“Turning something into a ritual eliminates the question, Why am I doing this?”
-Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
Since the beginning of this New Year (which already seems so long ago) I have been establishing a new disciplined creative routine. Every single Thursday morning, I go to the studio at 10am, warm up, train a bit, and then I improvise + improvise + improvise until I’m worn out. Something that I learned more clearly about myself last year is that as a freelance artist, I need to seek out different kinds of external accountability for my work. There is no one in place to tell me what to do and when to do it, so finding that extra push takes just a little more effort. It takes an established schedule and vocalizing or sharing what I’m working on with people in my life so that I cannot back down from things that I have said I will do. This is the very reason I started posting 1 minute-long highlights from my Thursday improvisations on instagram every week. It is a way to share a bit of my process, but more than anything it holds me accountable to my creative working hours. It is a solo dancer’s way of clocking in.
WHY PRACTICE IMPROVISATION?
On the surface, it may seem counterintuitive to turn improvisation, of all things, into a weekly routine. Do we really need to regularly practice something that is supposed to happen spontaneously?
The answer is yes. Absolutely.
As a dancer, improv can teach you so much about yourself. It teases out your body’s natural habits and patterns, displaying the surface of your authentic style. Then, as you go deeper, it begins to uncover the layers beneath that authenticity, challenging you to become more complex as a mover and a thinking dancer. Improvisation isn’t just spontaneous movement- it is spontaneous thought, and in order to break the pattern of thinking the same thoughts while you dance, or do anything for that matter, you must practice.
“Do my movement and my thinking have an intimate connection? First of all, I don’t think my body doesn’t think.”
- Trisha Brown
If you are not practicing something regularly, whenever you come back to it, it is all too easy to slide into those old habits. In dance, I would end up repeating the same movements and exercises, going through the motions of nothing particularly new or interesting. However, when I turn improvisation into a routine, I become bored with that surface layer of movement and therefore I can start to push myself. Find new ways of moving, creating, and discovering different beats and patterns and details. The more you practice improvisation, the more you will extend beyond your own limits. Sometimes when I improvise, I do sequences that don't really feel comfortable within my own body, and later I will either look at it and think “wow that was interesting and cool,” or I might think “wow that looks super weird and awkward,” but either way I tried something challenging. I am a step further in understanding and mapping out my body’s patterns and peaks. Part of knowing yourself as an artist is understanding just this- what works for you and what doesn’t.
In The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp wrote,
“It’s not enough for me to walk into a studio and start dancing, hoping that something good will come of my aimless cavorting on the studio floor.”
While from an outsiders perspective improvisation may look a lot like aimless cavorting on a studio floor, there is usually a lot more going on behind the movement itself. Improv is creation in the rough, not utter randomness. Behind the dance, there is so much going on in the mind; subconsciousness being pulled forward into consciousness, noticing patterns, purposefully trying to break them, and changing your point of focus. For me, improvisation is a way to work through those rough ideas that have not fully taken form yet, playing with them and seeing what emerges from the blurry shapes.
Steve Paxton, the founder of contact improvisation said on the subject, that as a dancer who is improvising, “…do not strive to achieve results, but rather, to meet the constantly changing physical reality with appropriate placement and energy.” With that in mind, to improvise, one must be flexible, but far from aimless.
Since I mostly work solo, without guidance or a partner, I have to set my own semi-flexible limits and boundaries. I mentioned last Monday that it is impossible to walk into the studio with the intent to dance about some big idea or concept. Improvising is a way to deal with the details and make something bigger and rounder out of them. In my Thursday sessions, I often give myself small tasks or images to work with for the day. Moving through smooth water, playing with edges and sharpness, keeping my focus on one body part the entire time, testing the limits of my own balance. Having something specific to concentrate on helps to stray away from aimlessness and into more interesting territory.
So far, I have been discussing improvisation only in terms of dance and movement. It should be noted (and you probably know this if you are an artist yourself) that improv can be practiced in any creative discipline. As my writing self, if I am feeling stuck, I free write and set a timer for 5 minutes or so and see what comes out. You could also free-paint, free-sketch, improvise on any instrument or with your voice. Even cooking- there is so much room for improvisation in the kitchen with mixing ingredients and flavors, throwing whatever you have in the fridge into a pan and seeing what happens.
With this in mind, I am inviting you all to improvise with me. Every Thursday, carve out some time, even if it is just a small 15 minute window, and do some disciplined creative improvisation, record or save it, share, and see if it sparks something.
If you are inspired to do so, join me each week and share your improvised creation on instagram, tagging #ThursdayImprov so that we can all check out and get inspired by each other’s work. Let’s hold each other accountable to our growing creative selves.