‘Open Improvisation’ with Marlee Grace: An invitation to Make

words + paintings by Elizabeth Schmuhl | photographs by @artpeers / @erinthomaswilson

I know I’ve been to a stellar dance workshop when I see its effects actualized in my post-workshop life; for me, this means I’ve been moved to move, to paint,  to set intentions, to make. That is unquestionably the case for Marlee Grace’s recent workshop held in Grand Rapids, MI; it’s been over a week since I attended and I am reveling in living with all of the beautiful aftermath.

If you’re unfamiliar with Grace and her work, make sure to read this previous interview surrounding her book, “How To Not Always Be Working,” which is recently out from HarperCollins. Grace is a dancer and a writer who uses improvisation as a method for creating new works, hosting artists at her residency and studio CENTER, and being in the world. Grace has a BFA in Dance from the University of Michigan and documents her dance practice on the Instagram account @personalpractice, which has been featured in the Huffington Post and The New York Times.

A  crowd of roughly 50 people came out to take Grace’s “Open Improvisation” workshop held at Dance In the Annex (DITA) on January 27. It’s been cold in Michigan and having Grace’s presence, along with the magical musical accompaniment of Fiona Dickinson, brought a shift to the grayness that’s been saturating most of my waking hours in this state. Immediately, something opened.

We began in a circle, seated and facing each other. Grace described the structure of the workshop: we would explore movement using improvisation as a tool for performance, choice making, and composition. But before we moved, one-by-one, we went around sharing our names and the one thing on which we wanted to work.

It was humbling and uplifting to hear the variety of responses. I was even surprised at my own – breaking habits – and remain grateful Grace asked this question of each of us. We left the circle to begin warming up: a portion of the class Grace allotted for us to explore our individual movement vocabularies.

I found patterns and altered them. I used time, tempo, and space. I felt light and supported in an environment of people moving with intention to music that felt and sounded otherworldly.

After our warm up, we took our movement across the floor in groups of six. At first, we moved without an awareness of those around us, and soon after, layered in this mindfulness of the other. Time was malleable as I moved, and bended once again when I watched others exploring their bodies in motion in space.

To end the workshop, we met in another circle. This time, the center was activated as a “performance space.” Grace gave a few loose rules: we would create three, three minute dances. No more than six people could be in the space at once. We could move in an out of the space, and were encouraged to be generous with our time (let others perform too).

Grace let us know when we should be arriving at an end. She explained that had we been in a week long workshop with her (fingers crossed one is soon offered), we would have been able to “feel” the length of a three minute – as well as 10 and 20 minute– dance. I loved this idea; having a sense of how long something should last through repetition and practice.

After we finished the second three-minute dance, Grace revised her earlier rules: “Let’s actually make a ten-minute dance for our last dance!” she exclaimed. “And as many people that want to be performing can be in the center at once.” I love Grace’s willingness to break her own rules; it also felt incredibly on point for a workshop on improvisation.

At the end of class we sat down, again in a circle. Grace thanked us, and humbly mentioned that while we were all at the workshop and she was grateful we were there, others who may have wanted to attended were not with us. She asked us to send positive energy to those and to all beings in the world, to share in what we did together in workshop. Her kindness was infectious: a river running throughout the entire workshop. I still feel as though I’m wading in it.

One takeaway from Grace’s class that has already affected my art making is that improvising is all about giving yourself permissions to begin, no matter what the outcome/result is. I’ve applied this intention to my artistic life in several ways: I’ve started a morning improvisational dance practice, made commitments to dance with fellow movement artist Ari Mokdad, have been painting with inks foraged from my 100+ year old fruit farm (circles, no less!), and finally began setting up an official artist residency on my farm, something I’ve wanted to make public for years.

Thank you, Marlee.

I highly suggest that if Grace is in your town (or you’re able to attend one of her online classes) you take the opportunity. It will expand your life. And like every artist hopes for, it will make you want to make. I’m sure there’s nothing better.

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