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De Keersmaeker, Adorno, and the Laban Cube:   Improvisation and the Ballet

P.A.R.T.S. - 'First Take'

First of two parts

by Maria Technosux

ITs Festival, Amsterdam -- 25 June 2003

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker got together for a workshop with a group of her pre-graduate dance students from her P.A.R.T.S. school in Brussels. It was decided that they were going to improvise to the music of the First Take (hence the title of the choreography) of "Kind of Blue" by Miles Davis. This all doesn't sound like such a big deal for a (pre)graduate project, and visually it wasn't. It's the awareness of what has preceded it, the knowledge of the roots of its soul, that makes for a much more interesting visual experience.

De Keersmaeker, celebrated choreographer of the Belgian contemporary dance-company Rosas, has in the past years developed an increasing interest in jazz music. Live jazz music formed the backbone of her most recent creation for Rosas, "Bitches Brew/ Tacoma Narrows". With jazz came an increased interest in improvisation:  Jazz musicians improvise, jazz is an improvisatory art, so when we dance to jazz, we dancers will improvise just like the musicians do.

As for me personally, jazz music isn't really my thing. The only halfway jazz-inspired records in my record-collection are a Soul Coughin cd, a tape of Red Snapper songs, a handful of Drum N' Bass songs full of looped jazzy upright bass samples, and a few songs from Bjork's "Gling Glo" (where she sings several jazz-classics in translated in Islandic!). As for pure, undiluted jazz, I simply don't like that music.

Then, there's my background in Media and Culture Studies. Whenever I read of people praising jazz, invariably I feel like pulling out Adorno's polemic "On Jazz".  Mass culture critic Theodor Adorno is not the type of reading that I would suggest to readers of Ballet-Dance Magazine since he approved of the circus and loved the early cartoon-version of Betty Boop (before she became, as he would say, a housewife, yet he hated jazz and Donald Duck. Are you guys confused yet?  Thought so). Nevertheless Adorno has produced a critique of jazz improvisation which I believe is very important for the dance-improvisation spectator. In fact, Adorno himself stated that whatever he wrote about "serious" music versus "popular" music (jazz), could be applied to dance-styles as well.

Adorno argued that Jazz improvisation wasn't real improvisation but pseudo-improvisation based on tried-and-true standard tricks which the jazz musician had practiced till he dropped. There was no on-the-spot inspiration and no out-of-the-blue virtuosity involved. Jazz improvisation was marketed as "progressive" and "innovative", but it basically boiled down to a bunch of well-known, well-fitting modules stacked upon each other. Adorno insisted that there was nothing "progressive" about such music. Jazz was faking its spontaneity and by extension its alleged progressiveness.

The same can be said by the cynics of the improvisation by the P.A.R.T.S. students. I won't even begin to comment on the sheer irony of the fact that the "progressive improvisatory" music of the 20th century is used as a basis for the "progressive improvisatory" ballets of the 21st century! The keyword here is spontaneity. The P.A.R.T.S. students' dance isn't "really" spontaneous, because it is based on Williams Forsythe's research on so-called structured improvisations (also known as "tasks"). The underlying structure upon which the improvisation leans is clearly laid bare for all (who care) to see within a few minutes into the performance.

Unlike Adorno, I do not have a problem with pseudo-improvisations. De Keersmaeker's movement is ballet-based and, as I will explain later, I believe that such movement cannot bare improvisation unless the dancer is provided with a underlying formal blueprint upon which to base his self-chosen sequences of movement.

There is one crucial question with which I have been struggling while trying to make sense of this performance. Why did improvisation become so popular amongst ballet dancers? "Because of the rise of the contact improvisation dance style!" some people will answer. Others will say: "Because of William Forsythe!" I certainly don't think that the Forsythe personality cults will reveal anything sensible. How about "the emancipation of the ballet-dancer"? The fact that ballet dancers want to do more and more themselves? This after all is the reason why many big companies have introduced the so-called "choreography-workshop". These are not the answers that I am looking for. I want to know the reason behind improvisation's apparent appeal to ballet-dancers.

Once again, the keyword is spontaneity. Questioning the popularity of improvisation does not actually make much sense. Dance improvisation, in its crudest definition of "spontaneous dance", has always existed. When normal people dance in a disco, a club, at home or at the rave, whenever and wherever non-dancers dance, that dance is improvised: ad hoc, on the spot, seemingly out of the blue, undirected and un-choreographed. This is what we call spontaneous dance. I would even hazard a guess that this probably how people started dancing when they did. Dance was a bodily ability, thus improvised dance predates ballet, jazz, contact improvisation and any other dance style.

Cognitive neuroscientists will disagree with my claims, and argue that even the layman applies some kind of a pre-fixed "movement-script" while dancing. There is no such thing as a dance appearing out of the blue. This may be true, but it does not explain the conscious use of improvisation in contemporary ballet.
Let's ask some more questions: why did ballet dancers all of a sudden feel the need to improvise and to advertise their ballets as partially improvised or based on improvisation methods? Why do ballet dancers require improvisational "tools" and "training"? Are they training in "being spontaneous"? Why would a ballet dancer train in something that supposedly comes naturally? Why did William Forsythe, himself having a background in one of the most formalist of dance-styles, feel confident enough to incorporate improvisation into his aesthetic? This is but a selection of the key issues that linger in the back of my head when I watch and think of ballet dancers improvising.

I would pull out Adorno again and state this: I believe that improvisation has become increasingly popular amongst ballet(-based) companies, because improvisation best captures the paradoxical tendencies of our contemporary reality. Ballet dancers have to learn how to dance spontaneously, yet at the same time they have to accommodate others who themselves are dancing spontaneously. This already reveals part of the inherent ambiguity of improvisation. Where does this come from and why is it suddenly so useful to ballet-dancers?

On the one hand, we have a society characterized by an insane will to control and an almost suffocating obsession with systematization and rationalization. Yet at the same time, systems and rationalization are both important examples of our mental capacities as human beings. We are "intelligent" because we can discover and deal with unities and coherences in variations. Improvisation makes systematization internal/mental/psychological rather than external/social/ideological, and thus presumably more manageable. Improvisation in day-to-day life is a survival-skill, often with disastrous consequences.
Spontaneity makes way for adaptation, the ability to play into the Big Game. Onstage improvisation becomes harmless play and pseudo-"spontaneous" trickery.

Improvisation is probably also an expression or even a direct reflection of the dominant economic system that has been spreading over the globe, a system characterized by its aggressive fluidity/flexibility and appropriative adaptivity. Improvisation repeats the dominant ideal behind this system and says: I want it all and I want it now. The here and now, the current moment is forever intense in the best improvisation performances. Thus improvisation is both an affirmation and an escape-strategy in a world in which both systematization and random dislocation are often violently imposed upon the individual, the class, the nation. Improvisation is a way of coping.

This is why I dislike the Forsythe personality-cults. It's an excuse for people not to think, not to do their homework. Cries of creative genius on Forsythe's part disappear in the face of such an analysis.
Forsythe is not a genius but a simply a child of his age. Yes, Forsythe assembled a whole set of improvisation tools, but this should not come as a surprise. He took improvisation out of the streets and into the theatre because, like everyone else, he too has to cope. Mixing improvisation with ballet was his way of expressing his contemporary reality.

Most people reading Ballet-Dance will be acquainted with Labanotation to some degree. Rudolf von Laban (of dance-expressionism fame) developed a notation-system with which to transcribe human movement of any sort. On first glance, I referred to Labanotation as a "programming-language", because I really did think that Labanotation could be used for digital avatars. Unfortunately in my interpretation I mixed up "notation" (readable description) with "script" (procedural action). Labanotation is primarily used to document a dance so that it is preserved for future reverence; one still needs a human interpreter to use the notated dance for educational purposes.

One of the tools developed for such notational purposes was the famous Laban Cube. This is a rather complex concept, but I will try to shove it into a nutshell: In Laban's view the human body is enclosed within a 3D grid, essentially consisting of 3 levels (top, middle, bottom) and 4 directions (front, back, right, left). These are the same directions and levels used in Labanotation. Together they form the Laban Cube.

There is actually historical film-footage available of a Laban-student dancing inside a life-sized iron cage.
This iron "cage" was in fact the materialized version of the Laban Cube! The body's axis is always at the centre of the grid and thus the body always carries the grid with it as it travels through space.
Improvisation within this context means the extension of the limbs (primarily the arms and legs) to one of the myriad of possible spots within the grid that surrounds the body: left-top, right-middle, so forth.
The "spatial frames" created in this process form the so-called "traceforms": pathways tracing shapes in space. Ex-Forsythe ballerina/P.A.R.T.S. teacher Elizabeth Corbett refers to them as "templates" for movement, and writes about the creation of geometric forms while improvising as a way to impose structure on one's improvisation.

As you can probably tell from this (very brief!) description, adopting the Laban Cube and traceforms as a base for improvisation is a very formal way of imposing structure upon an improvised dance. Nevertheless it best accommodates all the peculiarities of ballet-movements and is therefore perfect for improvisation based on ballet language.

Due to being encaged within a traceformed grid for the duration of the improvisation, the dancers' actions can always be traced all the way back to specific spots in the grid. The extension of the limbs serves the primary purpose of reaching those spots on the grid, and the secondary purpose of moving the dancer through space. I do not know how others experience this visually, but I could almost envision the traceformed cage in which the dancers were trapped as they moved over the stage.

I will now stress that this review is not going to be a study of how dance techniques are passed on from hand to hand. The whole process of technique tradition and adaptation is way beyond the scope of this article. I will not discuss the detailed process of the Laban research project being picked up by Forsythe for him to develop his own improvisation techniques, which Forsythe then passed on to his dancers, who in turn went on to teach - like Elizabeth Corbett does for P.A.R.T.S.- thereby passing the technique on to new dancers.

Part II in the next issue of Ballet-Dance Magazine.

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Edited by Jeff.

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