over many years of team-teaching with The Architects, we’ve often joked with our students in half-serious warnings: “Hey everybody, settle down – you have it easy – because WE are a lot nicer than OUR teachers.” Later, cue the stories, the times you had your ass handed to you for not paying attention in some crucial way, or for making assumptions that took the energy and synergy out of the work. Cue the stories of learning environments where you are thrashing around in the complexity and ambiguity of the work, on purpose, because that’s what is honing your abilities and sensibilities. Cue the expressions of gratitude for having the great privilege to learn from sophisticated teachers and dance-makers.
But, wait, our teachers weren’t “nice”? Maybe. Plus “nice” is not really the issue. But the joke has some kind of resonance for me still, and makes me wonder aboutfeedback. In other dance contexts, this “reaction to a person’s performance of a task”is sometimes called a “correction.” In improvisation, what are we correcting? Or is it leading, steering or something else? Other layers to the question could go like this: how do we use our feedback (def: “expressions to opinion”) to care for the emerging work we create, care for the training process that makes us capable of doing it better, care for the people who are doing it, care for the next iteration(s) of ensemble improvisation practice?
The Alleged Disappearance of the Dance
It’s gone, but YOU are still here
Unlike feedback on an essay or a choreography, there’s no tangible document or artifact to repair directly with this feedback, at least not in the same way. Rather than fixing an already-gone improvised work, we think about building a body of knowledge that can be applied next time. In one sense, that’s not entirely unique. From dancers to musicians, archers to pole-vaulters, everyone gets technical or artistic feedback and approaches the next run of tricky moves with the last bit of critique in mind. In another sense, the very notion of “correcting” toward a fixed ideal (the tricky moves are either good or bad, right or wrong) doesn’t fit our improvisational scenario. Often, an ensemble is asking questions about what’s good or bad, interesting or important, risky or boring, etc. The way I understand a branch in my own lineage, Judy Dunn and Bill Dixon were driven to expand the range of values and possibilities that they manifested in their work, and they passed that ethos on to their students. When you’re wondering about unusual or innovative or radical ways of doing things, interested in what may be strange even to your own eyes and ears, evaluation is more complicated. What if the artists in an ensemble hold aesthetic values or artistic questions that aren’t completely shared? If ensemble members are pushing into new territory, and also pushing and pulling in slightly different directions, this tension may even be central to their unique work. How do you leverage opinion and reaction here in useful ways?
In retrospect, I have experienced that improvisational choices were not so much evaluated in a simplistic way, as they were rather traced and contextualized, assessed relative to a particular piece, but also according to histories, habits, and goals that were set (by individuals or by the whole ensemble). Artistic thinking and compositional sophistication can be built, in part, through reflection and analysis; epiphanies and emerging questions drive us ahead to the next attempt. We improve by shuttling backward and forward in looping and overlapping motions: feedback, feedforward, feet onward, butt backward, back feetward – uh oh what?! Wait, what was I saying? Trace back. Back…to the problem of improvisation’s alleged disappearance.
Where did it go? How do we manage to consider what we just did? Is it still available to your perception in some way? It seems that you’d have to remember what happened in order to evaluate anything. Like many young practitioners, first you have to rememberto remember. It can take a while to learn to be simultaneously absorbed in the process while also keeping track over time. How do you feel the traces that are left in you- sensations, impressions, images – and compile the document that is the shared memory of the group? Memory is a muscle that can be built with practice, and often, ensembles (or teachers of classes) can create rituals for tracing back. It can be useful to create frameworks for recounting what happened without getting into gross evaluation at first. What language do you use to describe what happened, but also, to ask about a choice, or to account for a choice? How do you discuss and cultivate discernment, but avoid devolving into the dreaded “shame spiral?”
What is a “shame spiral” you ask? It is a delightful (sarcasm) state of embarrassment about work you have done in an improvisation session, that may be accompanied by feelings of heaviness, creative paralysis, nausea, dry mouth, sudden diarrhea, tequila, oops, more tequila. The problem is, you could just as easily find yourself in this state for doing brilliant, yet very raw or vulnerable work, as you could end up in a shame spiral for “failing,” whatever that means. And it’s sometimes hard to tell which one is the cause of your symptoms. This is when the alleged disappearance of an improvisation is somewhat of a blessing – however it went – it’s gone! Good. Proceed ahead: 1) Take note. 2) Begin again. 3) Repeat for like 20 years. (Except don’t – it’s improvisation so you should try to do something you didn’t do last time. See? Powerful critique is so easy. Fixes everything.)
In addition to feedback amongst ensemble members, what about the outside eyes: the audience, the teachers, the peers who are external to the group? I think it’s valid to ask when, if, and how feedback from external eyes is important. If you’re engaged in the performance of improvisation, then finding a way to hear how the work is being read would seem logical. But how well understood is improvisation as a form of performance? What if audience uses standards or expectations based on some other context (Improv comedy, set choreography, contact improvisation) to evaluate? What if peers have different aesthetics or other priorities? As with other feedback scenarios, these are complex dynamics. If you’re willing to brave the process, then at least two types of feedback can be gathered here. There may be impressions about “the” work, and then there are impressions of “your” work – your individual role in the makings and workings of the ensemble…
For myself, I have conflicting feelings about feedback, and I suspect I have company on this point. Of course, yes, I want the work I do within an ensemble to be brilliant, contributing powerfully to what the ensemble makes, both appreciated for its individual attributes and for the way it adds to the whole. On the other hand, the reason I keep doing the work is because of the unique state it provokes in me when I’m utterly focused on making something, and that state is not so concerned with what the imagined othersmay think. Yet, I also think I can’t afford to ignore external impressions if I want to expand my own vision of what I’m doing. The different priorities I’m describing here can’t always be served simultaneously, (at least I haven’t always found a way to do so), and the tension I feel in weighing them also affects my approach to student feedback. Enter...
BALANCING ACT #1
Revel Rigor Creativity Critique Immersion Reflection Flow Form
I want to support the uprising of that absorbing state, to hold space for diving deeply into the sensate experience, following curiosity and oddity, discovering that you can have a poetic sense about your own actions. That liminal state is not easily cultivated in an atmosphere of constant critique. But, without some kind of critical reflection, one’s creative flow won’t be able to ride on sophisticated forms. After quite a few years, I’ve gotten to a place where I can be absorbed in the moment, and some evaluative thinking is knitted into it, or riding along in the background in a way that doesn’t knock me completely out of my creative concentration. But this type of integration takes time, and even now, still feels precarious. After reading about a thousand student journals, I see that for beginning students, there’s often an inverse relationship between a critical environment and creative immersion, let alone creative risk.
My pedagogical stance, especially for the newcomers I often teach, leans toward creating a permissive environment for exploration, parsing out critique in targeted moments. Many of the smart groups I’ve taught have organically started evaluating, often without calling it that, but nonetheless, began voicing their impressions of the process and the forms that emerged, along with what they found interesting (or not). Sometimes it has made sense to take cues from the students, to engage in critique if it’s first initiated by them, jumping-in accordingly. At more advanced levels, as with most endeavors, practitioners who can hack it allow themselves to hear more pointed opinions, and learn to build on these exchanges (sometimes gratefully, sometimes defiantly).
Where I learned from my teachers, improvisational practice was at the core of the program in many ways – it was not an “elective,” wasn’t segregated to a peripheral subject, and wasn’t seen as a mere means to an end. I wonder if this fact is partly responsible for the early and emphatic nature of the feedback I sometimes experienced. There were high expectations for growth and performance that were justified by teaching improvisation in so many different ways across the curriculum. When most of my undergraduate students have only recently taken their first so-called modern dance class, have never heard of ensemble improvisation until now, let alone seen it, I’m hesitant to pull out my improvisational samurai sword and cut into students who are doing immature or unconscious stuff. How do I want to spend the 39 total hours I get with them? Before they leave, never again to “elect” this elective? In the course for graduate students, the sheer diversity in background, exposure and sophistication, along with their different professional goals, makes it tough to establish an overall approach to feedback. In both contexts, I have often pushed for improvement by creating a new exercise (hate that word! – topic for another essay). I used a new prompt or framework to address what I thought went “wrong” in that last bit of practice, and in more subtle ways, pointed students’ attention to look for what changed in the before and after. This pedagogical leaning, one that often worked well with mild-mannered midwestern students got me in real trouble recently. I was broadsided by a situation that required an out-in-the-open critique and re-direction, and instead, I kept feedback in private, and continued using more subtle means in my teaching. I didn’t want my class to be hijacked by the behaviors of one person, but it was naïve to think that anything other than a firehose was going to change that course of events.
That experience has caused me to investigate the virtue of humility and to understand this attitude better. Moving forward, I will employ it more wisely. In my teaching, I often put myself in the position of modeling the not-knowing that is central to improvisation, along with an openness to multiple points of view. And it’s not just for show. Taking an open-ended approach, remaining curious, being open to alternative possibilities, these are foundational artistic modalities that I practice. But obviously, if there’s a bully in the room, or someone is poisoning the process, this is no time for free-wheeling openness.
BALANCING ACT #2
The Right Stance
Humility is a state, a disposition that gives rise to many actions and consequences. Acting out of humility means that you’re aware of your own limitations, aware that you’re not at the center of all things, and more often than not, will listen and consider alternative or other perspectives, etc. However, like other virtues, humility is a mean, a territory between excess and deficiency (according to Aristotle). An account given by Whitcomb et al includes a nifty graphic that locates humility between arrogance and servility, between excessive deference and self-abasement at one end (the butt end?), and the sense of superiority born of an overblown estimation of your smarts and abilities at the other end (definitely the assend). A properly engaged humility is something like “having the right stance toward one’s limitations.” This stance requires “being appropriately attentive to, and owning one’s limitations,” and goes hand-in-hand with a closely related virtue “proper pride,” which is “being appropriately attentive to, and owning” one’s capacity or expertise. (Whitcomb, Battaly, Baehr, and Howard-Snyder).
“The right stance,” in the creative context of ensemble improvisation, often includes various listening postures, multiple ways that we make ourselves susceptible to others’ ideas and proposals. Again, the notion of the mean, the territory between extremes, is useful here. We are called to be open, but we do not want to be open to everything in an absolute sense. My philosopher husband says “look, if some Nazi comes up and says ‘hey what do you think about thisidea?’ then no, virtues of humility and open-mindedness do not require giving him the benefit of the doubt.” Also, virtues such as rationality and courage should be invited to this unfortunate conversation.As members of an ensemble, as teachers of the form, we are called to adopt “the right stance,” to own our limitations and also our expertise. (Not as easy as it sounds.) The self-knowledge required here is deep; working to calibrate one’s disposition on this point is ongoing. For example, insisting that you’re right on something is not necessarily a lack of humility; when Galileo told everybody they had it wrong, this was not an over-estimation of his knowledge. Expertise that fails to move into the world is no benefit to anyone.
As teachers, we are called to exercise expertise, and also to cultivate it in our students. In an ensemble of peers, a collective and collaborative context, this is also no circumstance for withholding expertise; we shouldn’t falsely assume that exercising expertise means that others are prevented from doing likewise, from matching it or utilizing it. In fact, the more demanding the collective activity, all things being equal, the more you are called upon to exercise your strengths and capacities. In one sense, it always goes back to the importance of solo work, as an artist and a human. Working on your own shit is the foundation for the bridges and networks that are built, a crucial component in the overall enterprise.
BALANCING ACT #3
My teachers created a spacious feeling of exploration, but also slammed a lid on some of our less inspired forays. I remember both of these charged atmospheres very clearly- the one where the whole room is fearlessly immersed in shaping the unpredictable, and the one where the air is prickly with critique. In both cases, I perceived that my teachers cared fiercely about rigorous work, and also about us, especially who we could beinside the work they were trying to teach us. The caring came in equal measure with a bit of the old school shut-up-and-do-the-work; nowadays the tone might be seen as too gruff. It was made clear that personal material could be a resource, as long as it didn’t result in unconsciousness, “navel-gazing” (a self-involvement that undercuts connection and collaboration) or threaten the focus of the room, and if so, “get the fuck out of the space.” Sympathies were expressed in private or social spaces; sometimes their support was given in obtuse ways, but felt nonetheless. For me, this stands in stark contrast to the expected tone of today’s studio class– with its overt care-taking, co-learning, name circles and “check-ins.” In the spaces where I teach, feedback is given cautiously, often in formally structured ways, and there’s tremendous pressure to do it perfectly. It’s a different teaching and learning culture than the one I experienced as a student.
When I think of learning to improvise, I remember my teachers’ voices from the edge of the room, coaching us into wild solo research, reminding us to attend to the room and to respond in a multitude of ways, and I remember all of that business, eventually funneled into shaping a work – with them. I also remember the anxiety and insecurity I felt when suddenly dancing with one of my teachers, along with the thrill of it. I remember being “schooled” by being swept up, led in unexpected directions, or into movement tones and territory I didn’t recognize. I have distinct memories of embodying something, and having it picked-up by my teachers with an improvisational “oh yea? Well how about if we do THIS with that, and then bring it into this other context, and, and...” By dancing with them, I also learned about patience, sticking with something, remaining engaged in it long enough to really recognize and cultivate something. They also modeled ways of letting go, not fixating on things that went “wrong,” moments that got reductive, cute, or stuck. (Take note. Begin again. Repeat- but don’t).
In a recent conversation with Susan Sgorbati (Bennington College), we discussed that a primary mode of teaching ensemble improvisation is its “embedded pedagogy,” teaching and leading and feeding-back to students from within the work, by engaging in it with you. This is how I often learned from Penny Campbell and Peter Schmitz, my primary improvisation teachers at Middlebury. Yes, sometimes they talked over the room as we worked, casting spells of concentration and exploration. And they had endless prompts and incantations that caused many a shift in our state of being, enlivening our sensory acuity and our sense-making process. But also, they were dancing in the work alongside us; how they responded to our choices, led us, re-directed a trite moment, developed possibilities and complications, all gave us powerful feedback. By working with them in the classroom ensemble, I saw what I didn’t yet know how to do, and some models for trying to get there. I see that I have followed this pedagogical path, even if I haven’t matched their incredible genius at it.
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As a teacher of ensemble improvisation, I find it to be a job with many roles and modalities. Especially in a University, you are expected to set the agenda, direct, share knowledge and draw on expertise. In other moments, you’re embedded in the work alongside students, with the same uncertainty and imperfection. It’s a lot of hats to wear. At times you are the outside eye and your vantage point needs to be fed back. At times you are embedded in the process, and your own choices arethe feedback, “expressions of opinion,” and “reactions to a performance.” It’s important to model an openness to multiple points of view, one that is part and parcel of collective creative work. It’s also necessary to act out of a properly held confidence that is earned through years (decades!) of practice.
I admit that I would be happy if everyone who encounters it, loves and values improvisation as much as I do. I’ve been successful at inspiring many students to count improvisation as a favorite way of being and making. But in the end, this is not as important as the integrity of the exchange, whether there’s openness or resistance, understanding or misinterpretation.
Like it or not, the approach to feedback is always a factor in there, coloring the experience in the room, helping or hurting the process, and showing us teachers and students alike the growing edges. So?
My newly gruff not-nice totally caring teacher persona says: DEAL WITH IT
See you out there.
Whitcomb, Battaly, Baehr, Howard-Snyder, “Intellectual Humility: Owning Our Limitations,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, May 2017, Vol. XCIV No. 3., pp 509-539.