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Over the choreographic precipice

Julia Postle

David Corbet & Janice Florence David Corbet & Janice Florence
photo Ryk Goddard
Improvisation in whatever artform is about freedom; freedom of expression at the most overt level, throwing off all the restrictions and codes of artistic practice and replacing them with a spontaneous exploration of the very process of creating art. That it is art in process and simultaneously ‘in product’ is what places us, as observers, in a new relationship with the performers.

In dance, improvisation as a mode of performance represents fluidity, play and impulse, in contrast to the often rigid structure and form of choreographed movement. Sally Banes, in her 1993 text Democracy’s Body, describes improvisation’s extremity best: “If all dance is evanescent, disappearing the moment it has been performed, improvisation emphasises that evanescence to the point that the identity of the dance is attenuated, leaving few traces in written scores, or even muscle memory.”

In May, the Choreographic Centre hosted a weekend of improvisation, featuring the work of 4 groups that have embraced improvisation for the development of their performance. Familiar to Melbourne audiences, the groups were in Canberra as part of the third annual Precipice event.

Peter Trotman and Lynne Santos

Their improvisation starts with heavy movement—arms sweeping. Then it floats—the hands flexed. They are giving into their own weight, moving in isolation and yet there are moments of connection in the randomness. The pace increases and the movement becomes more abrupt, but there is still a seeming softness to their joints.
There are static moments; then they are leaning into and later onto each other, pushing away and falling upon. There is a fluttering of hands. “Heart beating pulse racing eyes blinking tongue licking,” Trotman blurts out. There’s a story to this performance, but where it ended up I have no idea…

State of Flux

The focus here is more on contact improvisation…physical support, touch, suspension of weight. The duet between 2 of the performers, one in a wheelchair, conveyed the honesty of contact improvisation. There are chance funny moments…he balances on her lap, shifts position his bum is in her face…and intimate moments…wheelchair discarded, rolling on the floor, moving over each other…and some pretty clumsy moments too…the uneasiness and heaviness of it all, bodies not intuitively sensing each other’s next movement. Sometimes it seems like the distance between the individuals is expansive; at other times it seems like the group is a single entity.

Five Square Metres

There’s a definite frivolity to this group; the 4 performers are expressive and frequently quite silly. The wit and chatter is all a vital part of the improvisation. The use of breath is another clever layer of the performance…sighs, deep inhalations and exclamations, all uttered on top of each other and set against equally staccato movement, such as shuffling in file and bumping into each other. There seems to be more of a narrative than in the other events on the program. The movement is but one element of the performance, and more driven by the group than the individual, almost a kind of expression of community.


Andrew Morrish brings out his mike, Madeleine Flynn plucks her violin and Tim Humphrey toots the trumpet. Morrish does most of the talking, absurd little phrases really, amusing as part of the situation, “I’ve been dreaming after hours.” The music is cartoon-like in the way it complements his prattle. He steps away from the microphone, arms reaching, then stretching gently, he steps out into more dynamic movement. Humphrey is yelling, “Open that door and jump!” Is it a command for Morrish or for us? Madeleine goes to the accordion and Morrish is moving again. It’s the funny mishmash of music, word and movement that gives the performance its meaning.
In an evening full of humour and more than the usual risk-taking, these groups created new performances and challenged us as observers to do a little risk-taking of our own.

Precipice: on and over the edge, The Choreographic Centre, Canberra, May 26-28

RealTime issue #38 Aug-Sept 2000 pg. 15

© Julia Postle; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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