Rewriting Distance – On Improvisation as a Research PracticeAuthor: Guy Cools
Dit artikel is eerder verschenen in: Koolen, H., J. Naafs, R. Naber, L. Wildschut (eds.) (2015), Danswetenschap in Nederland – Deel 8. Vereniging voor Dansonderzoek, pp.61-68.
The resistance to art as research often focuses on the question of the method. (…) the method is the hallmark of true science, while its absence or avoidance, or indeed its subversion, is the hallmark of true art. (Boomgaard, 2011, p.58)
The Manifesto for Performative Research by the Australian theatre scholar Brad C. Haseman (2006) has been an important guideline in the wider debate on artistic practice as research. Haseman proposes two distinct but overlapping paradigms for consideration and defines strategies for them to meet and enter into a dialogue. The first paradigm is that of ‘the credibility tests of all accepted research’. The second paradigm is that of ‘the conditions of artistic research’.
All research has to withstand a number of credibility tests. Haseman distinguishes five of them:
- the clear definition of a research problem or question;
- the development of an articulated research process and methodology;
- the situatedness of the research in a well-defined and shared field of inquiry;
- the possibility for knowledge claims resulting from the research to be tested by others;
- the availability of these claims for ongoing peer review or, in other words, research always has to be public.
When describing the second paradigm, ‘the conditions of artistic research’, which Haseman defines as always ‘tremendously uncertain and ambivalent’, he makes it clear that artistic research by its very nature will deviate from, or better, will fulfil these credibility tests in a different manner.
For instance, artistic research practices often employ research methods that at first sight are not recognizable as such, but that, under closer scrutiny, can prove to be valid outside their own scopes and also for other fields of research, even scientific ones. For me, the main research methods throughout my artistic career – and in particular for the research described in my PhD thesis – have been improvisation, conversation, walking, and yoga.
In May 2014 I finalized my PhD in the Arts with the title: Rewriting Distance. Dance Dramaturgy as a somatic and creative practice. The body talking and writing. The ‘clew’ (cfr. Nelson, 2013, p.11) of this PhD thesis is the question of how to talk and write about dance as an essentially somatic practice.
My primary medium as a dance dramaturg is spoken or written language. A lot of my work in accompanying choreographers is focused on helping them find their own ‘voice’ and to better articulate and communicate their artistic intentions at different stages of their creative process, whether with their collaborators or with the audience. As such my personal journey from language studies (a combined MA in English literature, linguistics, and theatre studies) to performance criticism and curating, to dance dramaturgy and eventually also to my own movement research practice, has always integrated the previous stages and privileged oral and written language as my main artistic medium.
However, how to talk and write about dance and about the somatic experiences and insights that you gain both inside the work and by looking at it, has been a huge challenge (and probably not only for me) all through my career until my PhD. It has therefore proven impossible to use only one form of writing. Already as a dance critic for De Morgen in the early years of my career (from 1986 to 1990), I experimented with very different genres: from the poetic to the descriptive to the analytical.
In this ongoing journey between writing and moving, I have developed a tendency to privilege the oral over the written word, with the latter ideally being the transcript of a recording of the former (as in the Body:Language Talks[i]), and a clear preference for dialogue or even more polyphonic conversational practices over the monologue. The artistic portfolio of my PhD consists of a corpus of ‘texts’ ranging from the essay to the dialogue, to the performative text. The latter is Rewriting Distance – the dance improvisation practice that I have developed together with the Canadian choreographer Lin Snelling, and which is a further development of an earlier practice called Repeating Distance. In what follows I will focus on how this dance improvisation practice is also a valuable research method.
About dance improvisation
The nature of my own artistic movement practice and research is one hundred percent improvisational. Originally this was an intuitive, and perhaps even a negative choice. Starting the practice at a late moment in my career – I had just turned forty – and never having had any formal or technical training in dance, I felt that my body memory was completely inadequate in learning and repeating movements. But more fundamentally and positively, Lin Snelling (who is an internationally well-established and respected dance improviser) and I believed that the process of repeating the same, simple and open improvisational structure over and over again (hence the original title Repeating Distance) would be the ideal research strategy for exchanging our knowledge of the creative process and discovering in this exchange new, shared insights. The ten years in which the practice has evolved, developed into its new research phase of Rewriting Distance (which has been part of my PhD research), and been many times shared with and taught to other groups of choreographers and dancers in very different, international dance communities, have proved that our original intuitive choice was the right one.
With the Rewriting & Repeating Distance practice we inscribe ourselves into a long tradition of dance improvisation, which is of mainly North-American lineage and which has been receiving a renewed and larger public recognition since the mid-nineties. Myriam Van Imschoot (1997) outlines this evolution in a newspaper article in De Morgen: Dansen tussen de technokids. De improvisatie in de Hedendaagse Dans. (Dancing amongst the techno kids. Improvisation in contemporary dance). She calls improvisation ‘one of the most important, if not the most important tendency of the past years’ (Van Imschoot, 1997, p. 23), which is practised by major choreographers from Meg Stuart to William Forsythe. She describes how it emerged from ‘the margins of small venues’, gained momentum, and has by now been presented at all the major festivals. Focussing on Crash Landing, an improvisation project curated by Meg Stuart, she discusses how newer generations use improvisation to enter into a dialogue with technology, which sets them apart from the previous generations of improvisers such as Steve Paxton or Katie Duck. She concludes: ‘Improvisation improvises itself a way along and through different generations of practitioners. Their needs and questions, their seriousness and playfulness will redefine its content continuously.’ (Van Imschoot, 1997, p.23)[ii]
Because of Repeating & Rewriting Distance’s low tech nature and the focus on integrating movement, spoken language and recently also writing, we place ourselves in the lineage of the North American and British improvisers of the seventies and eighties. Two in particular stand out as role models: Simone Forti from the US and Miranda Tufnell from the UK; firstly because the nature of their practice is close to our own interests, and secondly also because of the way they have been documenting it and writing about it.
In the introduction to her book, Handbook in Motion, Simone Forti (1997) defines her intentions as follows: ‘I’m mainly focussing on how movement and language very naturally work together in our everyday lives, in our cognition and communication. I’m improvising from that root behavior, simultaneously dancing and speaking, trying to keep it earnest, light and surprising.’ (Forti, 1997, p.5) Since 1985 she has been developing a practice called Logomotion, ‘with words and movement springing spontaneously from a common source that mixes and animates both speech and physical embodiment’ (Forti, 2001, p.36).
Miranda Tufnell, together with the visual artist Chris Crickmay, has written two standard books on dance improvisation: Body Space Image. Notes towards improvisation and performance (1990) and A Widening Field. Journeys in body and imagination (2004), in which she explores ‘the multi-layered nature of our experience through moving, making, writing, sound and visual imaginary’. In her writing she also draws an analogy between improvisation and conversation:
Creating becomes a conversation when we enter a dialogue with whatever we are doing. In this conversing we are drawn along in the moment by moment flow of sensation, interchange and choice, rather than following a predetermined intention or idea. Conversations grow as we listen and explore – a constantly shifting process of discovery that changes in momentum, rhythm, clarity or chaos as we work. (Miranda Tufnell, 2008, p.41)
Our original practice Repeating Distance researched the integration of movement and spoken word in an improvised dialogue between a witness and a performer. After having performed and taught Repeating Distance for several years, we felt in 2011 that it was time for a new research phase in order to get new input and expand our knowledge and insights. We applied for and got a research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, which allowed us ten weeks of intensive research, spread out between the summer of 2011 and the summer of 2013, as well as the creation of a website to document and archive this research: www.rewritingdistance.com.
To the original research questions of Repeating Distance, we added at least two new ones:
- How to add writing as a performative practice and integrate it into the moving and the speaking?
- How to expand the duet form to more complex group forms, starting to explore in more depth the potential triangulation between spectator, witness and performer?
Hence Repeating Distance became Rewriting Distance. The new title refers to both the new focus on writing and to our main research method, which was to invite other people ‘to rewrite’ with us our practice by practicing with us, making propositions to change it and reflecting on it in their own writing. From July 2011 to July 2013 we were able to organize 10 research residencies in 6 different countries: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Ireland and the UK, working with a total of 24 artists. We chose these artists because we had already had an artistic dialogue with them, because we shared interests and affinities with them and because some of them had already experienced Repeating Distance in one of the workshops we had taught on it. Each research residency took place over 5 days in one specific location. The research was documented in black and white photography and in the writing that happened inside the practice or immediately afterwards. Some of the residencies were linked to teaching workshops in the local professional dance community, during which we immediately tried out some of the new insights. Halfway through the research we started to open up the practice to an invited audience, always at the end of the week. The audience mainly consisted of other artists and dance professionals, who also gave us feedback from an audience perspective.
Miranda Tufnell was the chosen partner to start our research with. On the first day we showed her the original Repeating Distance practice and asked for propositions on how to change it. Her two main proposals and reflections were very simple but important ones, which have since influenced the Rewriting Distance practice in a very fundamental way. She asked us to focus more on the duet form, that is, the dialogue, instead of the succession of solos of which the Repeating Distance practice had consisted. She also steered our focus back towards the actual spaces we worked in, their presence and our experience of them, instead of immediately setting off on a trip ‘down memory lane’.
To put this latter suggestion into practice, she gave us an inspiring exercise that integrated observing, talking and writing. First we had to slightly disorientate ourselves in the space (for instance by closing our eyes or spinning around) and then we had to choose three spots in the space that caught our interest, one at a time. We had to observe each spot, using all our senses and changing our perspective. The next step was to take our partners on a guided tour of the space and share with them the things we had observed and discovered. Next, we would revisit each of our original spots, repeat the observation, but even more in depth, this time writing down all our observations. Finally we would sit with our partners again and read aloud what we had written. The exercise allowed us to explore the space and to develop a substantial amount of new, shared references that we could easily activate in the practice afterwards.
Miranda Tufnell’s suggestion to focus more on the dialogue and duet form in the performance, instead of the solo form, also lead to a small but fundamental shift in how we rotated between the roles of spectator, witness and performer. Whereas in the original Repeating Distance practice the performer would take the initiative and exit the performance space as a signal for the witness to replace him or her, freeing in turn the witness chair for a spectator to become the witness, we now allowed the witness to join the performer in the performance space in order to explore all potential interactions between at least two performers. We have kept this new form of rotation between the different roles, but we also discovered that it was important to always keep at least one person in the spectator/witness role.
Other ideas that came out of this first week of research and that we have continued to explore and work with ever since include:
- the use of different formats and qualities of paper (with a preference for long scrolls);
- the notions of ‘erasure’ and ‘layering’, as in a palimpsest;
- the exploration of our differences in rhythm and the conscious use of rhythm changes.
On one of our outings to the neighbouring villages, I found a small wooden card table with legs that could be folded through an amazing spring mechanism. It became our first and only prop for Rewriting Distance. The wooden table would be put into the space next to the witness chair, so that at any moment any one of the performers could sit down at it and write. Although we had not defined this in advance, it now seemed obvious that the writing should mainly take place inside the performance space, offering us another voice or track, additional to the moving and talking. The writing ‘becomes another way to be in relationship, another way to be in a duet’ (RW3, Charlbury, Snelling, Day 3).
Improvisation as a performance practice proved its validity as a research method in the way that it constantly created space for new insights to emerge. These new insights built on already accumulated knowledge but also tuned into and arose out of the present moment, depending on the actual physical spaces we were working in and the constellation of people involved. Towards the end of the PhD research, I also discovered the writings of the anthropologist Tim Ingold, who underwrites the importance of improvisation as a research method.
About the even more fundamental nature of improvisation as a research methodology
I would suggests that the process of improvisation and creation in all the arts is an embodied ritual which leads us into not-knowing, and ultimately into knowing. (Snowber, 2002, p.28 as quoted in Leavy, 2009, p.189)
Improvisation is an essential part of any creative research process and, according to the anthropologists Elisabeth Hallam and Tim Ingold, even ‘the way how we work’ generally. In the introduction to the book Creativity and Cultural Improvisation (2007), which they edited together and which discusses the notions of creativity and improvisation in anthropological studies and research, they challenge the ongoing hype of the term ‘creativity’ and its mere identification with the notion of innovation. Instead, they plead for a (re)valorization and better understanding of the notion of improvisation.
According to them, the three distinctive qualities or characteristics of improvisation are:
- it is generative;
- it is relational;
- it is temporal.
The generative quality of improvisation is opposed by Ingold to the more fashionable term of ‘innovation’. According to Ingold, the use of the latter within the contemporary discourse on creativity remains mired in a modernist paradigm that equals creativity with innovation and defines it as ‘produced novelty’, that is, as a characteristic of a given end-product. Ingold proposes an alternative discourse that focuses on ‘improvisation’ which is generative in the way that it always deals with a ‘growing emergence’ and as such is a forward movement that stresses the ‘becoming’ of things.
The difference between improvisation and innovation, then, is not that the one works within established convention while the other breaks with it, but that the former characterizes creativity by the way of its processes, the latter by the way of its products. (…) The improvisational creativity of which we speak is that of a world that is crescent rather than created; that is ‘always in the making’ rather than ready-made. (Hallam & Ingold, 2007, pp.2-3)
In a similar way Myriam Van Imschoot defines improvisation as an ideal strategy that is able ‘to reduce the gap between how the work is made and how it is received in a public discourse, by looking for a shared space between the creation of the work and the public moment of presentation’. By doing so, ‘the traditional dichotomies of the Western aesthetic such as the oppositions between creator and performer or between process and product’ are subverted (Van Imschoot, 2003, pp.348-349).
The second characteristic of improvisation, ‘relational’, identifies the creative individual as always already in relationship with society (instead of placing him or her in opposition to it, as the modernist notion of the artistic genius who has to transgress conventions often does). Referring to Michel De Certeau’s image of the pedestrian navigating a busy street, Hallam and Ingold describe this aspect of improvisation as follows: ‘Improvisation is relational, then, because it goes on along “ways of life” that are as entangled and naturally responsive as are the paths of pedestrians on the street.’ (Hallam & Ingold, 2007, p.7)
The third characteristic, ‘temporal’, places improvisation within a Bergsonian perspective of ‘duration’. It constantly creates links between past experiences and memories, and future, unforeseen potentialities in the moment of being present. ‘What Bergson is describing here is duration of a consciousness that is improvisatory: guided by the past but not determined by it: heading into a future that is essentially unforeseeable.’ (Hallam & Ingold, 2007, p.11) Also related to this temporal characteristic is the fact that there is no such thing as mere technical repetition in real life. Nothing ‘that people (or indeed other organisms) do ever exactly repeats. No repeating system in the living world can be perfect, and it is precisely because imperfections in the system call for continual correction that all repetition involves improvisation. That is why life is rhythmic rather than metronomic.’ (Hallam & Ingold, 2007, p.10) And Hallam & Ingold further discuss the acts of writing and walking as typical examples for the all-pervasive nature of improvisational practices.
My practice-based PhD in the Arts looked at different aspects of my artistic ‘portfolio’ and framed them with a critical discourse and reflection. My portfolio consists of three distinctive, but interrelated parts: my work as a dance dramaturg, my ongoing dialogues with other choreographers, and my own performance practice, Repeating & Rewriting Distance. The underlying question that links them all is how to connect writing and moving. How to write about somatic experiences and how to embody writing?
An artistic practice always has its own particular research methods. As I have argued here, these methods can prove to be valid even beyond the scope of the practice they were developed for. In my case, improvisation has been one of the main research methods in the performance part of my portfolio, and I thus inscribe myself into a particular North-American lineage of dance improvisation. Yet beyond this very particular tradition, there is an argument – underwritten by Tim Ingold and others – that improvisation is indeed a much more fundamental and integral part of all types of research and (not just artistic) work generally.
Rewriting Distance. Dance dramaturgy as a somatic and creative practice. The body talking and writing.
The question of how to articulate and write about dance is the ‘clew’ of this practice-based PhD research. I apply it to three distinctive parts of my artistic portfolio: my work as a dance dramaturg collaborating with choreographers, the Body: Language Talks, a series of published, public conversations with major choreographers, and Rewriting Distance, an improvised performance practice that I have developed together with the Canadian choreographer Lin Snelling.
Promoter: Prof. Dr. Christel Stalpaert, Ghent University; co-promoter: Mrs. Paola Bartoletti, KASK, Ghent. 20th May 2014
[i] The Body:Language Talks is a series of published dialogues I held at Sadler’s Wells in London between 2008 and 2013, with, amongst others, Jonathan Burrows, Rosemary Butcher, Dana Caspersen, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Tim Etchells, Antony Gormley, Akram Khan, Alain Platel, and Hofesh Shechter.
2 Author’s translation from Dutch.
3 This refers to the Rewriting Distance website, www.rewritingdistance.com. The indications are there to help navigation to the quote on the website: RW = Rewriting Distance. Place. Name of author. Day of Practice.
Postscript by Guy Cools (April 2019)
My contributions to Dansonderzoek Nederland were important stepping stones in the finalization of my practice-based PhD in the arts, which I defended successfully in May 2014. The PhD research deepened my understanding of the creative process, whether I accompany as a dance dramaturg the creation process of others; or in my own writing and the performative practice, Rewriting Distance, which I developed together with the Canadian performer Lin Snelling.
The PhD research resulted in a number of publications, of which Imaginative Bodies, Dialogues in Performance Practices (Valiz, 2016) is the most recent one. The Rewriting Distance continues to be performed and taught, both in Europe and North-America. The most recent edition happened in Montreal in Autumn of 2017 and new editions are already planned for 2019 and 2020. It underlines the importance of a long durational practice, as opposed to the neoliberal project economy that is still predominant in the arts. Rewriting Distance continues to be documented and archived on: www.rewritingdistance.com
- Boomgaard, J. (2011). The Chimera of Method. In: Janneke Wesseling (ed). See it Again. Say it Again. The Artist as Researcher. Amsterdam: Valiz, pp. 57-71
- Forti, S. (1974). Handbook in Motion. Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design
- Forti, S. (2001). Animate Dancing. A practice in dance improvisation. Contact Quarterly, Summer/Fall, pp. 32-39
- Hallam, E. and T. Ingold (eds). (2007). Creativity and Cultural Improvisation. Oxford: Berg
- Haseman, B. (2006). A Manifesto for Performative Research. In: Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy, theme issue ‘Practice-led Research’ (no. 118). Brisbane: University of Queensland, pp. 98-106
- Imschoot, M. van. (1997). Dansen tussen de technokids. De improvisatie in de hedendaagse dans. De Morgen, 3 oktober, p 23
- Imschoot, M. van. (2003). Lettres sur la Collaboration. In: Claire Rousier (ed.). Etres Ensemble, Figures de la communauté en danse depuis le XX siècle. Paris: Centre national de la danse, pp. 335-366
- Leavy, P. (2009). Method Meets Art, Arts-Based Research Practice. New York: The Guilford Press
- Nelson, R. (2013). Practice as Research in the Arts. Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistancies. London : Palgrave Macmillan
- Snowber, C. (2002). Bodydance: Enfleshing soulful inquiry through improvisation. In: C. Bagley and M.B. Cancienne (eds). Dancing the data. New York: Peter Lang, pp. 20-33
- Tufnell, M. and Ch. Crickmay. (1990). Body. Space. Image. Notes towards improvisation and performance. Alton: Dance Books
- Tufnell, M. and Ch. Crickmay. (2004). A widening field. Journeys in body and imagination. Alton: D