Improvising Musicians and Improvising Dancers by Mike Vargas

Mike Vargas is a long-time community member and musician who often collaborates with dancers and provides soundscapes to our monthly jams at Earthdance.  On April 12th at 9pm he will present Curiosity is Gravity (solo piano plus surprises) at Smith College.  This is an evening of structured improvisations composed by Vargas during the last twenty years, with titles like Zones, With, Enthusiasm: Exertion, and What is an Open Mind?.  The structures consist of temporal, conceptual and procedural limitations that focus the playing.  There may be additional sounds, visual and participatory elements in the show.


I am contributing here the beginning of a sketch depicting the challenges inherent in the collaboration between improvising musicians and improvising dancers.  By doing so, I hope to stimulate further discussion, study and clarification of some of the issues that arise under these circumstances.  I run into people all over the world struggling in various ways with this complicated yet intriguing activity.  
Below this introduction I am including a description of a workshop I'll be teaching in July dedicated to this topic.  It is a rundown of various aspects to be considered in the navigation and refinement of collective improvisation, especially between musicians and dancers, especially with respect to Contact Improvisation.    
I thought it would save space and time to leave it laid out the way I sent it to the producers of this event, because I made an effort as I wrote it to be succinct, and inviting.  The event will take place in London.  What I'll try to do in this preface is contextualize what you'll find in the outline.  
The First Cut
One of the very first questions I would pose to the dancers and musicians, as a first cut you might call it, is, "Would we like to get better at improvising with any and all improvisers that might show up at a gathering such as this, or would we like to get better at (finding and) choosing collaborators we know in advance we will enjoy working with."   The answer(s) to this question among a group of people researching together might help to orient the search for more specific and detailed questions to pursue related to creative collaborations of this kind involving the particular community in question.

What I'm finding in my own research is that in fact many of the skills needed to successfully survive a group improvisation are conceptual, emotional and maybe even philosophical in nature.  It is one thing to master your own creative physical choices in the moment, it is quite another to accommodate, and more importantly to enjoy the choices of your collaborators at the same time.  Keeping track of, not to mention accepting the multiple streams of symbolic, energetic, stylistic, political and other information flying around in the room in a group improvisation can be at once thrilling and overwhelming.
As my friend Brando Brandes said, the issues I mention in the outline below bring up the right questions, but if we leave them open-ended, they could lead to "too much 'talking'...and get heady."  This is a very important point.  The fact that music and dance are in large part non-verbal art forms means that situations must be invented in which the lessons to be learned by both parties are self-evident in the doing, in the embodied trials and errors.  In other words, the true challenge in trying to study the phenomenon of interactions between improvised sounds and improvised movements lies in devising provocative an legible exercises that are simple enough to isolate a few key variables at a time.  At least, that is what I usually try to do when I'm leading.
Discussions are important, but not as important as spending time trying different approaches in real time with the people who are interested in the research.
Trial and Error
Without going any further, I'd just like to propose that if you're reading this and you have interest in delving into things like this, that you find some like-minded collaborators and invent some exercises for yourselves to try.  I hope this might help you and your community clear up some confusion, alleviate some frustration and provide a basis for more consistently satisfying gatherings.  I gave it a try a few months ago in a workshop like this with 10 musicians and 25 dancers in Uruguay, and I'm looking forward to pushing forward a little more in London this summer.  Good Luck!
-Mike Vargas, March 2012
An upcoming workshop lead by Vargas in London:
Creative Exchange for Musicians working with Contact Improvisation and Beyond
Saturday, July 7th, 2012,  11:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. at Moving East, Stoke Newington

11:00 to 1:00 musicians’ discussion
1:00 to 2:30 lunch, setup, sound check, break...
2:30 to 5:30 improvising and discussing with the dancers
5:30 to 6:00 pack up instruments

The idea behind this workshop is to investigate and refine the interactions and the relationships between musicians and dancers improvising together, particularly when the dancers are engaged in contact improvisation.

The chance to hear and see each other’s choices and feel the effects in the moment will be a key component of the day’s activities.

Topics will include mutual support, inspiration, satisfaction, freedom, multiplicity and permeability.  We will also research physical circumstances such as numbers of people, lengths of time, volume, not-playing, not-dancing, influence, distraction, interruption and stylistic choices. 

My hope is that musicians will gather for this event who already have experience making up music in a room full of improvising dancers, who are curious to learn about other musicians’ strategies and conundrums regarding this practice, and who are also eager to explore this kind of collaboration further, with the dancers who came to study this weekend with me and with Nancy Stark Smith.  This will be a focused and collaborative context (as opposed to just a jam.)

Some questions we could consider:

  • What’s the best way for musicians and dancers in these situations to come away from these situations satisfied and inspired, to be glad they came?
  • What is the nature of the relationship between the dancers and the musicians when their gestures are not simultaneous or similar? 
  • How much diversity can co-exist in the same space, how many different intentions, how many kinds of sound or movement?  
  • How free are the musicians?  The dancers?
  • How can dancers and musicians best support one another’s imagination and concentration when there are multiple agendas and energies?
  • When are the dancers not supporting the musicians?  Vice versa?
  • How difficult or challenging is too difficult or challenging?
  • Can there be too many musicians?  Dancers?

It is very important to consider what the dancers are there for, what motivates and inspires them, and how these factors play into a dancer's choices and impulses.  Our initial discussion could include gathering questions to ask the dancers about these kinds of things when we meet in the afternoon.  Of course, we will also have the opportunity to tell the dancers about musicians’ (our) concerns, intentions and preferences.