Open Space Brings Improv to Dance


The Open Space Laboratory encourages diverse and experimental dance expressions.

By YVETTE YINUO SHI, Arts & Sciences Editor

As committed, busy college students, it may be difficult to recall the last time we spent a complete two hours with other people in complete silence. Yet on Saturday, Sept. 24, participants of “Open Space: An Improvisational Laboratory,” held in the Dance Theatre, did exactly that through a practice of dance improvisation.

As the second session of the weekly event, it attracted six participants, including Dance majors, non-Dance majors and two faculty members. Though it was a relatively small group, the far-reaching energy generated by the dancers’ diverse movements filled the entire room, and kept me —someone who has never been a dancer before— observing whole-heartedly for the entire two hours.

Open Space was created by Gabriel Forestieri, a visiting artist-in-residence in Dance at the College and a choreographer who has practiced improvisation for 30 years.

“Open Space is a place to try out ideas, inhabit your body, engage with others physically and release agendas,” the program description reads.

Lida Winfield, a visiting lecturer in Dance who just joined the College this semester and is teaching an improvisation class right now, elaborated on the somewhat abstract idea before session started.

“My understanding from what he said is that it’s so important, so lovely to have a space for dancers to come and be able to improvise, to explore ideas and to work together without someone facilitating,” she said. “We get to grow and learn so much from each other.”

The first hour of the session was designed to be in complete silence, and the second hour is open for musicians to join and play at their wish. For the first half, the brush of skin and clothes against the floor were the only sounds in the high-ceilinged, spacious Dance Theatre, along with the occasional finger-tapping on the dance floor.

Initially, only two dancers were present, who both started by lying on the floor, stretching and feeling their bodies. Their movements differentiated from the very start, as they simply followed their impulses and there was no deliberate facilitation in any form.

The absence of music, an element that one would probably consider crucial in dancing, gave way to the natural, unique rhythm created purely by their movements.

The pace of the dancers’ movements shifted constantly, sometimes more rapid and sometimes completely still. As the first hour was rounding up, one dancer approached the grand piano at the corner of the room, opened it up slowly, and started to play separated notes. The music composed of simple notes added layers to the dancing almost immediately.

Though the other dancer did not alter her movement much, it seemed to fit with the melody seamlessly. Along with the gradually more complex piano sound, the atmosphere in the room became a bit solemn and yet peaceful.

The pianist, Mandy Kimm ’17, is a double major in Dance and Environmental Studies. As a dancer and an artist, she considered the exercise of improvisation a really important part of her practice.

“It’s kind of nice having the open space to see what material is in my body, what things want to be expressed and exploring that in a non-class setting, non-formal choreographic setting,” Kimm said.

It may have been the echoing music that attracted three more students and one faculty member to join the group successively. The energy generated in the room grew at a steady pace, and it became increasingly harder for an observer like me to keep up with all the unique movements of the dancers.

Their actions were not limited to the dance floor. Some utilized the thick, black curtains around the room and danced around them, occasionally dancing behind them and exposing only parts of the body. Some moved in front of one of the windows, from which the early fall sunlight found its way in the room, and the image became an almost silhouette photo in motion. Surprisingly, their distinct dance moves conveyed to me a sense of harmony rather than that of chaos or confusion.

The piano music also became more versatile. At some point, Kimm opened up the piano lid and plucked at the strings inside it. She also incorporated humming and speaking out poem-like sentences to incorporate with the piano. Some other dancers responded by gentle, melodic whistling and humming. All of these might have seemed rather random, but there is no doubt that every sound and movement made by the participants were naturally becoming integrated parts of the scene.

The interactions between dancers gradually became more important and obvious, as the session reached its final half hour. The piano stopped, and one dancer started to play music pieces and songs on her phone. For some time, two participants did almost identical moves side by side, imitating and following each other.

Another two engaged physically through complicated dance moves that one might see more often in a structured dance piece, such as holding onto and letting go of each other repeatedly. Emotions in the room grew stronger. More dancers had  satisfied, relaxed smiles on their faces.

The practice reached a climax with the ongoing music pieces played from the phone. The drumbeats enhanced the rhythm of movement, while other symphonic instruments added complexity to it. Participants and viewers alike were fully engaged and concentrated even after the last moment. The session ended with people greeting each othr and discussing the practice in calm, passionate tones. One could tell that the whole experience was quite uncommon.

Winfield acknowledged that for the curriculum, there have been “many guests, teachers or choreographers that lead space for improvisation.” For Open Space, however, there is no facilitator.

“People could come and go, to move in the space if they wanted to,” Winfield said.

The soundtrack that ended the practice session happened to be a popular old song called “What the World Needs Now,” which to me concluded the two hours pertinently.

The group hopes more members of the community will join the space on the coming Saturdays from 1-3 p.m. in the Mahaney Center for the Arts Concert Hall.

“We are hopeful that it will eventually draw people from the larger community, people that aren’t exclusively dance majors, or musicians,” Winfield said.