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

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

2nd of two parts

by Maria Technosux

De Keersmaeker is a big fan of Forsythe and this is why she has ex-Forsythe dancers teaching Forsythe-repertoire at her school. It is obvious that dancers will apply these orginally Forsythian tools while improvising for De Keersmaeker. I also suspect that De Keersmaeker's sudden interest in jazz has less to do with the improvisatory nature of the music, but more to do with De Keersmaeker's documented Forsythe-fandom and the Corbett-P.A.R.T.S. connection.

[Nota Bene: The jazz interest probably comes from Trisha Brown; specifically her trilogy of jazz-music based, partially improvised performances: 1999's "Five Parts Weather Invention", and "Rapture to Leon James" and "Groove and Countermove" (both 2000). The P.A.R.T.S. school curriculum contains a good proportion of Trisha Brown repertoire, Brown being yet another of De Keersmaeker's dance idols.]

What I do want to discuss is the visual experience of someone like me. At the time of the performance my knowledge of Laban, Forsythe and their relationship in the development of improvisation techniques was fragmentary and mostly cursory. I'm certainly not claiming that the rest of the audience shared my knowledge; some kids were merely discussing the dancers' clothes after the show, commenting on how "tasteful" these were. I however did have this prior knowledge, and no matter how small it was, it did influence my perception and judgment of what I was watching. I am speaking for myself only, but I consider my critique sensitive enough to be of interest. How does improvisation theory materialize onstage from the viewpoint of the spectator? This is what I will try to describe.

No matter how minimal my knowledge was, it was good enough for me; mainly because without it, the "First Take" improvisation would have been boring. Several people around me felt that it was too long - I guess that's how you get a post-show audience talking about the costumes rather than the dance. Midway into the performance, an American student sitting next to me was angrily scribbling notes into a notebook on his lap. I couldn't see what he was writing (his handwriting was tiny) but I can imagine.

At the time of the performance I obviously hadn't read as much about Laban and Forsythe as I have for this Ballet-Dance article. My proto-professionalization at the time was more modest and went something like this:

I had read that ex-Forsythe ballerina Elizabeth Corbett had been teaching at P.A.R.T.S. but I did not know what the content of her P.A.R.T.S. classes were, but I had read the description of her improvisation workshop for the Impulstanz festival. I assumed that she would teach something similar to the P.A.R.T.S. students.

Below is the text I had read regarding her workshop:


I will offer deep insight into the unique methods and techniques of dance improvisation as developed in the work of William Forsythe and the Frankfurt Ballet.  Based on the pioneering work of Rudolf von Laban and his definition of spatial frames as "traceforms" the students will generate movements. In group interactions they will learn to develop sensitivity to architectural surroundings and to music. The participants get chances to develop an awareness of the folding and tilting mechanics in the body and to sense their individual spaces. Through my coaching a clear form of body writing may emerge. Finally I will focus on the analysis and creation of movement while improvising.[1]

In my opinion, every single one of the aspects (briefly) described in this workshop excerpt could be traced back to the P.A.R.T.S. performance I had witnessed at the ITs festival. I therefore decided that it was indeed sensible to assume that she had taught a similar workshop at P.A.R.T.S. This was the underlying assumption I used while analyzing the visual images I had received while watching the P.A.R.T.S. students improvise.

Speaking of the peculiarities of ballet: Let's not forget Laban's insistence on the maintenance of bodily equilibrium. In his book "Choreutics", Laban wrote the following on the art of balancing:

Dream-architectures can neglect the laws of balance. So can dream-movements, yet a fundamental sense of balance will always remain with us even in the most fantastic aberrations from reality. [2]

Ballet-based improvisation is particularly precarious when it comes to maintaining equilibrium, so the traceforms and the 3D grid of the Laban Cube are both very useful in calculating the effect of an extension on the balance of the body. I am assuming that there is also an issue of safety involved. You don't want ballet-dancers hitting each other during an improvisation or miscalculating an extension and tripping over. Maintenance of balance has the added benefit of avoiding injury.

In this performance, the dancers did eventually trip over. A collective attempt at lifting a female dancer went terribly wrong. Too many people in one spot, too many limbs involved, hesitation, the pressure to move on, and bang: several dancers hit the floor. Now, this is *real* spontaneity! The ghost of Adorno might have been seen looming over the fallen dancers, smiling wickedly as if they had just proven his point.

This accident reminded me that a whole range of movements had previously been neglected and left out of the equation. This accident exposed the vulnerability of the underlying architecture. It also exposed its favoritism of certain movements at the neglect of others. This wasn't apparent prior to this little "disaster".

One of the dancers (the lone male, more on him later) attempted to mask the accident by repeating his rolling over the floor after he'd tripped over. This was clearly an attempt at normalizing the accident via repetition. At the time it looked rather pathetic to me, but in retrospect I blame his female colleagues for not picking up his cue and repeating their own floor-rolls like he did: that would have been an interesting way to bring this accident to a successful conclusion. It would have looked quite funny too.
Unfortunately, the girls were only willing to repeat "proper" movements, not accidental ones. Rather than treating their collective accident as an opportunity to try something more elaborate, the girls treated it as a profoundly unpleasant mistake best forgotten as soon as possible.

The problem with this improvisation was now obvious: when movement is reduced to designated spots on a grid, the material one is allowed to work with becomes very limited. To give some other examples from the show: when dancer A was improvising and dancer B joined in a little later on, dancer B, by way of introduction, would mimic the *pose* of dancer A rather than her sequence of movements. To put it in another way: placing the spots on the grid was easy, but "connecting the dots" was something that apparently was much more difficult. The resulting dance thus consists mainly of extensions rather than actual movement through space. Which is not to say that the dancers didn't travel. They did, but this seemed to be incorporated into the tasks they were given prior to the performance. Something like: "Start at the upper left of the stage and end in the middle; figure out a way to get there and make sure that dancer B can join you midways.". Oftentimes I wondered whether the ensemble-parts and the entry/exit points were predetermined as well ("Five minutes into the second verse, 2 dancers should join dancer A."). Once again I questioned the spontaneity-ratio of what I was seeing.

I think that the sole male dancer was the most willing of all to experiment with non-balletic movements.
Unfortunately this confused the girls around him, who looked on somewhat puzzled, as if they just could not figure out a way to accompany him (oh come on you girls!).

Despite my critique I consider this a very interesting project, but it really needs to accommodate more diverse movements. The strict geometry needs to make way for something emphatically unconventional. They all have to think more critically about the trade-offs between complexity and efficiency. It starts off very challenging ("how will they adapt to one another?") but excitement gives way to boredom after a while, I think, because of the structural limitations of its own techniques. There was one part near the end, during which each dancer took turns dancing a long improvised solo. This was one of the most interesting parts of the whole performance. An abundance of suppressed movement surfaced as soon as the dancers were released from their grids. Cages tend to clash when brought close to one another. Birds might look good within a cage, but I prefer them on the trees and in the air.

Coincidentally, there wasn't a lot of jumping (or "flying") involved. I remember staring at one of the female dancer. I was staring at her feet and wondering whether she could wear a pointe-shoe (yes, I was bored). I was front-row, the stage was at ground-level so she noticed me staring at her feet, and jokingly did a bit of very fast petit batterie, which I obviously didn't expect so she caught me off-guard. I looked up at her, somewhat startled ("Is this a joke?") and she smiled at me. Birdie, you're cute but I can't set you free.

[1] Taken from the Impulstanz 2002/2003 brochure. Also available here:

[2] This quote can also be found in the following essay on Forsythe's use of Laban research:

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Edited by Jeff.

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