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What really is improvisation?

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

Last month, Core Dance held CoreoLab, a three week process that was largely based on improvisation. A lot of what we do here in the studios every day is based on improv, so I asked our communications intern, Katie Messina, to give us a little overview of improvisation really is.

Improvisation in dance can feel very freeing. Improvisation is the spontaneous creation of movement, meaning there is no plan going in. A simple way to do this is to just turn on some music and start dancing by yourself, with a partner, or in a group. Improv was first seen with the rise of modern dance in America with figures such as Loie Fuller, Merce Cunningham, and Yvonne Rainer who were looking to overthrow the current norm and find a more free form in dance. Sometimes, within improv, you can have a score where some stipulations or “rules” are preset, forcing you to move on the spot within a set boundary. As dancers, we often find ourselves in what feels comfortable. We typically have a preferred style of movement and our affinities are revealed every time we try to choreograph. Improv lets you get out of your pattern by truly following the impulse you feel in the moment and playing until you have exhausted your typical choices. This helps with finding new discoveries that you can take into your dancing. Core Dance often utilizes improv in a process, and created CoreoLab, during which Israeli artists Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor spent time with the dance artists in the studio improvising and exploring process. Though there are endless scores in these processes, some are used more often than others.

In one improv exercise, one person enters the space and creates a state, atmosphere, or shape. Next, someone new enters the space, and either responds to, matches, or opposes the existing state. Both dancers work in this state at the same time, and eventually the first person leaves. The second person can then move to find a completely new atmosphere. To vary this, dancers can add multiple people entering the first person’s scene. You can add props and different sound scores.

In another exercise, a dancer beings by moving in one state or energy level. The facilitator in the front of the room can shout “change” at any time, which triggers the dancer to immediately switch their  impulse to a different state or energy level. They can take their time in shouting “change,” or rapid fire where the dancer can only exist in their impulse for a moment before having to change. In this exercise, I have noticed that by changing constantly, I revert to my movement comfort zone a lot at the beginning, but less and less as the exercise goes on. As I tire and try new things, I follow a genuine impulse and discover more patterns in the body.   

Another score that one can utilize is playing with sound within an improv. The dancer can begin by forcing their body to make sound. If they are in a group, they can respond to others’ sound or just work in their own headspace. Eventually, I found myself releasing sound that naturally that fit the movement, allowing my movement to feel deeper.

It was hard to describe these activities in writing, but I hope it gives you a glimpse into some improv processes. It is inspiring to see people improv fully being themselves, taking risks, and just seeing what happens.


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