Working Sessions: An Improvisational Collaboration

Working Sessions is an improvisational collaboration between Jeb Bishop, a musician who primarily plays trombone, and myself, Clyde Smith, a dancer who returned to dance performance with this project after over a decade’s absence.

The Rose Garden

The initial phase of Working Sessions took place in the fall of 2015 with a series of meetings in Raleigh, NC. We began meeting at The Rose Garden, picking spots in which to work, and improvising in the shared space until an ending for each set was found without preplanning.

Rather than dancing to the music or playing music cued by the dancing, we took a tip from the work of Merce Cunningham and John Cage and simply coexisted while pursuing separate actions. Yet we each found ourselves affected by the presence of the other as we knew would happen. Between each set we discussed our experiences and shared thoughts which also affected our work. Eventually we began to find a sense of working together while maintaining a great deal of autonomy.

NC State Campus

After a few sessions at The Rose Garden, where few saw us working, we moved to the NC State campus where we sometimes had an audience in the form of passersby. But the idea was to never cater to an audience and I, in particular, worked on what I imagined as internal impulses that resisted presentational aspects.

Much of my own efforts were about preparing myself to stay focused on improvising when we finally had an audience rather than altering my movement in a manner designed to please an audience. Jeb’s extensive experience of improvising in live settings meant that he had mostly already grappled with and chosen ways to address such issues long prior to our meetings.

The spaces we chose became an important part of the work and, in many ways, set the stage for the approach we each took. I found having spatial boundaries, as opposed to an open stage, to be of particular importance. Jeb often remarked on the sonic elements of particular spaces that allowed him to hear more of what he was playing.

CAM Raleigh

After a series of such meetings Jeb announced an upcoming move to Boston and we took the opportunity work in a setting in which an audience would definitely be present.

Gab Smith, Executive Director of the arts space CAM Raleigh, gracefully accepted our proposal to participate in a First Friday evening with an ambiguous plan in which we would be unannounced and would find spots in the relatively large space in which to work at different points in the evening. She was exceptionally open, even for someone in the arts, and allowed us to do what we needed to do at that point in our development.

This was a productive evening that capped off the first phase of our investigation. First Fridays tend to be full of people wandering around, socializing and checking out some art along the way. Some of these folks checked out our activities that occurred in one of the gallery spaces downstairs, outside on the sidewalk and in a landing on an internal staircase.

The event was particularly important for me having not been in front of an audience for many years and struggling with finding a way to maintain an improvisational focus with an audience present. I was grateful for the fact that not many stuck around and watched us for long which gave me a chance to adjust to an opportunity which honestly frightened me a bit at the time.

There was minimal documentation but it did give me an chance to realize that I had indeed found a rigorous way to avoid pleasing onlookers while also helping me recognize the opportunity to eventually explore a wider range of motion within the parameters of our experiments.

Jeb also seemed pleased with our work. We discuss it much more thoroughly in a dialogue posted here at Cultural Research.

The Next Phase

In October of 2016 we’ll be working with filmmaker and videographer Neal Hutcheson of Sucker Punch Pictures to create videos based on our collaboration. Jeb and I both crave documentation of our work in order to better understand what we’re doing and to share it with others.

But these sessions will also give us an opportunity to expand our collaboration to include a third person in the process and Neal is an excellent individual with which to work.

I look forward to sharing the fruits of our second phase at a future date.

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