Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Involuntary Improvisation

I've written with pleasure about musical improvisers: the Tone Road Ramblers sextet that composes improvisationally, and the ADD Trio, which works at the pinnacle of jazz improvisation—that is, making changes on a set tune stated in a particular key. I've also written about violinist Dorothy Martirano, whose eclectic practice allows her to inform her performance in any genre with improvisational elements drawn from a multitude of sources.

We understand and accept the improvisational musicians' assumption that they are setting out to work unscripted. The art form depends on quick wits, fine technique, highly attuned perceptions, broad knowledge of musical history, and the sort of soaring invention possible only when these elements are in place. In music performance (as in acting), improvisation is a rigorous discipline that is learned through much study and practice. Those of us in the audience delight in the apparent ease and naturalness, the hallmarks of a demanding art discipline.

Part of the contract in performance art is that we, the audience, applaud from joy the stagings that performers produce for us. Their pleasure in their performances must be quite different from our own—how can we inhabit their thrills of mastery, of camaraderie, of goals fulfilled? But surely they work for our applause. Audiences count to performers, as their work does to us.  Performers wish to persuade audiences; to make a difference to us. But even in doing so, they cannot necessarily control how they do. Whatever performers consider their art to be, and however they strive to fashion it, its impact can be serendipitous.

This weekend I attended several dances at an evening of OhioDance 2013 performances held at BalletMet Performance Space in Columbus. Despite the tech rehearsals of the afternoon, the tech delivery was disastrous to two dances I saw. In the first, three  game performers continued to dance their lively drama through long periods of silence where their recorded music was to have been. It was another, though, that set me thinking about improvisation, its relation to will or necessity; to artist and audience.

The piece was Retracing, coreographed by Kora Radella of Double-Edge Dance, with music by Ross Feller. The mysterious music was performed live by violinist Dorothy Martirano, with occasional whisperings of recorded music behind her (she was to have been playing against recorded sound). There was some obvious, significant glitch at the beginning as Martirano and dancer Julie Brodie coordinated the beginning of the dance; but once the event was underway, I was mesmerized.

Visually, the dance was a beautiful integration of movement, costume, and raked light. The fragile-framed Brodie was first dressed in a layered dress of coarsely-woven, bleach-white, diaphanous cotton or linen. With her curly brown hair in a short, pixie cut, she appeared her appearance was every bit the gamine. Her movement was restricted—leased, even—by a tether, yards and yards long, that was wrapped several times around her body and extended for all the way across the stage, where a black-garbed handler controlled its length and tension; the degree of freedom available to the dancer was thus bound by it.

I was mesmerized by the girlish femininity of the dancer in her sweet layers of white skirts, so innocent at the opening, but learning to examine, dance with, then against, her tether. The growing consciousness of and exploration of its meaning was acted out with such subtly choreographed nuances of movement that the drama was lucid, but took the viewer well beyond obvious thoughts about "casting off feminine chains." Through gestures like both children and Furies, the dancer rejected, longed for, and mourned her tether. Not only was the dance beautifully conceived and danced with distinction, but its content was significant and haunting. I was deeply moved by an experience that held me rapt.

I had the privilege of speaking with Martirano, Feller and briefly with Radella afterwards. They were not happy, for there had been big disruptions to the plan. Most of the recording hadn't been played at all, so Martirano and Brodie had had to wing it. I hadn't perceived this at all, though, however upset the artists were, or how angry and frustrated they felt. They had been robbed; I had not. For them, the necessity of improvising had been a sudden burden; for me, it had been, if I'd known they were doing it, something like the Tone Road Ramblers do—using their knowledge and skills to create spontaneously within parameters they know well.

The force of expectations! Often it's the audience that declares success or failure depending on what it expects. We judge art by what we've come to anticipate, based on everything else we've seen or heard. That has to happen among artists who plan works too, who know what is supposed to occur. They, especially, don't want surprises.

 I love the experience of art to be an exercise in being where we are, traveling through time and thought from the moment we're given. What greater show of power than improvisation, especially when it's quite unexpected on both sides of the curtain. That performance of Retracing on Saturday was, perhaps, the best one yet.

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