What is improvisation and how can we integrate it into our practice in a sustainable way?
Local Motion Movement coach Sam Tyson gives us his insight into developing this aspect of your practice.
When I’m asked what improvisation is, I find it useful to return to the three pillars of a movement practice. The first pillar, the first stage of practice if you like, is isolation. In an isolated practice, we focus on breaking down movement into single elements. This could be at a micro level: looking at things like isolated exercises such as bicep curls, leg extensions or shoulder raises. In this case, we are isolating individual joints in order to better understand their individual function and potential by separating them from the whole. This stage of isolation could also be explored at a more macro level: here we could explore isolated patterns such as a handstand, high bridge or deep squat. Although these patterns require full body coordination, the positions we are striving to achieve are disconnected from the rest of human movement. It’s a question of perspective. Essentially at this stage we are developing a movement vocabulary, a dictionary of physical patterns.
The second pillar or stage of practice is integration. In this stage we are working to connect different patterns that we learned during the isolation phase. At the micro level, this could be understanding how the elbow and shoulder joints work together to produce pushing or pulling motions such as the pull up or push up. At the macro level, this could mean learning different patterns or transitions that connect the deep squat to high bridge or bridge to handstand. Here we are looking to connect patterns that are known to other patterns that are known, we find ways to combine things to develop a greater level of complexity, but we always know where we’re going. This is like going from individual words to sentences. We are learning the grammar of movement.
The final stage of learning movement, in my opinion, is improvisation. In this stage, we are not planning out what we want to do in advance, but rather exploring movement as it comes. In improvisation, the focus is on experience, on discovery, and on exploration. This can be a daunting phase for many people, but it becomes a lot easier if the first two stages of isolation and integration are well developed. If you know no words and don’t understand grammar, then writing poetry or a novel would be a daunting task. So it is with improvisation.
As I currently understand improvisation, there seem to be two key ways in which we can improvise. There may be many ways that I don’t list here, and this is not intended to be an exhaustive or final definition of what improvisation is or can be. The following are ways in which I personally have experienced the flow of improvisation.
The first way to improvise is to use task-based movement rather than aesthetic-based movement. By aesthetic based movement, I don’t mean some kind of body beautiful aesthetic training like bodybuilding. I mean attempting to create specific shapes, movements or transitions with the body. In this sense handstands, backbends, or squats would be considered aesthetic based movement. Task-based movement is different because you are attempting to achieve an external goal and the movements of the body are simply functional in order to achieve that goal. The movements are not pre-planned, but occur in sequence naturally in the process of achieving the task. In this sense any form of play, including most sports, or a form of improvisation. We don’t know what is going to happen but we use the movements we know to create a flow of movement that takes us where we want to go. However, if we focus too much on the task, the qualities of improvisation may be lost. There are many movement based games that I use with my students to get their bodies moving in new ways bur in order to achieve the goal of experiencing, exploring and learning, these tasks then need to be done with a certain level of consciousness and presence. If we avoid putting too much importance on the task and use it instead as a guide we can delight in the process of discovering something new, and of seeing the body in a new way.
The second way to improvise is more of an active journey into research. Rather than setting ourselves a task that the body needs to complete, we start with the intention of experiencing the body, and being totally present with what movements are occurring. Often this can take the form off a sort of moving meditation: we search out movements and patterns in the body, exploring the possibilities for movement in the spine, hips or shoulders; we touch and feel with the skin; we follow the shapes of the space with the eyes, we listen to the music or the sounds around us. The idea is not to achieve anything, nor to look for something impressive are amazing, but rather just to take the time to be with the body in movement and feel the physical impulses that exist within it outside it off the boundaries and demands of the mind.
It’s worth noting that the boundaries between isolation, integration and improvisation are blurred. This is especially true between integration and improvisation because the human body and the human mind are very much habit driven. When we are improvising it is very common for patterns that we have trained and practised to emerge constantly. And there is nothing wrong with that either. The key difference is in the intention, the search for something new, the beginners mind approach, the sense of listening for what is happening and not forcing anything on the body. Perhaps true improvisation is in its purity and impossibility, but by adopting this mindset, we open ourselves up to discovery and avoid the traps of repetition and boredom.
So how can I integrate this into my practice?
Take your time to learn to understand the body. Spend time articulating every joint, mobilising the skeleton and the muscles. Be conscious and pay attention to how your body moves (not someone else’s!). Devote at least some time to learning new patterns. Devote at least some time to creating sequences of movement that combine the patterns you know together. And then find time to play: either with others getting them to challenge you, or with the environment and structures to climb and jump and fall. Finally take time to really feel the body and listen to your own internal conversation: what does your body want, what does it need, where does it hurt, how can you make it feel a certain way?
If you’re interested in exploring improvisational games, and getting to know your body with a greater level of awareness and sensitivity, please do join me on my Thursday evening classes with London Movement Group, where we will be exploring just that!