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Off the Cuff Brings Range of Teaching Surprises

Written by Victoria Jacobs
Ray Chung and Karen Nelson in ten min tune
Photo by Tim Summers 
Last week’s Seattle Festival of Dance Improvisation at Velocity brought together a huge variety of teachers and dance artists from across the country to explore the possibilities of movement made on the fly. The Off the Cuff faculty performance on August 3, 2012 was a dense and interesting showcase of the range of interests and ideas those teachers presented in their workshops.
The show opened with Rob Kitsos’s A Moving, a tightly choreographed duet with Kim Stevenson. Dressed in black and slicing discrete shapes with precise initiation, the two dancers were stunning in their clarity of line and their understanding of space. Their bodies are quite different—a lean muscular man and a shorter compact woman—but their obvious exactitude in finding the same initiations and tuning in to one another’s timing was a testament to the power of set choreography, not in contest with improvisation, but as an elevating contrast. They moved through swiftly flowing, churning movement phrases punctuated by clear stillness, and then split into curving, non-unison movement before arriving suddenly in unison again, but perhaps the staunchness of the choreography kept the piece from evolving beyond that.

Ray Chung performed two improvisational duets; the first was ten min tune danced with Karen Nelson to sound by Serge Gunderson. In homage to their predecessors, the duet with Nelson used sound recording from Steve Paxton’s historic 1972 Chute. Their duet was like two simultaneous solos, Nelson was quirky with gestural movements while Chung was calm and occasionally comical. It seemed best held in the Paxton line “I feel transparent in the action, causing it only a little and holding no residuals,” a principal and essentially spiritual concept of improvisation: relationships were offered, they pushed, pulled, flew, fell, and then let it go.

Chung’s Penumbra with Aaron Swartzman, danced in silence, was starker and more focused on contact improvisation. Both men moved with the grace and controlled abandon of many years of practice, further typifying the Paxton quote. Their bodies were loose and spiraling, and as they leaned and bumped into each other, one could feel the missed connections familiar in contact improvisation. When they fell into effortless flight, flipping, spinning, and moving almost against gravity, one could see the astonishing and nearly magical possibility within the openness of the form, the beauty of flight that much more surprising when it is unchoreographed.

Internationally renowned performer Julyen Hamilton improvised his poem Ode to America(as yet unwritten) standing at center stage with a cap on his head in the tradition of bards, those storytellers who let their words flow directly from the body. He kept his language moving, stumbling into metaphoric blind alleyways and emerging into surprising beauty, light, and clarity, just as in the rhythm of Penumbra.

Alia Swersky in Solitude
Photo by Tim Summers
Alia Swersky and BC Campbell closed the first half with Solitude.Swersky’s dance and Campbell‘s piano music both made slow entrances, with the light coming up so slowly it played tricks on the eyes; Swersky’s half-shadowed form was mysterious and untranslatable in scale and movement for much of the beginning of the piece. She stayed low and crouched, her limbs crooked, as if under a weight, then, as the music and light swelled, she unfurled in movement. The growth of the piece seemed then to meander for a little while before ending strongly with Swersky opening her arms to the bright light, her face shining clearly for the first time.

A standout of the evening was The Fantasy Project (in construction), a first showing by San Diego‘s Anya Cloud, Mary Reich, and Karen Schaffman. It was built on a simple premise—three women in varying shades of taupe lying on the floor and rocking their bodies back and forth…for a long, long time. They moved into standing rocking positions or thrusted their way across the floor, and Cloud eventually managed to get a red stiletto on one foot, but they stayed true to the rhythm of it as the image changed from sexual to anatomical to abstract and back again; most of the audience was sympathetically nodding along. It pointed out a strength for either choreography or improvisation: make a strong, simple choice and stick with it, and then whatever is revealed later will make itself evident and earned through the long passage of transformation.

Danielle Agami, formerly of Batsheva Dance Company, performed an excerpt from Sally meets Stu with her fresh new company Ate9. The young dancers, dressed in black leotards and buns, moved through technical and diverse vocabulary drawn from the looseness and isolations of Gaga dance technique. Their precision and passion was stunning to behold; the movement shifted rapidly from colloquial to classical to raw and undulating. The power of choreographed work was evident in the rapidity and confidence of their technicality as well as the nonstop decadence of the whole piece, but similarly to Kitsos’s A Moving, the piece was in some ways hemmed in by its inevitability.

In improvisation all is revealed: the ebb and flow of uncertainty and missed opportunities as well as the meteoric shock of everything coming together at once. It has an emotional pique particular to its transience and variability. In choreography there is a more uniform expectation of quality, which lends itself to fantastic possibilities of unison and technicality but can lose the interest that comes from spontaneity and the skill of cultivating the ever-transforming present moment. This is not to say that either is in any way superior to the other, rather that each can, as Julyen Hamilton said in his workshop, “raise the bar higher for the other.” Off the Cuff was a gorgeous exploration of that range of interests and the height of that bar.