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«Empowerment in Motion: Improvisation as a Tool of Feminist Leadership Sarah Esser Senior Seminar in Dance Fall 2014 Thesis director: Professor L. ...»

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Empowerment in Motion:

Improvisation as a Tool of Feminist Leadership

Sarah Esser

Senior Seminar in Dance

Fall 2014

Thesis director: Professor L. Garafola

© Sarah Esser

Charles Darwin once said that the ability to improvise is crucial to the success of

humankind.1 Though Darwin was hardly an expert on dance, his statement raises some

important questions: what is the function of improvisation in dance, and how does it contribute to

a dancer’s experience of movement? In dance, improvisation is understood as spontaneous movement of the dancer’s choosing, the steps not predetermined or set by a choreographer.

However, it happens often throughout the tradition of Western dance performance that the choreographer of a dance piece holds complete control over artistic decision-making. This authority may be self-granted, or it may come from a more tangible source—a contract outlining the choreographer’s commitment to paying his or her dancers a salary for their work, for instance. In such an instance, it is the choreographer, the Martha Graham or the George Balanchine, who creates the movement and decides how the steps will be executed and to what music, controlling who each dancer will “be” in the scope of a piece. However, when the dancer is in control of his or her own representation onstage, the audience begins to see the person behind the role and builds an emotional connection or response to the work.

In improvisation, the movement caters significantly less to the viewer, however, and concerns itself instead with the individual and collective empowerment of the dancing bodies onstage. The discovery of new movement may be motivated by task-based directives the choreographer gives or by the impulses of the dancers in the studio or onstage, but it is the dancers themselves who decide when and how to move—and, ultimately, how they will be Charles Darwin, quoted in Phillip Romero, The Art Imperative: The Secret Power of Art (Bloomington: Xlibris Corporation, 2010) 59.

represented. Key to improvisation is an element of humanity: I understand humanity through the choreographers and movement philosophies I am exploring not as a universal truth but rather as the ability to be a human while dancing, responding to human emotions, perceptions, and connections to which the spectator can relate.

Through the lens of feminist leadership—a term which I will describe in further detail later—as a constant process within the structure of a dance company, I will examine improvisation as a means of acknowledging dancers’ individual identities and responding to the inherent politicization of moving bodies in a prescribed space. I will focus specifically on the formalized, contemporary improvisatory languages of WilliamForsythe’s Improvisation Technologies and Ohad Naharin’s Gaga. The goals of this project are twofold: first, it will explore feminist leadership inherent in the pedagogies of Improvisation Technologies and Gaga, developed by Forsythe and Naharin respectively, both of whom are still living and working today. Second, this project will recognize the impact of various choreographers’ improvisational pedagogies and the ways in which different choreographic processes and specific dance pieces serve to empower the dancers. Because of their use of improvisation—which, one can conclude, inherently shares the tenets and objectives of some forms of feminist leadership—these choreographers create environments, both in rehearsal and onstage, that are consciously concerned with the identity, agency, and empowerment of their dancers.

In Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation: Clearing the Conceptual Cloud, Indian women’s rights activist Srilatha Batliwala defines the concept of feminist leadership by breaking it down into its core components: feminism and leadership. Batliwala analyzes the terms as individual entities before describing the concept of feminist leadership itself, an idea she interprets in much the same way as Danielle Goldman interprets dance improvisation in her book, I Wanna Be Ready: Improvisation as a Practice of Freedom. In doing so, Batliwala lays the groundwork for feminist leadership as a transformational practice that strives for equality through constant change, a process of organizational movement—and an improvised dance in and of itself.

The first key component of feminist leadership is, as explicitly stated, feminism.

Batliwala comprehensively defines feminists as those who “individually and collectively [transform] themselves to use their power, resources, and skills in non-oppressive, inclusive structures and processes to mobilize others around a shared agenda of social, cultural, economic, and political transformation for equality.”2 The keyword in Batliwala’s own definition is “transforming”: feminism—as leadership, as Batliwala goes on to explain—is dynamic and noncomplacent, striving constantly to challenge existing power structures and to recognize the identities and experiences in the room. My own understanding of feminism defines the term as the inherent political and social equality between men and women. However, I am choosing to omit gender alone as the central point of my argument because, as Judith Butler writes, “it becomes impossible to separate out ‘gender’ from the political and cultural intersections in which it is invariably produced and maintained.”3 I want instead to focus on feminist leadership as it pertains to equality across all identities including body type, gender, sexuality, and a diversity of life experiences, all of which are important in and relevant to the creative processes

–  –  –





improvisation-based works are able to acknowledge these identities of their dancers—a feminist act—both in rehearsal and onstage.

Srilatha Batliwala, Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation: Clearing the Conceptual Cloud (New Delhi:

CREA, 2011), 29.

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), 3.

Leadership, Batliwala argues, is a universal quality innate, though not always harnessed, in human nature. Even those who are “followers” should be made aware that they have power, agency, and leadership capacity, should they choose to act on them. This is equally true of improvisation, in which the choreographer—the named leader—gives tasks to the dancers who then perform them with intelligence and bodily agency, exerting control over when and how they choose to act, if at all. Just as leadership capacity is dormant until provoked, educated, awakened, or inspired, improvisation thrives on the potential energy of the still yet alert body.

Goldman refers to these moments of quiet contemplation as small dances, 4 the seconds of stillness in which an individual waits before inserting him or herself into an improvisation.

Leadership potential and the practice of leadership itself occur within an organization, “a social arrangement which pursues collective goals, controls its own performance, and has a boundary separating it from its environment.”5 This definition accommodates the structure of a dance company in a rather literal sense: first, with the dancers and choreographer striving to create a dance piece that appeals to the viewer in some way or evokes some sort of emotional or visceral reaction; second, by controlling its theatrical performance through the rehearsal process; and third, with the studio or the stage serving as the boundary between the company’s artistic process and the public eye. These elements, in alignment with Batliwala’s definition, ensure that a dance company is a space in which leadership can and does occur.

Implied in the idea of transformational leadership is movement: the act of transformation

–  –  –

transformational process of feminist leadership itself is a sort of improvised dance. The leader Danielle Goldman, I Wanna Be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010) 106.

Batliwala, Feminist Leadership, 37.

serves as the choreographer of the situation, directing, advising, and providing suggestions while remaining open to hearing ideas from the group, and trusting in the momentum built collectively by that group toward achieving a goal. At the same time, the “followers” are given the opportunity and responsibility to listen to and empower each other through dialogue.

Both leaders and followers under the structure of feminist leadership must dedicate themselves to transparency. The purpose of this is “to make the practice of power visible, democratic, legitimate, and accountable”6 in order to ensure that everyone can engage in open and honest dialogue and “challenge power wherever it operates.”7 In a dance company, this is particularly important when that power dynamic results in tension in the studio between the dancer and choreographer. Goldman, too, argues that transparency is necessary in improvisation, stating, “These breaks in flow constitute the often ignored, but crucial, grit of… improvisation.

They serve as visible reminders, for those not actually dancing, that negotiations are taking place, even when the fall appears smooth and full of grace or when the bodies seem dangerously passive.”8 Transparency exposes the dancers’ thought processes and effort, making visible the problem that the dancers must solve. This problem-solving element segues into one of the central tenets of improvisation: the process of discovering movement takes precedence over the finished product. Similarly, leadership skills serve as tools necessary for creating change.

Feminist leadership as an active process is more important than the public display of that process or the finished product.

For Batliwala, feminist leadership is an unending process of responding to change and injustice. Equality is her ultimate goal: every individual is equally important in determining the Ibid., 13.

Ibid., 13.

Goldman, I Wanna Be Ready, 107.

organization’s trajectory and next steps. The outcomes of this element of feminist leadership, the pushback against inequality—or rather, the final result—can be uncertain. Thus is the nature of improvised dance, which “involves literally giving shape to oneself by deciding how to move in relation to an unsteady landscape.”9 Within this unstable, ever-changing environment, the processes of both feminist leadership and improvised dance can operate when all individuals involved are empowered to contribute ideas, whether through verbal dialogue while solving a problem or through physical dialogue in rehearsal and performance.

Ultimately, Batliwala argues, feminist leadership is a transformational practice, a kind of improvised dance promoting the agency of the people within the organization and attuned and responsive to inequality. Is it possible, then, that dance improvisation, a form of feminist leadership in action, inherently responds to these factors? At what point does the dancers’ empowerment through improvisation register on choreographers’ conscious agendas, and what is gained from this conscious objective? I aim to answer these questions by studying Forsythe and Naharin’s respective movement philosophies to provide a foundational understanding of the elements of feminist leadership inherent in improvisation, as well as other contemporary choreographers who approach feminist leadership in the studio and onstage from different angles: first, Sidra Bell and her stream of consciousness-inspired process of facilitating improvisation through dialogue; second, Bell’s dancers Jonathan Campbell and Austin Diaz who focus less on improvisation and more on a common understanding of feminism through the male lens around which they focus their work; and third, Andrea Miller, choreographer of Gallim Dance, and the conscious goal of empowerment evident in her newest installation piece.

–  –  –

William Forsythe’s Improvisation Technologies and Gaga, the movement language developed by Ohad Naharin and Batsheva Dance Company, are two formalized, codified, and very contemporary forms of improvisation rooted simultaneously in virtuosity—that is, the technical skill of the body to move beyond the physical limits of what the average human body can do—and experimentation. While they differ in approach—one highly structural and geometric, the other deeply sensory—their ultimate goals are similar: to give the dancer a framework in which to approach movement, allowing a safe space for experimentation and

–  –  –

Francisco Conservatory of Dance (SFCD) is an institution that offers two pre-professional summer intensive tracks in both Forsythe’s Technologies and in Gaga, understanding the two forms as “proprietary systems to help dancers expound upon and refine their choices as movers and thinkers.”10 As SFCD emphasizes, the two improvisatory pedagogies are important in the training and development of pre-professional dancers, offering them approaches to taking ownership of their movement choices.

Improvisation Technologies, made for CD-ROM in 1994, were created through various collaborations between William Forsythe, the former artistic director of Ballet Frankfurt and the current artistic director of his own Forsythe Company, as well as dance educators and media specialists.11 Forsythe recognizes his codified approaches to movement as his major contribution to dance, not his specific choreography. His will stipulates that after his death, his work will no longer be performed.12 In doing so, he acknowledges the importance of improvisation and its power to keep a dancer focused on the present moment. This move also displays a concern for “Summer Intensives,” San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, http://www.sfconservatoryofdance.org/summerintensives (accessed 4 November 2014).

“Biography,” The Forsythe Company, http://www.theforsythecompany.com/details.html?L=1 (accessed 10 November 2014).

Ismene Brown, “The Body Artist,” The Daily Telegraph, 27 October 2001.

the future of dance itself: without Forsythe’s choreography in the repertories of innumerable international companies, space will be made for new, young choreographic minds to fill in the gaps and advance the art form in new directions.



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