Learning Across Artistic Disciplines: Improvising at Performance NW’s FANFare
There is so much to learn from working artists from other disciplines.
Last Saturday I improvised accompaniments to dance at Performance Works NW with Luke Gutsgell, Ben Kates, Danielle Ross, Noel Plemmons, and Elise Knudsen. Linda Austin, the owner and director of Performance Works NW, asked us to play over a timeframe of about four hours both in and outside of her SE Portland studio, moving all throughout the space with a piece happening every half hour with different pairings of musicians and dancers, from all of us together, to a solo dancer.
Change the space to change the art
We performed all over the space—on the street, in the studio, in the kitchen, in the yard, even in a beautiful vintage camper in the yard.
And the constant changing of space affected all of us. For the dancers the effect was obvious—when they had walls, benches, chairs, or even people to work with, they did. A small space called for small movements, and so on. When what you do as an artist is move through space, the space you move through becomes awfully important.
But as the spaces and the dance changed, I found my musical thoughts changing as well. Playing inside the reverberent studio, quiet sounds and silences felt right. Outside, with cars and people walking by with no expectation of seeing a performance happening, I felt I could play loud to compete with all that noise, all that openness and disorganized energy.
On one of my favorite pieces, a duo between Danielle Ross and I out on the street in front of the studio, it felt right to sing as well as play my horn, and I did. I sang loud, so loud that my voice hurt afterwards, but it was worth it.
Fresh collaborators bring fresh perspective
I’ve gotten to work with dancers a few times. One of these was with the Merce Cunningham Company—which I wrote about here—and I still can’t believe it actually happened. But, the Cunningham dancers were off on the three different stages spread throughout the cavernous Park Avenue Armory in New York, far enough away from the musicians that I didn’t feel personally connected to them. Even though the whole experience was unforgettable it didn’t have the moment of incredible intimacy with the dancers that I got to experience at Performance Works NW.
One of these moments happened on the lawn outside the studio, where one of the dancers moved in close to me as I played, looking at me from only a few inches away as I remained absolutely still. My fingers were moving rapidly, with the movement of the keys audible to both of us over quiet notes. He was near enough to me that I could see the sweat collecting on his forehead.
After that improvisation was over he mentioned that he had played the trumpet in middle school, and that moment, for him, had taken him back to that time. The sound of the keys, the smell of valve oil, the horn held up with both hands and the mouthpiece at the lips. Normally, this kind of closeness wouldn’t be comfortable when performing, but in this special context, it worked beautifully.
Working with space, working with sound, working with trust
And that is what made the biggest impression on me, the trust that these dancers extend to their collaborators. Some of them had worked together before, but some had not, which made it even more impressive from my perspective. At any time a dancer can touch another dancer, could climb on them, could push them, pull them. Its incredible to see people moving in this way, and it makes me think that the real currency of this kind of performance isn’t space, or movement, or form or any other idea that we usually use to understand art.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but all along we were making art made of trust itself. Its a lesson I won’t forget.