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HomeCircumferences of improvisation : forming bodies differently

Circumferences of improvisation : forming bodies differently

Circonférences de l’improvisation : faire corps autrement

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Published on Tuesday, March 21, 2023


Improvisation in the various performing arts (dance, music, theater, etc.) seems to present a heterogeneous multiplicity, and each time singular, of forms, including correlatively to the framework in which it occurs: according to whether it is in particular a workshop improvisation, or a performance improvisation. Usually, we like to make distinctions by evoking "free" improvisations and "structured" improvisations, or "solo" improvisations and "group" improvisations, etc. However, don't these linguistic conveniences actually betray a specificity of the improvised experience, unsuited in its discursive structuring to these conceptual divisions? In other words, wouldn't the improvised experience deconstruct, by nature, the very opposition between genres by rejecting any binarism? To do this, we have chosen to analyze the central theme of the "body of improvisation" under three specific axes: the axis of the learned and the popular ; the axis of the voluntary and the involuntary; and the axis of the individual and the collective.


As part of the improvisation week which will be held in Nice from 11 to 17 september 2023, the Centre de Recherches en Histoire des Idées and the Centre Transdisciplinaire d'Epistémologie de la Littérature et des Arts Vivants are organizing a colloquium on the theme of improvisation in the performing arts on Friday 15 september 2023.


Improvisation in the various performing arts (dance, music, theater, etc.) seems to present a heterogeneous multiplicity, and each time singular, of forms, including correlatively to the framework in which it occurs: according to whether it is in particular a workshop improvisation (as a research of a practice or experimentation on oneself), or a performance improvisation (as a presentation to observers of a research in progress). Usually, we like to make distinctions within what would appear to be a "genre" of improvisation, by evoking "free" improvisations and "structured" improvisations, or "solo" improvisations and "group" improvisations, etc. However, don't these linguistic conveniences actually betray a specificity of the improvised experience, unsuited in its discursive structuring to these conceptual divisions between what is spontaneous and what is technical, or between what results from the individual and what results from the collective? In other words, short of creating "sub-genres" within a common "genre" that would be the figure of improvisation, wouldn't the improvised experience deconstruct, by nature, the very opposition between genres by rejecting any binarism? To do this, we have chosen to analyze the central theme of the "body of improvisation" under three specific axes - neither exclusive of each other, nor necessarily exhaustive: the axis of the learned and the popular, referring to the ambivalence between the disciplined body of learned dances and music and the supposedly spontaneous body of improvisation; the axis of the voluntary and the involuntary linked to the methodical deconstruction of gestural codes through the practice of improvisation (through the double possible way of the stripping and the overflowing of the body) ; and the axis of the individual and the collective (where the tension between the experimentation of the self and the experimentation of the common, between the individual body of the practitioner and the group that the practitioners form together by "making body", seems to embody an irreducible duplicity in the improvised practices).

Axis 1: Going beyond the "learned body"/"popular body" binarism

One could a priori think that body improvisation in the so-called "living" arts has always existed: for example, as early as the 4th century B.C., Aristotle notes in his Poetics the role of improvisation (which he calls "inspiration") in the emergence of ancient theater. A certain practice of improvisation can also be found in medieval times (with, for example, the practice of Dialectica or oratorical jousting between students within university education), or in the Italian Renaissance (with the famous Commedia dell'arte, also called Commedia All'Improvviso (improvised), which improvises shows directly in public squares). Nevertheless, improvisation was then more like a spontaneous expression of life, that is to say, a daily practice, which existed in fact, and which was not questioned because of its factual omnipresence. More precisely, it was not until 1642 that the verb "improvise" entered the French language and 1807 that the name "improvisation" emerged in the pre-romantic context, which led Jean-François de Raymond to say that the word appeared when the reality that the word covered gradually disappeared, to the benefit of its supplanting by the notations and scores in music, in dance, in theater, and to the benefit of the advent of the Beaux-arts where the beauty of the forms of the "measured dances" and of the "learned music" will become predominant. It thus appears that it is only in front of the rarefaction of the phenomenon of the improvisation that the men could begin to wonder about the existence and the value of this phenomenon. What does this contemporary reversal in favor of improvisation reveal to us? Is it a simple return to a pure spontaneity of the improvised gesture, beyond the techniques that have formatted the body throughout the classical and modern history of the arts? The end of the 19th century and especially the 20th century offer to improvisation the possibility of becoming a training tool for the actor (Stanislavski, then later Grotowski) or for the dancer (from the beginning of the 20th century, with Loïe Fuller, Ruth Saint Denis, Doris Humphrey, then especially in the middle of the 20th century in the classes of Anna Halprin and Robert Dunn, among others), or even a recognized tool of innovation in music (in Jazz, in the popularization of the ragas of the Indian music). And the second half of the twentieth century provides the framework for improvisation to become the essential factor of a theatrical presentation (e.g. The Living Theatre), dance (Judson Dance Theater, Grand Union, Contact improvisation), etc. What do these various contemporary practices reveal to us, in short? Wouldn't improvisation, in its contemporary forms, appear from now on, contrary to the binarism historically posed between spontaneity and technique, as a set of questionings, of evolutionary, experimental and conscious researches of and on the body, where the technique, if not occulted, would be unceasingly transcended in order to develop constantly new gestures and to avoid sinking into the sclerosing character of habits?

Axis 2: Going beyond the "voluntary body"/"involuntary body" binarism

Such conscious experimentations of and on the improvising body, which reject both the unconsciousness of the absolutely spontaneous gesture and the fixation of gestures codified by technique, also seem to question the traditional conceptual opposition between the inner expression of a spontaneous self and the exteriority of the rules incorporated into the body by the disciplined learning of a technique. To put it differently, the improvised experience seems to re-interrogate the binarism of inside and outside, of the inside generally associated with a form of autonomy and the outside being able to be conjugated with a form of constraint, or the binarisms of activity and passivity, etc. The result is a well-known paradox in improvisation, which consists in "wanting the involuntary", or in allowing oneself to be affected by the involvement of the outside insofar as the body can then interact with the affordances of the environment. Within this framework, somatic practices, widely diffused in the contemporary dance community, invite us to consider improvising bodies as experimental bodies that re-interrogate the behavior of our body in action (through feeling, perceiving, doing), by proposing, next to the techniques of spontaneous emergence of the gesture, a set of practices that make "gesture" a field of conscious experimentation. These initially interior techniques of gesture (where we focus on the postural, perceptive, attentional and relational mechanisms, on the sensations of weight swinging in our body, on the forces and movements that are at work there, etc.), practice a "path of stripping" by seeking to remove from our body its habits, reflexes, volitions or personal desires. In what way does such a stripping away, such a "suspension", such an "inhibition", or such a "hollowing out" (as Jacques Gaillard would say) within these practices allow us to lead to new corporations, by letting ourselves be invested and penetrated by the experience at stake, by what is "at stake" in the improvised experience? Wouldn't this faculty of making ourselves all the more sensitive to our experience be in parallel a faculty of making ourselves available to what surrounds us, the presence of others, as well as of the other in general (space, the ground, nature, others, etc.)? Wouldn't the body open to itself be at the same time a body open to otherness and exteriority? In what way, to put it differently, a form of "loss of one's body" allows one to "take back one's body" (Alice Godfroy), and to give rise to new forms of agentivity, both by becoming the fundamental element of the reconstruction of the subject and by modifying our relationship to intersubjectivity as well as to intercorporeality? These questionings will be of course to bring closer to the context of emergence anti-capitalist and anti-individualist of the practices of improvisation (for example, concerning the dance, of the Fifties and Sixties in the United States and the experiments of the post-modern dancers). Couldn't this way of "stripping" (by default) of the improvising body in dance, which mixes voluntary and involuntary, be, on the contrary, a way of "overflowing" (by excess) of the improvising body in other arts, as in music? Wouldn't there be at least two ways of diverting the codes by the improvised gesture: the way of epoche on the one hand, and the way of drunkenness on the other hand; or again, the voice of a certain form of withdrawal of oneself to make emerge the feeling of a collective on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the voice of a certain form of over-individualization of the ego from the collective? And in what way this second way of overflow would replay otherwise the deconstruction of the binarism between voluntary and involuntary? To emancipate oneself, in fact, from disciplined, trained, constructed bodies by practicing this training, this discipline to the extreme, in the attempt finally to appropriate it and to reverse its force of constraint in a force of liberation, doesn't it lead to want the involuntary in another way? Moreover, within the framework of music, does this not also lead to a re-interrogation of the opposition between the human "body" and the "body" of the instrument? If, indeed, the musician, by dint of practice, ends up domesticating the instrument by reversing the "obligatory" force of his gestures into a force of "emancipation", this could only be possible insofar as he manages to be one, to "become one" with his instrument. And can this possibility of "becoming one" between the "body" of the musician and the "body" of the instrument, which would no longer be assimilated to a simple passive object but would become an "actant" in the proper sense of the word, be extended to the "bodies" of the other musicians in the group and to the "bodies" of their instruments?

Axis 3: Going beyond the "individual body"/"collective body" binary

When Steve Paxton, initiator of Contact Improvisation in 1972, says: "Solo dancing does not exist", what does he mean? That "the dancer dances with the floor: add another dancer and you have a quartet: each dancer with each other, and each with the floor". That is to say that the improvisation, including in "solo", could not be stricto sensu "solus", alone, or individual, and could not, on the contrary, make disappear any singularity. Consequently, it could be always only "trans-individual" (as the Canadian philosopher Erin Manning underlines it in particular), by making indissociable, following the works among others of Gilbert Simondon, at the same time the psychic and the social, the singular personalization of the individuals and the social becoming of the group, without sinking neither in a pure social nor in an aggregate of artificially united individuals. The "trans"-individuality would underline at the same time the overcoming and the prolongation of a form of individuation where the "I" and the "We" would mutually co-constitute themselves. In short, the rupture of the binarisms between voluntary and involuntary, between inside and outside, could lead the individual practice of improvisation to be always only transited by a collective, in an association made possible between the one and the multiple, that this collective or that this multiple is the relation of the improviser to the ground, to the gravity (or to the power of the earth), to the space, to his surroundings, or even to the other improvisers and to the public. Specifically, de-centering the subject, through a stripping or de-bordering (axis 2), leads to a recusal of the self-centeredness of the subject in the history of ideas to promote a hetero- or extero-centeredness of the subject experienced through the body in the improvised experience (in a manner parallel to, or perhaps conjoined with, the post-modern thoughts of a Deleuze or a Derrida). As a result, the ultimate knowledge that improvisers might draw from these experiential or situated knowledges that are improvisational practices is that the "princeps" support never emanates from a pre-existing self, but always emerges from a "relationship" with the other (in the broad sense), which leads to revise one's body and subjectivity as a process of individuation always in progress, as a pure act of "relating", where things "dance me", where I am both moving and moved (Emma Bigé) within a collective flow. This "relationship" which allows to open to the indeterminacy, to the unpredictable, in short to the creation in improvisation opens finally to other horizons to finish specifying the danced or the improvised musical making. This opens in particular to a new experience of temporality which is not founded any more on a formal and linear conduct of the time to come, but which is rooted in a presence (in the present and in the space), in a "presentification" being able to be the object of a "presentation" during a performance, in which one experiences the singularity of a constant opening of the possible (see in particular the epoche of the instant at Erwin Straus, or the state of recording - aufnahmezustand - of which Mauricio Kagel speaks). This consequently opens up a new apprehension of space, which has become multi-directional or omni-englobal (Erwin Straus) and which is one with the bodies of the practitioners. And this "sharing" of time and space, in relationships of co-presence in the present, in movements of co-duration, in short in new spatio-temporal contexts, is also finally what could allow us to glimpse improvisation as favoring new "doing together", new "practical ecologies": a new ethics (in the sense of an experience shared by many), or even a new politics (in the sense of the feeling of a communion and of a making of the community). In short, these analyses on the lived experience of the improvised gesture, and among other things on the rejection of the binarism between the individual and the collective, would allow to reintegrate, but perhaps differently, the enterprise of the Cultural studies studied by the Anglo-Saxon countries to refer to the practices of performance and improvisation.

Submission guidelines

Proposals for papers (2500 characters including spaces) should be sent, together with a CV,  to Grégori Jean (gregori.jean@univ-cotedazur.fr)

by 2 May 2023.


  • Alice Godfroy,
  • Grégori Jean,
  • Alessandra Randazzo,
  • Jean-François Trubert



  • Nice, France (06)

Event format

Full on-site event


  • Tuesday, May 02, 2023


  • improvisation, corps, performance

Information source

  • Alessandra Randazzo
    courriel : alessandra [dot] randazzo [at] univ-cotedazur [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Circumferences of improvisation : forming bodies differently », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Tuesday, March 21, 2023, https://calenda.org/1057924

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