Workshopping: Drums, Improvisation and Dance at Edge Hill University.

I was fortunate enough to be invited by Louisa Robey and the dance department at Edge Hill University to accompany some morning classes and also co-deliver an afternoon workshop.

Edge Hill has a beautiful campus, set in Ormskirk – just outside of Liverpool. An interesting collection of architecture, blending older buildings from its origins as a teacher training college, with newer facilities like The Arts Centre, reflecting its more recent move to university status.

The premise for my day here, had been based around ‘Impro-Collaborative Choreography’: An existing concept and workshop format, devised by the Near Miss Company (Shannon Coote, Louisa Robey and myself). The abstraction being, that group improvisation is investigated specifically, as a means for generating content in work-making and composition, focusing attention to the relationships discovered between sound and movement: How these ideas develop and how sound/movement relationships feed back to one another, creatively.

My work for the morning was to take place in one of the dance studios housed in The Arts Centre, where Louisa would be leading two classes of contemporary dance. The students had been developing phrases to be delivered in an assessment later in the year, though, until today, these had been accompanied by prerecorded music from various sub genres of mainstream pop. How would the class react to this new, perhaps unfamiliar and unpredictable sound world?!

Edge Hill Arts Centre

Louisa and I had already discussed how the class and phrase drills had been conducted, and how she wanted to introduce the students to a more open and reactive music experience. In many ways, the fact that the sound would be new – let alone delivered through the ‘live’ medium of the drum set, could feel quite different – possibly even perceived ‘destructive’? We decided on a multi-level strategy, where the original tunes would be used first; then each phrase would be danced again, with live drum set accompaniment.

For my ‘live drums’ renditions, I decided to begin each phrase’s performance by replicating – as close as I could – the pre-recorded music, then, as each drill progressed, to gently subvert the rhythms. I would keep a close eye on all of the dancers to make sure any changes to the accompaniment hadn’t lost anyone: if there were any hint of this – I would reign it in a little! Developed strategies I used were, for instance: Missing out occasional, single, strong pulse beats in the bar: This could prove a good indicator as to whether dancers were maintaining their own sense of timing within the phrase and not relying too much on what they were hearing. If the phrase was continuing strongly through single pulse beats missing, I would maybe drop out some more! Occasionally, I would switch up the rhythm and play across the pulse beats (poly rhythmically) while always keeping an eye to whether this was losing anyone. It was also nice to play with dynamics and bring the whole drumming volume level right down to below that of the sounds made by the dancers themselves – their own breath and floor brushes taking over the performance soundtrack.

“Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.” Monk

Reactions to these new sound and music possibilities were immediately positive: The responsiveness and communications ‘in-to’ and ‘out-from’ the sonic aspect, appeared to lead to a heightened sense of awareness amongst the group. New creative possibilities also became apparent, where dancers discovered they could ‘conduct’ the musician through their movements. Dynamic elements were commented on specifically, as the pre-recorded music tended towards a more ‘static’ level in this respect, whereas live sound created more expanse and variety.

The afternoon workshop session picked up from the morning’s live music reactivity, with experiments and games played around an ‘Impro-Collaborative Choreography’ presentation. A simple introduction of ‘musical statues’ induced the dialogue between musicians and dancers, with each taking turns to lead. Developments moved from basic walking, toward variations in sonic and movement based gestures, creating a sense of conduction and communication between these disciplines. Extremes were sought and pushed, as all players learned more about each others methods, style characteristics and personalities.

Lee Allatson (rear right) and Louisa Robey (front right) with Edge Hill workshop students.

The second phase of the workshop is given over to creating a short piece using the skills and ideas developed through the practical drills. To help initiate some direction with this, each of two groups were shown a list of proposed options or approaches around 3 basic compositional rules: 1. Relationship with Music (how will the sound and music elements affect each other? E.g. Call and response, Mirroring, Contrasting etc.); 2. Structure (how will the piece be ordered, compositionally? E.g. Travelling from one side of the room to the other, Spiralling, using classical form – Binary/Ternary etc.) and 3. Movement/Sound Motivation (definers for approaches to sections, e.g. Rolling, Climbing, Shock, Ripple etc.). After choosing their performance options, the groups were given a short space of planning and rehearsal time, then performed their pieces to each other.

Responses, once again, were unanimously positive! The students appeared to revel in the opportunity to get stuck in to the practical aspects of work making very quickly. The reactivity between music and movement being more flexible and agile, seemed to accelerate workflow and the generation of new ideas. Post-performance reflections included discussion around options in sourcing bespoke music for dance performances: Whether this be performed live, improvised or composed – or pre-recorded; Questioning also, whether this has to be music reflecting mainstream genre areas – or can the ‘music’ be just sound? Simple ‘sound making’ can be one of the most liberating access points for this kind of reactive, contemporary work, as it doesn’t necessarily have to conform with any perceived ‘music rules’ at all. You can learn do it yourself!