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Improvising In Practice: Reflections from a workshop with Jesse Zaritt in a time of COVID-19

Updated: May 8, 2021

In January, I attended a week-long workshop with Jesse Zaritt. The workshop was part of the FRESH Festival, an annual meeting for dance and creative exchange produced by ALTERNATIVA (dance artist Kathleen Hermesdorf and musician Albert Matthias). Over the course of the week, Jesse led us in a variety of artistic excursions exploring his research on dancing, drawing, and improvisational practices that integrate the two. That Friday, I saw Jesse perform a duet created with Sara Shelton Mann. On Saturday, Jesse and I sat down to chat about the week, his research, and his approach to practice and improvisation.

In the months since FRESH, a lot has happened, both for me personally and the world at largemy beloved grandma unexpectedly passed, I finally set dates and booked venues for two big new projects, and then very quickly had to let go of expectations for the future as an unprecedented global pandemic flew around the world. Throughout the dynamism, change, and uncertainty of the past four months, one constant has coalesced in the meeting ground between my dance practice and daily life: improvisation is what we do every day. How we choose to engage with this infinite unknown is up to us. The piece below is an amalgamation of my conversation with Jesse, my experiences during his workshop, and reflections on how my thoughts, experiences, and explorations have settled and grown in the months since then.

PC: Chani Bockwinkel

Part I: Playing With (Micro)Practice

Try this:

Get a piece of paper and something to draw with—the back of the envelope on your kitchen table works great. Set a timer for 1 to 2 minutes. Now imagine your whole body is filled with energy. It’s moving in glowing channels of light between your fingers and shoulders, your head, ribs, hips and toes.

Close your eyes. Track the sensation of energy flowing. Draw what you feel, eyes closed, until the timer goes off. How much detail can you add? How precisely can you capture the sensations with your marks?

Look at what you’ve made as if you’re examining a shell at the beach or a leaf in the forestwithout judgement, with a sense of willing curiosity. What do you notice? Choose one or two of your observations to turn into “What if…” questions.

For example, maybe you notice you’ve drawn your legs to be disproportionately long. You could ask, “What if my legs were three times longer than my torso?” or “What if my legs were continuously growing?” Maybe you notice all your marks are light and sketchy, reminding you of a cloud. “What if my body were made of clouds?”

Choose one question that grabs you. Set another timer for 2 minutes. Ask your “What if…” question, but this time with movement, continually moving into the imaginative possibility it offers. It’s okay if your question changes as you move. Follow your interest.

When the timer goes off, take a few moments to reflect on where you began, where you landed, and the journey along the way.

Part II: Observation Becomes Movement

“How does observation become movement?” Jesse asks the group on our third day in his workshop at the FRESH Festival. Outside, San Francisco is foggy and cold. The air in the studio pulsates with the gentle, radiating energy of many thinking bodies.

He poses the question rhetoricallyan offering, not an edictand then leads us through an activity which deftly materializes the query. We each choose a body part (I choose my left hand), and fix our eyes on its edge. Moving my eyes slowly along the edge of my hand, I trace its outline blindly with my right hand on a piece of paper. “Don’t look at what you’re drawing,” he instructs, “just focus on seeing what you’re looking at.”

The results are lumpy, humbling, but elegant in their own way. Something in the quality of the marks on the page conveys the exquisite attention that bore them. My large hand-like line snakes across the page like a notation of process, a line of thought. “Seeing through edge,” Jesse calls it.

We transition to moving, exploring what it feels like to tune our attention to the edges we perceive, both real and imaginary. My senses skip along the gray mortar segmenting the brick walls, the exposed steel beams transecting the space, and the shafts of winter light dropping in through the bank of windows on the West side of the studio. My body slices through the space, curves and hollows, spirals to down to my knees and back up again like a top hat spinning on a shiny bald head.

“How might we perceive social structures like gender, race, or sexual orientation as edges in the space?” Jesse asks as we continue to dance. “How do these imaginary delineations manifest in our physical experiences of the world?”

I feel another network of meaning materialize, covering my body like an invisible net that radiates in beams of light from my center and coats everyone else in the room. Like I’m wearing Matrix glasses that allow me to observe my own point of view, I catch a glimpse of how my positionality (queer white cis-female etc.) and experiences move through my body even now as I improvise in placethe way I move my arm, leg, toe tapping, hips swinging all come from my beliefs and attitudes. My movements generate meaning, too, and they’re all part of a larger fabric of meaning between us...The flash of perspective only lasts an instant, and then I'm just dancing again.

PC: Chani Bockwinkel

Part III: Practice Becomes Action

“I'm interested in how many different things I can be aware of and track. Both things that have to do with the tangible visceral physics of space, but also these networks of power and affiliation, belonging, loss, yearning, decay.”

I’m sitting with Jesse in the empty studio, three days later. As he speaks, his body moves with an energetic charge of ideas physicalized.

“I’ve often heard that you can’t focus on more than one thing at once, but I work with the belief that actually you can, and actually you have to, and if you don’t, you’re missing a potential for change or for ethical action. I’ve always had this faithmaybe it’s naive in the meeting of a complexity of thought with a complexity of movement." His hands move towards one another. "That the place where the two meet…” he pauses, bringing his palms together and studying them in silence. Deep breath. “For me, what we work on in the studio becomes a model for a way of being in the world. I want to saturate my attention here so I can keep doing it elsewhere: How much can I be aware of? How can I notice where my attention pools, what my capacity is? Identifyhere is where I can take action. When we do this physically, the asking is a form of action in itself.”

Part IV: I Want To Saturate My Attention

I’m lying in bed and it’s the middle of the night and last night I found out that my friend’s sore throat and tight chest had become shortness of breath and a cough that shot like a knife through their lungs and now I think my throat might be sore and what if it’s COVID and what if they die and what if I die and we can’t breathe and all I can do is lie here and wait...Jesse’s voice pops into my head: “I want to saturate my attention.”

I start with my throat: like the sandpaper skin on a dragon’s shoulder. Drips into threads of golden light, iron clamps around my throat, a bird cage, my body in a cave, a man sits alone in a cell at the base of my spine, he invites me to come inside. The air is clear and crisp, moon and stars shining, we sit together in the silvery gleam and gradually my body softens into the gentle palm of my bed. I take a deep breath; the birdcage scatters, iron clamps melt. I lie in bed breathing, feeling the pain in my throat and the aliveness of my pumping, breathing body. This flight of attention is my first dance in days.

Part V: Asking Becomes Practice

Over the course of the weeklong workshop, in addition to “seeing through line,” we also practice “seeing through energy” and “seeing through weight.” “Seeing” is a full-body affair explored through drawing, dancing, and dialogues between the two. “Drawing materializes a vector, pathway, or orientation of thought,” Jesse suggests on the first day. “It helps us to pay attention to what we’re paying attention to.”

We leverage the magnetism of where our attention pools to develop our own micro-practices. Instead of creating a practice with a goal or idea in mind, we start with the doing, and practice noticing our attention while we act. "Follow your interests," he instructs. "Ask questions that help you get even closer to the thing you're already noticing." It as if we're stumbling across the questions that have been there all along, giving voice to them through our drawing or our dancing. These are practices that birth themselves.

We teach one another the practices we find. My partner shows me how to become a giant mountain moving very slowly under a big, soft blanket. I propose that our bodies are filled with light that radiates out of tiny, perfect perforations in our skin. I’ve moved with prompts like this beforeimages or ideas that invite a surrender to imagination and offer a gateway to physical exploration. But this feels different. As the week goes on, I am struck by the cumulative and exponential energetics of practices that emerge from identifying a personal interest based on what is already happening. It’s like applying rigor to intuition. I find over and over that these emergent practices fuel a kind of fully-engaged, physical dancing that remains effortlessly interesting.

PC: Chani Bockwinkel

Part VI: Performing Practice

On Friday night, Jesse is rigor embodied. He performs a duet with Sara Shelton Mann, Raine/Vortexa riveting cacophony of sense, sensation, words and movement. He moves for almost 30 minutes straight with an electric energy, like he’s receiving and wringing sensation from every inch of his body. At times tortured, at times sweet, at times slow and time-crunchingly cavernous, Jesse dances like an open channel. I imagine him as a weathervane for edges, energies, and pathways in the space that would otherwise remain invisible. Sara speaks over a loud and droning soundscore. Though her words are mostly subsumed by the noise, she seems to be conjuring something; or perhaps just naming what is already here.

The piece to me reads like a direct translation of what we’ve been working on all weekhow much input can we receive and still notice where our attention pools? How can we respond to what we notice? And how physically-engaged can we make our continual asking and response?

Part VII: My Attention Feels (Over)Saturated

For about a month after the workshop, I use the strategies we explored almost daily in my creative work. Rehearsals become a playground for new scores, deep attention, and the kind of rigorous and compassionate curiosity I find improvisation offers so generously. My choreographic process (setting movement) becomes even more rooted in the emergentnoticing where my energy goes, and building scores, questions, and physical puzzles like channels in the sand to help it flow without pause. I grow accustomed to the delight of catching myself by surprise.

Then, in February, my grandma dies. All of a sudden it is much harder to move. My body flips between leaden stone and a hollow breeze; moments of breakdown are a relief of tear-streaked materiality. A month later, COVID hits. And though I intend to keep dancingI really think dancing could feel great right nowI find that sometimes even the thought of moving is overwhelming.

A friend gets in touch and asks me to write a piece for a series she’s putting together called “Why Improvisation?” It’s timely. I start to write about navigating the unknown with curiosity; finding the adaptive, responsive body as opposed to the reactive one. But it feels so theoretical I barely make it three sentences without getting bored—the truth is, I’m hardly dancing these days. Or at least, not in the ways I’m used to.

Part VIII: Finding A Practice

“Our greatest potential for action lies at the intersection between our interest and our capacity,” Jesse said in our Saturday post-workshop conversation. These days, I find my attention increasingly drawn towards stillness. Standing, sitting, walkingmy dance practice has become composed almost entirely of slowing down or stopping completely. Of everything, one of the things that has struck me the most is how much fun I can have standing in one place when I call it dancing. I get curious, tune into sensation, skate along the infinitely dynamic and unpredictable ride of each moment. Mostly, calling it a dance reminds me to notice that I am always dancing; naming it improvisation makes it a game. I am learning through stillness that, for me, improvisation is about more than not knowing what comes nextit is about a surrender to the delight of surprise and a willingness to move through the world like every moment offers a new opportunity to feel, notice, and arrive in a new way. Because until the moment I take my last breath (and maybe even after?), no stillness is complete. And as for improvising? We have no choice.

See this post on Life As A Modern Dancer:


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