Five dancers in white spacesuits, each wearing a 2-foot foam-rubber head, move inside an inflatable bubble as a captivated audience peers in through peepholes. Responding to a loose score, an anonymous figure lifts and carries one of his statue-headed brethren, simulating death rites. But this is no bizarre religious ritual—the scene in George Washington University’s Marvin Center is an audience-participation event at the D.C. 8th International Improvisation Plus+ Festival.
“People love these performances,” says festival founder Maida Withers. “They’re unpredictable, they’re wild, and the audience has a lot of influence over what happens on stage.” At this year’s event, video installations, electronic music, and sensor-saturated dancers all reflect the confluence of dance and technology. “Interactive technology begs for you to improvise,” Withers says, explaining why this will be the first, and probably only, theme in the event’s history. Highlights include a performance of 3-D View—Future View by Withers and one of the festival’s co-curators, Washington state-based Cyrus Khambatta. In this piece, dancers perform before a 3-D camera, creating a real-time image that the audience views through 3-D glasses.
Withers, who moved to the D.C. area in 1964 and has taught at both Howard and George Washington Universities, began her formal training in improvisational dance at the age of 17 under the wing of postmodern-dance pioneer Anna Halprin. “I had always sort of been improvising anyway,” Withers says. “A lot of people were using improvisation to create choreography. I still do that, but there is this performance that is the art form itself, and it is very different from a choreographed, repeatable, staged event.”
The festival began seven years ago as a small, informal gathering of like-minded dancers. “We all came together,” Withers explains. “‘I’m an improviser, you’re an improviser—let’s do an evening together.’” It wasn’t until the third year, she says, that they realized they were putting on an international festival, with dancers from the Netherlands joining local artists.
From its origins as a strictly dance-based event, the festival has expanded to include a range of music, visual art, and performance art that embraces the idea of improvisation. Withers’ definition of the term encompasses all of these art forms—but not the notion that improvised art is unskilled or unpracticed. “It has structure, it has form, it has intention, it’s not without forethought, but it’s left more open for the moment and for the audience to be part of the creation.”
Doug Yeuell, executive director of Joy of Motion Dance Center, the site of performances in the festival’s second week, says that improvisation can offer freedom from rote emulation of technique. “Improvisation unlocks that inner sense of true movement,” he explains. “Movement is never more powerful than when you create it on your own.” —Josh Levin
The D.C. 8th International Improvisation Plus+ Festival includes performances Friday and Saturday, Dec. 6 and 7, at George Washington University’s Marvin Center, 800 21st Street NW, and Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 14 and 15, at the Joy of Motion Dance Center, 5207 Wisconsin Ave. NW. For more information, call (202) 994-6178.