Chapter 5 - It's not what you do its the way that you do it

This chapter discusses improvisation on two levels. The first, an explicit practice focusing on the work of Katie Duck (Duck, 2001) and at the same time, improvisation as an implicit part of all performed action.

Katie duck is a dancer, choreographer and teacher. From 1973-6 she toured extensively with the collaborative company Salt Lake City Mine Troupe. She left the United States in 1976 to live in Amsterdam, Holland and toured throughout Europe as a performer in solo productions, in duet with Carlos Traffic, and in improvisations with local musicians and artists. In 1979, she moved to Italy where she formed the company GROUPO who toured throughout Europe with the productions 'Ruttles', 'The Orange Man', Brown Eye Green Eye' and 'Mind the Gap'. In 1986 she accepted a senior lecturer position at Dartington College of Arts teaching for the theatre department and led the choreography course. In 1991 she accepted a position at the AHK dance department in Amsterdam where she still teaches composition, improvisation and technique. Throughout her career Duck has worked with music and dance artists who share her passion for collaborating music, text and dance in improvised performances.


Improvisation practises present-ness; how we do what we do. I will explain improvisation as a means to understanding the feeling of what happens to a performer who is conscious in and of what is happening in the present tense as they perform. Duck's improvisation practise develops an awareness of a body(s) presence within time and space. I am writing about Duck's work as an explicit practise of improvisation in order to then illuminate improvisation as it functions implicitly within all live acts: as a writing of the space between the performer and their text-activity: as the act of language or as the relationship they have with their selves. I improvise regularly with Duck in her improvisation collective Magpie. Through this practise of improvisation I have learned more of the relationship I have with my selves.

Critical analysis postures towards the live in theory but circumvent improvisation, excluding actual experience or practice as part of these critical frames. Improvisation is central to the issue of analysis and a discourse that can include the present tense and the body's condition of being.  Principles of improvisation can contribute fundamentally to an understanding of the here-and-now of live art for the performer and for the witness.

Improvisation is a de-centralising practice. It demands a shift in the spectator's gaze from thinking about what they are seeing to allowing all of the senses to be open, collaborating within 'one' producing a more total experience of 'the feeling of what happens'. I have borrowed these words from the title of the book by Antonio Damasio (1995), one of the world's leading experts on the neuro-physiology of emotions. In this book Damasio speaks about how our sense of being arises out of our development of emotion. At its core, human consciousness is consciousness of the feeling, experiencing self, the very thought of oneself. The feeling of what happens as it influences my writing is meaning 'how thought feels'. What occurs to us as thought, which is as physical and actual an occurrence as it is our conscious self. Being in the present tense can allow one to experience thought on a visceral level. Thought is a conversation. It is the relationship I am having with myself. 'Myself' in this performing state involves the space and time over which my selves spread and thus in part become. 


Improvisation is a liminalising activity, which stirs up and increases the potential for transformation in the embodied, collective and shared spaces of performance. The performer who is unconscious to the feeling of what happens, who has not acknowledged the improvisation (space) which is part of her live act succumbs to and incites an agoraphobia: a fear and distrust of social spaces that produces a frigid and defensive presence.

This chapter writes through my own participation within and observation of Duck's working methods both as her student and later as a member of Magpie. I will also refer to Duck through conversations and interviews we have had over the course of my research and around Duck's participation in the Practising Presence event (Performance/Workshop, 2001). Her theories remain largely unpublished and unwritten, existing almost solely within the discourse that occurs through her practice. Duck's work is ultimately live, and through a rigorous physical practice of what we could call spatial ethics, engages the performer in the present.

This chapter discusses the teaching and the methodologies of Duck's work using social, literary, physical, experiential and subjective planes of analysis. I am writing my ethics, my subjunctive 'what-if's into the morality of an existent form. Throughout this writing I ask the reader to allow my slippage between tenses and positions. This is a conscious decision to presence them all in this writing, as co-writers. The performing body is always spectator to her own actions. My references to audience-and-performer are folded into one another. They too are purposefully blurred.

To introduce Duck I analyse first her position as an improviser within western dance art. Peggy Phelan in her essay 'Dance and the History of Hysteria writes that “the legacy of psychoanalysis” allows us to see that bodies can be endlessly remade, re choreographed, outside the traditional architectonics of human reproduction. Phelan writes about a Balanchine ballerina through the history of hysteria.

As Balanchine's ballet enters the pedagogical institution, conscious interpretation of technique is turned into science. The pivot of this interpretation revolves around the question of femininity of the Balanchine ballerina. The success or failure of Balanchine's ballet will be determined and measured by the movement phrases performed by the feminine body. She will be required to have a technique that “leaves nothing to be desired” and she will be measured according to her skill at reproducing his vision of her moving. And the performance of this transference is the true agon of dance history and the history of hysteria (Phelan, 1993: 101).

In respect to the method of psychoanalysis and the traumatised body, the relationship between the doctor and the patient creates an interpretation of a symptom that gives the body temporal coherence. To internalise the psychoanalytic positions of doctor and patient the patient's presence is occurring let us say unconsciously and perpetually. The role of the doctor is to shift unconsciousness towards awareness. To engage in a matter of discourse with and observation of 'the symptom' stimulates the patient to engage also with this 'symptom' as it shifts into the centre of the event, of the engaged presence of doctor and patient. Transformation can be said to occur out of this interlocking: A movement out of 'centre' of 'self' and into site, dispersing ones centre and experiencing a loss of self. Within the present tense, I experience myself as dialogue, as relation. Improvisation is the practice of this liminality and the straddling of this threshold and this shift of centre. In psychoanalysis this shift mobilises a physical trauma and instigates the symptoms remission. This metaphor describes the ecology of transformation. In my opinion this metaphor can be internalised in as much as the relationship is, in dint of its opposition, a body conscious of the simultaneous presence of both, of in the first place these two positions and then as well the oscillating duplicity of existing in between. Consciousness, practised through improvisation in the presence of a public, as physically as possible passes through real time and space and feels the collective presence of others. This lends form to that which is thinking before it becomes thought and describes how 'what' happens can become diffused (with what ifs and possibilities) by the significant and multiple touch of 'how' it comes to be. Duck's work within the field of dance fundamentally undermines the values upon which the pedagogical institution of western dance is built. The explicit practice of improvisation as performance disturbs the ground on which modern dance is built, and which contemporary dance still sits. Improvisation as discussed, submerged in the feminine, which makes narrow the science of interpretation to which Phelan refers. Improvisation is “hysterical”.


If the choreographer can change roles after so many years of power and prestige in the dance field, our heroic hang-ups and our search for the masterpiece will go straight out of the window. This is tough for the big industries of dance to do. This is real 'the dinosaur is dying' stuff. The structure is in for a huge renovation once improvisation is practised, realised and part of the way choreography is placed and aligned within dance and in music. Dance is a time art, is one of duration and therefore improvisation is the most intensive view one can possibly take on the art form for what it actually is. Duck(interview 2002)


Duck, with the collaborators of Magpie, (a variable collective of musicians-dancers-performers) who have been improvising performances together for almost ten years), practises what would in musical terms be called 'free improvisation'. The performances are not produced out of mathematical structures or choreographies. Duck does not author what is termed in dance as 'structured improvisation'. Magpie does its best to contradict and complicate the pose of mastery, to produce and impose masculine vision. Improvisation is not in this case the moment of 'lead solo' left to rise above and over what is rendered chorus, as one is allowed freedom to demonstrate his wingspan, his best tricks. Duck's improvisation works to leave no-thing to be desired. Free improvisation sets nothing, and strives to impose nothing. Rather it is a researching, a hearing silence, and a seeing space, in direct contact with the here and now.

 Everything is right, nothing is wrong. Improvisation is often used as a workshop device that postures towards a 'non-judgemental' mind (Zaporah 1995: 5) allowing groups of perhaps untrained dancers to move freely outside the perameters set out by the pedagogical dance art. Improvisation is often, in such cases a means of providing access into an otherwise inaccessible art form. Improvisation allows for movement for pleasure and for an improved sense of health or well being that any physical activity can provide. Improvisation can be the basis then for a movement therapy, given as an opportunity to indulge (to pay attention to) oneself in a protective and politically correct environment. I have no problem that I need to discuss with these therapeutic, esoteric explorations except to introduce the shift of focus from improvisation as a democratic, inclusive 'anything goes', protective site of self indulgence and place focus on space and time as unexplored territory, identifying the real-time-ness of a situation. This state is unprotected, a felt exposure.

Everything is right and no thing is wrong.

Nothing is wrong nothing is wrong nothing is wrong nothing is wrong nothing is wrong nothing is wrong.

Improvisation as performance illuminates how the contrasting notions of self-indulgence and self-expression can become blurred for the performer. It is a subtle but fundamental shift between what is for me live and not live. Improvisation acknowledges consciousness within real time and space, and what I am naming the feminine. To indulge one self is oppositional as this state uses site or rather plays on not with it (as she moves she will bang into walls, have no peripheral vision, she will be off centre, ungrounded, pretending or believing that she is being moved when she is just moving around. In the therapeutic improvisation a mover might indeed be blindfolded or encouraged to close her eyes so as to not be 'distracted' by 'exterior' influences).

I am forced out of my body house and out of what matters to me. I focus on my orifices, pores of departure.

Improvisation is most often described as 'making it up as you go along'. This is a lazy way to describe improvisation and it is incorrect. The introduction to Ruth Zaporah's book Action Theatre - Improvising Presence, in its introduction describes “the delicious play of making it up on the spot - of improvising” (2). There is a rigour and an absolute craft involved in good improvisation. The craft is to keep oneself, half an eye, one eye, in the room, in the real world in here. The real craft is to not make anything up. The craft of improvisation is to push away any identification of oneself as 'responsible' for 'making something happen. One is responsible however, for letting something happen.

You have to listen to the space... as if it were an old (dying) animal, in order to understand your role. You cannot create a solo: you can only be left with one that you are now responsible for executing in time (Duck, Workshop 2001)

There is a placement of effort, a focus and consciousness in this practise and this focus is necessary preparation for anybody wishing to engage with and communicate through the medium of the live. I am placing improvisation as a liminal act between all performance acts. The site of performance as an embodied temporal space is also a total body in the condition of being one. Thus the practice of improvisation, for the performer in training is the most important technology for the body to practise before choosing the concepts and materials with which to work.


All performance acts are improvised. No matter how predetermined, choreographed or rehearsed a set of actions/images/words may be, on some level, we are improvising because events are unfolding in real time and space. It is more correct to describe improvisation as not knowing what is going to happen. Here is un-chartered territory (here be dragons) where we find the amateur whose sensibility, whose fragility, geniality and willingness to express are the tools of their creativity.

The performers in Magpie are highly skilled. They are engendered with trainings, experience and repertoire. Magpie works towards a dissolving and a revealing of 'real-life-in-here', of the space and condition we are in. This posture challenges the institutional gazes and buildings within which these improvisations take place. It does so as it defers the distinction between process and product. The economy and value structures of dance still depend on the authoring positions of choreographers, directors, and dramaturges. Improvisation disturbs these roles as the performer embodies and holds court with them.

There is no singular choreography, direction, design or narrative super imposed upon, or preconceived before the performance happens. The performer is a live and multiple writing. Duck's work has 'nothing to show'. No big production numbers, no external mentoring, no choreographic style. Understandably this renders Duck marginalized within the dance field.


Duck's practice has formed itself through the symbiosis of instinct and necessity. Duck has a relationship in whatever marginal or fractious way with 'the institution' and this forms the decentralising politics of her practice. Duck is master of problem solving, reducing any dependency on or obligation towards the institution. Her practice revises the institution's internal structures. However, the institution tends to close its ears, at best acknowledging improvisation as 'other' and not part of what is.

Improvisation is the premise of a desire. This is an expression of the subject through the site of performance as the body of desire: to express the feminine: rapture, jouissance, autoeroticism, poetry. Not to penetrate, to invade and conquer but to touch upon, and become part of. The subject then, occurs to/as all of us and cause/effects a shift in our body's intent.

I consider expression here as the instance of transformation. This is not an expression of private emotions by the subject/performer, but the subject as expressed through the particular meanings or forces at play within embodied social spaces. I use the word 'expression' to be purposefully challenging in my proximity to expressionism. Writing site into the performing subject takes the feminine imaginary into my own subject. 'She' becomes part of who I am. Through a conceptual and theoretical fear of expressing the subject/the author, as a singular, masculine entity she has become written out, replaced by the object, the conceptual body. It feels necessary to write the revised and reaffirmed she right into the middle of body politics. Once the subject is feminised, then expression of this subject will optimise the potential of lived social spaces and lead the subject(s) towards transformation returning us to a pleasure of performance: of being (t)here.


The writer writes (the performer performs) in a language and in a logic whose proper system, laws, and life his discourse by definition cannot dominate absolutely. He uses them only by letting himself, after a fashion and up to a point, be governed by the system. And the reader (audience) must always aim at a certain relationship, unperceived by the writer (performer), between what he commands and what he does not command of the patterns of the language that he uses (Barthes, 1977 :172).

The conceptual body and the post modern presence to which I have referred have stripped the body of its tendency to express emotional truths which define a 'person' or that explain the subject. I propose that in order to move on in our discourse of the body we must look again to expressionism after the feminisation of the subject, not as an aesthetic but as an attitude, and look again then at technical training for the contemporary performer.

Mina Kaylan writes that


In terms of the practical methodology of the performance act, presence refers to the most important skill of the actor or performer, a skill which comes into play during the act of performance i.e. it is not a technique independent of an audience like juggling or fencing (Kaylan, 1997: 48).

If I approach the body as language - the technically trained body is a privileged term within this language. For the performer, a physical technical training provides a hallmark. Technique is only defined as such by how it functions as a commodity. Technical skill is problematic both in respect to the highly trained and the untrained body in performance. I pose technique as artefact and improvisation not as a technique for the body but as a technology for the subject(s) as it moves.

Techniques, no matter how hybrid or 'new' in style and content, are inevitably attached to a history and referred to a known 'style', one which brings critical concern and necessary attention to 'it' in the body.  Presently, it is only through these historic techniques as languages, that a body might viscerally and psychologically prepare her self for 'the stage'.

Phillip B Zarrilli assimilates acting training with other techniques of disciplining the body, incorporating techniques “such as aerobics, weight training...military drills, etc.” and suggests that we approach all of these as “technologies” of the body, referring to Foucault's sense that they are practices through which “humans develop knowledge about themselves” (Zarrilli, 1995: 72). What Zarrilli, through Foucault, is pointing out is that with any technical training there will always be an indeterminable relationship between that technique and the “discourses and assumptions which inform how that set of techniques is understood and/or represented” (72). The training and practice of a technique should only ever be a vehicle for us to have a dialogue between that thing and ourselves. I propose that improvisation practises and develops this dialogue and therefore is the most appropriate technology for the performer to consider. This defers, however temporarily, the 'what' of the text act. It does not concern the performer in the first place with the object of performance but rather engages her in her own shifting positions in relation to object.  Technique is object-subject. Technique is not hiding the body but writing the body.

Techniques are languages. They do not say anything in themselves. It is how we engage with language and in what context it gets used that makes language speak. The term performativity was invented by J L Austin to describe sentences or utterances which

A) Do not 'describe' or 'report; or constate anything at all, are not 'true' or false'; and B) the uttering of the sentence is, or is a part of, the doing of an action, which again would not normally be described as, or as 'just saying something' (Austin, 1962: 5).

Physical techniques must be approached like performatives otherwise, true to Austin's definition of the word they masquerade as constative, as words/actions that mean something. Austin rightly points out that although performatives do not by definition masquerade as “statements or facts” it is quite common that sentences or utterances that fall into the category of performative are actually masquerading as something that means something. He gives various examples. one being the words 'I do' spoken in the marriage ceremony.

It seems clear that to utter this sentence is not to describe my doing of what I should be said in so uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it... I am not (either) reporting on a marriage: I am indulging in it.” The name is clearly derived from 'perform', indicating that “the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action - it is not normally thought of as just saying something (6).

When we say 'I love you' we perform the act of loving by saying those words. The words mean nothing in themselves and are made sense of by their context and/or accompanying actions.  As a witness of live art a person can exercise their liberty to experience the work for themselves in and amongst the signature, inscription or the hand of the artist. Performativity is a transitive score that writes meaning over the fixed score or rather over what is there. It is possible to misunderstand that the body, because it 'performs', need not consider performativity. However the performance act can easily transpire as constative 'masquerading' as perfomative. It happens all the time. (Imagine a performer standing on stage and thinking she can sing brilliantly in tune when actually she is singing slightly flat. Imagine a performer standing on stage and knowing that she sings slightly flat then singing anyway. This knowledge or this consciousness on behalf of the performer is not necessarily announced, but it is most definitely felt by the witness).

Austin warns us against 'the masquerade', performatives that masquerade as statements or facts. We can extend this to the notion that a performing body, especially with regard to technique, and indeed virtuosity, succeeds in giving an impression that it either knows better what is happening or what something might 'mean'.  I want to include a quote from Italian performance maker Romeo Castellucci. Castellucci chooses to work with untrained performers. If he uses professional performers they are routinely circus trained or able to perform spectacular acts such as contortion or trapeze. Romeo Castellucci often works with children and animals. In an essay entitled 'The Super Technique of the Animal' he writes,

I despise technique: it is miserable and lacks the courage to declare its misery. It feigns artfulness in order to sell itself easily. It pretends to be modest, to be a discipline surrounded with mystique. Technique cannot pretend; it is not skilled. The other side of the coin is the ideology of spontaneity; it is its destiny. Technique must be overcome: economy should have nothing to do with theatre. My goal is a technique that moves beyond itself - a super-technique resting on its own, vanished, agnostic and unprotected operation. Close to chance, to invisibility, as well as touching its opposite - the super-technique of the animal (Castellucci, 2000: 64).

The way a body performs has been written and re-written by theatre and dance theorists and practitioners. Still, virtuosity and the spectacular body, in light of their overtly sophisticated 'text' succeed in perpetuating a value, commodity and economic 'status' which are imposed upon the performing body and which leaves 'other' ways of presencing silenced and 'poor'. Improvisation's lack of visibility within the institutions of dance is due to the lack of interest that dominant art culture has in virtuosity's opposite. Post modernism and contemporary cultural theory have attended to the virtuosic out of and against the historical paradigm of expressionism within modernism.


Mina Kaylan affirms that Barthes' 'grain' is analogous to that of presence in the performance text. This quality, she adds is a “differential that is independent of the technical competence or accuracy of the singing” (Kaylan, 1977: 53). A performer's presence is qualified by Kaylan as significance, as the grain. I borrow again Kristeva's terms geno-text and pheno-text to theoretically frame Ducks processes. These terms are used to distinguish between the song of the voice with grain and that without: the geno-song and the pheno-song respectively.

The geno-text is not linguistic (in the sense understood by structural or generative linguistics). It is rather a process, which tends to articulate structures that are ephemeral (unstable, threatened by drive charges, 'quanta' rather than 'marks') and non-signifying (in Basil, 1986: 121).

To improvise is to be in and of this process. One's senses of self is ephemeral, or at least anything that one knows' is 'short lived' or glimpsed, as one is in a process of losing and finding (touching) one's selves. Improvisation is practised between the body and the text-act and is part of the way that writing is placed in time. Improvisation opens exactly the space that the pedagogy of dance history succeeds in closing, or passing off into the nothing-ness of 'empty' space. Improvisation trains a body about to write. My authorship is surrendered as the relationship that I have with myself is subjected to the (w)hole space of theatre where I enter time. Space without time is a disabled concept. The practice of improvisation is specific to time and enables space to occur. The subject does not express her own ideology of space. If she enters time she is realising herself and presencing herself as part of site.

Indelible to a time based, site specific performance is choice and the offer of choice. For Duck, “the performer has to be able to be in constant process with choice and chance” (Duck, Workshop 2001). The inclusion of chance as a conscious and motivating tool in art can be traced back to the turn of last century, to the Da-da movement. Tristan Tzara describes chance and a time based art in the following statement.

Referring to the occurrence of different events at the same time, it turns the sequence of a=b=c=d, into a-b-c-d, and attempts to transform the problem of the ear into a problem of the face. Simultaneity is against what has become and for what is becoming. While I, for example, become successfully aware that I punched a lady on the face yesterday and washed my hands an hour ago, the screeching of a tram brake and the crash of a brick falling from a roof reach my ear simultaneously and my outward or inward ear rouses itself to seize, in the simultaneity of these events, a swift meaning of life (in Gordon, 1987: 45).

The Da-daists were advocators of an attitude and an art work which implied the viewer and the performer, in time, in a collaborative moment/movement introducing a conscious, conceptual and explicit practise of choice and chance; of allowing space within structures which let the artwork in some ways occur by chance and, a conceptual constructing of artwork which both incites simultaneity and lifts the burden of authored artistic statement off the artist. Marcelle Duchamp insisted on the complicity between viewer and artist. His insistence on the primacy of ideas over retinal qualities in art made manifest the 'readymade', making art a matter not of the artist's creation but rather of the artist's intention.


All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act (in Lebel, 1959: 78).


Chance as structure enabled collaborations by artists in different fields.  What was introduced into arts practice was the ability to see everything that the body does potentially as dance and to hear all sound potentially as music. Indeed what began was a consideration of actual lived experience, of space not as no thing, but as something. Once chance is implied there is an acknowledgement of, and re-defining of 'the mistake' and of virtuosity.  There is no longer something that should or should not happen. The spectator can consider every element as an equally present and signifying phenomenon including his or her own presence and experience of an artwork. The self and the act of creating/writing, in order to incite co-writing post Duchamp could now be submerged within and presented as dynamic accents within time and space. Art then, is serving a frame through which to see and hear life in perpetually new ways.

In Cage's music composition, he leaves time to the choice of the musicians and sets the melodic and/or sound areas. In a Cunningham choreography he leaves space, direction and the order of the movement combinations to the choice of dancers and sets the movement and movement phrases. Providing choice is how we can create moments of chance. If there is no choice given to a performer then the relativity that 'chance' implies cannot happen (Duck, Workshop 2001).


The discussion of improvisation moves us beyond aesthetics. Improvisation is not a form and what is important to stress is that improvisation is not dance. Improvisation is an approach, an attitude and an understanding of performing.

Within Duck's practice, an intense study of the subject attends to 'performance anxiety' as it 'names' the subject. What is lacking in discourse is a useful articulation of 'the feeling of what happens' for the performer and to the performer who attempts to place herself in the position of reader and co-writer of a live text. This shift and placement of attention has been written for and about the reader who is simultaneously liberated and lost, but who is also writing. When applied to the performing body specifically, there is a processual movement, an intense oscillation between reader-writer, and watcher-seen. The relevant differences between the spectator and the performer are how they are named as such and how they arrive (t)here, in the permissive state of their 'set-up'. The performer-artist's ambition to blur this contract and these roles exists in how the performer takes part and observes the action as it happens: As she makes and allows 'it' to happen.  I wish to turn to the traumatic state of 'the stage' and of this oscillating gaze between the performer and the spectator (their ultimate duality as performer-spectator). When one begins to practise with Duck one is immediately confronted by performance anxiety. A performer is asked to enter a defined space in a room. There are witnesses. Entering into a site/sight she will first experience extreme self-consciousness. In Self-consciousness and Social Anxiety, Arnold Buss defines audience anxiety as “fear, tension, and disorganisation in front of an audience.” He isolates as one of its immediate causes “acute public self-awareness” and describes this state.

The audience scrutinise his appearance and behaviour, inducing an intense awareness of him self as a social object. As long as he remains in this state he will remain at a peak level of audience anxiety. As soon as his attention shifts from himself, his anxiety level drops sharply (Buss, 1980: 165).

The anxiety produced is thus not a result of our self-awareness but of how we perceive ourselves in the eyes of others. If I consider the performer within this equation, the same state of anxiety appears for her. For the performer there is a useful 'opening of the ear' and a dispersal of sights into the peripheral that works to decrease an anxiety of the perceived self.


The spectator is made socially and psychologically more self conscious: the observer becomes conscious of himself or herself as a body, as a perceiving subject, and of himself or herself in relation to a group. This is the reverse of the “loss of self” when a spectator looks at a conventional artwork. There the 'self' is mentally projected into (identified with) the subject of the artwork. In this traditional, contemplative mode the observing subject not only loses awareness of his or her 'self', but also loses consciousness of being part of a present, social group, located in a specific moment and social reality, occurring within the architectural frame where the work is presented (165).


However set a piece of work may be, on the horizontal axis of the here-and-now; “...all performance is improvised whether you play something classical in a string quartet, or whether you just play something (explicitly improvised), it's just about a different set of limitations” (Steiner, 2001: Appendix 4). Improvisation illuminates the uncontrollability of live performance, because it has to happen in time and we can never know the future, no matter how well planned, or scripted or 'set up' we are. In any given space, the time will be different. It will be a different time.

I would like that what the public realise when they leave a performance of mine, is that they have been witnesses to something that I promise never to show or do again. I like that they understand in their own lives that. Just because we remember where we live it does not mean that we will arrive there. Life is as much of chance as it is of order (Duck 2002).

The student begins, following an instruction to move in 'flow'. To be in flow is to be in a constant state of moving without posturing towards either choice or chance. This means that as she moves she should not pause, stop, freeze or rest. She should not do anything 'quickly' or 'slowly'.  This is a gentle entry into moving, which frees the mover out of any anxiety to 'produce' movement. She is simply moving. This exercise is a 'zoning out'. It is a 'getting out there' or getting into site.  Referring to Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception (1962) the body cannot be removed, or examined out of, or away from its context or the condition it is in. In this sense, there is no body - in - itself. Merleau-Ponty states that the body therefore is not in the world, but is of-the-world. Duck invites her students as 'ready-mades', and encourages them to perceive their subject as a body in the condition of being 'one', in space and time. By 'ready made' I mean that the student's body is not an art object, designed or to be designed in Katie Duck's vision. Rather the subject is exposed to a revision through a processual relating to her context. 

The perceived thing is not an ideal unity in the possession of the intellect... it is rather a totality open to a horizon of an indefinite number of perspectival views - which blend with one another according to a given style, which defines the object in question (Merleau-Ponty, 1962: 23).

This body, my body cannot see 360 degrees at the same time and must constantly shift positions (motion), in order to perceive the (w)hole. My vision in time is always partial. I am aware that my space is full of blind spots and it is in time that I keep a check, keep shifting my attention. My awareness is not everywhere at once and it is always somewhere. Because of time I am in a perpetual state of review. I am in a perpetual state of submerging my subject-body through space in time (not to think or to know 'my' body, but to perceive it and to allow it to be perceived: to feel and to be felt: to think and to be thinking: being intelligence).

She focuses on her own physical body moving. She feels weight and follows the logic of her skeleton, integrating one movement into another as it makes and follows sense(s). If this were aural speech, she would not be intent on forming words or sentences, her intention would be to explore and observe the sounds that the movements her body makes. Her mind will not think about her body making movements, her mind will be in her body moving and out of her body: She moves and is moved. To use musical terms, as Duck often does, this state is like a drone or a base note, with no dynamic or inflection imposed upon it by the musician. Sound resonates as it moves through space, transforming, creating harmonics as it is warped and bent through space. It is like breathing. This is not the myth of respiration of which Barthes speaks,  “the soul which accompanies the song, not the body... the emotive modes of its delivery” (Barthes, 1977: 183). It is the breath as a “gesture support… the lung swells, but without erection” (183). This is the grain. The grain is not the attack, the leap from none-action to action. The grain is heard on its return to the body, after an action released, dispersed. The grain is a return and it has taken time because it is resonance.


We are now in what Duck calls a none-judgemental mind. Duck's explicit instruction (frame) to stay in flow is giving the performer permission to get out of her mind a sense of responsibility for what the body looks like. Duck keeps us here for some time, levelling out the moving body and relaxing the mind of the body, freeing it from the pressure or compulsion to create. We will be aware of choices 'coming up'. We 'watch' these choices come and go. We do not 'do' or 'take' any of these choices. My physical body is being dynamic, moving in space and time (the lung swells) and my work is to support this. I must be in the process of remembering (without member-ing) as I perform. If 'one' is moving from the premise that the gathered crowd is being judgemental, and one submits to being moved by an imagining of this judgement “it will be a lousy gig. If we consider the room to be full of eyes and ears what a great thing” (Duck 2002). During 'flow' Duck will ask us to begin working with the eye and the ear. Emphasising the use of peripheral sense she instructs us to constantly shift our vision between long, mid and short ranges. Vision is not focus. It is seeing. Our focus remains in flow and begins to receive external information by seeing.  Placing our sight in site tells the body moving. Keeping our focus in flow helps the body to not immediately 'react' upon (emote) this telling. We do not yet act upon it. We experience our presence within site. We work against our own 'expectations', or what we are compelled to 'intend'.  There is no 'invention' (or erection). The use of the ear is of equal importance. Duck refers to 'clearing out the ear in order to ''open the face”.

Just because you hear the music, doesn't mean that it's in your body... it is still in the space... you just have the very fortune of having ears... it's a sense... so as long as it's open it's really there... it's very simple to think that 'I heard that' but the whole space heard it... every sound that you hear is an invitation to re-open the ear and hear more, it is not an invitation to close down the ear and think 'now I have it, that's all I need to know'... you have to keep listening” (Duck, workshop 2001).

Duck introduces choice to her students by introducing Pause. Once the option for pause is introduced the space begins to become composed. For Duck,

composition in art is like science in life… The question by a physicist about how life began leads them to study how life will end. We share a mutual composition dilemma in that question when we improvise (Ibid).


Duck will introduce choice and warn of desire, of one's own desire to see something happen. When involved with improvisation, when choice is seemingly all there is, one is looking at what is happening in the room and making choices. It is easy to make a choice based on one's desire to see something happen, or, one is compelled to make a choice because one feels responsible for making something happen. A performer will imagine something happening. For example I might think: 'I will go over to the centre stage and lie down next to that person'. If I then proceed to execute this desire an infinite number of things may happen. The time it takes for me to carry out my desire is not time felt if the doing of choice is too direct. During this time I am not in the time of the room. Living out our own desire does this: It closes down one's perception of the room and of oneself as part of the room. To contradict myself immediately, I am though, filled with desire. My mediation of this is perpetual. Improvisation is exactly that I can shift my consciousness between these two. I can expel my desire, I can make that movement, but I must move with it. I must shift my self. I am (everywhere) in it. It is not the centre of I.

If what I want, for example, is to see the two of us sitting here together, forget it, because the chance is, that she is going to choose to leave. So, don't choose that. Choose a moment, physically, in time, to do something - that's all ...  and time creates space... I create space not because I do that, but because I place that in time (Ibid).


If I imagine myself doing something and then begin to do it, what Duck's work prepares me for is the probability that I will not reach my destination as expected. As soon as I begin I am in the here and now of the event and must let my desire go as it belongs to another time. I commit and simultaneously know no longer.  Improvisation is site specific. The medium of the live artist is site not sight. Ones subject speaks through processes of deconstruction and occurrence within that site. Perfect timing is real time. There is no time like the present.

The predominance of the visual, and of the discrimination and individualisation of form, is particularly foreign to female eroticism... This organ which has nothing to show for itself also lacks a form of its own (Irigaray, 1985: 26)


When Duck is teaching she does not impose or design what the performer will do. She does not tell the performer 'what' to do. Duck focuses on how a performer will arrive at the 'what' that they do.


When art is analysed by aesthetic, art becomes a frozen instrument (Duck, 2000).

A discussion of aesthetics continues to lose the subtle level of the work that is an affective presence and an articulation of 'how' it comes to be. An experiential practice is an essential part of training for a total presence in the performance act. Duck describes teaching improvisation to a group of dance students in Spain.

When I went to Madrid, I worked with these kids... I did select some ballet dancers, that I could relate to from my own background, but when we practised, it looked nothing like my own work... the aesthetic was very different... aesthetics are a problem. For me, aesthetics get in the way of learning. Get them out of my way, otherwise I can't see those kids in Spain can I? I want to see soul, and when I can, it is bliss (Ibid).

If Duck becomes distracted by what her students are doing technically, or by what they 'look like', she will be distracted ultimately by her own 'taste' which refers to her own choices, experience, past and future.

A judgement of taste must involve a claim to subjective universality ... if he who judges proclaims something to be beautiful, then he requires the same liking from others; he then judges not just for himself but for everyone (Jones, 1999: 40).


Duck's aim is to get the dancers working together, realising themselves as part of a bigger body which is dominated by time and space, and which is ruthlessly unconcerned with aesthetics or by the aspirations of the individual (herself included). There is information held within this mode of transaction by Duck of information to her students. Working alongside Duck it becomes clear how her mode of presence as a teacher is informed by the same politics held within her own negotiation of the performance act.

Barthes refers to the grain of the voice and then to the grain of writing to the same theoretical ends concluding that within the possibility of writing aloud, the voice that is writing, (and in our case, the body that is improvising) must,

Be as fresh, supple, lubricated, delicately granular and vibrant as an animals muzzle ... to succeed in shifting the signified a great distance and in throwing, so to speak, the anonymous body of the actor into my ear: it granulates, it crackles, it caresses, it comes: that is bliss (Barthes, 1977: 67).

I am extending the idea of 'writing aloud' to include the (w)hole body practice of improvisation. When Duck says she wants to see soul, we can understand that this is not the soul of an individual, or some sort of 'true' manifestation of their 'self', but it is the bliss to which Barthes refers. It is the body 'writing aloud' (67).


If I am given choice I might then ask the question: What should I do?  Anxiety arises when I ask myself that question. I need to consider my intentions, my desire, my ego, my expectations and perceptions. I imagine the expectations of my audience. If I make a movement from this emotive state it is never a good choice. It does not have a future because it has only served to mask or hide my anxiety (just do something... anything!) Once I react in this way I begin to perform out of time. I become trapped into making one choice after another after another and this task is immense. I am writing all on my own because I am clinging to the belief that everything depends on me. “She” is already dead as I speaks for myself, rambling on and on. Trying (with excess effort) to save myself.

In this effort to contain, or hide this anxiety of her self-spilling, what I would call a reluctant, non-committal performing happens. Half finished sentences or movements are driven by a presence that is anxious. Either way words are spluttered, not spoken: constative masquerades. The performer is not looking to us, or out (t)here for clues. Even when she is looking at us, she can only see herself. Choice alone will not lead us to transformation. She must express her exposition. She can only do this if she feels that to which she is exposed. Again I use agoraphobia and trauma as useful metaphors to describe this anxiety emitted from a body that is overwhelmed by the real time state of affairs, from one who cannot bear to look, to hear or to acknowledge site, its presence and its force. As a performer I have experienced saying too much, through panic and fear of site and spillage, and saying 'nothing' through an overly analytical and defensive self.

A performer who improvises dance or music using only choice as their time structure will eventually loose any perspective of the space (Duck, 2000).


A performer whose attention is placed solely on choice cannot hear chance. This is simple to understand. If she makes a choice to cross a busy road but does not consider the road, and place this choice as action in time, then there is a strong possibility that she will get hit by an on coming car. A performer who only makes choices is also, to use the same example, only walking, without an awareness of her surroundings. There is no acknowledgement of context and so no play, no relationship to it. Improvisation is understood to be a practise whereby the performer 'composes as they go along'. Explicitly this is so. Implicitly the performing body is improvising all the time. The time we refer to is always the present. A purely choice-full performance is a closed text-act. It is walking across a busy road with eyes and ears closed. 

For Duck “misunderstandings are openings to the core of the room” and “are where the piece really gets made” (Duck, Workshop 2001). When a performer is not working within a frame that allows or involves chance as an option, if and when chance happens it will be read as a 'mistake'. To set-up chance as an option does not necessarily change the 'what' that happens, but it essentially changes how it will come to happen. To involve chance as an option is a posture towards the possibility of transformation in the (w)hole.

Movement equals memory, space-time equals choice, exit equals chance. (Duck, 2002).

Something within the logic of one's own intellect, in reaction to what is being seen and heard, brings choice and choice will be used as a departure point or as a trigger for movement. As soon as this movement is placed in time, the author of it must be forgotten: the mover then looks for exit. Exit removes the consequence of choice and places a movement in time and space. This movement still does not know and should never assume to know future. If choice is carried out into and as movement one is trying (to get it 'right') to form an idea of movement... and does so alone.


The whole world of theatre is set up for entrance (Duck, workshop 2001).


Duck will encourage us to be less precious and to not believe in what we are doing. We do not need to fill space but create space. Students at certain times during their training with Duck will become frustrated at being criticised for doing too much. These students are often of a high technical ability. We feel compelled to show off their technical virtuosity, our acrobatic agility. A misunderstanding arises because Duck will care less how high a leg moves or how far a body leaps and insist only that these movements are placed in time. She prefers that there is time and space for listening and waiting. The practice is fundamentally collaborative. We are always moving in relation to something and/or someone else.  Misunderstandings by the students might be that Duck wants them to dance 'badly' or to not dance at all, or to dance like her. This, compounded with a temporary phase of insecurity through self-scrutiny raises questions for us about what we want for ourselves as performers. These are questions that through an actual practice of performing ourselves through Ducks processes are not necessarily answered, but removed, as an awareness of a liminal state is developed.


In a world that is set up for entrance, Duck introduces exit as  the most important element within Duck's practise. For her, a performer engaged with performing should always be in the state of 'looking for exit'. This notion gives the mover a mental focus on 'future' that strengthens her physically being in the present: In time. Exit is the main choice that an improvising performer should make.

As soon as you see anything going on, you should leave because that thing is not going to happen unless you leave ... when we are involved with sound, we don't enter with sound, we exit with sound ... we hear sound, and from thereon you are hearing ... and it is just as likely when you hear it, for you to exit and not do it as it is for you to do it. It becomes determinate if you do it (Duck, Workshop 2001)

Once we decide to do something, we must move away from it, change direction, shift our focus to another sense. On every level we are working away from inscribing our self upon site as an autonomous protagonist of that inscription. Always there is the opportunity to trick our selves out of the compulsion to fixate, to control, to assume or to preserve our focus or our own centre. Duck encourages us to let time pass, to let choices pass. This shifts the mind-body from a pre-determining position - from before movement happens - and trains the mind-body to be always on the other side of action, towards the ending of that action. This is the necessary paradox for performing in the present tense. Time and space do not rely on the performer to make something happen or to transform site by doing things. Improvisation is as much concerned with letting space and time affect and infect event by practising an active understanding of 'not doing'. The performer lets go, leaves rather than enters. In this respect Duck does not work with entrance, only with exit.

When we do exit our work is to know what we have left behind. Exit practises the understanding that as I exit space, the space does not cease to exist. When we are outside the performance space we keep the same physical engagement. We work to not presume a physical or mental distinction between inside and outside of the performance space. This works to keep engagement physical and experiential whether I am on or off stage.  Duck's use of exit is a tool that the performer uses to perpetually re-remember that time is passing, that future is undetermined. I feel my selves in my own periphery, and future is found as it comes into my body, gets involved and performs my body. This is a state of constant remembering. It is not possible to know, as I depart, where or when I will arrive. Looking for exit is something that one only ever remembers to do, through time, perpetually, at the moment of fixation, when one is considering oneself, feeling the weight of responsibility for meaning. It is a shudder, an anxiety which begins to harden and fix the body, so it no longer moves as part of space and time but is becoming a dead space within space, imploding. At this point one is able to release oneself, to continue to fight preservation and to pursue a body in and of performance.

In his essay Grainne of the voice Larry Lynch (on the work of Grainne Cullen) brings into play Jacque Derrida's thesis Dissemination/Differance/Trace (1978). Lynch defines Derrida's implications as “the operative procedure by which meaning does not in fact ever come to mean”.  For Derrida, there are only signifiers. “Not like the old signifiers, mere inert physical marks on the page, mere things in the world of things. These signifiers are above all signifying, that is, pointing away from themselves, pointing away to other signifiers” (in Harland, 1987: 134). There is no movement from signifier to signified, but from signifier to signifier, again and again in a perpetual state of deferral. Derrida writes,


The meaning of meaning… is infinite implication, the indefinite referral of signifier to signifier ... its force is a certain pure and infinite equivocality which gives signified meaning no respite, no, but engages in its own economy so that it always signifies again and differs (Derrida, 1978: 25).

The practice of improvisation is the practice of observing and experiencing oneself as a social being. One is able to discover how one is socially, in difference, without oppressing or imposing upon others. This sense of self is only attainable through an exposure to the social and a rigorous exploration of ones sense-abilities there in. Improvisation opens up the space in between I, and what I do. It does not instruct or inscribe how I should do what I do. It brings my consciousness to the space in between: It liminalises my consciousness.


Chance means giving time to choice:  to make choices in time. If chance informs choices that are being made, we may more safely assume that the (w)hole room is informing these choices. The mind of the performer is submerged into the mind of the room. Choice and chance can be viewed as a transformative process. Duck does not aspire to liberate 'the self', nor does she believe in a more honest or truer self. There is no notion of 'getting better' as a person-in-the-world. Duck's methods practise and develop a presence that is not a stripping down of ones subject (gender, profession, training - whatever) towards a neutralised or designed body, but a development of a self as a political agency. This is a liminal and ambivalent self perpetually affirmed and reaffirmed from one moment to the next. This is a deconstructed subject in the most positive sense: A coalition of self/selves. A physical practice of improvisation provides us with a working methodology for the artist who is being her self on stage and helps train the performing body to be in real time, in performance and to 'cope' with what is always partially unknown. And so, improvisation is a physical practice for the body that will support instead of block its existence as and ability to be performative.

The 'what' of performance, exists primarily as a catalytic agent between the performer and the spectator. This comes close to contradicting Barthes' concerns that the text becomes a transparent allegory through which the Author 'confides' in us. But of course it does not contradict at all when we look not to the text-act or to the 'image' but to the artist herself who has not authored, but who is looking back at another, returning as well as receiving another's gaze. This is not the horror of nothing to see, it is exposure. I am conscious of my self as transmitter and translator. Between the literary and the visual we keep losing bodies in time.

What always exceeds the text is its context. What differ are the attitudes and intentions of the artist, the politics of the artist-subject. It is the space that confides in us, that whispers as we listen. We touch upon it and another and in doing so we touch ourselves, stimulating, bringing (new) life (change) to 'I'.


I am reviewing performance anxiety through its connection with an anxiety brought about by the deconstruction of the subject. The anxiety of being on stage is a fear of being exposed as 'one' with many 'ones' - many truths which defer, contradict and crack open the 'one', the ideology of the subject. Accepting the changeability of my subject does not destroy or cancel out the legitimacy of my history, my presence, or my future. As soon as I enter a space, in particular this one that has been created to perform, as soon as 'I' 'speak' I occur as a set of laws, a formulation of ideas as they exist in this time. My subject, through exposure is also full of absences. To enter the site of performance is to embrace the transformation of fear into pleasure. In performance work I see a striking mode of presence, which, in light of deconstruction, appears non-committal. The performing subject recedes through a fear of exposing and thus confronting her self, or rather a loss of self through a negative, through a misunderstanding of 'no thing'. To be liminal, to induce and stimulate site we must open and posture a constant reference to YES. As Author then, returning to performance work, the performer is not a central subject, but is in the first place a surface upon which will be played out multiple meanings of multiple texts. I believe improvisation not only searches for and develops an awareness of this for the performer, but it searches also for the transformation of fear into pleasure. It mobilises and inspires a future to come through the stimulation of the present.

Improvisation is a central organising notion that deconstructs the concepts held within bodies in the pursuit of difference. It develops a consciousness of one's self read as written as well as writing. This helps the performer to not 'say' too much (rant) and therefore lose themselves in the text-act (as an anxious reaction to time and space) instead of losing their 'self' into the selves; the space and time, the here and now. 


Terror makes me jump out of my skin. When I am not here where my body is, can I perform an action in the present tense? Terrorism is what I do to myself when I am not able to act in the present tense. When I cannot occupy the present. The place I be. And then there is fear of the dangerous, the risking of ones life. Performing an action with a hundred percent attention in the present tense. This is dangerous. Public action is banned in many countries. It frightens people (Kaylan, 2001).


The performer in training may arrive at this practise with no critical understanding of her self as a social body.  The performer feels her own expressivities, dramatics, personality etc. as spillage uncontrolled. Subjectivity is her departure point. When studying improvisation with Duck, who we are is our starting point for practice. Subjectivity is not something we 'strip away', we do not submerge our personality, we put us out there. Duck provides her students with an understanding of difference within the subject. Duck cares less about what becomes, and pulls attention constantly toward how it becomes: towards becoming. This is the bliss that Duck seeks. It is jouissance. It is a pleasure and a poetics of site and subject.


Duck speaks of transformation as the earned moment of an improvisation. Transformation is the reward for engaging with time and space with a precise effort. You have entered the condition of time and space and allowed something to happen to you. You have been complicit in this happening because your openness has invited it. It is perfect timing. a momentary union of space, time and body, where space has opened and all time lines land 'here'. It is change that comes through labour. Transformation is a passage for the performing body that manages to push through and out of the dialogue that a performer is having with the space, with other bodies, a specific transaction that is 'rewarded' by what I will call recognition. I use this word as the best to continue this discussion of the relationship with oneself that is mediated in the live event. I could also use the words transcend, exceed, fuse. Transformation requires time. Transformation relies on a careful carelessness, where we place our efforts when we perform. It is this 'mythological' moment that exceeds language because it has no traceable 'origin', it occurs in the moment. The entire body feels transformation happen as fissure, as a momentary transcendence of a dialogic space, a change through risk, a swift meaning of life. If I do not first express my subject, with all its fragility and contradiction, I will not move the feminine to climax. It is through the transformative power of site that I will recognise her in me. In a brief moment, in snapshot, present.


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