Ensemble Blends Spontaneity, Substance: Leslie Scates and Lower Left


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Leslie Scates
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Improvisation has gotten a bad rap in the dance world, sometimes rightly so, as audiences sit through hours of formless pieces. But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Leslie Scates, Houston’s leading improvisational-dance expert. Scates, along with a collective called Lower Left, will present an evening of such works Saturday at Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex.

In reality, experienced improvisers do not leave much to chance; they work with “scores,” which serve as a set of instructions or rules, or a structure that holds the dance together.

“Really it’s just like regular choreography, but hold the steps,” Scates, 40, says. “We will be making those up that night.

Lower Left member Andrew Wass, 34, finds that simple scores work best. “You don’t want the performers trying to remember the rules while they are dancing,” says Wass, who will dance several pieces in the show. “Scores can include just about anything. For example, we may determine a path in space but not the movement it’s going to take to get there.”

For a new dance titled Open 15, Jeremy Choate’s lighting design assumes the role of the score. The dancers know where the light will be and will fill in the rest during the performance. If it sounds open-ended, that’s because it is; but in the hands of pros, it also can be terrifically exciting.

Despite its description, spontaneous dance requires hard work in the studio practicing “ensemble thinking,” a concept developed by Nina Martin, one of Lower Left’s founders and leading members.

Established in 1994, Lower Left is a group of like-minded dance improvisers and educators who present their work throughout the United States. Scates just returned from her third consecutive year at “March 2 Marfa,” an invitation-only laboratory put on by Lower Left in Marfa.

“We learn to listen deeply so that we can choreograph instantaneously with skill and intention,” Scates says. “This way, dancers compose together instead of improvising movement endlessly that may or may not produce an interesting composition.”

“Marfa is not Improv 101,” Wass quips. “It’s more like graduate school.”

Scates, a prominent local choreographer, has presented her work during two Diverseworks residencies and with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater. She became drawn to the improvisational process when she noticed that her own dancing and palette of ideas became vastly more interesting when she employed the practices she was learning in Marfa.

Scates will perform a duet with local dancer Sophia Torres called Untitled Falling, which uses a simple score involving eye contact, unforced partnering and falling. Though Torres and Scates will determine their actual movements during the performance, they’ve rehearsed diligently.

Improvisation takes as much rehearsal, if not more, than set choreography, Wass says.

“There’s no movements or steps to hide behind. Also, with experienced practitioners, the audience can’t tell if it’s improvised or choreographed.”

Scates admits it’s unlikely for an audience to see complicated unison movement during an improvised dance. However, amazing moves that are nearly impossible to choreograph do happen.

“I prefer watching thinking dancers; I think the audience is more engaged and really drawn into the creative process,” Scates says. “I want to see the choice-making going on. That’s thrilling.”

Reprinted from The Houston Chronicle.

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