Dance Improvisation: A Gestalt Approach

by Rob Esposito, MFA

MY APPROACH to dance improvisation draws on techniques and theories from various sources. Extensive study and performing with Alwin Nikolais, Hanya Holm, Murray Louis, et al, have had a strong influence on my work. There is a rich legacy of experimentation and analysis in the German school springing notably from the work of Mary Wigman and Rudolf Laban. Nikolais developed a comprehensive aesthetic theory and often used improvisation in his choreographic process. Over the years I’ve incorporated therapeutic techniques based on the work of Feldenkrais, Hanna, Bartenieff, Bainbridge-Cohen, Pilates, and others. Also, my research in psychology has led to aesthetic applications of Gestalt therapy.

GESTALT therapy, with its here-and-now approach in designing action experiments by attending to muscle tension, posture, and movement behavior, relates well to the creative process in dance. In Gestalt, a healthy and fully functional person is not merely self-integrated; he or she is actively involved with their respective environments. This inclusive, holistic concept of personhood relates beautifully to Laban’s theories of spatial intent, effort-shape analysis, and space-time-weight affinities. The moving body spontaneously generates a homologous environment—a dynamic sensory, emotional, intellectual, and social architecture in which both artist and audience may find value and meaning.

BASICALLY, in “improv”, we’re concerned with the interaction of two broad areas: objective FORM and subjective CONTENT. Dancer/subject and art/object are treated as naturally inseparable polarities, although for the sake of study we talk about them differently.

FORM AND CONTENT are each comprised of four interconnected elements. The objective, FORM elements are: shape, space, time, and motion (Nikolais & Louis, 2005). The subjective CONTENT elements are: sensation, feeling, thought, and movement (Feldenkrais, 1972, 1977). The FORM elements constitute the craft, the nuts and bolts of the art, giving us choreographic structure. Through the design of space, shape, time, and motion, we present or embody the CONTENT of our sensory, emotional, cognitive and movement behavioral experiences. Every motional impulse, every spatial boundary, every temporal urgency, and every body-shape reveals or conceals sensory, emotional, intellectual, and behavioral content. The kinetic design of CONTENT and FORM constitutes a poetics of action—a dance. Thus, we speak of “movement metaphor”. In dance, “dabbing” the empty space implies different values and meanings than “punching” it; just as dabbing at someone’s tear-stained cheek with a tissue conveys different intent than punching him in the nose.

FORM AND CONTENT RELATIONSHIPS are dynamic and always interdependent. Together, subjective content and objective form create the gestalt, or whole of each improvisation, character, or relationship in a story. The gestalt constitutes the authenticity and presence of the characters, artistic statements, or narratives. In the studio our work with body awareness and control moves us steadily (if not erratically) toward this dynamic wholeness.

EVERY DANCER IS UNIQUE, each one has specific strengths and weaknesses manifesting as central and dominant movement tendencies. In class the content of our personal experience is drawn out and supported by the formal architecture of space/shape/time/motion. Given the uniqueness of each dancer, the learning task involves bringing dominant behavior—habitually conditioned or neglected movement patterns—into awareness with the aim of integrating it into a dynamic, artistic gestalt that includes (and does not violate) the central qualities making a person who she or he is. In improv, the emphasis on subject and object ebbs and flows, the motivation sometimes springing from deeply personal sources and sometimes from purely formal manipulations. When my motivations and responses spring from my central movement character, I can say my movement is authentic, that I have found my own “voice” as an artist.

DRAWING A LINE BETWEEN ART AND LIFE is not always easy. I want to make it clear that our point of view in the studio is artistic, not therapeutic. In class we work at the observable, formal level of craft. Yet, dance uniquely illuminates the holistic and humanistic nature of all creative activity. Dance is holistic in the sense that a dance, like a person, is more than the sum of its parts. Like a poem, as it gathers itself toward solid form, a dance radiates outward, sending from its body-center multiple streams of potential meaning. Whether dancing or watching, we invariably imbue abstract craft elements such as line, volume, shape, and tempo with subjective values and meanings that extend the dance’s influence beyond its observable frame. Those forms and their meanings make up the fabric of our dance culture and are most easily grasped in a classroom by talking about how they make us feel, think, and act. As a result, when narrowing our focus on formal design we often learn as much about ourselves as we do about our craft. Although in that sense movement improv may be therapeutic, my main objective is developing artistry. In the realm of fine art, subjective experience tends to be universalized and thus made accessible to a wider audience. In this way dance ingresses the world as it draws the world into itself.

THE SUBTLEST, MOST TENUOUS SENSATIONS, feelings, and thoughts can be given form in motion. In class, affinities between objective form and subjective content are noted, explored, and developed into clear, workable, improvs by alternating, overlapping, and integrating dancing and observing, doing and talking. Once formed into dance compositions, discussing the experience leads the artist back into a fertile ground of source imagery, often revealing hidden associations, intuitive insights, and habitually conditioned behavioral patterns. These deeper understandings stimulate further experiments that always extend beyond the studio hour, often requiring individually tailored composition assignments. But while in class, “what you see is what you get”—we’re interested in making dances, and everything we talk about must be demonstrated physically through movement.

A WORKSHOP ATTITUDE PREVAILS, and the atmosphere in the studio is inquisitive, permissive, and creative. Technical proficiency is unimportant; non-dancers can do and learn as much as advanced dancers in this method. Artistically, the challenge always lies in balancing form and content—whatever one’s level of training or movement experience. At any art form, too much feeling around for subjective content produces indulgent, self-centered melodrama—obscure or illegible in the context of fine art. And too formalized a technique produces rigid structure without soul. Aesthetic balance is achieved neither through self-aggrandizement nor self-effacement. Both extremes inhibit the artist’s ability to respond to others and to the world with authenticity and spontaneity. Communication is a two-way street and these extremes also make it hard for an audience to approach the work.

MY GOAL AS A TEACHER, then, is simply to help students become more available to themselves. By simultaneously developing keen powers of observation, and an intuitive approach to movement, we make the full range of artistic and human potential available. But how do we teach it? Explaining dance in words is tedious compared to the excitement of the dance itself. As Duke Ellington said, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Our work in the studio creates an environment promoting empowerment, freedom, a sense of belonging, and fun. For this there are three prerequisites for success.

THE FIRST PRIORITY is gaining full somatic awareness. This means getting to know yourself, not from the outside by looking in a mirror or by forming some magazine cover version of yourself; but gently, by fully sensing your body from the inside. The goal is to relax and make friends with ourselves as we are, not as we hope to be or think we should be. Somatic awareness is developed with the help of exercises derived from the work of Moshe Feldenkrais, Thomas Hanna, and others. The core somatic exercises constitute the foundation of an artistic medium deeply grounded in the individual’s bodily experience. (See Somatics, Part Three, “The Somatic Exercise Program”)

THE SECOND PRIORITY is an awareness of the relationship of one’s body-self to the world—to current and past artistic and life issues. I call this the self-world connection. We use our growing somatic awareness to improvise and compose—to dance, write, sing, play, and share with others—by alternating, overlapping, and integrating dancing and observing, doing and talking. These skills lead us to consider the relationships of past, present, and future issues in dance, art, literature and music to our on-going cultural narratives and histories.

THE FINAL PREREQUISITE is a basic trust that the mind and body are always related and that work on one is work on the other. Trust allows us to throw ourselves playfully and whole-heartedly into a feeling, sensation, idea, or movement process, or to explore an abstract motional quality, temporal frame, or spatial dimension completely—knowing that the results will be both meaningful and beautiful—even if we don’t initially see their connection to the whole. A basic trust in the holism of bodily experience must exist to propel the artist toward these higher-level integrations.