The human body is an unusually expressive and sensitive instrument. People speak volumes through their physicality, and are constantly expressing their unique personality through body language and gesture. The body is the vehicle that moves us through life; it is the home from which we navigate the varied and changing terrain that our experiences present. People move through their lives in a state of the unknown; we are constantly adapting to our environment, the people around us, and the things in life that we don’t see coming. We make choices, observe how they create context and change in our lives, and make new choices as a result of what we perceive. We are always, one could say, improvising. As we notice what is happening around us, we both react to and live within that world, in constant dialogue with the elements of choice and risk embedded in the unknown.
Western’s Dance Team invites you to watch Phffft!, an internationally touring modern dance company under the artistic direction of choreographer Cyrus Khambatta, as they take the choice-making concepts imbedded in improvisation onto the stage. Phffft! is based out of Seattle and New York, and they will be performing in Bellingham this weekend as the first concert of the season in the Dance Lab series, sponsored by Western’s Dance Program. “This is the first time the company is presenting an entire evening of improvisation,” said Khambatta. “It should be a lot of fun— corny and silly to meaningful and serious dance.”
As a performance medium, improvisation can span a wide range of human experience and emotion. Using an improvisational technique called “the Six Viewpoints,” developed by choreographer Mary Overlie, the company will shift between the elements of space, story, time, emotion, movement and shape in order to discover and reveal the lingering questions and choices possible in any given moment of time.
As a student in the Experimental Theater Wing at NYU, Khambatta studied the Six Viewpoints approach to improvisation. He has been using the viewpoints in both performance and rehearsal ever since. He said these qualities inform movement, and offer a way into decision making while in improvisation. The Six Viewpoints work to “create focus and shift that focus from one aspect to another,” he said.
Khambatta talked about the nature of performing improvised work as a challenge to become increasingly aware of the uncertainty of a given moment. “What is the growing elephant in the room?” he said. “The challenge is to use improvisation as a means to discover the important or revealing part of a particular moment. The Six Viewpoints allow you to find that important moment through a shift of focus. The art is in the vacillating, one [element] creates a context for the other,” he said. “How do I take a risk when I’m not certain what is happening? It’s a research time in front of an audience.” The challenge is to use movement as a medium to explore and discover those critical moments in time. Taking risks is an essential part of this discovery, because the nature of improvisation is that the next moment is always unknown, uncertain, undiscovered and undefined.
“As human beings, we want to understand things immediately,” Khambatta said. This can be hard for an audience because in improvised work, understanding does not necessarily take the form of a linear story line, or an experience that is immediately identifiable. Khambatta strives to bring the audience into the work, asking the question, “How do we get to a deep, personal and intimate place, with the full realm of human experience, in the context of a presentation?” With the audience as “a grand witness,” each person is “witnessing you discover yourself and themselves, and their relationship with themselves and with you.”
This dialogue is made possible by the scope of physical language available through modern dance. Khambatta sees modern dance as, “very cinematic and rhythmical. You can choose lyrical or punctual. There is a huge range that is not included in other forms of dance, and that gives opportunity to exploit this shifting qualitatively and through form. [Dance] exposes a cross-section of the human psyche. Each person moving as they can and like to move, as a product of their own tick and unique personality,” he said. It “has the capacity for expressing something individual and personal.” Unlike ballet and folkloric forms, which are very structured, modern dance is “based on contemporary human experience.” But Khambatta stresses that the work his company performs is not just modern dance. He said that because he works with the Six Viewpoints, his work is multidisciplinary. “I don’t see boundaries,” he said, “I see fodder for creativity, for tonal and quality shift.”
In creating work, this personal connection and link to one’s unique movement voice is very important to Khambatta. He said he tries to pull out the intimate personal aspects of each dancer, working with each dancer’s unique talents and experiences. This concept of personal experience can be a good way to watch the show. For those unfamiliar with modern dance vocabulary, a modern dance performance can be confusing and bizarre. Khambatta hopes to overcome this confusion through the use of the Six Viewpoints, but offers some advice about how he approaches watching dance if you get confused.
“Pick someone whose movement is interesting and ask why it is interesting to you. What qualities and characteristics distinguish the movement and make it appeal to you? Ask ‘why do I like it?’ and let the dance be a source of information. Ask, ‘what is this information telling me about myself that I need to explore further?’ [Watching improvisation] is a great opportunity for watching another person or persons’ explore for you what you need to explore,” he said.
“Some people have strings of ourselves and our tendencies. Maybe you can see something in someone else’s movement that you could not have identified in yourself, but can relate to, or something you have been noticing in yourself and see how someone else deals with it.”
Phffft! performs at 6 and 8 p.m., on Friday, October 28, and at 8 p.m. on Saturday, October 29. The concerts will be held at Western’s off-campus dance studio and theater space, Ving! located at 311 E. Holly St. Tickets are $5 for students and $10 for general admission, and can be reserved by calling Western’s Box Office at 650- 6146.