¶ Improvisation is practice in white tie. It is the formal encounter with a moment, rather than its recollection.
¶ Antaeus was a monstrous fighter of Greek myth. His challengers failed because he drew his strength from the earth, his mother. Every time he was thrown to the ground, he sprang up more powerful than before. Rules are that ground for improvisation. Hercules killed Antaeus by holding him high in the air and crushing him. Complete freedom is death to improvisation.
¶ Improvisation seems like a special skill because we rarely observe ourselves in the act of doing it. Call before your eyes someone walking on the sidewalk of a busy city. Watch the elegant swerves, momentary hesitations, brief strategic eye contacts, last second partings and turns. Hear how the song stops when a stranger arrives, unsure of her direction.
¶ Improv comedians answer every question with “yes.” Yes, and.
To improvise means to risk connection. The band has started playing, the audience is waiting — not always generously —, the body wants to know what to do. Improvisation is a radiant, filigreed spider’s web drawing all these people into the shared possibility of shame. A dancer rehearsed to perfection is protected by her crystal bubble. So is everyone outside of it.
¶ It is a mistake to think improvisation promises infinite possibility. It does not. The secret of improvisation is its conservatism. Its unit is not the individual word, step, note, or ingredient. It sings with patterns memorized so assiduously they live where muscle meets tendon meets bone. The names for Athena that fill up a hexameter. A sequence of steps that groove to the beledi rhythm. Improvisation is knowing how to paint in a new pattern with old colours.
¶ The moment an artist makes one change, the muse of improvisation is born. Many think she is in love with newness, when she burns for variation. She nourishes a special place in her heart for errors. The ballerina forgets one step and gathers secret energy for the next. The pastry chef takes out a cake too soon, but delights in its molten core. A singular mutation on the double helix turns out to be good for living among flies.
¶ The essence of depression is the absence of improvisation. In the depths, the muse shivers and falls asleep. She does not want to feel the ice rising over her face.
¶ Distraction is a tricky demon. He introduces himself as improvisation’s friend, her helpmeet even. He will gather material, he promises, he will bring her paints in undiscovered shades. Here it is again, the stupid seduction of endless choice.
¶ At its best improvisation is pure release, turning in to the warm store of hidden instinct, unfolding to the sunlight of tradition. Its enchantment lies in repetition, in patterns that blossom over time, in the beat that goes beyond the bar.
¶ Less mystically: improv is a game. In the room next to me my husband is explaining a new board game to two seven-year-old boys. They will not play against each other, but against the game’s internal ticking. This is improv: collaborative play against time.
The game they are playing is Pandemic.
¶ I find improv catching. A choreography rarely spurs me to move. What is the energy that makes improv more invitation than display? Is it the generosity of error? No, not only that. Improvisation is simpler than it might be, repetitive, familiar. Improv is a game of recess tag. Tag. You’re it.