From real time to real world, setting improvised material

By Gina Hoch-Stall, Choreographer

For those of you who do not read and memorize every word on this blog, let me bring you up to speed. My dance company, RealLivePeople(in)Motion, is currently in rehearsals for two upcoming shows: the first is a collaboration with Tongue and Groove Spontaneous Theater that will be entirely improvised, the second is a brand new piece exploring jobs, identity and what it means to go to work–the choreography in this piece will be set.

Photo by Craig Harris, Dancers Gina Hoch-Stall and Adams Berzins

Photo by Craig Harris, Dancers Gina Hoch-Stall and Adams Berzins

I love working in these two mediums: real-time versus set choreography. The juxtaposition allows me to see the strengths in each. I relish the immediacy, surprise and serendipity that come from doing all improvised work; however I also love the clarity of movement and concept that come from setting a piece and rehearsing it to perfection. Luckily I have dancers who can do both. In fact we build a lot of our movement through structured improvisatory exercises.

Back in October when we were first starting our work on ‘The Jobs Project’ we were in pure try-anything-to-see-if-it-works mode. Any movement idea we could think of we played out: we matched snatches of choreography with text and tried a lot of very silly and overly literal ideas. Most of these things were not ‘set material’ but rather improvisatory structures, built quickly to see what did and did not work.

Returning to the process after a brief winter holiday we began to take stock of what we had made. We had two rehearsals to run through all of the material with the fresh eyes of our dramaturg, composer and artist. They were enthusiastic and hopeful but I found myself getting more and more frustrated.

While I love watching (and participating) in the improvised creations in our rehearsals for PIFA, I was no longer interested in watching bare bones outlines of ‘sections that will be’ in our Jobs Project rehearsals. I was ready to flesh them out and see if they had enough substance to stand up to the editing process. So that’s what we’ve been doing.

In the past month we’ve taken three sections from gestation to birth and now we are figuring out what they’ll become when they grow up. The process is challenging for the dancers and myself. While we each have different levels of comfort in improvisation I think we all enjoy the freedom to make mistakes without being held accountable. Once material is set and codified that freedom no longer exists. There is now a right answer, a specific relationship and a clear tone–not that everything won’t change a million times over, but in the moment, the most recent version is final.

I have been told that I am bit of a control-freak (I prefer ‘pragmatic leader’) but whatever you call it, I love the feeling of completing almost as much as I love the creating. And no matter how exciting it is to improvise, I am not sure that I will ever completely abandon set work. I love the ability to build a piece one idea at a time and to be able to return to completed sections knowing that they will exist in roughly the same form that we left them, living in the bodies of the dancers (and often on camera). Perhaps it is the extremes that I enjoy, I don’t know. But right now I am quite excited to be doing both.

If you want to see examples of both types of work in motion, check out our video of “The Third Shift” at the Arden Theater. The first half of the video is all structured improvisation while the second half (duet with Sara and I) is completely set. See which you prefer…

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The journey of the post-its

By Gina Hoch-Stall, Choreographer

Several years ago, just as RLPiM was forming, we created our first evening-length work, “the evolution of this moment.” As a part of the piece we asked audience members to write down their own evolutions, how they came to be here, in this exact second, on a post-it. We then displayed the post-its, turned them into a collage…

…and finally started using them for our next piece, “Backstories.”

At that time all of the company members had at least a little bit of experience with improvisational structures in theater and dance. One day I walked into rehearsal with a Ziploc bag filled with colorful post-its and asked the dancers to pick one and make a short dance out of it. Then another. And another. Soon we were hooked.

We began to develop rules and suggestions depending on the content, length and tone of the post-it. We gradually got better at finding the best articulation of the post-it through movement, text, metaphor and often humor–plus we loved it! So when it came time to decide what was going to be included in “Backstories” it seemed impossible to leave our post-it work out.

It was decided that we would create at least five post-it dances throughout the show as a kind of break for ourselves and the audience from the ‘seriousness’ of modern dance. We even gathered the post-its afresh from the audience each night so they might even recognize their stories coming alive.

They were a hit!

Flash forward eight months to our application for the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (commonly known as PIFA). We applied with our “Jobs Project” in mind, only to be told that it didn’t fit with the festival’s theme which was focused on specific dates in history.

We assumed that would be the end of it.

But the lovely staff at the Kimmel Center were eager to find a way to make it work (insert shout out to Jay Wahl here). After attending one of our rehearsals and hearing about our work with the post-its the name ‘Tongue and Groove Spontaneous Theater’ came up.

I had never heard of T&G but I went on their website and read this:

Tongue & Groove is a critically acclaimed theater ensemble that spontaneously performs unscripted scenes and monologues inspired by personal information anonymously submitted by the audience.

I was intrigued.

Fast forward again to my meeting with Bobbi Block, Artistic Director of T&G. She is interested but skeptical. How can we make this work? Share a bill? Collaborate? By this time I have seen one of her shows but she has yet to see any of our post-it work. We realize that nothing can be decided until she has seen our work–however at this point we are leaning toward an all post-it show.

In advance of Bobbi’s visit we schedule a few extra rehearsals to run through the post-it question we’d be using for the PIFA show, “If you could travel back in time to any point in your own life, where would you go and why?”

We flesh out some kinks, come up with some new rules and ideas and cross our fingers that we won’t blow it…

And we didn’t! After a somewhat rocky start we quickly hit our groove and began to bring the post-its to life as small dances, similar to Tongue and Groove’s work but different enough to be interesting.

Which brings us to the present: Tongue and Groove and RealLivePeople(in)Motion present ‘That Time’–co-produced by the Kimmel Center as part of PIFA. It was a long process but we’re excited to get into the studio and practice creating this production–because it will never be remotely the same twice.

You can learn more about the show, and Tongue and Groove, HERE.

And keep your eyes peeled for more posts about the post-it rehearsal process.