On Stage: Improvising Through Life

Improvisation has always played a significant role in dance, at the very least where a rehearsal mistake might change the course of the choreography or the performers might take on a phrase of their own creation. But it seems that there is a particularly strong trend forming, where improvising is taking on a larger area of importance in designing the ultimate choreographic structure. Gia Cacalano, who has developed quite a reputation in this arena, sat down to talk about misconceptions and myths about her dance form prior to her recent concert, “Crossing Center Without My Glass Slipper.”

“Well, there’s a lot more risk-taking and a lot more trust involved and a lot more work to get to that place,” the petite artist begins just before a Sunday afternoon rehearsal at The Space Upstairs. “To dance you have to practice dancing. To improvise you have to practice improvising, much more so because it is so abstract, so in the moment.”

She contends that “you have to get your reflexes to a point where you’re not thinking about doing, you’re just doing it. That’s easier said than done.”

An improvising artist must, of course, learn the technique and the aesthetic. But then the dancer develops a body of work that he or she can access through “triggers.” It’s like learning the alphabet — letters, then words, then sentences and paragraphs. And that, Gia observes, takes time to develop the complete language.

So a performance doesn’t come out in a straight forward way, as if the choreography was set on a group. Sometimes the choreography can be dissected by an improvisation. Or an improvisation can be completely broken by a phrase. As Gia puts it, the performance “goes back and forth — there are no absolute rules. Even though I’ve set up a composition, at any given time it can all go out the window.”

To her “it’s exciting and it’s challenging and sometimes you can fail. But that’s okay because that’s how you get something that’s a little more innovative and on the edge and just imaginative.”

This comes from a dancer who once trained in ballet, then Graham and Limon. She did it for so long that “it became stifling. I knew what to expect. I knew what I had to do and I did it again and again and again.”

Gia actually stopped dancing for seven years at age 30 for that reason. Then she encountered butoh artist Maureen Fleming (some of you may remember her eternal backbend at the Pittsburgh Dance Council). “You’re not making it happen, so there’s the element of improvisation,” she explains.

Although Gia concedes that early training gives a dancer technique and precision, she just got disenchanted. With Maureen she began to find her own voice.

Gia came to Pittsburgh in 2002, where she began to figure out how to practice improvisation and how to organize it, noting that “one of the biggest things was flow, pause and exit and, of course, being in the moment of your choice.” She also found that “there’s more freedom in being allowed to fail.”

Now she’s “totally exposing” herself in “Crossing Center.” It was initially inspired by photos of women from Cairo, which set Gia on the idea of traveling through life. But, as the mother of a five-year old girl, she’s recently been immersed in the ideas of Prince Charming and fairy tale settings.

Somehow it all connected. “We all end up crossing the center without our glass slipper,” she says of life at large. “Even for men. It’s not what they tell you in the books.”

Building on her six-year-plus professional relationship with percussionist Jeff Berman, she began creating “Crossing Center.” As it turned out, the performance at The Space Upstairs had many elements from the original idea plus so much more.

The Space was set up like an expanded living room, surrounding numerous shoe arrangements (some with glass-like adornments), a couple of suspended clouds, a small pink tulle canopy and several black boxes.

It was all Gia needed, suggesting modern-day glass slippers and a child-like, fairy tale

imagination, where even a black box could become a castle. I found the movement to be similarly child-like in a way — open, alert and infused with energy.

Beth Ratas walked on in mismatched glam heels, taking photos of the Space and audience with her camera. The rest of what followed had a terrific blend of fantasy and reality. The arm movements were sometimes balletic (never crossing the center line of the body), and being balletic, they were a real allusion to the illusion found in such a traditional art form. Keeping in that vein, the dancers occasionally operated in second position, with arms plunging down the center of the body.

Allison Greene was far more aggressive than I have seen her with a far-flung slide across that center line and later spinning out of control into the unremitting back wall. (Was that reality coming into play?) Along with Gia, who clomped on in huge wading boots, and Jasmine Hearn, so playful, the dancers tiptoed and leaped and the only time you could tell the improv and set choreography apart was in the group sequences.

The second part of the program took those themes to some other world, with Gia unleashed as a solo dancer, pulling on her long ponytail and teetering along that center line, and Jeff, David Bernabo on laptop and Hill Jordon, trombone, interacting with spare musical sophistication. All-in-all this group is a wonderful addition to the Pittsburgh dance scene.

If you missed it, the same “Crossing” cast will tackle another, different SPACE, this time the contemporary art gallery on Liberty Avenue between 8th and 9th streets. And while the cast will remain the same, the performance surely will surely change dramatically. (See Listings.)
















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