Unreal Nature

April 25, 2013

That Which Eludes History

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:25 am

… Power circulates through the collective actions of such improvisation. It never has the opportunity to … alight … . Power is repeatedly “taken by surprise” so that it can never embed itself …

This is from the essay ‘Taken By Surprise: Improvisation in Dance and Mind’ by Susan Leigh Foster found in the collection Taken By Surprise: A Dance Improvisation Reader edited by Ann Cooper Albright and David Gere (2003):

… The improvising dancer tacks back and forth between the known and the unknown, between the familiar/reliable and the unanticipated/unpredictable.

The known includes the set of behavioral conventions established by the context in which the performance occurs, such as those of a street corner, a proscenium theater, or a lecture. … The known also includes an individual body’s predisposition to move in patterns of impulses established and made routine through training in a particular dance tradition as well as the body’s predilection for making certain kinds of selections from a vocabulary or sequence of movements. … The known includes that which has already occurred previously in the performance of improvising.

The unknown is precisely that and more. It is that which was previously unimaginable, that which we could not have thought of doing next. Improvisation presses us to extend into, expand beyond, extricate ourselves from that which was known. It encourages us or even forces us to be “taken by surprise.” Yet we could never accomplish this encounter with the unknown without engaging the known.

… The improvised is that which eludes history.

… Historical inquiry has neglected to question how certain actions slide easily across representational fields into the historical record and others are persistently unnoticed. It has tried to ignore actions resistant to written description. What would history look like if it were to acknowledge the fact of improvisation?

… How could the attempt to include the improvised alter the course of historical inquiry? Are there ways to write about improvisation that establish its significance and impact without leaching from it the wonderment and critical awareness that its unexpectedness produces?

… Within the meager discourses describing the experience of improvisation that history has left us, the terms mind and body often stand in for the known and the unknown. We read of improvisation as the process of letting go of the mind’s thinking so that the body can do its moving in its own unpredictable way. But this description is an obfuscation, as unhelpful as it is inaccurate; surely, all bodily articulation is mindful. Each body segment’s sweep across space, whether direct or meandering, is thought-filled. Each corporeal modulation in effort thinks; each swelling into tension thinks; each erratic burst or undulation in energy thinks. Each accented phrasing or accelerating torque or momentary stillness is an instance of thought. Conceptualized in this way, bodily action constitutes a genre of discourse.

If, then, bodily articulation is mindful, what quality of mindfulness does improvisation hope to transcend? The capacity to evaluate and censor? Even these faculties remain active during improvisation. Improvisation involves moments where one thinks in advance of what one is going to do, other moments where actions seem to move faster than they can be registered in full analytic consciousness of them, and still other moments where one thinks the idea of what is to come at exactly the same moment that one performs that idea. Still, both the changing of the course of things and the riding of that course through its course are mindful and bodyful. Rather than suppress any functions of mind, improvisation’s bodily mindfulness summons up a kind of hyperawareness of the relation between immediate action and overall shape, between that which is about to take place or is taking place and that which has and will take place.

We also read in the discourses on improvisation allegations that improvisation, because of its bodily spontaneity, requires no technique. This, too, is a muddled and wrongly cast charge. Improvisation makes rigorous technical demands on the performer. It assumes an articulateness in the body through which the known and the unknown will find expression. It entails a vigilant porousness toward the unknown, a stance that could only be acquired through intensive practice. It depends upon the performer’s lucid familiarity with the principles of composition. (After all, to improvise is to compose extemporaneously and composition is an arrangement into proper proportion or relation.)

… This body, instigatory as well as responsive, grounds the development of consciousness as a hyperawareness of relationalities. Each next moment of improvising, full of possible positionings, develops its choreographic significance as all participants’ actions work to bring the performance into proper proportion or relation. During this playful labor, consciousness shifts from self in relation to group, to body in relation to body, to movement in relation to space and time, to past in relation to present, and to fragment in relation to developing whole. Shared by all improvisors in a given performance, this embodied consciousness enables the making of the dance and the dance’s making of itself.

Power circulates through the collective actions of such improvisation. It never has the opportunity to dwell in a specific joint of the body, or alight at the site of a particular individual, or hunker down among a portion of the group. Power is repeatedly “taken by surprise” so that it can never embed itself within a static structural element that would allow it to flex into hierarchies of domination and control. In improvisation, power can only keep on the move, running as fast as it can to partner, to empower performers, never overcoming them.

Improvisation empowers those who witness it as well as those who perform it. Watching improvisation, consciousness expands out of passive reception of an event and toward active engagement in the actual making of the event. Viewers participate along with the performers in the open field of possible choices and the performers’ construction and selection of those choices through which meaning is determined.



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