Room for Improv-ment | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Room for Improv-ment 

Dance: Movement Forum brings on-the-fly choreography to The Game.

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Improvisation isn’t always pretty. A guitar solo, a comedy routine or a fire-and-brimstone sermon assembled on the fly can be captivating one moment, incomprehensible the next. In the production The Game, Movement Forum Improvisational Dance Company founder Graham Brown’s commitment to clarity has helped him avoid the murkiness and obscurity that are common pitfalls of improvisation and produce engaging performance art with a modern-dance foundation.

Dancer Danell Hathaway explains that—for audience members—clarity means readily apparent storylines, pop-culture references and motifs (breakbeats and robot dogs, anyone?), and a companywide movement vocabulary that invites onlookers to join in the dance conversation.
“The audience loves near-misses,” Hathaway says. “A flop takes them out of their comfort zone. They thrive on seeing a performer take risks and have an ‘a-ha’ moment on stage. There are so many more opportunities for those types of moments when you improvise.”

Brown says audiences tend to reject movements too steeped in slapstick or too over-the-top. Onlookers embrace Samba and other Latin American derivatives, Capoeira (a form of acrobatic Brazilian martial arts in which some of the eight Movement Forum dancers are well-versed), and any of the fiery movements that result from dancers agitating one another and egging one another on.

Brown and Hathaway also agree that “touchy-feely” pieces are absolute poison. Sentimentality, melodrama and esoteric explorations of one’s ailing soul always end up stale. Such themes are the improvisational dance equivalent of an amateur open-mic night at a bohemian coffee shop.

Hathaway notes that one of the greatest advantages of improvisation is, if a series of movements is going nowhere, the dancers have total freedom to scrap the sequence and change course. “We have all gotten a lot better at those difficult transitions. They don’t happen as often because we’re building a collective language of movement, and we can communicate pretty well. But when they do, we usually strive for a little bit of humor,” Brown says.

A typical Movement Forum rehearsal consists of a short warm-up and an extended brainstorming session that sometimes veers off the map. Brown will pose a question (“How do our beliefs about zodiac signs affect our personalities?”) or scenario (a botched blind date) and ask his dancers to ruminate on the subject with their extensive dance vocabularies.

Hathaway admits to occasional frustration. “Movement Forum shows have themes and structure,” he says, “but it’s definitely a different performance every single time. It is exhilarating and totally exhausting to be a member of a dance company like this one, because you put so much mental and physical energy into everything, and there is still always this element of uncertainty.”

Maryland-born Brown started the Movement Forum, sponsored by the Pickle Company and TRASA Urban Arts Collective, approximately four years ago because he wanted to replicate the spontaneity and electricity he experienced whenever he found himself in the streets, near a circle of break dancers. And the Movement Forum’s first performances were literally in the streets of Salt Lake City. Two of the troupe’s premiere performances took place at the Downtown Farmers’ Market in Pioneer Park and in Library Square. Brown has fond memories of those early performances, because—due to the lack of elevated stage and the casual air of the unconventional venues—he and his dancers were able to interact and connect with the audience in a unique way. Brown’s yearning for electricity and spontaneity was satisfied.

The fledging street performances inspired Brown to host free monthly Movement Forum jams, which enable artists, students and the general public to do dance improvisation of their own. The jams—which are held the last Saturday of each month in Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School’s dance studio—have been well received.

“I wanted to participate in a form of dance where you always have to be present,” Brown says. “When you’re working on a piece of choreography, you can shut your mind off and just learn the steps. Some dancers can eventually make that piece of choreography come alive, some can’t. With improv, you have to be all there all the time, or else it falls flat,” Brown says.

The Movement Forum recently debuted The Game at New York City’s International Fringe Festival, an avant-garde performing arts festival that takes place at various venues around the Big Apple every August. The Game employs audience applause, feedback and Gong Show-style tactics to gauge the success or failure of a given piece of improv.

“I was amazed at how many people came up and talked to us after the performance,” Hathaway says. “They didn’t believe that we made up our movements as we went along. The audience was very vocal. We even had some return audience members who came back to see additional performances. They wanted to confirm that we really could improvise.”

THE GAME@ Larimer Center, Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School, 800 S. Lincoln, Sept. 7-8, 7 p.m. 913-9725 
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About The Author

Jenny Poplar

Jenny Poplar is both a dancer and a frequent City Weekly contributor.

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