Thinking on her feet. Literally

by Dance

Lauren Simpson reaches all the way back to childhood for the origins of her work as a dancer. As a new member of the Dance Program teaching staff this spring, Simpson brings her eclectic dance background to a new co-curricular dance course, Improvisation Techniques. Dance associate Marin Orlosky Randow '07-'08 spoke with Simpson about her background and why improvisation is an important skill for both dancers and non-dancers. The following is an edited and condensed version of their conversation.

How would you describe your dance background?

I consider rolling, crawling, climbing, playing, jumping and falling the beginning of my dance career. I am spending a lot of my adult life trying to recreate these early developmental stages. My dancing life followed this chronology, roughly: ballet to jazz and tap dance, to modern and post-modern techniques, to physical theater/movement improvisation, to somatic studies, experiential anatomy and contact improvisation, to release technique and West African dance.

I constantly shift between all of these dance forms, assimilating, negotiating, and embodying them to varying degrees, all the time. I am the "eclectic body," a term some dance scholars use today to describe the condition of the contemporary dancer.

Unique to my background, however, has been my emphasis on dance as conceptual art and dance scholarship. I was always interested in theories of body, movement, performance, body literacy and the overall creative brilliance housed within our physicality. It is no coincidence improvisation has been a crucial element in my own development as a thinking dancer, a moving thinker. It forces me to make choices moment to moment, to energize a sort of "thinking" where my body acts faster than my mind can "think" it up. Improvisation is the rigorous body-mind practice of literally "thinking on your feet."

When did you first get interested in improvisation?

I first became interested in improvisation in college. My teacher suggested, "Why don’t you make a dance without set choreography? Go out onstage and perform a dance where you have no idea what is going to come next." I thought she was nuts, but I was intrigued. She taught me skills necessary to do improvisation, like practicing presence, ensemble thinking and a certain comfortableness with the unknown. This opened up a whole new world of dance for me, and so I started making dances where I planned nothing.

What is the value of improvisation to dancers? To actors? To non-performers?

Improvisation is valuable for everyone because it teaches us how to be our honest selves. As veteran improviser Ruth Zaporah wrote: "At some point we must look inward for our education. We must notice what inhibits our freedom, be willing to give up all preconceptions, be truthful, and relax in order to relax from lively emptiness."

How do you teach improvisation?

With serious playtime and rigorous fun. This course will cover solo and group improvising, contact improvisation, and site-specific improvisations. The class is rooted in movement, but we will bring in sound and text, too. We will also work on improvising with a musician. Improvisation is about practice, so we will learn mostly by doing. In addition, we will take time to reflect, discuss, and collaborate on various ways we can accommodate everyone’s interests, from dance to theater, from math to philosophy. Everyone is invited to move and be moved.