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A LECTURE [about improvisation as performance]

October 6, 2004; Arnhem (Holland)
Jan Ritsema

This will be about the conditioning and the conditions for improvisation as performance.
I won’t talk about improvisation as a technique to create new movement, or as a technique to free the body from habitual movement patterns, or as a technique in contact improvisation to explore movement by physical contact.

I will mainly talk about some almost philosophical notions which should pre-condition improvisation. Don’t worry: the level of abstractness in the course of this lecture will change. It is some elliptic lecture. I mean to say ‘don’t worry when you do not grasp notions from the first time they are mentioned, they will pop-up again from a slightly other perspective or in another context.

On June 29 I wrote Joao, after having hesitated for some weeks if I should accept his invitation of giving this lecture for this selected audience of specialists, I dance, but as some sidekick, I am not a real dancer, I am a tourist in your fields, I teach at Parts since the beginning in 95, but nonetheless, I am not a specialist, and preparing a lecture is time consuming, but on that date, I saw some possibilities and I wrote:
I am going next week to Paris, to ’teach’, in Boris Charmatz’ school "Bokal", this means his students make a performance and I have to react instantly on individual interventions of them in front of an audience, an improvisation. The whole evening a continuing of a one to one confrontation of 5 minutes, with 18 different students, during four public presentations. I will try to reflect on this, as I have thoughts about improvising, so to speak about meta-systematic improvisation. (Meta-systems preclude both completeness and consistency. By definition a system is complete when it consists of several contradictory properties, but this excludes consistency. Nonetheless a meta-system precludes both. A system is a gestalt, a wholeness that is greater than the sum of the parts. A meta-system has a lack, rather then a surplus, it is a defective that is less than the sum of its parts.) What do I mean with meta-systematic improvisations: Most improvisations follow schemes, structures, patterns of action-reaction, which are in most cases all driven by some essentialist need to express oneself, to express the human being, and by stereotypes of aesthetics and affects.

I would like to reflect on the possibility to improvise without the need to mainly express yourself, better to say: the need to save yourself, the situation or the performance, in front of an audience. I call this to try ’not to be under the roof’ and to try ’ not to fill in the empty space, the tabula rasa, the white screen, with yourself’.
It is about the availability of the body and mind, not driven by impulses to produce, but to reach a state of non-productiveness, of not-needing each other, of reaching a state of potentiality.
In the performance Weak Dance Strong Questions, Jonathan Burrows and I made, we tried to improvise on the principles not to negotiate with time nor with space, to stay together, and to dance in a state of questions. It was clear to us that we definitely not wanted to have the dancemachine driven by impulses of action and reaction. In this performance the body was prepared to think. We danced in a condition of questions.

Two weeks ago, I wrote to the partner, with whom I am preparing a new dance performance with, a real dancer:
We should not make a performance about something, but the thing itself needs to be interpellated by itself.
We have to find a language in which we stammer ourselves, in which we are foreigners ourselves.
This means that we have to see if the relation with the elements of the piece is productive, is generating something different than its juxtaposition, that it becomes some assemblage.
We must try to be bilingual in our own language, we must create a minor language in our own language.
Finding, encountering, stealing instead of regulating, recognizing and judging. Recognizing is the opposite of the encounter.
As the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze called it: ‘To create lines, which do not amount to the path of point, which break free from structure - lines of flight, becomings, without future and past, without memory, which resist the binary machine: man-woman/good-bad/beautiful-ugly.
Non-parallel evolutions, which do not proceed by differentiation (can it be done in another way, JR), but which leap from one line to another, between completely heterogeneous beings; cracks, imperceptible ruptures, which break the lines even if they resume elsewhere, leaping over significant breaks... Thinking in things, among things. This is producing population in a desert and not species and genres. Populating without ever specifying.’
This means you do something. And I do something. At first sight this seems very little to do with each other. But we keep them. We interrupt (and this is no deal). Nothing is a deal, let alone a big deal. You do. I do. I listen, you speak. All the products are strange results of our conversations, as vague or as clear as they are. We do not try to understand each other. The misunderstandings, the misconnections are at stake here. And there will be many. And these will find their way and possibly become the stammering, the foreigner in our own language; the interpellations of the thing itself. These will be our blind spot. Means the part we don’t understand ourselves, but nonetheless the object for the observers. A thing they can see/perceive and of which they know we can’t do it ourselves. Invisible for us, visible for the audience. Nonetheless drive of the performance, we are driven by it, without knowing exactly how and why and what for, and the audience is driven by it.

‘It is not the elements or the sets which define the multiplicity. What defines the multiplicity is the AND, as something which has its place, BETWEEN the elements or BETWEEN the sets. And, and, and -stammering. Even if there are only two terms, there is an AND between the two, which is neither the one nor the other, nor the one becomes the other, but which constitutes the multiplicity.
It is always about taking up the interrupted line, to join a segment to the broken line, to make it pass between two rocks in a narrow gorge, or over the top of a void where it had stopped. It is never the beginning or the end which are interesting; the beginning and end are points. What is interesting is the middle. The English zero is always in the middle. Bottlenecks are always in the middle. Being in the middle of a line is the most uncomfortable position. Do not think in trees, the tree of knowledges, the alpha and omega, the roots and the pinnacle. Trees are the opposite of grass. Not only does grass grow in the middle of things, but it grows itself through the middle. Grass has its line of flight, and does not take root. We have grass in the head, not a tree: what thinking signifies is what the brain is, a particular nervous system of grass.
We should try to be a flux, a flux which combines other fluxes. A flux is something intensive, instantaneous, mutant, something between a creation and destruction. It is only when a flux is deterritorialised that it succeeds in making its conjunction with other fluxes.’ (Deleuze)

Here I would like to read to you an excerpt from an interview of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. These lines are a belated discovery of resemblance between what Deleuze writes and what my poetics are. On the body and affection. Each individual, body and soul, possess an infinity of parts which belong to him in a more or less complex relationship. Each individual is also himself composed of individuals of a lower order and enters into the composition of individuals of a higher order. All individuals are in Nature as though on a plane of consistence whose whole figure they form, a plane which is variable at each moment. They affect each other in so far as the relationship, which constitutes each one forms a degree of power, a capacity to be affected.

Whence the force of Spinoza’s question: ’What can a body do?’, of what affects is it capable? Affects are becomings: sometimes they weaken us as they diminish our power to act and decompose our relationships (sadness), sometimes they make us stronger in so far as they increase our power and make us enter into a more vast or superior individual (joy). Spinoza never ceases to be amazed by the body. He is not amazed at having a body, but by what the body can do. Bodies are not defined by their genus or species, by their organs or functions, but by what they can do, by the affects of which they are capable - in PASSION as well as in ACTION.
When Spinoza says" The surprising thing is the body... We do not yet know where the body is capable of..." he does not want to make the body a model, and the soul simply dependent on the body. He has a subtler task. He wants to demolish the pseudo-superiority of the soul over the body. There is the soul and the body and both express one and the same thing: an attribute of the body is also an expressed of the soul (for example, speed). Just as you do not know many things where the body is capable of, so there are in the soul many things which go beyond your consciousness.
This is the question: what is the body capable of? What affects are you capable of? Experiment!, but you need a lot of prudence to experiment. We live in a world which is generally disagreeable, where not only people but the general powers have a stake in transmitting sad affects to us. Sadness, sad affects, are all those which reduce our power to act. The established powers need our sadness to make us slaves. The tyrant, the priests, the captors of souls need to persuade us that life is hard and a burden. The powers, that be need to repress us no less than to make us anxious or, as Virillo says, to administer and organize our little fears. The long, universal moan about life: the-lack-to-be which life is... In vain someone says, ‘let’s dance’; but we are not really very happy. Those who are sick, in soul as in body, will not let us go, the vampires, until they have transmitted to us their neurosis and their anxiety, their beloved castration, the resentment against life, filthy contagion. It is all a matter of blood. It is not easy to be a free man, to flee the plaque, organize encounters, increase the power to act, to be moved by joy, to multiply the affects which express or encompass a maximum of affirmation. To make the body a power which is not reducible to the organism, to make thought a power which is not reducible to consciousness. So far Deleuze.

In 2000 working on an improvisation performance called Verwantschappen I wrote some kind of instruction for the actors.
I called it The Lesson.

don’t take it in
share it
don’t take it for yourself
just present it
fully unconscious about the how
be, are with the things around you
do not make yourself the most important,
the only one in the space
don’t isolate yourself from the rest
there is not such a thing as a hierarchy between you,
it is, And the chair, And the table, And the wall
try to be one of them
present you as an animal, just there
almost by chance
tout et rien d’autre (everything and nothing else)
pas une image juste
juste une image
juxtapose yourself with the other objects
do not fill your presence in with yourself
do not hide yourself behind your presence
don’t try to be under the roof of some smaller or bigger task, or of
some understanding of what you are doing
the roof is everywhere and everything: the wall,
that candle, the floor, me, them
do not mask yourself by the denial of the things around you
mask yourself by everything
be rich, not poor, many, not little things are at your disposal
go for all of us, all of this
we live in a complex society
go for all this complexity
for all the probable possibilities
don’t control space, nor time
do not negociate with it
don’t fill in your nor our time,
(we know how to do it ourselves)
nothing is more important than anything else,
you neither
only the difference
just different
no hierarchy
no focus by isolation
by denial,
by exclusion
you can say:
‘take this poem for instance’
and you say it, you just say it
in the presence of all the other things
try it, say it
move it, just move it, you, the space, us, the things

For the performances TODAYulysses and PIPELINES, a construction, which I wrote and performed together with Bojana Cvejic I wrote some reflexions for the programbooks, of which the following are excerpts.

We are talking about a performance between the active AND the passive, between the actor AND the spectator.
We are talking about border zones.
The ideal spectator does not come to the theatre in order to assess the theatrical content but rather to arrive at unexpected thoughts, to call into doubt her own stereotypical views and ways of thinking: not to be confirmed, not to have his or her views about theatre, life and the world substantiated, but precisely to question them.
Now that the theatre is the only remaining place where we gather ‘live’, like the church of old, it should not be the place where one is treated. One does not come to be cured but expects to be challenged: challenged with propositions, questions and hypotheses. One does not expect to be given answers, confirmation or opinions, but rather to be confronted with a border zone, still undefined, whimsical and full of opacity. Not to be provided with conclusions or directions, but shown a field, a table of sometimes-contradictory propositions that are the results of the thought processes of its makers.
In other words, the stage is a surface upon which to inscribe and to erase, to add and to take away, to place and to replace. The stage is a “propo-site,” a notebook in which to jot down propositions, a worktable full of unfinished attempts and leftovers.

What is this AND? The AND is neither the one nor the other. It is always between the two, it is the border zone. There is always a border zone, a vanishing trace or flow, only we do not see it because it is barely visible. Yet, it is along this vanishing trace that things happen, events come into being and revolutions are sketched out.
What is this between? Strength does not lie in occupying one camp or the other. Power resides in the border zone, and the border zone is never a massive wall or an impregnable fortress but is always an area filled with holes. We are interested not in the position on either side of the border zone but in the potentiality of the holes it contains.

The border zone is a no-man’s-land of potentialities. There, things and opinions are not yet set in stone, things and opinions are able to become, to become many things.

How do we think we can achieve this?
By establishing this in-between situation, this borderline situation, at all conceivable levels of the performance

We create a performance that itself is a border zone in the possible and conceivable range of imaginable performances. We see the performance itself as a border zone, the unknown place, a place of anonymity, a place adrift and incapable of being situated. The displaced place where things can be thought anew. To this end, we must blur the known properties of a performance as much as possible. We destabilize them as it were, by thinking differently about how they are used. We mean here the use of dancing techniques, illustration, representation, presentation and decoration, the use of new media and light, the use of the dispositive as such (the separation of stage and spectators), the use of the illusory, the use of beauty, the poignant, the disarming, the provocative and the hilarious. We mean the use of the spectacular and the sentimental, the production methods that one used, the way things are financed and sold, and above all, the choice of subject matter and the addictive need to impress.
By destabilizing the means, we also deprive them of a hierarchy. It no longer concerns how beautiful or how ugly, how virtuosic, moving or human the set, the dance, the dancer, or the story was, but how effective their use was in creating the border zone that the performance intends to be.

There is neither place for formalization. The form is the lack or scarcity of form. After all, the form must also be a border zone of form, must remain accessible to all possible forms. It may not overwhelm or astound. It must remain imaginable, manageable, as a mouldable element among all other mouldable elements.

Thus, it more or less boils down to the following code words: destabilization, displacement and decentralization.

You should not imagine such a border zone too concretely. Border zones are everywhere: between you and yourself, you and your computer, you and your child ... infinitely many. What I would like is to be aware of this zone, this enormous non-space, so that I do not lurch from thing to thing, or from thing to subject and from thing to task to still another task. To put it differently: that I do not jump from one task that I give myself to the other, until the final command of the day, ‘now go to sleep’. Similar to how I travel: from A to B and nothing in between. However, let the transitions be present, similar to me writing this lecture. There is an ocean of other texts and an ocean of thoughts between this lecture and me, which means that this lecture does not stand on its own but has to do with my personal circumstances, with my history, with the performances that I make and would like to make, with the influence that I have and would like to have and with all the performances that I have seen. But it also includes that fact that I could write something very different, or would like to write something that has much more impact, something people would call disgraceful, but that I do not do this, and then, why not. It includes what I might be able to write or would like to write.
This is what it is about for me, about the awareness that I am writing this and why precisely I am writing this, but also about the awareness that I could write something completely different about the same field and notions.
In the border zone, things spring into action. There it happens, almost of its own accord. The border zone is an opportunity, but usually a lost opportunity.
The agglomerate of border zones that the performance intends to be, is such an opportunity. You can use it or not use it. It does not need you and likewise you could do without it.
It is precisely this position that makes it possible for you to think something but also something else, or to do something but also something else. The border zone cheats you out of your means of navigation and your compass, and so questioning the possibility to determine the way for yourself.

No hierarchy in the use of the (performative) means, the objects and subjects. Everything, words and things, are equally important. No secrets. Nothing to be revealed. Everything is what it is, means in all its possibilities. Objective, abstract, that everything can become an object for thought. And at the same time everything is related to all that; the thing, the ‘ici’ is related to the ‘there’ the ‘ailleurs’; to avoid to look at things mainly from the position what they mean to you, the ‘I’, the ‘ici’, because there is the thing too, or the subject, the ‘ailleurs’. What has the ‘I’ that watches to do with the thing that shows or is shown. And what has the thing ‘the ailleurs’ to do with the ‘I’, the ‘ici’ that watches.

Nothing has to be understood nor judged, it is the mere enjoyment of combining/relating/ juxtaposing you, your thoughts with the ones offered on stage. Both stage and audience are active and passive at the same time. And what is important is what happens between the active and the passive, the ici and the ailleurs.
That is the non-conclusive area, the area where it moves, the area that goes beyond truths, fixed positions, but unlike the position of the absorbing screen, that most performances are, where there is movement too, but the movement here is not a one-way one (audience sucked in into the stage, the screen) but some whimsical vice versa, to and fro.

For the art magazine Performance Research Jonathan Burrows (with whom I made the dance-performance Weak Dance Strong Questions were asked to fill the so called artists pages of a special on contemporary dance called bodiescapes (vol.8 no 2, June 2003). We made it in 2002:

from the notebooks of Jonathan Burrows and Jan Ritsema

In the beginning were Celan, Eliot and Thomas: poetry.

THERE WILL be something, later
that fills itself with you
and rises
to a mouth
Out of the broken bits
of my illusion
I stand up
and look at my hand,
how it draws the only

He says that I should not want to prove anything with the movement, that I just ask questions, but how can one ask a question by moving? This is impossible. Every movement is a statement, this is what I learned when I started dancing. And unlike speech, movements are never something else than what they are, they do not pretend. So how can I doubt about a movement which can only be clear to me?

Don’t make gestures, let the skeleton make the movement, and don’t lead your moving with your eyes from one point to another; then you try to rescue your body, and there is no rescue. Sink into the body, go from one moment to the next and ask question after question; question continuously.

He is talking about his dancing and he wants to say ‘my body’ and he says ‘my money’, and then he says ‘when I dance my body seems younger’, and I think, this is worrying, I wanted to dance with an older man.

He says he has to forget more of his trained body. He has nothing to forget, only to try. It’s not possible for the body to forget, because the muscles can’t forget.

I can only say, there we have been; but I cannot say at the same moment where.

I should not think that life can take things away from me, things that I have an obligation to try and keep hold of, I should only think about the possibilities life offers. I should know that there are only chances and nothing to lose.

I could be bounded in a nutshell and call myself
a king of infinite space were it not that I have
bad dreams.

He says that it is not about being fearless but about accepting fear, so don’t practice the principles, don’t exercise, just go for it, you will fail anyway, let your body remember it, endure your body, you can’t escape from it.

He wants to dance but he gets stuck in an image of what he thinks dancing is.

He goes round in his house closing doors after himself and then he expects to open them when he dances.

Images give us consolation for the suffering of life
And life gives us consolation for the fact that the images
Do not mean anything

Usually I am not interested in what happens between departure and arrival, reaching the goal seems to be the only importance. I have to change this. I have to split big distances into tiny ones. Going to Moscow starts with locking my apartment door, taking the elevator, opening the outside door, walking to the railway station, and so on. This takes the fear out of the big trip. This is how I have to dance, from movement to movement and all the time face every change. At first only the bigger ones, and then slowly on, going more into details.

When he thinks about dancing he shifts around in his chair, and he starts to curl up again, starts to get small, as though he wants to disappear.

He says it’s his shameless dance, but at the same time he feels a lot of shame, he says he wants to dance and at the same time he wants to disappear.

He is the most afraid person in the world, fear is his general state of being, he says, and a moment later he says he’s afraid of nothing.

He says he has no fear, but if he really had no fear he would not mention it.

He says when the fear is in him he fights back and so his feet are never on the ground. He is always on the run.

Everything belonged to him, but the important thing was to know where he belonged to.

I lift him, I put him on my shoulder here, I throw him in the air, he even stays there maybe, I will always catch him, again and again.

I ask myself, how much of the tree I see in front of me is in me?
Do I have roots, am I grounded, do I give shadow, do I get new leaves every year, do my leaves die too?
And how much of me is in the tree?
Can it dance, can it be happy, can it ask for social security, can a tree fuck, get cancer?
He says that by asking himself this, he feels he lives a bit less trapped in himself than he normally does.

When we walk in, and also during the performance, we should not negotiate the space, nor the time. To walk in and wanting to possess the space is a negotiation.
It is so difficult not wanting to be interesting.

He says he wants to make his brain physical, in some way, he says this quite often.
But his spirit is still afraid, and he starts to recite Dylan Thomas:
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not.

You are an Orangutan, he says, when he observes me.
There is a sense of anthropology about what we do.

When he dances his mouth takes a certain expression and he suddenly looks like a priest. Why is he doing that?
Yes, I did it again. Because I think dance is something serious. But when my mouth is not a priest my arm is completely different. When I am a priest I show a problem and I am not offering anything.

We started by reading and reciting parts of poems to each other. Some stayed, like the T. S. Eliot (Four Quartets, Burnt Norton). Although we try to move ‘neither from nor towards’ we never stop in the performance:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Is it that we try to dance in a way in which every movement contains the possibility of all directions?

Is it the pleasure of recognizing individuality as a product of all possible possibilities?

Is it then the celebration of individuality as Spinoza described it: ‘the recognition of being composed by an ensemble of an infinity of infinite ensembles of extensive parts, inside or outside, which belong to me under characteristic rapports, these characteristic rapports express only a certain level of power which forms my essence, my essence according to me, so to say the essence specific to me’?
Is it the feeling that we are composed by our life in which we perceive and experiment and are perceived and experimented on by other internal and external parts?
And this in a chain of transformations, transpositions and mutations?

Is it the fascination for the shameless emptiness then? What some people called the ‘courage’ of being on stage without being covered by a context or meaning?
Without what we call being under the roof of a task?

Is it the fascination for a thing that is so common that you tend to oversee it at the same time? A thing that is there and at the same time not? A thing you can think away easily, a thing you can forget because it will always be there, a thing you can erase safely without the fear for overseen consequences, a fearless thing because you know it so well, so well how to handle it that you as an audience can never fail?

Is it the seeming contradiction in this factory-of-movements- not-to-produce-specific-products which connects it more to nature, more to a landscape that creates the enjoyment of a profound purposelessness in which, again, it is fearless to travel?

Is it the relief about the absence of the spectacular and the excitement, not only for the sake of an exception but for some intrinsic reason not to be confronted with the stereotypes of impressiveness?

Is it the absence of music or any sound in the performance, only the daily noise from outside the theatre, which questions the source for the concentrated execution of the ongoing movements, and by this the drive behind all this moving?

Is it the absence of any physical touch between us which triggers a longing of the audience to bring us together in their imagination?

And he says that these days we live and play in each others movies all the time. And that he wants to make a performance in which it is easy to take part. He wants to be touchable and the performance to be touchable, which is something else than touching.

He says: I don’t want to control myself on stage, but I want that everyone can control me. (I mean their understanding of what is happening)

I interviewed a monk once, a very old man, called Brother Harold. And it was quite a long time ago so I can tell this story without embarrassment. No, this is a lie, I am still embarrassed, but I will tell it anyway. And so of course at the end of the interview I said, well Let me ask you the really obvious question: what does God mean to you, and he said, straight away without any hesitation, he said: ‘The more in the middle of’. He said it straight like that, without any hesitation and looking into my eyes. There was no need to pause for thought, there was a lifetime of thought behind his answer, and what I understood was that the more was now, here, the present, the isness which is surrounded by what came before, what I wanted to do, what I thought I should do, and the future, what I want to do next.

When I told him the story he thought I said ‘the move in the middle of’, and somehow that remains useful to him.

In the train this morning I read an interview to be published with Merce Cunnigham; he said: there are no fixed points in space (as Einstein taught me), and I thought, that is marvelous for the stage! Rather than thinking there is a fixed point on the stage, the most important place, allow for any point to be used, so that you can not only face it but use it for directions.

Many thanks to Gilles Deleuze (Dialoques II), Baruch DeSpinoza (Ethics), Jean-Luc Godard, Kenneth Palmer (autopoietic systems theory) and Jacques Rancière (Politics of Aesthetics, Ignorant Schoolmaster).

The lecture was given on 6 October 2004 at DanceUnlimited, postdoctoral dance education in Holland, Arnhem.