Georgia Simms is the Engaged Practitioner in Residence at the University of Guelph’s Community Engaged Scholarship Institute (CESI). She appeared as part of the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation’s “Thinking Spaces: The Improvisation Reading Group and Speaker Series” to facilitate a workshop on movement and improvisation on January 29th at Silence. Simms came to Guelph to study International Development and obtained an MA in Geography. In 2005 she became a member of the Dancetheatre David Earle dance company. She has also studied at the International Centre for Art for Social Change, which informs her leadership at her own company IMAGEO Artworks. In her role this year at CESI she aims to “bring those worlds of social science and art closer together by using tools and methods that we use in the studio in an academic educational context.”(2015) She was accompanied by Adam Bowman, a percussionist, who participated fully in the workshop discussions, as well as providing music for the process.
The other participants included academics, musicians, and dancers, some of who identify with more than one of these roles. One participant admitted to me that she fully expected that we were going to discuss movement, not do it. Needless to say the levels of comfort were various. The first example of improvisational practices put to use is likely to be found in Simms’ ability to respond to the variety of skills brought by participants each time she conducts a workshop of this nature.
Simms has a lovely clear and calm facilitation style. It’s evident that she has worked with “dancer’s” and “non-dancer’s” and she has developed an approach that focuses on “movement” as opposed to “dance”. Her activities were very accessible and welcoming. She referred to the structure of activities as layers and this allowed the participants to buy in at each stage of the process according to their interest, comfort and energy level. There is even a role defined for those who would rather observe. This practice leaves many avenues for participants to fulfill the “yes, and…” tenet of improvisation.
We began with the initial layer focusing on the personal. Georgia made some suggestions or invitations to encouraging us to “play” with the idea of “circle” and experiment with each body part. How can our toes move in circles, our knees and so on? How can we ourselves become the shape? At this stage I found that the presence of music helped me relax so much more than I would have otherwise. It is important for me to note in this reflection that I am not comfortable in dance activities. I participated in this workshop out of curiosity towards improvisation instruction. Knowing that a dance workshop would challenge my skill set, I attended in an effort to empathize with my own music students. The activities outlined by Simms forced me to confront personal issues surrounding body confidence. The presence of others created additional fear and pressure, particularly if people were given permission to observe. My motivation to participate stemmed from my commitment to my own professional development. The presence of music allowed me to place my focus on sound as much as on movement, and this greatly aided my explorations.
At Simms’ first invitation we were all staring at our joints, avoiding eye contact and dutifully following instructions in an attempt to face our personal dance demons. Simms has developed a lovely series of invitations that ushered us out of awkward little individual experiments and on to building something artistic at least by intention if not form. She initiated interaction by asking us to practice mirroring, supporting or responding to each other’s movements. We were reminded that support does not always look like mimicry or unison. Some times support is contrast, making space for, or being a “visual listener”. This developed the movement being done from some obscure sounds and actions and into solid exchanges between participants. The process recalls the metaphor commonly made between dance and language. An example of this is The Extended Mirror System Hypothesis of Language evolution put forth by Michael Arbib (2002:232), which continues to be debated within scientific spheres but offers an interesting structure for developing a process of articulation. It appears as if Simms has developed her workshops along the lines of language development, starting with small gestures and weaving them into interactive “conversations” between dancers. From this stage Simms invited us to add yet another layer of co-ordination and improvise in smaller groups with a greater sense of task. The final two efforts resulted in cohesive sketches worthy of development.
Once the movement component concluded the group shared a few observations: it was much easier to imitate and “support” another person’s actions from a distance or even from behind. Participants noted the imperative of acting undetected by the person you felt inspired to mirror. A concrete example of this was that we avoided eye contact with each other, and while we were playful in our behavior we maintained serious or neutral expressions. We were shy and timid and guarded even in our willingness to explore. Given our mutual risk taking, why were we still so formal with one another? People spoke of the intense concentration needed in order to be good “visual listeners” and also of the importance of imparting respect in these relationships where we are very unfamiliar with each other. Some participants expressed that the closed nature of our facial expressions was borne of respect for each other’s privacy in this risky process. By having very little facial response we were trying to leave room for participants to act without feeling judged, despite the fact that they were being observed. I would also offer that as we were inexperienced improvisational dancers we were unable to focus on our personal presentation with great capacity. As we become more experienced in a discipline then we are able to encourage others. However at this early stage in our exploration we were emotionally trepidatious. Simms and her accompanist Bowman reflected that in all the workshops they’ve conducted, it is rare that humour manages surface.
I see a continued theme of how both “play” and “conversation” are common forms of improvisation in everyday life and they repeatedly emerge as metaphors or templates for artistic improvisation. When I studied ear training with Art Levine, at the Royal Conservatory he said, “Music challenges everybody because it is both intuitive and logical.” He asserted that we each bring to it strengths, and weaknesses. This makes music both immensely satisfying and incredibly intimidating. While we are able to share our strengths with others we must still allow ourselves to receive instruction where we are deficient. Improvisation allows for a space to exercise these exchanges. In doing so it allows us to practice shedding dualistic thinking for more flexible roles. In the spheres of conversation and play we are much more comfortable then in the spheres of music, dance, or other disciplines where institutions imbue specialization. Yet so many specialists work to get back to the creative spontaneity found in these common forms of improvisation (play and conversation) and use them as metaphors. In an interview held prior to the workshop Simms reflected, “The metaphors…are one of the most critical and important things that come out of the work of this institute.” (2016) While intuition is required to generate ideas, there is a skill set that needs to be honed in order for those initial impulses to become articulated. In his book “Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art” Stephen Nachmanovitch states “Technique itself springs from play, because we can acquire technique only by the practice of practice, by persistently experimenting and playing with our tools and testing their limits and resistances. Creative work is play…”(1990:42). The workshop left me wondering about the balance of naiveté and technique as they inform improvisational practice.
I also found myself wondering about the place for a sense of humour, in fact the sense of play, in all the very smart and serious business of improvising. Personally I consider humour the very highest form of all arts. It is the hardest form of language to perform, to translate, and to create. Still often it is the most charming, the most disarming, the most relaxing. Certainly it is powerful, for we were afraid to use it that Friday with Ms. Simms. If improvisation is a tool of resistance it is also a tool of resilience and the healing power of laughter may in fact be what is missing from so many core attitudes toward improvisation practice. In the article “The Art of Risk: Negotiating Unfamiliar Territory in Large Group Improvisation” Jason Caslor documents the process of an Improvisational collaboration between Dong-Won Kim, 20 members of the Guelph Symphony Orchestra, The Rivers Jazz Ensemble, Ben Grossman and Georgia Simms herself. He highlights the frustration of the orchestra members during the process and the need for Kim to provide them with more structure. “It became clear that Mr. Kim was going to have to prescribe things much more than he had maybe originally intended. Things began to take shape when they were given a tonal region or a rhythmic motive. He met them at their comfort level and managed to give them enough structure to feel safe, but left enough room to allow for spontaneity.” Mr. Kim improvised from his original plan and facilitated a work that “proved to be a transformative experience for performers and observers alike”. This recount implies that Kim had the technique for incorporating play, while the orchestra members were truly unpracticed at “trusting themselves”. My own experience in this dance workshop echoed that of the orchestra members in the collaboration led by Kim. It would seem that trusting oneself requires practice and technique before humour and enjoyment can be achieved. However perhaps the real benefit of engaging in improvisation practice is to develop the technique of laughing at oneself.
2002, The Mirror System, Imitation, and the Evolution of Language, in Imitation in Animals and Artifacts, (Chrystopher Nehaniv and Kerstin Dautenhahn, Editors), The MIT Press. Chapter 10 Pg. 232
2015, Engaged Practitioner in Residence Integrates Creativity into Research Teaching, Learning. University of Guelph http://news.uoguelph.ca/
Sun, Xiaoxia and Uwe Seifert
2012, Two Frameworks for comparative approaches to the Evolution of Language and Music. in “The Evolution of Language” 9th International Conference March 2012, World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd, 2012
2010 Dance, language and the brain, Int. J. Arts and Technology, Vol. 3, Nos. 2/3, pp.221–234.
2016 “Thinking Spaces with Georgia Simms” Video by Joao Franca, Presented by IISCI, in IISCI research library http://improvisationinstitute.ca/document/ts-georgia-simms/
1990 “Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art” pg. 42 Tarcher/Putnam, Penguin Putnam.
2014 “The Art of Risk: Negotiating Unfamiliar Territory in Large-group Improvisation”, Arizona State University. in IISCI research library