The Multidisciplinary Body & Total Improvisation


I. The Multidisciplinary Body

Integration has been of great interest to me since residing here at Gomarduli Zen Garden. I mentioned in the last reflective article (Noguchi & Contact) that this space offers various body practices which could be supplemented with Noguchi taiso. But any practice of the body with enough of an open mind could be supplemented with any other practice of the body. Exposing oneself to various movement disciplines I argue is a tremendous way to approach body awareness and training.

Yet some specialists in any given discipline might argue that this is the path of the “jack of all trades, master of none.” I have even heard a Qigong practitioner once say that if one studies Qigong, one only studies Qigong.

But this frame of thinking can be detrimental to our personal understanding of the body and the creative process. At the extreme end, this state can be like repeating a word over and over until the word vanishes altogether. A plateau in progress is reached, a block. Specific practices can stay fresh not by indefinitely storing them in the freezer of their own systems but by allowing them to breathe with any of life’s interconnections.

Multidisciplinary study does not entail we will have no dominant discipline or dominant starting place. My starting place, for instance, is butoh. What this type of study entails is allowing space for the discipline to grow or shrink in accordance with the present space-time.

The multidisciplinary body is a body viewed from multiple angles, a kaleidoscopic body, a rhizomic body. Cultivating this body means becoming an excavator of body disciplines, digging down to any perceived roots and transplanting these roots (or parts of them) into other body disciplines to observe what will happen. This is the body as laboratory and the mover as mad scientist.

II. Total Improvisation

“Grownups were learning how to play again.” – Andre Gregory in My Dinner With Andre (Beehive Scene)

What the multidisciplinary body is to the novel mover, total improvisation is to the novel improviser. Just as certain body disciplines can lose magic by being too confined within their own system, the same can occur with improvisation.

When one hears the term improvisation, one might already assume a strict confinement. The confinement comes in the improvisational genre. Is this a musical or sound improvisation, a contemporary dance improvisation, a contact improvisation, or a theatre improvisation?

But how about we allow for all of the above and more? What about the healing/somatic improvisation, ecstatic dance improvisation, presence/meditation improvisation, and sacred/prayer improvisation?

If it sounds like too much, it isn’t. It all happened 2 weeks ago here at the cafeteria of Gomarduli spontaneously. Multiple disciplines played out. There was no one dominating form of improvisation, but multiple forms playing together in harmony. The group was connected in a network of improvisational forms.

To name a few of the occurrences and to draw a picture of that night, at any given moment, there were participants: (1) dancing to the music as if in club atmosphere; (2) dancing in contact improvisation; (3) dancing in a solo formal or contemporary dance manner; (4) dancing butoh-like; (5) manipulating items of the cafeteria such as cups, water, and silverware (props often losing their intentional use); (6) improvising vocally across many ranges; (7) sound making from the space itself such as floor, table, chairs; (8) submitting to body actions resembling performance art such as being restrained and decorated or teased; (9) participating in devotional ritual (human puja); (10) engaging in seated meditation; (11) performing group fire ritual (with one candle).

This was a spontaneous total improvisation/jam (other names proposed are general improvisation/jam, non-genre improvisation/jam, and free improvisation/jam).

But what is this phenomenon? The theatre director Jerzy Grotowski experimented with such performances (performance artists might call them happenings). Grotowski organized what he termed the beehive (a form of paratheater) which was an open improvisation between 3 to 220 participants. (Kolankiewicz).

See the Beehive scene from My Dinner with Andre:

Grotowski himself, however, would go on to criticize his own creation on the ground that it breeds tropes and stock emotional reactions. This was a critique on the quality of the performance (Kolankiewicz).

But a total improvisation does not necessarily mean the quality of the performance or body practice has to be amateur. Performative quality will depend on the individual and their degree of multidisciplinary body, ability to embrace change, and ability to tune into both internal and external environment simultaneously.

Because Gomarduli has been already engaged in bringing various body practices, I say this facility is an ideal space to exercise both the multidisciplinary body and total improvisation.

In two weeks, the somatic guides Christine Cole and Nitzon Ledermann will arrive to bring us yet another body perspective to possibly use for our next magical total improvisation.

Kolankiewicz, Leszek, Na drodze do kultury czynnej. O działalności instytutu Grotowskiego Teatr Laboratorium w latach 1970–1977, opracowanie, dokumentacja prasowa Leszek Kolankiewicz, Instytut Aktora – Teatr Laboratorium, Wrocław 1978.

Noguchi & Contact Improvisation

Several years it has been since I have taken a movement class in something other than butoh or Noguchi taiso. Here at Gomarduli Zen Garden with its variety of movement practice offerings, I have been able to revisit movement practices of my past with fresh eyes such as Contemporary dance, contact improvisation (CI), and even yoga.

Being reintroduced, I could not help but to open an investigation in how butoh and Noguchi taiso could accompany or even possibly enhance at times these practices. Other disciplines can serve to inspire new visions for a dominant discipline. In my case, Butoh and Noguchi are my dominant disciplines.

Today in Otto Akkanen’s CI class, we entered into a water body that emphasized the least amount of muscular effort needed to move with a partner. Curiously, this concept of the water body is at the very core of the Noguchi practice. This is a Japanese movement technique that focuses on the body as a “water bag” with muscles acting as sensors.

As noted in my butoh manual, “Noguchi Taiso is one such movement discipline that serves to evoke the effortless body by drawing upon fluidity (water), gravity, and strings. Gravity is not fought against, but embraced.” (Koan)

Noguchi has been adopted as a body conditioning supplement for many butoh dancers. One reason may be due to the Noguchi body itself which can resemble the weakened, sleepy or “dead” body that the butoh dancer often dances. Another reason may be that the Noguchi philosophy is about allowing for maximum (or nearly maximum) receptivity of external influences. In both Noguchi and butoh, the dancer is actually being danced or “moved” instead of the mover doing the moving.

Four notable butoh artists with a base in Noguchi for instance include Yumiko Yoshioka, Imre Thormann, Minako Seki, and my mentor Julie Becton Gillum.

In the case of CI, I observe that quite a bit of muscle movement is often used (especially large, external muscles). As Otto apparently realized, the water body is one way to increase movement efficiency. Who doesn’t want to be a more efficient mover? Who doesn’t seek more flow?

So Noguchi (and butoh) could add a nice touch to CI, but it does not have to be limited to only that. I see endless potential in anything regarding movement, even everyday life movement.

Butoh has often utilized duet and group work in close proximity or close contact. Noguchi however has always been more of a solo practice, but finding ways to duet or group work Noguchi could prove useful.

As I continue to integrate Noguchi and butoh into other movement practices, the more discoveries will for sure be made.

Koan, Adam. Shadowbody Butoh Manual. Shadowbody. 2021.