| Arts & Culture
Body Language Right Now I Will Jump to That Spot Over There
Christina Bartson on improvisation, shutting out fear, and trusting her movement during the pandemic.
Some time after nine in the evening, I make my daily jaunt to the marrow of YouTube. Here, in the algorithmic architecture of my recommended-for-you queue, I click and indulge in a series of cinematographer Tim Milgrim’s recordings of dancers performing in Los Angeles studios to Billboard hits.
The Wi-Fi where I am sheltering in place is moody; last week, I waited twenty-two minutes for a five-minute-long video to load, but it was worth it. Worth it for several reasons. The choreography proves consistently inventive, impressive in both its diversity of corporal interpretations of pop music and in its ability to inflict a kind of skippy emotional proprioception (Try to watch and not feel your heart hop a little in your chest). The classroom atmosphere is infectious. Dancers cheer one another on throughout the duration of the performance, tipping verbal hats from the sidelines. With the students arranged around the performers in a semicircle, crouching or standing in concentric circles of vibrating bodies, each performer is drawn into a shared world, vibing out to the beat, hearing and feeling the same hit in their chests, their hips, their knees. And when the dancers crouching on the sidelines see some brilliant interpretation of the music, it registers on their faces all at once. That resonance leaps out of their throats and they call out or join in because they, too, felt that just then. Watching, I think of Kant’s sensus communis, a universally communicable sense of pleasure and imagination. And on top of this pleasure and imagination, there’s a lot of physical prowess. The dancers exude exceptional technique and athleticism. They are soaring through the air five feet above the floor, kicking their legs so high they brush their cheekbones with their shins. Plus, they are all really hot.
All of these elements make the videos worthy of your time. However, I return to YouTube to watch for a different reason: The dancers punctuate every performance with a period of improvisation. These sixty seconds or so, during which the choreography ends and the improvisation begins, is the humbling epitome of moving through the unknown, creating something out of nothing in an instant.
I first discovered this corner of the internet three years ago during the summer I was living in Boston, interning at NPR’s Here & Now, and frequently indulging in drunken evenings fueled by mugs of Maker’s Mark guzzled in the kitchen of my humid, dripping apartment. That summer, I was nursing a leaky heart, working too much, living in a four-bedroom apartment with six college classmates, and therefore very much in need of the body joy only improvisational dance in your kitchen can procure.
Dancing has always provided me with a balm to life. I have been a dancer for nearly two decades. Like many young girls, I came of age in the pink world of ballet. As a teenager, I discovered Martha Graham and pivoted from my classical ballet training to focus on modern dance. Now, I usually take contemporary classes in New York. But because of the Covid-19 pandemic, I haven’t stepped foot in a dance studio for the past few months. I don’t know when I will be able to return to dance class. Which is why, as I write this from the living room of my boyfriend’s parents’ house, the YouTube dance videos are hitting me all over again—smack in the heart with insights that are, frustratingly, very applicable to the conditions of my life. They are soaring through the air five feet above the floor, kicking their legs so high they brush their cheekbones with their shins. Plus, they are all really hot.
Like many, I live with ambient anxiety. Typically, it seeps into my days, unwanted but manageable, and is triggered by feelings of doubt regarding my preparedness for future crises—or my inability to control conflicts in which my wellbeing, or the wellbeing of people I love, is threatened. In the time of Covid-19, during which the social topography of my city convulses every other day, anxious surges topple me. I often wake at night having dreamt of bad coronavirus situations, my legs restless and my heart running in the cage of my chest. I’ve yet to learn how to manage the specific strains of coronavirus anxieties because they stem from living with a chronic illness, Type 1 diabetes, and from having a grandmother, hundreds of miles away, who moves through her life linked to an oxygen tank. All of that makes the thought of contracting a novel virus a bit scarier. Days move forward, but I’m not sure I do. A phrase that’s become common in my speech recently is “I don’t know how to act.” I say it when my mom calls and asks me how I’m doing, or when my sister texts asking what it’s like to go grocery shopping in New York City. It’s a confession—a phrase that shifts between defeat and delirium, but more so, it’s an acknowledgment of our confronting the unknown. At twenty-five, I have never lived through a pandemic. Of course I don’t know how to act. It’s difficult to imagine how to move forward because no one can tell us what the next week looks like, never mind the next few months. We are living day to day, a kind of existence that’s unprecedented and disorienting for most. (Though I recognize the extreme privilege of this novelty.) How do we adapt to an environment in which, some days, the conditions change hour-to-hour? I fear this liminal space of the unknown. Fear it because it feels a lot like improvisation.
Though I’ve studied the practice throughout my dance career, I have always feared improvisation. It is a kind of nakedness I cannot describe as anything but a wide-eyed fear of the dark. Without the atlas of choreography, the plotted shapes for my body to move from Point A to Point B, I feel frozen. Not because I don’t feel creative enough to accomplish the feat. It is because I have not yet learned to shut out fear and trust myself to move spontaneously. I want to love the slipperiness of improvising, the ductility, the uncharted pirouettes, the ontological riskiness of the right now I will jump to that spot over there .
At this point, I have watched probably hundreds of hours of these YouTube videos. My fascination (fixation?) prompted me to revisit theory on improvisation in the arts, specifically in dance. Susan Leigh Foster, a choreographer and scholar at UCLA, asks: “Can the facts of improvisation be informative?” I think yes. Within the phrase structure and meter of the music, and often playing off the lyrics, the dancers respond with wit and agility to one another’s initiatives, selecting individually developed steps from within a trained and expansive vocabulary of human gestures. With their bodies as instruments, the dancers create surprising somatic architecture as they transform both pedestrian and trained virtuoso movement into suspenseful dance. It is always thrilling to watch what the human body is capable of composing on the spot. “The unknown is precisely that and more,” wrote Foster. “It is that which was previously unimaginable, that which we could not have thought of doing next. Improvisation presses us to extend into, expand beyond, extricate ourselves from that which was known.”
As Foucault suggested, the fundamentals of improvisational expression live in the act of formation ( right now I will jump to that spot over there ), and not in following a prior model, i.e. choreography. In improvisation, we’re provided new paradigms in which to discover novel relationships. This relationship could be between our right ring finger and our left ankle bone. These are discoveries that prompt us to reimagine our worlds and generate knowledge amid the in-between.
Scholars and choreographers Chris Aiken and Angie Hauser, based at Smith College in Massachusetts, research the uses of improvisational dance in higher education. Their teachings are informed theoretically by the work of Nikolai Bernstein, a neurophysiologist whose research is influential in the field of motor control and the science of action (Fun fact: a lot of dance researchers adore neurology). In Bernstein’s book On Dexterity and Its Development , he presents a model for comprehending the relationship between automated skills and intentional behavior in evolving environments, like the sixty seconds of improvisation in a YouTube dance video. He believes that automated skills, behaviors that can work without conscious control—like riding a bike or dribbling a soccer ball—are stored in our brains in a kind of “movement library.” We can draw upon this library when we have to shift our attention to problem-solving. This is one thing that allows dancers to trust their training and focus on generating new stories based on the archives living in their bodies. Bernstein gives us a second concept that’s also fundamental for improvisers, the idea of a “memory of the future,” which refers to the ways people use their experiences to make sense of what is happening in the present and to imagine the next steps.
Bernstein’s “memory of the future” offers us a comforting thought in its simplicity: We already know how to move through the unknown. There is a special brilliance to our days spent suspended in quarantine, no longer moving to the choreography of our pre-Covid-19 lives, but doing what is deeply known to each of us—in all our varied interpretations of the reckless music of a pandemic. It’s very possible that in the annals of YouTube, I’ve witnessed a new conception of human agency expressed through improvisation. Without the limits of choreography, the dancer discovers the specific strengths of her body and the unique forces of her creativity, which allow her to invent new ways of moving forward through the alien. There’s a sentence I like from Aiken and Hauser’s research on how to measure our ability to improvise: “Success is defined by one’s depth of inquiry, one’s strength of purpose, and one’s generosity toward others.” It’s a thought that’s helped me keep moving forward, especially now, when we are just living from beat to beat.