I’ve been having an ongoing discussion with Manhattanville College students in my contact improvisation class about improvisation and choreography. I am often troubled by how those terms are used. What do those words mean? Why are those terms habitually used diametrically? If choreography is “the composition and arrangement of dances” (from Merriam-Webster dictionary online) or “also know as dance composition” (from Wikipedia), does choreography equal composition? If improvisation is “to compose, recite, play, or sing extemporaneously” (Merriam-Webster online), is improvisation instantaneous composition? Is the defining difference between choreography and improvisation time of deliberation?

And where does composition occur – in the studio, on the stage, in someone’s thoughts or someone’s body? Who composes a dance – choreographers, directors, dancers, performers, audience? In making dances, it seems unavoidable to me that some decisions are made (consciously and/or not) well in advance, and some choices are always made while the dance is happening. Some decisions are even made not by the choreographer or dancers, but by the producers, the audience, the space. Perhaps the difference between choreography and improvisation lies in how many choices are made beforehand? But then where do you draw the line?

It seems to me that all choreography is created through various means. What parts are consciously chosen and how long before the performance those choices are made seems less important to me than how all those choices and elements work together. When you eat a meal, do you wonder if the chef followed someone else’s recipe or made it up on the spot? And would knowing the difference make you evaluate the taste of the meal differently? And even if the chef did follow a recipe, what if they threw in a little extra spice or used whole wheat instead of all-purpose flour as the recipe called for because they didn’t have any all-purpose in the pantry? Does when or how one creates a dance (or meal) give different value or importance to that dance (or meal)?

I would venture to say that current practices in dance have invalidated the concept of improvisation and choreography as rivals. The problem is that many people (in or outside of the dance field, myself included) continue to use these words in that oppositional way. It is habit. And I think we have not figured out what the alternative terms would be. I want new language.
Help me.

~Margaret Paek, Movement Research faculty and Artistic Advisory Council member


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  • Comparing creating a dance to creating a meal is the perfect way to get to the core of this dilemma. Food is still delicious (or disgusting) even if one knew the chef was following a recipe. Would it be more impressive if one found out the chef created this meal on the spot, or would it be more impressive if this was something he had made before and could make for you exactly the same again? Or is it more special because this meal will never happen again, and those tastes put together in that combination will only be tasted by you? Think of the chef. Is it worth giving up trying something new on the spot that you think will make the food that much better for the people that will enjoy it? Even though they were expecting to eat that exact same meal that you have created the same way many times. Are the answers to these questions the same if you think in terms of a choreographer, a dance, and an audience? Why is that?

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