Friday, March 13, 2009

Open Form

Joao da Silva, a former EDDC colleague who runs the Dance Unlimited program at the ArtEz Dansacademie in Arnhem, the Netherlands, put out a query: how do we think about "Open Form Composition" (a practise central to their study). What follows is my response:

“Open Form Composition” probably means very specific things to the practitioners who use the term to describe their work. Not being one of that group, I surmise that it concerns a way of composing where there is openness to create within the performance itself, by choosing placements and timings and ways of rendering materials. In a related way, I’ve been on a long-term quest to find an alchemically “right place” on the continuum of set to improvised performance.

Early on, Judith Dunn, a former Cunningham dancer and wife of Robert Dunn, told me that my set choreography was far less compelling to her than my improvisation. And she was right. The immediacy and invention available when the discovery was happening on the spot were far more scintillating than the more staid choices in my fully planned forms.

Four decades later, I am still puzzling out the degree to which I want to know, and want my dancers to know, what will happen in performance. My preferred space on the continuum of completely set to completely open work is probably around the midpoint, with sufficient skeleton and materials to make a one-of-a-kind but reliably structured and rich performance.

I recently revived the dance Interactive Random Access (1990) in which the audience has a “menu” of music and dance selections as well as qualities from which to choose. This solo, first made for an intimate fundraiser, was performed in a Hall for 350 people, with the audience miked so that their verbal “commands” could be heard and immediately responded to. For me, the play in that dance – the instantaneous layering of disparate elements – is a major challenge of receptivity and awareness. Much is known (actual movement phrases, texts, improvisational scores) but the totality is always created by the audience moment by moment. Impatience yields a channel-surfing feel. Waiting and enriching or contrasting what’s already present yields surprising depth and twists and turns.

This is satisfying theater – transparent, interactive. Similarly, watching Trisha Brown perform her “Accumulation With Talking Plus Watermotor” many times on tour, where she spliced between two different stories and two different dances, somehow holding the reins on all of them and bringing them to a satisfying conclusion, was inspiring that way.

While I am invested in structure and method the ultimate question is still whether or not the piece “works.” And the way I define that now is whether it fulfills itself; whatever it contains and in whatever form - is it whole?