All together now, or paying attention while improvising.

Recently I was talking with a friend about the experience of performing improvisatonaly and the attention required. Basically, she was asking what I was paying attention to as I was dancing/performing. As we talked we came up with an impressive list, which partially included: proprioceptive self (where I am in space and where I'm moving), the quality of my movements (strong, light, direct, sudden, etc...), where I am in the room/theater in which I'm moving (in the center, close to an edge or corner), where other people are in the room, how they are moving (what and how), how close we are to be another and how that is changing (proximity), emotions and feelings emerging from myself, other individuals and the groups as a whole, the developing relationships of individuals and the group, emergent forms (compositional tools or structures), tracking how the past interweaves with the present (remembering elements and choosing to repeat or evolve), and a number of other elements. Basically, I'm tracking myself, the other individuals, and all of us as a whole in the present moment with awareness of the past. My friend commented how this seems a lot to track at once. And, of course, it is. But I am not tracking each element individually, but as a whole. Earlier in my experience as an improviser I could only track a few elements at a time, but that was when these elements where only differentiated and not yet integrated. Learning to improvise is much like learning to walk - first you must learn how to use the different parts of your legs and upper body, figure out balance, and experiment how all the parts fit together. It takes awhile to learn how to coordinate it all, but once it is coordinated you don't have to pay attention to every part as it is now integrated into one movement. The same is true with one's ability to attend to all these various elements while improvising. At first you need to figure each of them out and then, and only then, can you integrate them. I do, often, go back to singular elements to strengthen and deepen my awareness and skill with them, but when improvising they merge into a single awareness that is fluid, precise and multi-layered. 

With that said, there are certainly times individual elements come to the forefront during a performance. The emotional tone of the piece might be the main focal point for a while, but then later proximity or movement qualities may be for forefront. Everything isn't always equal in ones attention, but they are always present. The emotional tone must be supported by the proximal relationship between performers as the movement quality is essential to the expressive nature of the moment. While at moments certain elements are more obvupious than others, but at those movements the other elements continue to support the whole.

Again, we first we differentiate the elements of improvisation (or, really any skill, activity, art). Once we begin to differentiate we also begin to integrate until we can hold both the individual elements and the whole of them. When this integration happens we are free to take the present moment together as a whole, or focus on one element or another. When we reach this point we have freedom of choice and freedom of attention and the real, deep practice of improvisation begins. 

*Photo is of me and my company, The PlayGround, performing last December at Georgetown University Hospital, where we are the dance-company-in-residence.