ES: Improvisation is probably a very misunderstood art form in the world of dance. How would you describe improvisation – firstly to a cynical dancer, and secondly to an uninformed member of the public?
JP: To me Improvisation is practicing dancing. When improvising you trust everything you know about dance (technique, composition etc), you bring attention, listening and imagination to the fore, and dive in to the dance. Maybe once it had connotation of being ‘free’ but since Forsythe and many others revealed their creative processes, the rigor of the work is better understood. As a dancer one needs to be a skilled improviser in order to work with many of the current choreographers. This has been most apparent in Australia in the last 10years with the slippage between dancer and choreographer often less hierarchical (particularly in the independent dance scene) The improviser is simultaneously dancer and choreographer, so you need to be cultivated at both!
ES:Where and when did your interest and focus on improvisation develop?
JP: I’ve been interested in choreographing since I was about 15 and pursued my own work immediately upon graduating from WAAPA in 1993. I was able to continue my experiments as dancer with Tasdance (AD Karen Pearlman from Bill T Jones also sparked my early interest in the complexity and rigor of the form and simultaneously of academic inquiry) and was further supported to make my own work by AusCo when I left the company in 1997. In 1999 I stopped ‘setting’ movement material and met and worked with two women who most influenced my direction in dance, New York improviser and activist, Jennifer Monson, and Rosalind Crisp, an Australian choreographer based in Paris. I began the response project in 2000 to focus on the development of improvisation as a performance form and created a small ensemble while I completed my Masters degree (thesis titled Accumulated Response in Live Improvised Dance Performance ). Since then I have remained obsessed with the form…
ES: What do you find are the benefits of creating works of improvisation scores and structures as opposed to “choreographing” steps and sequences?
JP: To me creating new work that is scored is choreography. You are making artistic decisions about structure and tone and even vocabulary and style; as Ros Crisp would say a ‘world’ within which the dancer lands and works.
ES: Where and when was the response project born?
JP: In 2000 while I was completely my Masters at WAAPA.
ES: How do you think it helps dancers access a physical language that is original or at least individual and interesting at the same time?
JP: The response work affirms the role of the dancer as an authority in revealing patterns and traces of lived experience, knowledge and ideas. It is research into humanness via the particular intelligence, insight and physical range dancers can access. I have developed the response project as a series or system of physical strategies and drivers over the last 10 years as an associational practice in that I work with the dancers’ acute and particular awareness of self and their constant attention to, and slippage between physical, conceptual, sensorial and imaginative worlds. The work demands an ability to move from one association to the next, and amplifies the performers responses and compositional skills. The response work accentuates the contradictions, vulnerability and ‘liveness’ of the decision making process, and maintains a heightened (and practiced) sense of awareness that is inherent in improvised performance. The work investigates the relationship of structure to improvised material, physical imagination and the creative process.
ES: What are some of the obstacles you encounter when you begin to work with dancers?
JP: 1. Their assumptions on what ‘improvising’ should look like
2. Resistance to failure and the unknown.
ES: Do you think that all dancers should be able to improvise if instructed well or do you think that there is a talent that some have and some do not?
JP: Phillip Glass says he thinks of composing music as an underground river which is there all the time the only difference is whether you are listening or not; it is not something that needs to be imagined. I think similarly of improvisation and to this end I think some dancers are definitely better listeners than others! However, in terms of teaching it’s also about asking the right questions in the right context.
The extended version! : Every body has a story and embodied experience and there are numerous strategies and pathways in to begin accessing that world. At a professional level I secretly think it requires a somewhat poetic/artistic disposition, or at least a genuine inquiry and interest in ‘not knowing’, but I could be wrong.
I love teaching the third years at WAAPA, they are so ready to DANCE and put into practice all of their accumulated skills, they are open and interested in performance and prepared to take a risk. Each week I love challenging them to locate what moves them to move, to access their ‘driver’ to dance, and question what makes great dance and dancers. In a mentor, choreographic or creative development situation the process becomes more complex and specific to each project.
ES: How do you think your personal improvisation has changed over the course of your career and life outside the studio?
JP: Improvisation is personal. Of course. I think dance is personal and the best dancers allow the vulnerability of living and being into their work whatever the style. Life directly provokes dance for me. Not in a narrative way but in the way various experiences compress under your skin and compel an increased tone and particular energetic trajectory. Yes it all changes and keeps changing, but at the same time, the guts of it remains profoundly the same. The practicalities of the way I work are different yes, shorter studio sessions over longer periods of time.
ES: Has motherhood changed the way you work and think? Or do you think motherhood changed the way others perceive you (therefore imposed)?
JP: As a creative, motherhood has propelled my writing and thinking in a big way. The acute experiences– the extreme highs and lows, the enormous pressures of giving and maintaining lives other than your own, the worlds you access at 2, 3, 4am all definitely help to locate defining points of interest. The time constraints give an intense edge to the work you take on. The joke is that with each baby there seems to be an increased interest in my work. I am just coming out of the longest ever period of not career-dancing myself (almost a year) and it is harder to maintain the physicality required without a daily practice for sure…but I believe in long gestation periods for new work (seemingly a contradiction but actually crucial to my work) so I am happy to give myself time. It is definitely harder to travel at the moment but having a home base has seen my writing become central to my work and I thrive on several ongoing long distance projects this way.
ES: When you think back over your career what are some of the projects that you think were the most successful? Or that today you look at with awe?
JP: Though I am happy to spend years on the development of one project I loathe looking back and hardly ever re visit a work. Each work is interesting as a marker to where I was in my thinking about improvisation – particularly some of the solos – ‘prince’ in 2002 and ‘room’ in 2004. The opportunity to make work with and for Chrissie Parrott is obviously a high point (laugh!) Re-Render (2009) will always be special for lots of reasons. The shows I look at with awe were the early ones ‘Two Heads’ for Artrage in 1994 in the central gallery at Pica and our 1998 production of Par Avion where we took over and filmed in a Qantas 747 between flights at Hobart airport! I am also glad I had the opportunity to live inside my MA research when I did…
ES: You are very sought-after and busy at the moment. What are some of the projects you have on right now?
JP: Working with you… a new solo/creative development period with Rhiannon Newton… dramaturge for Claudia Alessi’s ‘Twisting the Straight Line’… writer for Sarah Neville’s ‘Remote Real’ … ongoing dance research with Paea Leach and others…a couple of long distance projects and collaborations… teaching… some secret squirrel work… three children…
ES: What are some of the interests that are bubbling away inside you at the moment?
JP: Long distance dancing… writing dancing… one to one collaboration… documenting response to shows, people, art and the bits of life between the grand moments… bringing the original response ensemble back together to perform the famous line dance… the response project en masse… visibility… absence… generating dance work without being where the dancer is… writing a dance play… lives of little people… sleep deprivation and chaos… launching a magazine for kids with a creative arts focus… further research on the unique unrest of the mid career artist… questions… bravery… endings… formulae… temper… instability… poetry… tiny studios of the world tour… drudgery… location… continuity… hard work… rest points… midnight lists… time and age… tone… accumulation… intimacy on a world scale… beginning in the studio by myself again… and again…