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Improvisation as a Way towards Common Notions / I

Artistic improvisation, such as in theatre, dance, or music, can be seen as a type of creative risk-taking that offers a safe environment for experiencing vulnerability and testing the limits of the body. The creation process is based on the performers’ interdependency on each other, or on the audience.
In the case of a successful process, the improvisation leads to a kind of corporeal knowledge, thus, it implies an increased capacity of the bodies of the participants (including the audience). This knowledge involves new aspects of the body, the experience of unknown realms of oneself, and of the surrounding bodies. Although, vulnerability is a crucial aspect of a sincere and interesting performance, most of the times, the performance space provides a rather “safe” environment for the possibilities of productive interactions. In the following two-part essay, I will explore the socially connecting potential of artistic improvisation through Spinoza’s theory of ‘common notions,’ focusing on theatrical creation processes, such as the experimental methods of different directors and groups in the framework of the first Transit Festival: Women’s International Theatre Festival and Meeting (in 1992, Holstebro, Denmark).

Improvisation has a great potential in encouraging social connections and the forming of ‘common notions’ that arise from ‘joyful encounters’ according to Spinoza’s Ethics (in the reading of Gilles Deleuze, ‘Cours Vincennes: Spinoza,’ 24 January, 1978). Spinoza classifies body-encounters as joyful and sad encounters depending on the characteristics of the meeting bodies, whether they agree or disagree with each other, (or on the proportion of agreement and disagreement). Common notions can only arise from joyful encounters, when the affecting body’s relation is combined with the affected body in a way that it increases its power to act (Deleuze, 1978). In this case, you are able to form a notion of what is common in the characteristics of the two (or more) bodies (Deleuze, 1978). In the opposite case, when the affective relation is decomposing the affected body, in the case of bad encounters, there is no motivation to find common notions but only to separate from the affecting body (Deleuze, 1978). Therefore, only joyful encounters can lead to further knowledge of the characteristic relations of my body and another: to ‘adequate ideas’ (Deleuze, 1978). Without this knowledge, we are enclosed in ‘chance encounters’ and ‘inadequate ideas,’ which allow only a limited observation, based solely on the effect that a body has on another without considering the characteristics of those bodies, their relations, and the causes of the effects.

Gilles Deleuze gives the example of learning to swim (Deleuze, ‘Cours Vincennes: Spinoza,’ 17 March, 1981) in connection with Spinoza’s theory regarding the shift from chance encounters to adequate ideas. What happens by gaining the ability to swim is that the conception of the waves alters. A deeper understanding evolves that is of one’s body in relation to the water by direct corporeal experience. It is a “conquest of existence” by conquering an element (Deleuze, 1981). Without this knowledge, the interaction with the water stays in the realm of affection-passion so it depends on pure chance. Whether it is a playful or harmful encounter, it is conceived as only between the extensive parts, without including the characteristics of the involved bodies (you and the water) and their relation (Deleuze, 1981). Your experience is that the waves do something to you by chance (Deleuze, 1981). On the contrary, learning to swim is a composition of relations: the recognition that one’s body is made up of relations, as well as the water’s body, and this recognition forms a direct relationship, a dynamic exchange, between these two relations of characteristics (Deleuze, 1981). As a result, one will know when to rise and when to sink in the water, neither overcoming nor serving the waves (Deleuze, 1981). This means to enter the realm of adequate ideas that are beyond the chance encounters (Deleuze, 1981).

The same dynamics apply to improvisation techniques that are based on the relations of characteristics between the musician and the instrument, the actor and the props, the performer and the audience or among their fellow performers. These encounters are also based on a kind of balance between rising and sinking in a way that the result is a productive rhythm, neither overcoming nor serving one another, but supporting the creation by receiving and initiating ideas. Deleuze’s example of learning to swim (1981) can be connected to the process of improvisation, since both of them involve unpredictable situations, when the only way to leave the chance encounters is to open up bodily senses towards the characteristic relations between your body and an unknown body, for instance, the movements and rhythms of the waves (Deleuze, 1981) or the ideas of another actor. Opening your senses towards other bodies’ characteristic relations mean the process of gaining knowledge about their relations to your own body (Deleuze, 1981). This happens in a direct, bodily interaction that produces a certain change in the characteristic relations of your own body, as well as in the other. Group theatre or even a solo performance can be this direct experience that results in direct corporeal exchange, creating interdependency and therefore affecting all the participating bodies (both performers and audience).

Female directors and performers from different countries and theatrical backgrounds talk about their working methods in the documentary, In Transit: Hidden Directions (2003), in connection with the Transit Festival, (Women’s International Theatre Festival and Meeting that was held in 1992, in Holstebro). The performances mentioned in the documentary are fixed and precise outcomes of the usually long periods of work based on improvisation. These artists share the aspect of ambiguity as a value from which inspiration emerges during the rehearsals, giving space to an experimental improvement on a personal, as well as on a collective level. Therefore, the creation of a performance is not goal-oriented; instead, the focus shifts onto the process itself.

Image: The Art of Swimming. Illustrated by proper figures. With advice for bathing. By Monsìeur Thevenot.
The image come from ‘Capital Collections – The Image Library of Edinburgh City Libraries and Museums and Galleries’