Listening with my skin, bones, organs, eyes

Nalina Wait: Interview, Michael Schumacher, MoveMe Festival of Improvisation

Michael Schumacher

Michael Schumacher

Improvisation is an established performance methodology that emerged from the American Postmodern rupture in dance more than 50 years ago. One proponent, choreographer William Forsythe, has activated several generations of dancer-collaborators to produce what could be considered a ‘Forsythe lineage’ of dance artists experimenting with improvisational methodologies. One key artist is USA-born Michael Schumacher.

Schumacher has danced with and produced award-winning choreography for many major companies including the Frankfurt Ballet, Twyla Tharp Dance, Pretty Ugly Dance Company, Netherlands Dance Theatre III, Jirí Kylián and the Dutch National Ballet to name a few. I spoke by phone with the amiable and erudite Schumacher ahead of his visit to Perth to perform with cellist Alex Waterman as well as conduct masterclasses for the MoveMe Improvisation Festival in November.

William Forsythe

A brief overview of Forsythe’s work is important to contextualise Michael Schumacher’s current practice. Forsythe forged his choreographic aesthetic by deconstructing the ballet vocabulary while director of Ballet Frankfurt (1985-2004). He also generated multiple ways to visualise and archive dance ideas, including documenting his ‘improvisation technologies’ (available as a CD-ROM), devising methods for visualising the information in One Flat Thing Reproduced (2006) (http://synchronousobjects.osu.edu) and collaborating on the shared archival platform www.motionbank.org. As director of the Forsythe Company (2005-2015), he extended his exploration of improvisational methodologies by facilitating dancer-collaborators to self-compose within ensemble parameters and devised interactive installations to mobilise audience-participants.

Postmodern pioneers

While Schumacher belongs to Forsythe’s balletic lineage, he also shares several concerns of postmodern improvising pioneers such as Anna Halprin, Steve Paxton, Simone Forti, Lisa Nelson and Deborah Hay who first started working with a Western (as opposed to an African or Classical Indian) approach to improvisation in the USA around the middle of the 20th century. Schumacher is part of an interesting generation of dance artists because the boundaries between previously divergent dance lineages now bleed freely. Classical or codified forms have been deconstructed and radicalised, while improvising performers consolidate techniques, producing a richer and more complex array of ‘intra-disciplinary’ creative choices.

The Schumacher perspective

I asked Schumacher what he loved most about improvisation. He explained that primarily his fascination stems from the fact that improvisation resists codification and delights in the fact that everyone does it differently. In his practice he prefers not to create rules around improvising, for example, “if you’re not going deep enough it’s not authentic. I say ‘authentic to whom?’ In my experience, rules are not important.” He suggests that his open approach is a result of his practice of the Alexander Technique in which he, “releases tension patterns and with that comes the release of ideas about how things should be done.”

While at Ballet Frankfurt Schumacher worked extensively with tasks but he favours the non-delineated approach of “finding the score organically and then recognising it” as this method produces a different quality of attention he prefers. He says of composing in real time that, “it’s been extremely valuable to me to know how to not ramble on in aimless pursuit of new information. In five minutes you have enough material to build a 15-minute composition. It doesn’t take a lot of time, but it does take a certain amount of attention.” He explained that he arrived at this insight through ongoing practice. “When I first entered into it, it was more of an automatic, intuitive flow which relied heavily on my kinaesthetic experiences. Then, I found that the rest of my sensory body was not aware of what was going on around me. In performance, I was not totally present and I missed a lot of potential interactions. That’s what led me back to sensory perception and conscious presence.”

What Schumacher terms ‘conscious presence’ utilises the multidimensional facilities of the human instrument which he describes as “the ultimate technology on the planet.” Conscious presence accesses another level of consciousness through the senses. He says, “the sensation has a huge impact on the execution. It’s a sensory experience, not just a kinaesthetic experience.” He describes the methodology of conscious presence as to “experience without associating” while listening and observing.

Schumacher explains, “The way to describe the experience of listening on the cellular level has a lot to do with not naming, not analysing. It’s not rational at all. It’s simply sensing: listening with my skin, listening with my bones, listening with my organs, listening with my eyes…” Through the practice of conscious presence, Schumacher has developed an appreciation for observation as a creative act. He adds, “So much of the time that we work with improvisation or anything creative, we feel that we must produce something. We have to do something in order to be part of the creative process. I am realising it’s not true. We know through quantum theory and philosophy that observation changes whatever we’re observing. Observation is participation.”

Somatic practices became a major influence for Schumacher after completing his formal training at the Julliard School, when he discovered ‘release’ classes. He says that the Alexander Technique and T’ai Chi Chuan are “the biggest influences on my dance in terms of the technique. I think the funny thing about T’ai Chi is that it actually taught me how to do ballet…and then, when I went to work in Frankfurt, [my classical technique] really grew and developed in a way that I didn’t expect.” He says, “There is a valuable contribution to the experience of moving and to executing something that’s virtuosic when you are also listening to the effect that the movement has on you. This might be in terms of physiology, kinesiology, biology and physics: that you’re really experiencing something more than just creating an image.”

When asked about narrative in his work he says, “Every moment we’re telling ourselves the story of us. In my training as a dancer and in the earlier improvisational experience that I had, there wasn’t much acknowledgement of that. It was always just execution and a virtuosic approach to movement through improvisation. I am interested in broadening that space where it’s not only about the virtuosic, it’s also about the sensing body.”

Michael Schumacher is a compelling addition to a strong line-up at MoveMe Improvisation Festival, which also includes Ros Warby, Rosalind Crisp, Andrew Morrish, Peter Trotman, Jo Pollitt, Paea Leach, Jacob Lehrer and David Corbet.

For more about Michael Schumacher, his works and MoveMe Improvisation Festival visit moveme.org.au; www.strutdance.org.au

STRUT National Choreographic Centre and collaborating organisations: MoveMe Improvisation Festival, Perth, 22-30 Nov; artists Michael Schumacher and Alex Waterman, Rosalind Crisp, Ros Warby, Andrew Morrish, Peter Trottman, Jo Pollitt, Paea Leach, Jacob Lehrer and, David Corbet, Madeleine Flynn & Tim Humphrey; selected works tour to Sydney’s Critical Path, Melbourne’s Dancehouse and Brisbane’s Judith Wright Centre, with Ausdance QLD.

RealTime issue #123 Oct-Nov 2014 pg. 24

© Nalina Wait; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

13 October 2014