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Ensemble Improvisation's Essential Ingredients

The ability to cooperate is developed in practice, and ensemble improvisation provides an opportunity to explore a balanced combination of external and internal receptivity, developing cooperation as an art.

A Crucial Pair of Complementary Skills


Collaborative improvisation presents special opportunities and challenges.

  • As collaboration, participants aim to cooperate without any one of them being in control of the whole thing.
  • As improvisation, the participants cannot depend on routine - explicit rules and patterns - as the basis for their coordination [1].

By sharing control, and keeping the form open to development in the moment, everyone has the opportunity to fundamentally contribute to the shape and quality of the collaboration - a kind of custom form, grown in the moment, out of the substance and dynamics of the collaborator's interactions. However, without predetermined form or hierarchical control, how do the participants together find agreement, coherent cooperation - shared form? This is the challenge.

In my experience, a fundamental, combined attention is essential to collaborative development of a vital, engaging improvisation:

  1. The ability of an individual to be receptive and respond to their own ongoing processes - feelings and sensations, inertia, ideas, inspirations, whims, etc - while remaining receptive to influence from activity around them.
  2. Conversely, the ability of an individual to be receptive and respond to the activities of those around them, while also being receptive to what's going on within themselves.

The combination is the ability to be receptive to what's going on both inside and around you, and having each inform, rather than preclude, the other. For me, this combination leads to better integration of my own trajectory, with myself and with others. At the same time, the tension between the internal and external helps keep what I'm doing coherent yet continually changing, vital.

While the numbered principles above are essentially two sides of the same coin, I still find it useful to explicitly spell out each of them. That's because we're all naturally prone to be occupied by more attention to one of the concerns at any moment - either presence or connection. Imbalanced attention to one sacrifices some degree of the other in the process. When everyone in a group is practicing this dual focus, it reduces tendencies for one initiative / person to try to dominate the collective activity, or, at the other extreme, for a dancer/improvisor to isolate themselves from the group. People practicing this combined focus partner in ways that are less forced, more responsive to both themselves and others, more coherently a part of a whole.

I feel that, ultimately, this combined focus provides a crucial foundation for everyone in an ensemble activity to thrive on each other's inspiration, as well as, equally, cultivating their own. This integration of internal and external, individual and group, is what provides for an ensemble that can collectively change and grow.

[1] By avoiding depending on routine, on formal patterns, ensemble improvisation could be seen as a practice to develop skills to continually discover and grow the changing form of the connection. I develop this premise in Contact Improv as A Way of Moving.
See also Respecting Boundaries for articulation of often-implicit guidelines that help keep open improvisation situations from being abused.
I've posted a blog entry that develops this notion in the context of the Underscore, after an inspiring session.
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Ken Manheimer says:
Jan 02, 2013 09:50 PM
I've been getting a wonderful opportunity, in working with the Havlik group, to experiment with some practices that explore this principle with a specific concentration on physical dynamics - trajectory and momentum.

I'm pretty convinced that the crucial skill in contact improv - and maybe physical partnering, in general - is the ability to respect your own trajectory while also being receptive to, able to integrate with, other people's trajectory. I've been developing layers of a few exercises, structures, that bring focus to following ones own trajectory in a way that fosters also being receptive to what's going on around you, and exploring the interactions from that base. We've then been gradually refining the focus to approaches that are more versatile, enable greater adeptness for varying your path, merging without sacrificing your coherence. It's all based in bringing the notion of the small dance to dynamics - momentum and trajectory - and partnering.

I believe that this begins to get at some of the elusive, dynamic experience that is centrally useful to partnering - how to approach it - and that is hard to teach, or even describe.