Practice as Performance / Performance as Practice

A recent(ish) evolution for AVID is Special Tuesdays. We started getting together on Tuesday evenings last spring to plan our Creative / Process classes at Velocity Dance Center, then continued them to plan our Italy Residency, and have been keeping them going since our return. Not only are they an opportunity for us to hang out, plan, and check in, they sometimes lead to more in-depth discussions about improvisation and artistic values than our studio rehearsal.

It is interesting to see how this getting together outside of the studio has led to improvisational scores such as “check-in solos”, and further interwoven our practice of collaborative improvisational art making with our friendships.

we've been talking so much more lately

It was on a special Tuesday while reflecting on our performance at Joan Hanna’s Barn on Vashon that we recently returned to the idea of Performance as Practice, Practice as Performance (P//P). I have a fanciful memory, and am in no way trying to recreate the specifics of that discussion, just using it as a jumping off point for some continued thinking on the topic myself.

It was clear in discussion that we do not have complete agreement about what P//P means and why it is important. This feels like rich territory to me, worth coming back to time and again. Here is my first stab at blogging about it.

Part 1, Practice as Performance- For me, this connects with the idea that all our actions matter, and that low stakes need not be low importance (in fact it is vital to have lots of low stakes opportunities to create, since that is an area where imagination runs wide and deep). Since it is an accumulation of small actions that creates the movement of the ocean, I feel practice to be at the heart of the improvisational arts. A quote from adrienne maree bown, whose book EMERGENT STRATEGY I just started reading (and loving) fits my thinking about practice as performance well (and also improvisation in general).

It is important that we fight for the future, get into the game, get dirty, get experimental. How do we create and proliferate a compelling vision of economies and ecologies that center humans and the natural world over accumulation of material?

We embody. We learn. We release the idea of failure, because it’s all data.

But first we imagine.

We are in an imagination battle.

Practice is that grounding in the present that gets us into the game and fighting for the future. Practice is where experimentation can develop over time. Practice is where the idea of failure is slightly easier to release, where we gather data and let the imagination play. When we bring the heightened awareness of performance into our practice we are stretching our imaginations, activating the cells that let us be deeply seen, and giving value to the micro moments and secret experiences that may never be known by another, yet become part of the fabric of us. This “usness” is our greatest contribution as improvisers, the place where our life experience, values, training, blind spots, and everything else that makes us unique is expressed.

Practice as Performance is being present with each other in a low stakes way that also stretches our imagination, allows failure, and gets us into the game. It is us actively and intuitively birthing the future. It might be the idea that the “performance” includes all the practice that went into its making.

Part 2, Performance as Practice-As social beings, it may not be possible for the felt experience of performance to become as loose as that of practice, but there is value in approaching it as if it might. The relaxed body is a feeling body. Many creative breakthroughs come near sleep, daydreaming, meandering, and other relaxed states. Stress is not usually conducive to imagination. Yet the felt sense of being watched by an audience energizes me, promotes certain types of risk, and gives a sense of meaning to my actions that I often find intoxicating and deeply rewarding.

So what might performance as practice look like, why is it worth devoting energy towards? Is it a taking of the best of both worlds, the adrenaline of performance and the patience of practice, the commitment of performance and the openness to the unknown more easily found in practice? Perhaps. For me the metaphor of an improvisational performance as spellcasting fits well. The spell can never be cast the same way twice. The ingredients have been harvested (practice as performance), but cannot be combined in the same amounts or the same order. Often the spell must seem like it fails in order to succeed (or vice versa). A certain magic comes from unknowable stretches of time, coincidences, impossible yet coherent juxtapositions, moments when the light perfectly captures a memory’s sensation. Also fierce dancing, emotionality, returning to earlier actions, a whole diverse collection of ingredients that must be named to be worked with consciously, and yet also need remain unspoken, instinctual, felt. Perhaps the whole trick is paradoxical.

Throwing out our consideration of the audience’s experience is a dangerous game to play, and I do not propose that we perform without craft or consideration for the fact that we are receiving the generosity of the audience’s attention. There is a responsibility for us to reward that gift with rich experimentation, embodiment, and human and nature centered imagination. Conversely, when we approach performance with a sense of obligation, a need to prove ourselves, and a consuming desire to be successful, not only are we opening ourselves up to negative stress, our decisions can become rushed, schticky, and predictable.

While practicing it often feels easier to open myself up to the range of the unknown, to allow vagueness to persist until it crystallizes or is revealed as a portal, to attend to my own needs and sensations, to go my own way, to stay with something not completely formed, to lose myself in someone else’s experience. While performing I often feel an urge to be highly physical, push edges, create order, make clear choices, create images, and connect with other performers and audience. I love them both, and am pursuing cross pollination.

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