By Gabrielle Gainor
As a dance student, my most inspiring mentors were those who helped me understand the mechanics of my dancing body. I recall "ah-ha" moments about using my abdominal muscles in class with Kitty Daniels, for example; learning to ride the fall and rebound of Limón technique with Brenna Monroe-Cook; and constantly refining the ballerina details like pointed feet and turned-out legs with Vivian Little.
Now that I'm an adult, it's not that I've mastered the basics -- nothing could be farther from the truth! Rather, now that I'm older, I understand that dancing full out requires both a physical commitment to good technique, as well as a mental and emotional commitment. It's not enough to have good stage presence. We as dancers must take that confidence a step further -- setting ego aside to reside fully in the dance. What is the choreographer asking us to do? Is it to connect with another dancer? Is it to take on a character? Is it to explore a movement or idea? My goal nowadays is to fulfill the task on a much deeper level than I was able to comprehend in the past.
After all, as Eva Stone so wisely loves to remind us, "Movement never lies." If a performer is not fully invested in what he's doing onstage due to not knowing the counts (I am usually guilty of this), timidness, insecurity, or something else personal going on -- it shows. Dance is about people watching people, and we know how to read our own species. As a viewer, one can't fully go on that journey with a dancer unless she believes in the dance.
This is not really a "woo-woo" or weird modern-dance idea, it has more to do with storytelling. And not ruining the magic. Like that scene in Hook, (one of my all-time favorite movies!), Robin Williams cannot enjoy the meal with the Lost Boys at first, because he doubts that food will actually materialize from using his imagination. In both art and in great stories like Peter Pan, we're allowed to color outside the lines of reality in order to enjoy the reward, be it a feast or a dance.
It's for all these reasons that I now count my friend Ella Mahler among my most valuable mentors. Ella, a ferocious modern dancer who's performed with artists such as Catherine Cabeen and Pam Kuntz, has never judged me for, at times, being like Robin Williams -- unable to believe. Even though she didn't grow up in ballet class like I did, Ella doesn't have that problem; when you watch her dance, she is fearless. She is not afraid to try, to look stupid, to make choices on stage. As a dancer, she is the master of the reality she creates, it's why her work is so compelling. Naturally, she's been the perfect choice to work with Relay Dance Collective. Through Ella's guided improv sessions, we are all brushing up on our skills of improvisation, and ultimately, becoming more convincing and powerful storytellers through dance.
Q&A with Ella Mahler:
You organized that big group dance we saw at Relay's fundraiser -- that MUST have been choreographed, right?
Yes, it was choreographed – but in real time! The dancers worked together to make choices on the spot. They continued to experience and respond to each moment through physicality, space, and time. We built some framework that helped root the possibilities, such as pre-determined partners, but dancers had the freedom to make decisions in ways that served the piece a created as a whole.
Dance Improvisation -- what the heck is it?
Improvisation is spontaneous movement. It is instantaneous choices of movement, architecture, time, relationship, effort, commentary…the list goes on. It can be a tool to create movement for set choreography, or the maintained structure of a piece. Just like the many physical techniques of dance, such as modern or ballet training, improvisation is a technique that is practiced. We utilize our physical training as well as our choreographic, listening, and experiencing minds. We must practice making choices and proposing something in the space, just as we practice virtuosity in another technique. For me, improvisation is a way for me to connect all of the components we continuously hone as artists. Improvisation is the grounds for our whole selves to explore the possibilities of dance as an art form.
Putting yourself on the spot seems scary. Do dancers actually enjoy doing this?
Yes it can be scary. Possibility is unknown, and the unknown can be intimidating and feel vulnerable. But for many artists (and audiences), improvisation can be incredibly liberating. With all tools at play, possibility is vast in a way that is so exciting. Both as artists and viewers, we see and experience things differently when do not plan ahead or can anticipate what is next. This vulnerability can elicit a different kind of honesty that drives the work, and often generates new surprises in rehearsal or performance.
How did you learn to improvise?
Many of the choreographers and teachers I have worked with use improvisation, but two of my most influential mentors in this form are Pam Kuntz and Jesse Zaritt. In their own ways, each have taught me to be willing, receptive, and re/active in each moment. We must improvise a lot. Over and over. We then become more present, more honest, more nimble to the moment. We must be patient, listen, and constantly experience our whole selves. We must do this all the time. This means I experience myself not just as a dancer or technician, but as a woman with my own history, opinions, knowledge, and participation in the world. This can be overwhelming in some ways, but can be our own game-changer in how we create and watch dance.
How have the skills you've gained through improv helped you as a dancer?
They have helped me tremendously! Improvisation helps me explore how the many components of dancemaking intersect. How we use time and duration to evoke an experience. The role of physicality threaded through space. How one person relates to another through proximity, touch, direcion, energy, you name it. Dance is complex, and improvisation allows us to examine and utilize its capacity – all simultaneously. This is incredibly useful for growth as a performer as well as a choreographer.
How does improv fit in to your creative process?
It depends on the agenda of the piece, but I often use improvisation in the choreographic process. I, as well as my collaborators, will improvise with specific tasks in order to generate material and seek the images that may serve the work. Sometimes improvisation is a part of the final piece structure; I will work to create a score – “a container” – in which the performers will create within the performance.
Why do you value improvisation skills in a dancer?
We are often trained in a way that divides our skills. We have close focus on physicality in movement technique, and examine choreographic elements typically very separately. Improvisation gives the room to negotiate all aspects and see how they serve each other.