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IMPROVISATION AS A WAY TOWARDS COMMON NOTIONS / II

Transit is a part of the Magdalena Project, an international, cross-cultural network of women in contemporary theatre, founded in Wales in 1986. Transit Festival is directed by Julia Varley, and it aims to “give voice to the concerns of women working in theatre today” (Odin Teatret Nordisk Teaterlaboratorium) by creating opportunities to discuss different working methods, to bring performances to the public, and to generate further debates, workshops, and collaborations. Its common language of theatre, dance, and music is the one that can be shared among diverse cultural traditions. The theme of the first meeting in 1992 (at the Odin Teatret, in Holstebro) was “Directors and the dynamic patterns of theatre groups: What are women proposing?”  The video, In Transit: Hidden Directions (1993), shows recordings taken during the festival, which contains extracts from performances and interviews with actors and directors talking about their working processes. While watching this film, we can observe an evolving, rather new way of directing, which emphasizes being in the group, weakening the conventional hierarchies between director and actor. The director’s role within the group is more about conducting than directing. The most appreciated values of these ways of creating are patience in seeing the result as it is not delineated in advance, being receptive and searching for evolving contents that originate from the process itself (In Transit: Hidden Directions, 1993). This is called (by Julia Varley) a feminine way of directing, which is in contrast to a more rational, linear, from the beginning goal-oriented, the so-called masculine way (In Transit: Hidden Directions, 1993). This is only a characteristic differentiation of methods; it of course, it does not mean that all female artists are supposed to work according to the feminine process or the other way around, that all male directors would follow the so-called masculine way.

The strong group aspect appears in practice in several ways, for instance: the choice of the theme should belong to all the actors as well as to the director, it should be of personal importance to each individual (In Transit: Hidden Directions, 1993), which then merges into a collective work (while the individual contents stay); Julia Varley during her directing asks the actors to take some tasks, traditionally belonging to the director, such as preparing scenes in couples or helping each other in fixing material out of improvisation (In Transit: Hidden Directions, 1993). However, this does not mean to overshadow the individual aspects. As it has been pointed out by Jill Greenhalgh (the founder of the Magdalena Project and the director of the performance Midnight Level 6), everybody in the group, actors and director, has her/his own narrative throughout the performance, which helps the work, but they do not have to share this narrative with each other or with the audience (In Transit: Hidden Directions, 1993). Along the shared working process, the individual narrative becomes a sub-conscious part of the play. As long as the creators have their own convincing narratives and reasons, and the director has a meaning that allows her to read through the actions, so she understands the work in its smallest details as well as a whole, the proper communication with the audience happens without the spectators knowing all the information about the director’s vision (In Transit: Hidden Directions, 1993). Another participating director, Maria Lexa started working with students on the performance, Spejltræet, based on the individual initiations of all the collaborators, resulting in 15-20 individual materials (In Transit: Hidden Directions, 1993). Then they invited guest spectators to take part of the process and make the scenario of the play together (In Transit: Hidden Directions, 1993). The text then came from improvisations of the nascent characters, thus organically evolving from their forming world (In Transit: Hidden Directions, 1993).

Artistic group work implies the dynamics of continuous exchange and transitions between bodies, yet it becomes clear that it has a very strong individual aspect too, which is supported by the group and the collaborations. Cristina Castrillo (director of Baguala and Risse – Bildnisse zu Frida Kahlo) describes the director’s work with the actor as “a research on the emotional world of the actor,” (Transit: Hidden Directions, 1993) or according to Brigitte Kaquet (director of Petite Messe de Paques), as creating frames to help the actor “going beyond what she has thought was her limit” (Transit: Hidden Directions, 1993).  Castrillo talks about the body’s automatic reaction to strong emotions, which is either a closing mechanism or an anarchic explosion (Transit: Hidden Directions, 1993) as ways of self-protection. The working process therefore contains the important element of introspection (Transit: Hidden Directions, 1993), the initial state of turning the gaze inwards through several exercises (e.g. moving or being in the space blindfolded, which at the same time gives you altered information about the outside world as well as your own body). Developing this contact with oneself is essential for being in contact with others, so that this relation can be joyful, and instead of passive, automatic reactions of the body it can be controlled, not by means of self-protection but by the means of containing the emotions without explosion or a closing mechanism. The body learns its limits, learns to stay on the edge of this limit, which can be then extended by encounters with other bodies.

Compared to more fixed theatrical practices, there is a different planning in improvisation, where only the framework and the method is given and some other elements, for instance, objects, images, texts, or sounds, which function as sources of inspiration. The improvised actions continuously rely on the present moment, created by sudden decisions, highly influenced by the environment, the personal state of the performer, the reactions of the audience, and the inputs of the partner(s) in the case of more performers. Therefore, one needs to give up the individual, habitual control, and accept to be carried by unpredictable factors. The success of the performance, which is the creative flow in between bodies, depends on this acceptance by all the participants. Here ‘unpredictable’ refers to the offer, the invitation, to discover the unknown characteristic relations of one another through connections.

Both learning to swim and artistic improvisation imply certain risk-taking. This has to do with the direct interaction with an unknown body, which alternates the qualities of the self. There is the risk of losing control over your body or become a victim of a bad encounter and suffer an injury. The risk is even higher if we consider that one’s own body can also be an unknown territory for oneself, and in fact, it always is to some extent. There seems to be a circle here with the returning question of the capacity and limits of one’s body. The more one knows her/his body’s capacity, the more one can avoid bad encounters. But in order to gain this knowledge, it is necessary to challenge bodily limits. Without a clear answer to when it is the right time for taking risks and when it is time for self-protection, it seems that there can be some kind of balance between the two: opening and closing. As Deleuze points it out (1978), Spinoza suggests that we take risks on the basis of common notions. We can say that the more adequate an idea one has, the better one can decide about which encounters require self-protection or when it could be fertile to take a risk. Risk-taking that is based on common notions, so on the agreements between bodies, increases the capacity of the body and its power to act, in our example, the power of moving through/with the water. The moment of learning coincides with the acceptance of the obstacles of my body, for instance, the changed breathing conditions, experienced through the waves. This involves an effort of trying to perceive the water’s character and the way it interacts with my body’s character (Deleuze, 1981). This leads to a corporeal knowledge that is only possible through the connection with other bodies.

Both in theatre/dance and music there is a great, innovative potential in improvisation or working methods based on improvisation (when the performance itself is fixed but it has evolved from a flexible and open preparation) that allow the reorganisation of formal frames and escaping categories. This is also the potential of provoking social and cultural changes by showing that there is always something ambiguous in bodies and in the ways they can connect. There is a fertile field in opening up these creation processes based on improvisation towards a larger public, to explore the arising connections without a fixed goal. These connections can emerge through the personal importance of the participants – through freely proposed themes, images, and materials to work with – that along the way is becoming social, before returning to the single persons. Ajay Heble states that these innovative methods in question have an important role “to promote a dynamic exchange of cultural forms, and to encourage new, socially responsive forms of community building across national, cultural, and artistic boundaries” (”Why Can’t We Go Somewhere There?”: Sun Ra, Improvisation, and the Imagination of Future Possibilities, 2010, p. 90).

Image: Julia Varley in `Ave Maria´, under the direction of Eugenio Barba. Photo: Valmir Santos.