“Like You Mean It”—A view


by John Munger | 8/7/09 • Three intelligent and energetic young women have worked together for a long time. They have a chemistry, they have a shared sense of ensemble, and they all work from the same artistic page. These are no small accomplishments. They are particularly valuable when the performance process is “improvisation.”

This show is not as successful as it should be. It has merit and it’s interesting, but somewhere the air drained out of the tires. Basically there are the dance improvisations, some audience interaction, an extended section with props, and a gentleman who serves as DJ and who manages sound accompaniment from a small technological setup downstage left. There’s a little bit of speaking, mostly from a microphone stage right, but this isn’t a talk and dance show.

going through the movements is the blog of john munger, one of seven bloggers covering the minnesota fringe festival for the daily planet.

The movement material relies a great deal on shared impulses. Sometimes all three are on the same breath and do identical or related actions simultaneously, almost as if out of nowhere. Sometimes an action in one place resonates in a response or even a simultaneous but different action elsewhere. There is some sharing of weight from time to time but it doesn’t come off as a “contact improvisation” show. Contact is just one of the several tools in their kit. In other words, they know pretty darn well what they’re doing and they can make it look easy, which is hard.

Let’s talk about improvisation for a moment.

Dance improvisation differs from theater or sketch-comedy improvisation in that dance is kinetic rather than verbal. One of the first beginner errors in dance improvisation is to rely entirely on “acting” in order to retain a foothold in the literal world of words and ideas or relationships that can be expressed in words. Look – he is angry. Look – she is turned on by that person. Look – they are jumping up and down in order to be silly, or powerful, or frustrated.

Nothing wrong with any of the above. Just another tool in the kit. The challenge for students is to get past this quick fix and learn how to be purely kinesthetic, a realm where many, many tools can be found. Look – they are all smooth except for the jagged one. Look – one moves with the other, but moves contrary to the third. Look – they are jumping up and down because they are light and resilient, or because they are heavy and thudding.

It has been said that dance is the art of MOTION, not the art of EMOTION. This is not a universal truth. A lot of dance is based on human situations, emotions and characters. But the abstraction of dance into pure motion is a staple of serious improvisation, a basic principle of a large majority of dance in general, and something that dance students inevitably have to learn and dance audiences need to appreciate.

I’m reminded of an occasion when the late great choreographer and theoretician Alwin Nikolais was interviewed by a reporter. The dancers were clothed in long white tubular close-fitting robes from neck to ankles. There were two or three very wide vertical stripes on each costume. There were hats, each tubular and about two feet tall, like a bishop’s miter. The dancers moved toward the audience from upstage to downstage. With each step they canted to left or right at perilous angles. Nothing bent; they were stiff and linear from ankle to head. It was weird, evocative, stunning and dangerous. The reporter asked Nik what they were doing and what it meant. His answer was, “They’re tilting.” A purely kinesthetic and utterly accurate answer.

That’s my favorite story when I talk with audience members who may be inexperienced with accepting kinesthetic content. A lot of people just HAVE to have a verbal explanation, a story, an emotion with a name. When that’s not what the dance is doing the only thing left for these very literal-minded audiences is utter beauty of shape or incredible gymnastic excitement. If they can’t see the story, the tricks, the gorgeous body, or the explanation, they say “I don’t get it.” Actually, if the piece made them twitch, or be delighted, or relax, or feel nervous, or get horny, or zone out into a place where human movement is its own virtue, they did in fact Get It, but they don’t know it. In this culture they’re not accustomed to acknowledging their kinetic and physical responses. Alas. Some culture-wide experience and education is in order.

Back to improvisation and “Like You Mean It.”

Actually most improvisation is not a free-for-all, totally unpredictable, and god help everyone. Most improvisation occurs within a structured framework. There are rules, guideposts and advance agreements or choices. Well, hey, isn’t that cheating? Shouldn’t it be totally improvised? Not at all. Permit me an elaborate metaphor.


Literally from moment to moment you don’t know what’s going to happen. Will he hit the ball or not? Will it be caught or not? Is this pitch a strike or not? Can he succeed in stealing a base or not? What pitch will be thrown? And on and on. It’s all improvised and you don’t even know what will happen on each individual pitch, much less who is going to win in the end. No two games are alike.

But at the same time there is an ironclad structure. Three strikes and you’re out. Nine innings but continue only if a tie is on the board. You must touch the base or the runner while holding the ball to get an “out” in the infield. The strike zone is defined, but interpreted by the umpire. Four “balls” equal a “walk”. And on and on and on. The structure is defined down to excruciating detail.

Yet it’s still an improvisation. Or we wouldn’t be watching on TV or in stadia.

The task for dance improvisers is to define the rules of the game, then play each night differently within those rules. “Like You Mean It” is clearly very good at playing within their own rules, but the rules they define have some problems.

The biggest disconnect occurs in their second of two large pieces. They set a variety of props and objects in the space, including a lamp, an apple, a fake birthday cake, some goldfish nets, and a bunch of other really intriguingly random stuff. Next, the DJ goes to the mic and invites audience members to move the props or to add some of their own. Four or five people oblige and we get a couple of shoes and a couple of placement shifts. Now it’s time for the dance to begin. The dancers could not control nor predict what the audience would do.

This is a classic and wonderful setup for improvisation. Right from the start we are curious and engaged. How will they make sense out of this collection of junk? What are they going to do about the fact that some of the props have been moved and the fact that there are some new ones?

I was once taught that if you have two dancers and a prop it has to be a trio. The prop matters. Sets are different. They are an environment. But a prop is integral.

Sadly, they did almost nothing. The props did not matter. The dancers proceeded with a structured improve that clearly was well in hand and had little or nothing to do with the snippet of audience involvement. And it didn’t even have a whole lot to do with the props themselves, which just sort of persisted in the space except for an occasional instance of being picked up or moved elsewhere or tipped over.

What a bummer. It’s like if she picks up this hunky guy (or gal … let me be inclusive) at the Loon, takes him/her home, undresses herself and him/her as well, gets in bed with him/her, then says “Could we talk about the health care reform issue?” Or the famous James Thurber cartoon where one woman is telling her friend, “So we got as far as the elevator and he said, ‘You wait here and I’ll bring the etchings down.’”

Thou shalt not violate the implied promise of your setups.

Back to the positives. These three excellent dancers have worked together quite a lot and the value of that investment is clear throughout the show. They have a shared aesthetic and a shared sense of breath-movement that is enviable. They are also intelligent. These are thoughtful pieces operating on many levels. Their work is a skillful example of how improvisation works within defined structures.

I recommend this show especially for improvisers and for dancers who want to see what someone else is doing. But I have to put a caveat out there that for general audiences this might be one of two extremes: a small bewilderment or a completely new and exciting experience.

They have two shows left at the Southern Theater, both on Saturday (tomorrow). One is at 5:30pm and the other at 8:30pm.

NOTE: This blog does not reflect the opinions or policies of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, Dance/USA, nor anyone other than the author. These are purely and utterly my own observations and views.

John Munger (jrmdance@aol.com) has been performing, teaching, choreographing, researching and writing about dance for about 40 years. He teaches at Zenon, day-jobs for Dance/USA, and still hasn’t gotten much of it right.

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