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Conversations in Movement: The 305-Havana International Improv Fest
Catherine Annie Hollingsworth
Choreographer Alexey Taran and filmmaker Carla Forte, the two halves of Bistoury Physical Theater, are based in Miami—but lately they’re out of the country more often than not. This summer alone, they are off to Havana and then to Portugal. The idea is to expand their creative exchange. Otherwise, they say, Miami can start to feel like an isolated place.
Enter the 305-Havana International Improv Fest, held in late May and early June of this year. The festival was designed to open up a conversation between the two cities and, eventually, with other cities around the world. The program is essentially the same in both places, combining participation and dance performance, plus a screening of experimental films focused on improvisation in dance. Artists in all genres are invited to attend the festival in one or both cities; on principal, the entire event is free.
Taran is originally from Havana; watching his jerky idiosyncratic movement style, it might be hard to guess that he was trained in ballet. Later he linked up with experimental Cuban dance company Danza Abierta, for whom he was both a dancer and ballet teacher. With Danza Abierta, he began to move away from the formalism of his training into something less controlled and more free.
In 1991, Taran left Havana for Caracas, where he’d eventually meet Forte, in 2003. Two years later, they founded Bistoury based on a shared interest: a rebellion against structures and languages of power. In the field of dance, this is a rejection of both traditional approaches to choreography and movement and the model of the authoritarian choreographer. “When you have everything set, everything starts to become automatic,” says Taran. “When I was a ballet dancer, I hated being like a robot, repeating the phrase that they gave me. You have to learn the phrase and then you repeat it.”
For Taran and Forte, improvisation was the antidote. Back in 1999, before Bistoury, Taran presented a first iteration of the Improv Fest in Venezuela, with the support of the American Embassy there. Notable improv pioneer Jennifer Monson was the headlining teacher. Fast forward to 2015—after living outside his home country for almost 24 years, Taran returned to Havana. Forte had her first experience of the city then, and was immediately taken with it. “I feel an amazing connection with the city and also with the people,” Forte says. “Right now I’m very interested in developing my next project in Cuba.” Taran and Forte linked up with Sandra Ramy, a longtime friend and supporter of Taran since his days with Danza Abierta.
Currently, Ramy is the director of Persona, a Havana-based physical theater company. She also serves as a dance programmer at Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a recently opened multimedia exhibition space in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood.
A former factory, Fábrica de Arte was formed by musician and artist X Alfonso in 2014. It houses short-term rotating exhibitions, showcasing work that pushes against the traditional boundaries of all these mediums. As is typical of the Cuban art community, Fábrica de Arte depends on government support while offering a space of critique and experimentation. As such, it occupies a dynamic position for dialogue. “It’s an incredible place, and it’s unique in the world,” says Taran. “I’ve never seen a place like that.”
During their 2015 visit, Bistoury was invited by Ramy to present their previous work, “Tribe,” at Fábrica de Arte. Later, in early 2017, Taran and Forte developed a new piece, “Flesh,” at Fábrica de Arte that premiered in Miami before traveling to Havana. The presentation of “Tribe” and “Flesh” marked the beginnings of an artistic exchange between Fábrica de Arte and Bistoury, set between Miami and Havana, that has allowed Taran and Forte to realize the dual-city festival.
Ramy says the festival “perfectly fits into Fábrica de Arte’s poetics of dialogue and research—it is a chance for an enriching encounter, having improv as a mobilizing force able to creatively involve every participant, including the audience.”
For the Improv Festival, Ramy will travel from Havana to Miami to lead a three-day workshop. And in the spirit of exchange, the Havana workshops will be led by visiting artist Luciana Achugar, who was born in Uruguay and currently lives in New York. Ramy’s company, Persona, will perform in both cities, and the program is rounded out with a commissioned piece by Miami local Rudi Goblen.
In both their creative work and personal outlooks, Taran and Forte lean heavily on improvisation. Taran says:
I think we are improvising all the time in our lives. It’s kind of a way to survive in this world that is absolutely crazy right now. So in our works, we use improvisation not only as a tool for creation, but also as a piece by itself. For example, our works have maybe 80% improvised scenes. And the starting point of creation in all of our works comes from improvisation. This is very important to us, because it is a tool we use in our daily life for everything. It’s a kind of way to find freedom.
In improvisational technique, movements are generated autonomously by the performer in the moment, and are structured by an idea or starting point. In some cases, performers have a loosely defined path to follow, like a music score.
Improv has long been a staple in contemporary dance. While it’s almost impossible to pinpoint any one person or moment when it became a critical tool for the deconstruction of dance, the best-known movement is Contact Improv. Developed in the 1970s by Steve Paxton and others including Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer, Contact Improv is now a widely-practiced technique.
Taran and Forte also refer to Authentic Movement, where eyes are closed and movement is spontaneously generated from internal impulses, and David Zambrano’s Flying-Low exercises, which are based on body centering and spiraling in relation to the floor.
“It’s beautiful because it’s not ever the same,” says Forte. “You move different. And people can get a different message or image. It’s different every day.” Taran describes improvisation as something freeing. “It’s a way to be sincere, to be right now, here now.”
As director of Persona, Ramy seconds the richness of an improvisational stance. For her, she explains, it is a tool to escape the confines of traditional theater work and divisions between genres:
Improvisation is a permanent element in my work. It is not only used during training and the structuring processes of a specific piece, but also in the Unforeseen Repairings Cabaret, a project that, since 2006, I have carried out together with the poet Omar Pérez. The Cabaret is an improvisation spectacle derived from a workshop to which dancers, musicians, poets, actors and visual artists are invited in order to explore improv according to their specific languages and in relation to a specific subject, working as an axis. This workshop, which can last from a single workday to a week, has the intention to elaborate a dramatic structure able to generate an improvisation show open to the audience.
Despite its longstanding ubiquity, Taran and Forte feel that in both Miami and Havana, improvisation is not widely used or taught. “People are more used to the choreographer coming and saying ‘okay, learn this phrase,’” says Taran. Improvisation is the opposite: a simultaneously communal and individual experience that produces movement.
Taran, Forte, and Ramy share a common goal: to create a larger space for the exchange of improvisational ideas. Because improvisation is more process than product, “I think the most important thing is to create a platform for improvisers that can share experiences,” says Taran. “It’s a space for creation.”
Catherine Annie Hollingsworth is a Miami-based dance and performance writer.