On Improvisation

Do Be Do, 2016. Cirko Helsinki. In front Anna-Maija Terävä, behind Maija Hirvanen and Mikko Bredenberg. A still image from a documentation filmed by Christopher Hewitt.

Anna-Maija Terävä | 15.8.2020

Introduction 

In this text I will try and describe some elements of improvisation in Oblivia. I don’t try to grab on improvisation as an art form or sort out different performance practices related to for example dance or theater improvisation. I will rather try and illuminate some perspectives on improvisation that have become important for me when working in the performance company Oblivia. 

Practicing and performing improvisation has been an important and meaningful part of my working life as a dancer also before entering Oblivia in 2014. Although Oblivia´s works are usually set performances, improvisation is a key element in Oblivia´s work. Engaging oneself in the thematics, working up the material and finding meaningful connections to the work happens often in improvisations. In the collective group work of Oblivia improvisation is largely based on free association derived from specific, chosen thematics and implemented using the group member’s own, individual artistic approach. Different backgrounds, methods and expertises can intermingle in the working process. The basic elements when improvising are usually movement and sound that originate from the thematics. Narratives are, if not completely avoided, but at least not emphasized. 

A theme orientated approach 

By improvising based on the chosen thematics the group kicks off structuring and developing the material for the upcoming stage works. By material I do not refer to anything tangible like a prop or an object to work with, but to more abstract elements that are present in an improvisation; movement, sound, text, singing, blabbering, stillness, presence, emotion, attitude, use of time and space, atmosphere and so on. The improvisation is based on a chosen topic that serves both as a headline for the whole performance as well as an inspiration for free associations. The latest topics for new creations have been for example Lightness, Money and finance, Nature and technology, Dancing and climate change, Superheros and the big bang, Movies and B art, Postmodernism and Entertainment industry.

The aim of the improvisations is to make the the thematics visible, palpable and identifiable for the group members. When first approaching the thematics by exploring and improvising, the aim is to be as free as possible. Material and scenes created by improvising are discussed in the means of which actions or experiences seem to embody the current thematics but nothing is really eliminated. The selection of actions or scenes to the refinement process can be based on multiple reasons. “It is fun; It creates a very special atmosphere; It looks amazing; It is really strange; It’s hilarious; It negotiates very well the thematics; It is new; There is something in it; It is ridiculous”, or as Annika often says, “It works”. 

The ways of more focused work for masterminding the actual performance can vary. One way of processing the material is Do-what-you-saw (DWYS), that is seemingly a quite simple group practise for creating and working up material for performances. Over the years it has come in a multifaceted tool, that has an influence on the qualities and selection of material that will end up in the completed stage works. 

The three main components of the DWYS practice are writing, creating a solo improvisation called the prototype and copies of the prototype. To be able to approach the kind of large topics mentioned above, the writing becomes useful. Prior to the physical work the group usually makes lists about the chosen thematics, with a broad and allowing approach. The latest title that we used for the writing was in the process of making Verdrängen, Verdrängen, Verdrängen. The title was  The materiality of supression. I can also recall such titles as Money and me, Money and landscape, Nature and technology, Postmodernism in the present and If I was a superhero. 

Concerning the lists and the beginning of the physical work the so called “whatever associations come to your mind” approach is very much appreciated and also needed. I think that there is often an aim to maintain a working atmosphere that allows multiple, unpredictable and also incoherent possibilities and intuitively determined directions for the group to go to. 

Processing the material  

The improvisations or impros, as we call them, take off having the lists/writings as a foundation. We share the writings by reading them out loud, mix them up and have a closer look on someone else’s paper. What is to be found from the papers is a word, a sentence, a thought, an image or anything, that calls for observation and inspires the reader to utilize it in the impros. Text is used as a starting point for the physical work. For me the writing and reading usually strikes up a messy, suspenseful feeling of wanting to be exposed to the crossing thoughts, sensations and motivations. The words affect the muscle tone. The expectation of something not yet existing becomes dense. 

The processions of the following practice are usually quite similar. In the DWYS practice one group member first creates an improvised solo, usually for 4 or 5 minutes. The decided time limit can not be exceeded or passed under. The first solo is called a prototype. After the prototype is done, someone else does a copy of the prototype – according to their memory of what they just saw. The process continues by the next person always copying the previous one, without trying to make the solo better, different or cultured in any way. In this way the prototype is exposed to a chain of copying and repetitions as quickly as it was born. Consequently all the material gets shared immediately because everyone will participate making copies. The whole process resembles an old game of a broken telephone, where the message can get more and more clear or, like in most cases, more and more distorted. Depending on the material and the ability to recall the previous solos, the scope of variation alternates. Obviously memory plays an important role in the practise. What kind of things can be remembered and copied and what can not? Who remembers what? What happens in the moment of not remembering? Why are some things frequently forgotten? How does memorizing appear in action? Modification, variation and deprivation of material is apparent. 

The material created in DWYS practice is often revisited in a longer improvisation called a big impro. In big impro it is possible to explore, use and variate the material created before and find possibilities for further development too. The big impros quite frequently work as the very first drafts or outlines for the performance and are mostly set to last about one hour. Therefore they can give important experiences of possible timelines. Also some structural outlines can be derived from these big impros

Exceptions 

In spite of many familiar ways to approach the creative process and work there are a lot of exceptions. When starting to work with Nature Theater of Oblivia in 2017 we started the creating process based on our experiences spending time in forests. Before working in the studio we basically went into the woods together. I think that since the starting point for the work was so concrete and the experience of nature shared, we ended up with a process that seemed to be more about a few key elements than many different aspects and loads of variation. Being trees became the fundamental embodiment that we started to build the performance on. The process of becoming trees went something like this: 

When being in the studio and embodying our experiences from the woods, there was among everything else, a moment when one of us was standing still in the middle of the room. She was holding her right arm up in the air and her left arm on the shoulder level, both elbows a little bit bent. Her arms were slightly shivering in the air and eyes looking softly straight ahead. It was obviously an attempt to be a tree. In the process of sharing the material, we all did that attempt. That particular standing in the room arms up in the air started to feel and look like a tree, trees, a forest, a forest in the morning. The non-human quality of nature seemed to be well embodied in this simple movement and we thought we had found a being that has a life of its own. This idea of non-human dependent piece of nature with its own time zone created the base for the performance. Since it was a work of Oblivia, the pure goofyness of imitating the plants and animals was also an important part of the content. 

Together 

For sure the processes of creating and working on the performances are different between different projects. Also my perspective goes only from 2014 to 2019. But as far as I know improvisation has always been one of the major elements of the work. Works for me. I have found my way into the group especially through shared, physical work. For me the improvisations are a place where visions, relevance and connections start to have real, corporeal weight and meanings can start to grow. 

Not everything about a new stage work can be developed in improvisations of course. Different ways of working, making research and looking at the thematics are definitely needed. But for me the common ground for working together in Oblivia is movement and physical work. Finding connection with the theme and fellow artists in the realm of the performance – on stage –makes it possible for me to work collectively. 

Nevertheless, getting from beginning to the completed stage work does of course not happen only by implementing existing practices or methods. The foundation of the work has been built up over the years and some things remain the same or change slowly.  Some of the basic aims in esthetics, style and content as well as having humour and lightness present in the work seem to be pretty enduring. On the other hand, new members join the group with their own background, craft and relation to collective work. The existing practices and new outlooks merge and in the conversational collective work the common ground will have to be discovered again. Over and over again. Together. 

<<<