Unedited Thoughts on a Conversation about Improvisation/Composition

I was riding home with a bandmate after practice today (6/19/18), and somehow we managed to get on the topic of composition and improvisation. I think we were talking about practicing techniques for drumming, because he had been working really hard on a drum part that requires a 16th notes on his right hand. He had been practicing for hours previously, and yet when he got to practice he could feel himself struggling to keep the pace. I think I mentioned that when I’m learning a new technical/rudimentary thing I find it much easier to find a groove or beat that it fits well with so that I can practice it in the context of a musical phrase rather than as an abstracted part. He asked me whether or not that was how I thought about tap dance as well; and I had to think about it for a second, but I realized that it was true in both realms. I was never one for practice in the form of study on a singular idea, I always needed it to put in the context of its potential function – I need to experience it as part of a larger whole. He was telling me how he hadn’t had many chances to do composition or improvisation in his dance upbringing. Suddenly, I recounted a memory that I had been hiding in the back of my head for a long time. The first time I was ever asked to choreograph something on my own, I improvised it – I made it up on the spot. This wasn’t any kind of accomplishment on my part – I was lazy and had a bad habit of procrastinating. On this particular occasion, I procrastinated up until the moment of presentation. I did my dance to the entirety of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel completely off the cuff. At most, I had found a couple of steps that worked well with the song, and I would figure out the transition. When I told my teacher that I improvised the piece, he was shocked. He made me do it again for another group of people just to see if I was telling the truth.


I haven’t thought about this in a long time, but it feels like a foundational moment that displays the heart of my creative process: making in-the-moment choices that create choreographic forms. My bandmate said something about how he had improvised a performance that was supposed to feature his choreography, and he seemed to hint at a distinction between improvisation and composition – which I immediately had to dispel. To me the line between improvisation and composition doesn’t actually exist. Philosophically, this is true in my own body, but I would argue that improvisation as an idea is not actually possible. I don’t think that spontaneity is real. It feels like an impossible task, that dancers often strive for. But I find this to be folly… even in improvisational situations, we make choices that are determined by circumstantial, environmental, and relational elements. It may be in-the-moment, but our choices are not random – they’re informed by the knowledge and perspective we bring into a situation along with the environmental factors of the task at hand. Choice making is form making – that’s what improvisation is: choice making. And to me choice making is not improvisational – it is highly structural; highly informed by our experiences past, present, and future. I do not see a distinction between improvisation and composition. I would describe both the same way. If anything, improvisation has a more complex relationship with time… but I don’t know if even believe that statement.


But this experience of “improvising” this dance as a kid wasn’t really improvisation. I had ingredients swimming within the experience that informed my choices. Tap steps I knew worked well, familiarity with the song, low-stakes showing with peers where I was known as the tap dancer of the group, and a knowledge of music that helped flesh out the transitional moments. These parts assembled into the cyborg creation of the choreography I presented (haphazardly). Little did I know that this would severely inform my choreographic process moving forward.


My whole idea of the cyborg is all about this… choice making as form making. The cyborg is often very aware of all its parts and how they can be utilized – disassembled… reassembled… the cyborg can constantly remake itself. For me, I’m interested in this kind of (re)making as an act rather than an entity/character. Cyborging as an action holds a lot of stakes regarding the concept of abstraction and the kind of violence that it brings.


What is gained and what is lost in the act of cyborging?


What is gained and what is los in the act of making choices?


Improvisation is still structural… often there are rules, regulations, policies that give the illusion of open-endedness/vagueness… but they are just as manipulative as setting choreography and assembling it on bodies that aren’t your own. 

Charles Maybee