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.