James Batchelor & Collaborators

A Conversation: James Batchelor and Jeanine Durning

Choreographers for ‘Everlasting Event’ Jeanine During (Everlasting: a new love) and James Batchelor (Event) reflect on the nature of improvisation in their choreographic practices and their approach to this shared evening. 


JD - I always find the question around improvisation intriguing since I customarily don’t use that word to describe what I do. I think there’s a residual history in dance of what constitutes choreographed work and what constitutes work that is improvised, and often with that comes a qualification of what is authored or “set” by the choreographer, often in the form of materials or “steps”, versus what is unfolding in the moment of performance and crafted by the dancers based on a practice. I tend not to think in those binaries.

I’m much more interested in the notion that dancers can be choreographic thinkers and not only executors of predetermined or designed movement. In this way, I would say I’m working with practical tools of liveness, with heightened attentions, and precise methods of relating, perceiving, adapting, and decision-making in the moment of live performance.

JB - I really resonate with your definition of improvisation as something that is centred on the liveness of performance and real-time unfolding - creating from conditions and materials that are available in that moment.

When I was first learning dance, improvisation was presented to me as a practice of ‘free movement’, where music would play and you could do almost anything. I honestly didn’t like it much! It felt too arbitrary. Eventually I experienced stricter and more intentional practices of improvisation - strict to the point of mental overload. Improvisation is for me something to do with the live moment and operating somewhere between these extremities of freedom and restriction. Working with an element of improvisation feels to me necessary in dealing with the volatility of the performance event. The energy and attention between the performer and audience is a unique synergy on every occasion, so I like building in tools that allow space for variation and also error. 

In ‘Event’, the improvisational element is connected to the social aspect of movement. The dancers draw from a shared vocabulary of pre-determined movements and sequences that have particular rhythmic, qualitative and spatial qualities and make choices in relation to each other. There is a consistent timeline of events and keystone moments where particular movements are introduced or taken away, but a lot of the compositional details (who dances when and with who) are different every time. 

JD - How you speak of the energy and attention moving between performer and audience is very meaningful. I believe there is something precious for both the performer and audience when they are experiencing a moment they know is happening right now and will never happen again. As a choreographer, I’m always looking for ways to create those conditions in which there is a sense of precarity and fragility or even absurdity of not knowing what a moment will bring. Of course, there needs to be enough of a logic at play so that that error - as you describe it, or that surprise - can happen. How the performer manages, plays, and attends to those unknowns while still staying on track with the rigor of the defined practice can be exhilarating and even dangerous and urgent. Like a skilled ski jumper who misses the mark but still knows how to manage the moment and doesn’t crash and burn.

It’s interesting to think of what creates a common understanding though and how that commonality is transmitted by the choreographer and then translated by the dancer and then in turn read by the audience. That process of transmission, translation, and then the many ways of reading or understanding, for me, that is not only the choreographic conundrum but the human conundrum and is the most at stake for me in what I do these days. Rather than controlling those aspects, I try to stay in practice with them and continue to learn from them.

I come into every new project with a practice I call nonstopping, defined with specific tools and strategies. This tends to build the common understanding that helps frame and guide not only the dancer’s movement choices and what kind of body is getting them there but also how they are attending with specificity to the choreographic directives. Oftentimes, the parameters of the frames can be quite tight. So the dancers will follow a sequence of events or situations but how and by whom and when those situations happen can unfold uniquely each and every time they perform or practice the work. 

I’ve always been interested in maximalism rather than minimalism or essentialism. Even in density of attentions or tasks. This tends to make the choreographic field alive with different articulations and information and maybe makes the work just beyond reach, both for the performer as well as the viewer.

JB - Some people have said my work is minimal… though maybe Event is also a maximalist work, now that I think about it! I love thinking about these questions of scale, density and perspective though. 

I think there are a lot of interesting overlaps to contemplate between our works and I am intrigued by this opportunity to share the evening and offer two different perspectives on a similar set of curiosities. I have quite enjoyed finding left notes around the room from your process - on the walls, scattered in the seating bank. There is a sense that we are building a collective library of information, even without coordinating. 

JD - I’ve been seeing notes of your process around too! It’s been great to get a glimpse into your work through the language, actually. I’m always so fascinated by how makers language and score their work. I love thinking of our in tandem working periods as building a collective library, together with the dancers. I guess dance studios are a kind of library or research centers of learning and curiosity.

It’s amazing to think how these two works with different approaches to similar curiosities, as you say, are living in the dancer’s bodies and I suppose that is ultimately where the continuity between the works is carried.

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