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What is actually happening at SFDI Dance Innovators Performance?

Every year, Velocity’s Seattle Festival of Dance Improvisation (SFDI) brings together accomplished improvisational artists from the Seattle area and across the country. This year was no exception, including such luminaries as Bebe Miller, Darrell Jones, luciana achugar, Stephanie Nugent, and others. The day prior to the performance, Velocity hosted “Lightning Talks” which gave a quick glimpse into the brains of these headlining artists and their approach to making work. The resulting group discussion among SFDI participants brought up the idea of “authenticity,” with some people expressing the idea that improvisational movement led to more authentic performance than choreography, while others argued that improv can just as easily be a rote and habitual regurgitation of training. While trying to prove the authenticity of a performer seems as impossible as it is insulting, it got me thinking about the mindset from which we view improvisational performance and how we perceive authenticity. SFDI’s Dance Innovators in Performance showcase provided a variety of material on which to meditate.

Stephanie Nugent and Shel Wagner Rasch in No Known
Photo by Tim Summers

One way we see authenticity is witnessing decisions and reactions in real time. This can be tedious if the performance becomes entirely about watching a group figure out what they are doing next, but the opening work avoided this pitfall. Never Formally Known As Anything presents: A Chair Is An Invitation, performed by a large group of SFDI faculty, invited audience members to casually improvise with the eight cast members on stage. The sitting audience witnessed the development of the communication, internal structures, and patterns that emerged between the performers, creating the feeling of all being in on the joke. When watching improvisation, repeated actions incite pleasure because they go together and yet we know they were not planned. We are reacting to cleverness—to the ability of the performers to compose in the moment, either satisfying or subverting our expectations.

In contrast, cleverness also appeared in the most highly choreographed work of the evening, Cyrus Khambatta’s Casualties of Fate. An extended duet section between CarliAnn Forthun and Ethan Rome featured partnering with unconventional lifts and creative weight manipulations from unexpected points of contact, undoubtedly influenced by Khambatta’s expertise in contact improvisation. While this tricky choreography certainly tapped into the pleasure of cleverness, its container of tired dance tropes, including saccharine neominimilistic music and lyrical dance standbys, kept it from communicating anything beyond creative athleticism.

CarliAnn Forthun and Ethan Rome in Cyrus Khambatta’s Casualties of Fate
Photo by Tim Summers

Another piece that toyed with cleverness was Life Giving Opposition, directed by Katherine Cook. The quartet of highly skilled improvisers included Stefanie Nugent, Krista NeNio, Shel Wagner Rasch, and Cook herself. While the rules of the score were never completely transparent to the audience, they functioned to create a cohesive composition around the physical theme of dancers dropping to the floor. The performers displayed improvisational adeptness as they committed to each decision and performed together with clarity. In one moment, Nugent openly prepared to run and throw her weight at the other three dancers, but at the last second Cook dropped to the floor, subverting the expected catch and highlighting the ability of her cast to adapt to a quickly changing physical situation. Together they created many compositional moments—images that are easy to assign metaphorical meaning to, such as three dancers dropping simultaneously while one stays standing. The primary effect of the piece, however, was observing these dancers think on their feet, rather than engaging in those visual metaphors. I didn’t once think that the images were representative of anything outside of the composition. In the context of the earlier authenticity discussion, I wondered: what if the content of the improvisation is a reflection of what is actually happening beyond the dance?

Life Giving Opposition by Katherine Cook
Photo by Tim Summers

Three solo artists’ work addressed this question, creating pieces that seemed to emerge from the present condition. Linda Austin’s Untitled Playlist contained a series of unique and compelling physicalities that appeared to well up from within her: she flailed her arms as if frantically trying to describe something complicated, then waddled with her toes pulled up in the air, then made raspberries with her lips as she tiptoed around. Each image served to carry me on a journey in which I felt just a little closer to this human.

An Uncivilized Manifesto, the powerful contribution by luciana achugar, built on a rhythmic, animalistic quality. After moaning, rocking on the floor, and throwing her hair, she slithered to a microphone stand with which she entangled herself, humping the stand and rubbing the mic on her genitals. There was something at stake here. The extreme altered state and unveiling of these “baser” instincts tugged at some deeper truth, whether universal or simply personal.

The best example of addressing the present moment, however, was Alia Swersky’s The Humility Project: Part I of Life. At first Swersky sat center stage with a knowing smile. Her t-shirt read “boobs” and she stretched it across braless breasts before taking it off. From off stage a baby whined with timing that would be uncanny if it weren’t a predictable fact of life. The baby, carried in, went from whimpering to sounds of delight as it neared its mom. Breastfeeding and snuggling, Swersky rolled across the floor, her child happily along for the ride, unable to express anything but the most complete authenticity.

luciana achugar
Photo by Tim Summers

The final work of the evening was the SFDI Faculty Group Improvisation, which was no one’s magnum opus, but provided an interesting look at a group of improvisers dealing with what appeared to be a very loose score after an initial entrance. Some stayed with developing what was already happening, while others asserted themselves in ways that came off as forced. Of course, I can’t know for sure, but these unintegrated moments seemed like the dancers were succumbing to the pressure to entertain, to the panic of we’re performing now and we have to make something happen! While it grated my sensibilities, I also wondered if this too was a kind of authenticity. Not the kind improvisers are taught to cultivate, but the kind that is actually indicative of what is going on. If, in fact, these dancers are acting out of a feeling of insecurity, would that telltale act not be a kind of authentic expression? The question of authenticity in improvisation draws a magnifying glass to the line between the dance and the meta-dance, leaving me wondering where the performance stops and the performer begins.

Dance Innovators in Performance showed July 29 at the Erickson Theatre as part of Velocity Dance Center’s Maximum Velocity Program and the Seattle Festival of Dance Improvisation. More information at Velocity’s website.