Improvisational Dance Definition Essay

This paper explores the use of scores or verbal propositions in improvising dance. Examining my use of scores in my own improvisation practice it discusses what scores might be and might do and how they relate to the real time composition of dance in the present of its making. To help explore these ideas I refer to the theory of Nelson Goodman and discuss the use of scores by other dance practitioners including Steve Paxton, Yvonne Meier and Anna Halprin.

In 2012, I completed a three-year research project, as part of a PhD programme at Deakin University. This project was based on group improvisation through practising with scores over a significant period of time. The question that I asked in conducting my research was: What is the work the ‘score’ in the creation of an improvised group dance? where scores are verbal propositions, usually relating to physical, bodily or movement notions, rather than being narrative or psychological, such as tangling and untangling or the noticing of being subject to gravity. This research took the form of a studio exploration with a group of six dancers, including myself. We practised with the scores twice a week for three years.

In the years since that project, I have been working a core group of dancers once a week. Some have left the project, others have joined, but the core of the group has been consistent. We practise in a similar way each week although at the start of each session, I introduce a new set of scores.

Over my years of my practising dance improvisation in this way, I have not questioned whether to use ‘scores’. I have always taken for granted that they are useful and perhaps even essential in the generation of movement material in the present. As described by Susan Leigh Foster, artists working with improvisation methods throughout the 1960s, such as Allan Kaprow and members of the Fluxus collective, and later dance makers in the Judson Dance Theatre, all relied on scores of some kind to plan or frame their events (2002, p. 44). Throughout my research, I have been interested in how scores work within the way we practice as a group. Initially, I had assumed that scores had an easily perceivable effect on dancing, for those dancing and those observing. I soon realised that this was not the case. This has led me to explore the taken-for-grantedness of the utility of the score. In this paper I am asking: What is a score? What does it do? Here I conclude that there is not a straightforward, causal relationship between a score, the way we use a score and the dancing we do when we practise with a score. In order to think through the role that scores play in my/our dancing, I will begin by discussing what a score might be, how scores have been used or rejected by artists I have worked with, then move on to explore the theory of Nelson Goodman’s regarding scores and recuperate its use in the context of group dance improvisation.

Background to using scores

My introduction to the use of scores in dance improvisation was in the studio, in the workshops and the choreographic processes of improvisation practitioners. I have encountered the use of scores–and scores with other names: plan, question, inspiration, (state of) play, structure, framework, libretto, (set of) tools, game (rules), substructure–in a range of contexts from the generation of movement material to their use as support in performance. I have experienced dance makers using their scores generate movement to suggest or define an approach to the act of performing.

I began work as a dancer in companies performing ‘set’ or choreographed movement and these choreographers used improvisation as a tool for creating that movement. I gradually became more exposed to improvisation for performance with my first opportunity to perform in an improvised work offered by Ros Warby in 2001 while working with Dance Works (2000). Working with Warby gave me a new perception of improvisation. It was much more than a tool for creating ‘interesting’, virtuosic or non-habitual movement; it could be a way of noticing and exploring the many experiences of a dancing body both in private and in performance. This approach allowed me to eventually leave behind the over-valuing of certain types of movement such as the shapes and virtuosic steps of ballet or modern dance traditions and to begin to find an interest in a wider range of possibilities.

Warby had, in the preceding year, been working with American artist Deborah Hay, a relationship which she still maintains. She had been participating in Hay’s Solo Commissioning Projects. In these projects, a group of dancers participate in an intensive workshop in which they learn a solo, created by Hay. The participants are able to go on and perform that solo in the contexts of their own choice but they must first have practised for three months. As Warby explains:

Deborah’s choreography is articulated by a series of instructions and spatial pathways. Often these instructions are nonsensical and apparently impossible to execute, such as ‘take six steps into the light without taking a step’ (in Dempster 2007/08, p. 77).

The moment of negotiating the impossibility of the task is witnessed by the audience. We are able to see the ‘working-through’ of a performance problem in real time even though we don’t know what that problem is. This approach puts the performer in a situation where they are attentive; they are focussed on the unfolding of their performance in the present.

Soon after working with Warby, I travelled to New York and Europe. I attended workshops with several improvisation practitioners including KJ Holmes who is a dancer, poet and singer based in New York. Holmes has an interest in a broad range of somatic practices including Ideokinesis, Alexander Technique and Body-Mind Centering. She had many years experience as an improviser, working with Simone Forti, Lisa Nelson and Steve Paxton (Benoit 1997, p. 89). At Holmes’ workshops, I became aware of the way a long history in improvisation in New York which allowed her dancing to be assured and supported. I had not experienced this deep feeling of implicit knowledge around and about improvisation in Australia. In Holmes’ workshop, I was first introduced to Steve Paxton’s small dance (c 1972). The idea of the smalldance resonated with me. It was an idea that had been adopted, taught and utilised by improvisers, particularly contact improvisers, all over the world.

My most recent and long-standing relationship with an improvisation practitioner was with Rosalind Crisp. Crisp is an Australian who is based in Europe for part of the year and divides her time between performing, developing new work and teaching. Her influence on my practice has been significant. Over a period of a few years, I was involved in a project with Crisp, which she named the ‘d a n s e’ project. Through practising, a group of choreographic principles were developed by Crisp, which guide the way an improvising dancer generates movement. ‘Movements may come from any part of the body, at any speed or level, with any force or direction, for any duration, […] at any time. It is about dancing‘ (Crisp 2011). These choreographic principles are assimilated into the body through practising with them. For Crisp, her choreographic practice ‘focuses on the making of movement, rendering visible the constant decision-making of the dancer‘ (2011). When I was practising with Crisp, she did not did not name the choreographic principles, or any verbal propositions with which we were dancing, scores. These principles arose from dancing and were used both to describe what might have been taking place while dancing, and to suggest possibilities relating to how one might be attentive while dancing. Crisp avoided labelling these verbal tools as ‘scores’ as she also avoids naming the dances that she makes as ‘improvisation’ even though the ‘choreography’ is taking place in the present during performance. Avoiding the labels of ‘score’ and ‘improvisation’ allows Crisp to discover and re-discover what her practice is and what it is becoming without herself, or anyone else settling on how the use of particular terms might determine what a dance is or could be.

In contrast to Crisp’s approach, I have deliberately decided to use the term ‘score’ for the verbal propositions we use while practising. I use the term score for the words and sets of words conveyed verbally that we use to both offer possibilities while dancing and to share our experiences of dancing with other members of the group. By labelling them as scores, I aim to have a consistency in the way that I perceive what they might be and in doing so begin to understand how they might be significant to the way we practise. Here it is useful to work with Nelson Goodman’s ideas about autographic and allographic art and the ‘scores’ that these different types of art use and produce.

Nelson Goodman and scores

In his book, Languages of Art, Nelson Goodman discusses the concept of scores as linked to the idea of a stable, repeatable work, and in terms of his distinction between autographic and allographic works of art. He describes a painting as being autographic (1976, p. 113): it has been produced by one artist and cannot be reproduced unless it is forged of course. But a print made from a plate by an etcher is also autographic even though there can be varying numbers of prints made. This kind of work of art can always be attributed to an originating artist. By comparison, a piece of music is not autographic, however. According to Goodman it is allographic. It may be written by one a composer, but it can be interpreted in performance by a different artist: the performer. Gérard Genette, referring to Goodman notes that the categorisation of a work as autographic or allographic is affected by both how it is produced and whether it can be reproduced:

In certain arts, [autographic] the notion of authenticity is meaningful, and is defined by a work’s history of production, while it is meaningless in others, [allographic] in which all correct copies of a work constitute so many valid instances of it (1997, p. 16).

With dance, particularly the kind that has been created by a choreographer there is a similar relationship to authorship when compared to a composed piece of music—the moves, like the notes may be interpreted by different artists, in this case by a dancer. In improvised dance, the question of whether a dance is autographic or allographic and of the author is even more complicated. Gèrard Genette, referring to the work of Goodman can assist here. Genette describes how an autographic work is often produced in one stage, such as a painting and an allographic work is produced in two stages, such as a musical composition. In the case of allographic work, the score, produced in the first stage stands for the work produced in the second and ‘the act of writing, printing or performing a text or score is for its part an autographic art, whose usually multiple products are physical objects‘ (1997, p. 17). A solo improvisation a work could be considered to be autographic in that the score and the work would be devised and created by one person. However, the score would not guarantee that the same dance would result from a subsequent dancing with that score.

In the case of group improvisation the score is not necessarily created by one author and nor does it guarantee what the work that it stands for will be. The site at which the ‘creation’ is taking place, rather than in the instance of the single author conceiving the score, occurs as the dancers dance with the score. This allographic work is may be produced in two stages but seeing as it is created in its second stage, rather than being interpreted, the authors of it are not one but many.

A score, according to Goodman, is the means by which a work can be authoritatively identified from one performance of it to the next. In other words, a score that is devised by the author stands for a work and allows that work to be repeatable. Goodman also suggests that score might also have a more ‘exciting’ function such as aiding composition but he argues that its primary role is to identify a work (1976, p. 127). In discussing the importance and significance of a score for a work of art, Goodman suggests that a score could easily be dismissed as not being of any use once a performance is complete. ‘But to take notation as nothing, therefore but a practical aid to production is to miss its fundamental and theoretical role’ of the score that has the ‘logically prior office of identifying a work‘ (127). A performance, according to Goodman, must be compliant with its score in order for it to be a true instance of that work, and a score must unambiguously stand for the work.

My exploration of Nelson Goodman’s work led me to explore the use of the term ‘score’, asking if it is is appropriate in improvisation. Scores, in Goodman’s terms, can’t stand for an improvised dance. Danielle Goldman, claims that ‘systems of notation can never adequately capture the complexity of an improvised performance‘ (2010, p. 10). The verbal scores that I use in my practice do not represent a ‘work’ which was or will be created. Neither can they, in isolation, shed light on the practising that takes place in the studio during or after the fact of that practising. My use of the word ‘score’, though, is not a term that I decided upon; rather it is a ‘traditional’ word which I have learnt to use from working in practical dance situations, particularly in dance improvisation.

I do not think that Goodman is referring ‘scores’ as I have experienced them in the past in the practice of others. Nor did I use my reading of Goodman’s theory to decide what my scores should be. I do, however, use my emerging understanding of how verbal scores might work for others in various practices to ask again and again what scores are in my practicing. How do we use them? How do they support the communication in relation to our dancing?

Scores in the dance field

Kent de Spain has observed that ‘if you want to understand how something as subjective as improvisation really works, you need to ask improvisers; they are the ‘authorities’ in the field‘ (Cooper Albright 2003). As you can imagine there are as many ways of using scores as there are choreographic processes. Rather than guaranteeing or stabilising a work as Goodman suggests, each user of scores in dance improvisation finds her own use and meaning for them. Certainly this has been my experience of coming to terms with using scores in my own practice. I would also suggest that even within my own practice, I can only be an authority of my own experience of scores. The other dancers in my projects each have their own understanding. I do not explicitly discuss with them what they should do with our scores in terms of movement or movement quality. There is always the option to not use a score or set of scores.

In performing improvised dance, there is a difference between, on the one hand, not knowing while dancing, (not knowing what movement or impulse or relationship will come next), and on the other hand, searching for that movement. If I am able to allow myself to be comfortable with not knowing what comes next, I am able to be open to possibilities which arise. If I am pre-planning or anticipating or searching for the next movement, the possibilities of what, where, how are circumscribed. Scores support me. They allow me to not know what comes next. They are a prop, a ruse, a pretense which, while giving me the illusion of ‘knowing’ in my dancing, allow me to not know. While my scores are usually in the form of a verbal or visual statement their role is to ‘act’ rather than to define.

The use of a score to support the possibility of not knowing seems to be shared by other dance improvisers. Yvonne Meier describes the use of scores in her work in this way,

I was watching myself all the time. So you take a score and your mind gets relief. You’re only busy with that score. Of course then you’re using the score, the score enters your body, so you have the score work your dance, make your dance (Satin 2009, p. 43).

It is as though a score is allowed to have authority within the process in its own right interacting with the physical history in the body which also has its authority.

For Mark Tompkins scores allow us ‘to do anything because at the same time, we’re supported‘ (Benoit 1997, p. 225). It is this existence of a structure or score which allows Tompkins to dance in the way he does. In describing what that score could be, he says:

It’s a line in space, a change in the light, the body falling[…]It’s a lot of off balance, being off center, the sensation inside an articulation, the speed at which I come near somebody, or at which I go away. These are very physical situations, I can see them and I can touch them (Benoit 117).

A score could be almost anything. Using scores is a combination of what it manifestly proposes and how it allows or is employed to influence, affect, notice or feed the dancing which comes while using it.

Steve Paxton’s small dance, which, as mentioned above, I first encountered in a workshop taught by KJ Holmes, is an example of a verbally conveyed score that has been shared and communicated between and by a large number of people reaching far beyond Paxton’s initial devising and use of it. Described by Sally Banes in Terpsichore in Sneakers as ‘a warm up done while standing […]sensing gravity and becoming aware of one’s breathing, peripheral vision and balance…‘(1987, p. 66). The small dance as a verbal score is at once a physical instruction and an invitation to be attentive to the (dancing) body. In a transcription of the verbal sharing of information in a series of classes taught by Paxton in 1977, he describes the small dance, also named the stand, as ‘continuing to perceive mass and gravity as you move‘ (Paxton 1986, p. 66). To perceive one's own mass in relation to gravity is both personal and changeable. I could be attentive to my mass and gravity while dancing on numerous occasions and perceive it differently, slightly or significantly, every time. As Paxton suggested to the participants in his class, that perception is ‘always new but so ancient‘ (1986, p. 49). The invitation implied in the small dance shared between many dancers over many years is a suggestion for possibility as well as an instruction but not a means to achieve something particular.

In an interview in 1994, nearly twenty years after the transcribed workshops, Paxton described the small dance.

Tuned to gravity, reflexes arrange our skeletons, aligning weights and proportions to maintain our stand. Noticing the Small Dance gives the mind a way to tune to the speed of reflex’ (in Curtis 1994, p. 68).

This more recent description of the small dance by Paxton is refined, as though he has shared it often in the intervening years. It is not, however, significantly different from the proposition he conveyed in that earlier workshop. The small dance is a way of perceiving and being attentive to the body: ‘feel the play of rush and pause of the small dance […] its always there‘ (Paxton 1986, p. 50). Its openness allows it to be a tool which can continually be re-visited by a dancing body that is becoming in its present.

Score versus open improvisation

Some practitioners refer to ‘open’ or ‘closed’ scores. An open improvisation might be one without any score at all. There may be a group of dancers who have worked/performed/improvised together many times and so they deliberately leave the work open to let their familiarity with each other be the score. Or perhaps they have had no experience with each other but are interested to see what would happen if they leave the possibilities very open. Anna Halprin felt liberated by working out that she could vary her work in terms of how ‘open’ or ‘closed’ she made the scores she worked with. Halprin even gave some of her scores a number from one to ten with the most open being one. One of the purposes that served was to let the dancers know what to expect. In a very open score, giving it a number closer to one could signify: ‘Please don’t expect to be told what to do’ for Halprin (Kaplan 1995, p. 201). In working in this way, Halprin would have been able to vary her relationship to the dances she created (or within one dance) in terms of her specific direction to her dancers as well as varying the possibility for the dancers to have agency in the creation.

Solo improviser Suzanne Cotto describes starting from ‘zero’ where she has no plan; she has not prepared anything. Yet as soon as she begins to perform, in fact even before she begins, memory and impressions arise for her and these influence her performance. These impressions seem to be physical as well as imagined memories (Benoit 1997, p. 105). The physical history in Cotto’s body has come about through her dancing history and through her practice. By practising with a particular thought or intention even if that intention is just to dance, the body is becoming tuned with that intention. In improvising, parts of that history will arise whether it is searched for or hoped for, whether they are noticed when they arise. In performance, even if there is no planned score, such as in Cotto’s ‘zero’, the score is that there is no score, and the dancing from practising, even if that too comes from the score noscore, will be the dancing which is performed.

Scores in my practising

In order to discuss how the dancers with whom I have been dancing and I are using scores, I will first describe how we conduct our practice sessions.

We warm up by dancing by ourselves, usually starting on the floor and coming to standing over time with the option to go back to the floor. We call this warm-up period the solo warm-up. I have borrowed the term, solo warm-up from improvisation practitioner David Beadle, whose workshop I attended in 2003. Our solo warm-up lasts for a pre-determined period of time. Sometimes I time it with an external device, and sometimes we do a ‘fake’ period of time, and I call out periodically suggesting how long (there might be) to go.

Following on from the solo warm-up, we work together with a partner or in groups of three using touch as a way of sharing physical information. Gradually, the touching person(s) steps away to allow the moving person to dance unencumbered. We then follow on by dancing and watching each other in varying ways, sometimes dancing for short periods and then swapping over and at other times dancing for up to 20 minutes.

At the beginning of each session, I introduce a score or set of scores, words or verbal propositions. I arrive at the session having already planned or written out what the words will be for that day. Over the last five or six years, I have used many scores in many ways. What they all have in common is that they are related to physical, kinesthetic or movement ideas.

Recently, I have been using lists of words that I have gathered because I see them as being part of a certain category. Following are examples of sets of scores from two separate sessions.

Session One

Action words: flop, bounce, wiggle, flick, swing, fall, dip, slide, surge, tap, fling, crawl, tip.

Framing words: sustain, interrupt, appear, reduce, contradict, compose, wander, drive, erase, rebound, undermine, crystallise, open, antagonise

Session Two

List A: What?
The space, the body, the movement, the intention (what are you intending?), the noticing

List B: How or Where?
Over, along, behind, above, within, through, between, alongside

I share the scores with the group at the beginning of a session, before our solo warm-up. During the solo warm-up, wedance with the scores and begin to see how we might understand the possibilities that they offer for that day. After the solo warm-up, we have a discussion about what happened for us as individuals, particularly in relation to the scores. There is no obligation to speak. From there we move on to the next part of the session. We discuss, before going on, how the scores might be of use in the next part of the session. As the session progresses, we use the score to discuss our dancing experiences. There is never any obligation to use the scores in a particular way, or even to use them. Sometimes one or more members of the group discard them early in the session. Sometimes they are used by all of us very closely for the whole session.

Is the dance written by the scores?

The scores are not designed to have a particular effect or to make particular changes in anyone’s dancing. When I began my PhD project, I thought that I would shape the dance, not through explicitly directing the dancing which was to take place but through the use of scores which were designed to result in a certain way of dancing. The more we practised the clearer it became to me that not only were the scores not directly shaping the dancing, but that I did not want them to do so. This insight existed because I was a participant in the project. Through my own dancing, I came to understand that the relationship between the scores and my own dancing was not causal. A score did not induce me to dance in a certain way, nor did it remind me of the way I had danced if I have used the same score previously. A score is not a map for what to do, nor can it authoritatively define a dance or a work from one instance of it to the next, in the way Goodman describes.

The scores are not causal, nor does our dancing represent the scores. Representation could be described as something which stands for something else. A painting is often described as representing its subject, regardless of how much it actually resembles it. According to Goodman, a picture needs to do more than resemble something in order to represent that something. It needs to be a symbol of it, ‘to stand for it to refer to it to denote it’ (Goodman 1976, p. 5). To represent something is not a matter of copying it but ‘conveying’ it. But we do not think about or aim for our dancing to convey the scores. I have no interest in our dancing standing for or referring to the scores in a way that would be able to be apprehended by a witness. Not only are we not aiming to convey the scores, we are not aiming to convey anything specific that could be made into a verbal statement.

One way to name the way we sometimes use scores is exemplification. Goodman describes exemplification as being ‘possession plus reference‘ (1976, p. 52). A work of art will relate to that which it is exemplifying by both having properties of that thing and referring to it as well. A painting that exemplifies ‘red’ is both red and refers to the colour red. A dance that exemplifies ‘fast’ is both fast and refers to the nature of being fast. It may be that there are only one or many properties of a complex idea or object that are being exemplified. The ‘fast’ may be the chosen aspect of something more complicated such as acceleration, which is being exemplified in the dance. Perhaps in improvising dance, choosing what aspect of an idea or a score to exemplify is not as clear as thinking and deciding and then acting. The choice may be blurred, not consciously decided, or may be a bodily response to the perceived meaning of a score. The exemplification may also be of ideas that are non-verbal, that is, not conceptual. Symbols from other systems: gestural, sound, pictorial, diagrammatic and movement, may all be exemplified. Goodman writes that ‘points of contact with language are enough to set the direction‘ (1976, p. 58). Exemplification of the scores is, in some instances a good way to describe what takes place, even if that is not necessarily our intention in dancing with scores. If I use the example of falling, holding, reaching, riding, it is likely that falling, holding, reaching and riding will have taken place at least at some point in our dancing with that score. By both having properties of those actions and referring to them, and exploring the physical implications of those actions in different movements and body parts, the dance may be exemplifying them.

Our dancing with scores does not effect a simple causal relationship yet there is no doubt that, at times, there is an aspect of a score, let's say falling, which becomes physically manifest in our dancing with that score. We quite often talk about what a score might ‘mean’ in our bodies or in/with our dancing at a particular time. ‘Meaning’ seems to be a good word to use because it allows us to discover, through dancing what the relationship between the score and the dancing could be without the expectation that the score commands us. Falling could be discovered to ‘mean’ the whole body falling; the dropping of one body part; standing still and feeling the affect of gravity while using the structure of the body to resist it; the momentum sent somewhere else in the body after an initial fall. These examples are all of conscious perceptions or deliberate actions which may take place while dancing with a score. There are many more non-conscious actions which may take place as a result of patterning or bodily habits, still in relation to the score. As Goodman suggests, exemplification is potentially much more complex than its starting point as a word or a perceived meaning of a word. In our practising, the starting point of a score, the whisper of something which we think we might know or have an association with, allows us to enter in to dancing, into an unstable situation and find, in our bodies, what that dance could be.

The possibility to dance while ‘not knowing’ exists in our way of dancing with scores. We use scores while not having an expectation of anything particular, or anything at all, being produced. Yvonne Meier’s suggestion of letting the score work the dance describes the constant possibility for the score to be part of our dancing without the obligation for it to inform it, or for the dancing to represent it. Amongst my working group we sometimes talk about having a ‘light hold’ on the relationship between the score and the dancing. That hold could be tightened in times of need, that is, it could be consciously referred to, to initiate, adjust or affect the dancing in some way. At times the hold is so loose that there is probably a perception that there is little or no relationship between the score and the dancing.

In our practising, we have talked about scores being generative of movement and also ways of noticing. They can often be both of those things but on some days or at some times they may be more one than another. For example, One day we had a set of ‘action’ words and a set of ‘framing’ words. I really began with a set of action words because I hoped that they might be supportive of our dancing. The support that I hoped for, however, was not the direction or inducement to do anything in particular (or anything at all) but the momentum or opening to begin dancing. Perhaps it is really from dancing that dancing comes.

What is the score?

One dancer asked me whether, since I always decide upon the scores and how I group them together before the practice session, I had certain expectations as to how the dancers would understand and use those scores and also whether I was open to more information arising as I participated in the practice, both from within my own dancing and also as it was suggested by members of the group. In the answer to that question, I suspect, lies the answer to the question of what a score is and what it does. Every week I write a new list of scores. They often come from what I have encountered during the week, particularly in dancing. When I write them down, however, I am usually sitting down and not in the middle of dancing. Although I write a series of words that (I perceive) belong together in some way, I do not really imagine dancing as I write. As I offer a new set of scores to the group I do also try to convey why I grouped certain words together, such as the ‘framing’ words. Once I start dancing, however, I invariably allow that thinking to either fall away or into the background and instead see how dancing with that score might bring up its ‘meaning’ on that day. Sometimes I have a tight hold on a score for a whole session. It might feel particularly fruitful. One day I was stumbling in my body in many different ways without pause even after I thought I had stumbled enough. On other days, I abandon some or all of the scores almost immediately. I would like to believe that there is both tacitly understood and expressed permission for all of the dancers in our group to find their own use for the scores on each day. We use scores while we are dancing and we use them as a way to communicate about our dancing. There is much passing on of information that is non-verbal, such as dancing, watching and touching. The scores, conveyed verbally, enable the sharing of a dancing practice in which ‘meaning’ can be found in the present and is ever-changing.


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September 2005


“Nature is regulated not only by a microscopic rule base but by powerful and general principles of organization.
Some of these principles are known, but the vast majority are not.” Robert Laughlin (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1998)


A flock of evening grosbeaks collect on the branches of the trees outside my house. In the morning, they fly from tree to tree, and at one point, take off into the sunrise. It is September, and they are beginning their long migration south. I watch them form their patterns in the clear blue sky. There does not seem to be a leader. They do not bump into each other, and seem to know how to organize themselves gracefully. Their movements are quick, intricate, and reflect a remarkable sense of timing in their interactions. How do they know how to form these patterns?

I stand on my dock, overlooking a clear lake that contains seemingly hundreds of minnows, rushing back and forth in an underwater galaxy. The little fish are a large school of perch, perhaps only weeks old. Under the reflection of the sun, they appear to shift and dodge in a dimensional dance of submersion and surface motion. They create endless swirling patterns, sustaining a coherence that is striking, with no apparent guidance.

The ensemble of dancers is moving across the space, spontaneously following their own movement impulses. There is no choreographer directing their movements and yet, there is an emergent form appearing that they all recognize and understand. The dancers fall into a pattern. Musicians are also present, and they are finding their own sound patterns in relationship to the dancers. How do these patterns arise? What are the signals of communication?

I have a conversation with a scientist from The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California. He shows me illustrations of neurons in the human brain, forming patterns that reflect thoughts and sensory responses. He tells me there is no central command in the brain informing these patterns. The neurons are self-organizing, and their patterns are emergent phenomena.

A judge in Superior Court asks me to develop a proposal to mediate conflicts between families, schools, and the court system around children who have dropped out of school. Five years later, this results in a program that has served over 200 students with a staff of 20. There has really been no structured hierarchy in the development of this organization. It has been self-organizing, developing patterns that were necessary to meet the needs of the children involved. How do organizations produce a complex system?


Observing these emergent patterns in natural living systems, in my work in dance and music improvisation, and even in organizational systems like public schools and social agencies, I’ve come to ask whether there are deep universal structuring principles that cross the disciplines of art, science, and human culture.

In linking the creative work of art-making to the emergent processes evident in nature, I have found a basis for a rich and textured inquiry into how systems come together, transform, and reassemble to create powerful means of communication and exchange.

The research and practice of what I have named Emergent Improvisation investigates the specific relationship between dance/music improvisation and the science of complex systems. Improvisation is a process of composing in the moment. By composing, I mean ordering, structuring, organizing--in this case, movement and sound. Relating to natural living systems, Emergent Improvisation is the ordering or structuring of forms in the present moment that does not involve an exterior agent or outside director.

There are three key concepts that link Emergent Improvisation to the science of complex systems: self-organization, emergence, and complexity.

Self-organization, in this context, means the ordering or structuring of people or entities that do not have a choreographer, or do not have a director. The ordering is coming from within the system.

Emergence--an outcome or property of self-organization—is the process by which some new form, some new ordering, some new pattern, or some new ability arises to move something toward the creation of another idea---opening up or exposing the potential for something new.

Complexity encompasses the process of self-organization to create an emergent form. The study of emergence in complex systems explores how the many components of a particular system give rise to a collective behavior. Complexity is a structuring at the edge of chaos, where there is enough order to recognize a pattern yet enough openness to be adaptable to new information leading to the creation of a new property or outcome.


When I entered Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont as a student in the late 1960’s, I was already schooled in the Graham and Limon dance techniques. I quickly became immersed in the Cunningham technique under the influence of Viola Farber. In my sophomore year, dancer/choreographer Judith Dunn and musician Bill Dixon came to teach improvisation. Judith had recently come from the Judson Dance Theater, in New York City, which was a hot bed of avant-garde reaction/rebellion to previous modern dance. Their performance of improvisation was a radical idea at the time. Not that improvisation as a form was such a radical idea, because it was always a part of dancing. But their idea to take it seriously as a form for performance—that there were skills involved, that it could be practiced, and that musicians and dancers were working as equals—was something very radical.

I returned to Bennington many years later to continue the teaching of Judy’s work and began investigating my own interests within dance and music improvisation. It's been over twenty years now that I've been teaching improvisation alongside musicians at Bennington, including with Arthur Brooks, a major student and player with Bill Dixon.

Over time, watching my students improvising, I noticed certain patterns and forms kept reappearing. I started to name these recurring patterns—such as main event/chorus, unison, and path. The forms were very simple.

In the early 1990’s, I gathered a small group of former students together under the name Materia Prima. We started to create several structures together for performance as an experiment, just to see what would happen. The structures were not for entire compositions or forms unto themselves at that point, but were simple elements (as the patterns above, including solo material) that contributed to the overall structuring of the event.

Some years later, evolutionary biologist Bruce Weber came to teach at Bennington College and we began a dialogue that introduced me to the world of complex, dynamical systems, a paradigm that had emerged as a major discussion in the scientific community over the last 40 years. Stunned by the resonance with my work, I invited Bruce into the dance studio and he participated in the research, acknowledging that we were experimenting with the same concepts. One of the key elements of complexity is that the emergent property of self-organization is not entirely predictable. Scientist Per Bak coined the term self-organized criticality. This term relates to the state in which complex behavior in nature reflects the tendency of large systems with many interacting interdependent components to evolve into a poised delicate state, without the direction or design of a central, overriding, or outside agent. This emergent state becomes a complex dynamical system. Improvising dancers and musicians experience this process of interaction and interdependence selecting for a coherent pattern or state that is recognizable.

I became interested in why ensembles of individual entities (cells, animals, people) exhibit self-organizing, collective behavior. It seems clear that there is a drive, a push, a movement towards forming, towards coherence, towards the matching of time, matter, and location that results in meaning. The fact that collective self-organized behavior results in a complexity that is highly effective and inherent in the evolution of living things excited me. I recall the exhilaration and sense of creative energy in an artistic improvisational practice. Does a collective sense of connection (meaning) drive the energy to integrate the content, the timing, and the location? This questioning led me to conversations with two visionary scientists. The first was with Dr. Gerald Edelman, founder of the Neurosciences Research Foundation, Director of The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California, and Chairman of the Department of Neurobiology at the Scripps Research Institute. Dr. Edelman received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1972. His book, A Universe of Consciousness, greatly influenced my thinking.

Dr. Edelman's work includes a theory of consciousness that is based on neuronal group selection. His theory states that there are two fundamental properties of conscious states: integration and differentiation. My understanding of these properties are that every conscious state contains a unified whole and cannot be broken into individual parts and, at the same time, each state can be highly differentiated and lead to many different behaviors. These concepts deeply resonated with my observation of the ensemble of dancers and musicians. The outcomes of the improvisation work produced coherent wholes that could not be deconstructed to each dancer and musician, and yet produced endless variations. I questioned whether this level of complexity was a further amplification of each dancer’s and musician’s conscious state.

Another concept of Dr. Edelman’s theory that resonated with my work and influenced my thinking is the remembered present. This concept relates perception to memory. He defines perceptual categorization as “the ability to carve up the world of signals into categories adaptive for a given animal species.” The remembered present links the imagined or immediate present experiences with a past history of behavior. Memory is a process linking past to present, actually reconstructing the past into the present. Memory is dynamic and emergent, not static.

The second scientist whose work greatly influenced me is Dr. Stuart Kauffman. Dr. Kauffman, winner of the MacArthur Award, is a founding member of the Santa Fe Institute, the leading center for the emerging sciences of complexity. He is currently the director of The Center for Biotechnology and Informatics at University of Calgary in Canada. In his books, The Origins of Order and Investigations, Dr. Kauffman is interested in seeking the construction principles of adaptation, believing that the property of such systems may reside on the edge of chaos—what he calls order for free. Poised between order and chaos, this is a result of a highly tuned selection process. When Dr. Kauffman visited Bennington College, he came into my dance studio and inspired me to explore and name the Complex Unison Form with the dancers and musicians.


In thinking about the deep connections between ordering principles in nature and ordering principles within dance and music improvisation, I’ve been asking: What kinds of forms might we look at that would inform both? What kind of experiments could be set up to find them? Over the last three years, this investigation has resulted in three areas: research, education, and the practice and performance of Emergent Improvisation.

For dancers and musicians, there are many signaling techniques that support global, collective, self-organizing behavior. There is, most evidently, vision and direction of focus to designate connection and location of attention in space. There is aural communication, which conveys rhythm, tone, and timing. There is kinesthetic awareness--the sense of movement—that, for both dancers and musicians, can result in syncopated changes and shifts. And there is conscious attention to relationship, which includes an awareness of self (where one is located in space and the vocabulary of one’s movement), awareness of local interaction (what one is doing in relation to one’s neighbor), and an awareness of the global pattern (recognizing the form of the ensemble). This spatial-temporal experience of sensory awareness through many levels of attention is all happening at once, and spontaneously, mirroring the selection and pruning process of complex systems.

The kinds of experiences that arise in Emergent Improvisation led me to organize the form in several ways--as an individual, duet, and ensemble practice.

The first is what I call Solo Practice, which is fundamental to doing this kind of work. There are four areas to this practice: embodiment, physical vocabulary, spatial environment, and focus on the particular.

I’ve based embodiment on current developed practices, including: Lisa Nelson's tuning work with the senses, Body/Mind Centering, physical therapy, and Authentic Movement. Embodiment entails tuning oneself to sensory perception and allowing for felt experiences of the body. Similar to meditation, embodiment is a practice of attention that brings you into the present moment of a physical sensorial reality.

The next area is the development of a physical or sonic vocabulary. This marks itself differently from learning a traditional technique and perfecting it. In this case, you're perfecting and discovering your own physical and sonic technique. You're taking your history and integrating it into an emergent present where vocabulary can continually be discovered, reshuffled, and recombined, creating a thinking process in the body. The development of this vocabulary is very important because, like with any vocabulary, the more diverse it is, the more interesting it is, the more able you are to fine-tune, to articulate and express detail and ideas. This area creates an endless practice of discovering a greater vocabulary.

The third area is an attention to the spatial environment. You start to transfer your internal process and attention into the space, connecting to the external world. The focus goes to the outside, addressing “location,” which is a key element in the science of evolutionary biology. Adapting to the environment is an essential skill in improvisational work. In addition, the dancers and musicians need to become highly aware of each other. As they engage in developing their Solo Practice, they must engage in a deep listening and observing of each other’s forms.

The last piece of the Solo Practice is the focus on the particular. This practice relates to the selection and pruning process. Now that the dancer and musician have their individual vocabularies, they must select for a particular ordering, structuring process. Structuring one’s vocabulary, choosing particular gestures, rhythms, spatial configurations, and then developing and building on them is a rigorous practice. This area is where one discovers and defines one’s own selection process for composing.

Duet Practice is an exploration of twos. The process can involve two dancers, two musicians, or a dancer and musician. Rhythmic relationships, parallels, synergies, equalities, narratives of separation and connection, and the push/pull of unison patterns are all investigated.

Ensemble Practice structures itself on self-organizing principles. In developing this practice, we create structures with particular constraints or rules. These structures give us information that is then selected for and repeated. Subsequently, we began to question how we knew whether a structure “worked,” or was successful, within the ensemble. It became evident that not all structures work in this practice. Not enough rules, or totally random choices create few recognizable patterns among the dancers and musicians. Like complex systems, these structures have to have enough inherent rules so that a pattern is recognizable and emerges. Also, the rules need to be flexible and open enough to leave room for the dancers and musicians to create the potential for the unknown emergent form to happen. Here, I recognize Dr. Edelman’s concept of “integration and differentiation” and Dr. Kauffman’s “order for free” at play.


There are four performance forms that I’m currently working with, known as Emergent Forms, that arose from the Ensemble Practice: Emergent Solo, Emergent Duet, Complex Unison, and Memory Form. They each begin with simple rules and build into complex patterns. They are self-organizing; they have emergent properties; and they become complex systems that we continually refine.

Emergent Solo is grounded in the unique components of one’s Solo Practice and its four disciplines. The Emergent Solo holds a linear progression through time that unfolds, expands, and comes to fulfillment through acute compositional awareness.

Emergent Duet is a performance form for two artists (dancer and musician, two dancers, dancer and visual artist, etc.) that reveals the dynamic and open-ended expression of form in flux. Each performer has identified a particular kinetic, sonic, or visual vocabulary that exhibits unique qualities of the individuals. In collaboration, a developmental structure comes out of working with this material, resulting in the discovery and investigation of an emergent form.

Complex Unison is built first from what I call Flocking. Flocking includes four simple rules: walking, varying speeds, varying direction, and stillness. Like the movement of a flock of birds, this ensemble form begins to create patterns for the dancers. This form emerges into Simple Unison which allows for the addition of gesture, forming tableaux for the dancers, revealing Kauffman's "order for free" as patterns emerge and dissolve over time. Simple Unison then develops into Complex Unison to a point recognizable as Bak’s “self-organized criticality”—where the patterns are endlessly complex and reside in the narrow region between order and chaos where conditions are in a prime state for change. There is a finely tuned balance between the new information of variation and the patterns that are holding the information together. Flocks of birds and schools of fish also exhibit these structuring principles of complex unison. Another component of this structuring form is Dr. Edelman’s concept of “degeneracy”: the ability to develop many different ways to get to the same outcome. The initiation and creation of many different gestural and rhythmic possibilities to create a recognizable complex unison is a key component to this form. Dancers and musicians trained in Complex Unison recognize when these dynamical interactions among individual elements result in a strong collective pattern. The observer witnesses a continual assembling, dissolving, and reassembling of forms.

In Memory Form, the dancers and musicians create an event that is remembered by the ensemble, and then reconstructed over time, revealing memory as a complex process of creation. Memory of the initial event reveals itself as a fluid, open-ended process in which the performers are continuously relating past information to present thinking and action. This reintegration of past into present draws on repetition, nonlinear sequencing, and emergence to construct new adaptations. The Memory Form was inspired by Dr. Gerald Edelman's concept "the remembered present."


An important aspect to the success of Emergent Forms is that each individual musician or dancer needs to have a unique and copious vocabulary. At any given moment, they must have access to highly articulated and defined elements or ideas to bring into very quick-moving windows of opportunity. This represents the problem-solving aspect of the selection process that allows emergence to occur. They also have to have a very practiced sense of attention. Without it, they will distract and pull and literally keep the form from happening. In order for a form to emerge, it has to keep refining itself and discarding what is not useful, just as in selective evolution. The ensemble must understand the signals, track the patterns, and build on material. They also understand developing images based on time sequences. It is still a process of trial and error, but the focus is on the emergence of the form and how it's being built, versus randomly choosing elements outside of what the ensemble is working towards.

Amplification, or pattern formation, is another intriguing concept for an ensemble. Just as a sound can be amplified in particular environments, so can movement information among an ensemble. Advanced improvisers with highly sensitive selection capabilities can very quickly signal referential movements across large spaces through the use of repetition, unison, and rhythmic synchronicity.


The implications for the practice of Emergent Improvisation cross disciplines and enter daily life on many levels. On a personal level, it allows an individual to uniquely define her/his own potential for expression and then negotiate that vocabulary in relationship with others in the environment. On an ensemble level, our experience gives us a basis to question when emergent complex systems can be more efficient and adaptive than hierarchical systems.

Emergent Improvisation as a practice and performance is not a new concept. It is simply the naming and identification of a process that many artists have been doing over millennia, into which I have found myself in the midst of explaining. The process of discovery has in itself been self-organizing, gathering strength and clarity with each ensemble’s interaction and practice of the forms.

I linger on the question of whether there is a connection between complexity and aesthetic beauty. Emergent Improvisation gives me a platform from which to investigate this. I suspect that through a constant, ongoing process of selection combined with a certain kind of rigor amongst the dancers and musicians, certain forms might emerge that have a structural coherence able to create a powerful sense of meaning or order that deeply resonates for us on an aesthetic level.


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