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Under the mentorship of Susan Sgorbati, I have been engaged in the practice and performance of Emergent Improvisation for over a decade. Emergent Improvisation outlines a rigorous practice for both the soloist and the ensemble. While careful attention is paid to how soloists might begin to enter the ensemble, there is not a detailed rubric for navigating this transitional space. 


How do we transition from soloist to ensemble member? And how do we navigate the transitional spaces between the solo and ensemble practices? These lines of inquiry have always enchanted me and now they have captured my attention for over a decade. They have become my lifelong exploration in the field of dance improvisation. As such, I still do not claim to have fully uncovered the answers. However, I am beginning to detail what I have discovered, and this serves as a platform to share what I’ve learned so far. 


The following is a fluid, ever-evolving vision of a small group practice for Emergent Improvisation. While much of what is offered below serves to extend the practice of Emergent Improvisation and draws directly from my long term collaborations with dance partner Emily Climer, it is equally a reflection of what I have learned and experienced while working with special needs children in the field of Autism. In many ways, its the culmination and hybrid of my work and research in these two fields. 



Sensory Work:

Moving from Breath, Stillness, Body Scans, Body Mapping, Proprioception, Tuning 

Discovery of Movement Vocabulary

Initiation from Body Parts, Rhythmic Patterns, Musicality, Phrasing, Timing, Deconstruction, Speed, Repetition, Body geography, Internal Imagery, Sudden Changes, Interruptions, Retrograde, Energy States, Fluid Systems

Attention to Spatial Environment

Spatial Orientation and Boundaries, Architecture, Sound, Light, Temperature, Energy, Internal and External Sense of Time and Space, Finding Location, Foreground/Background, Spatial Patterns

Focus on Particular

Choice, Beginnings/Endings, Narrative/Images, Referencing, Phrasing, Assembling Patterns, Repetition

Emergent Structures

Excavation, Accumulation, Initial Conditions, Theme and Variation


This is the sweet space where you experience "becoming"—becoming aware of yourself in relationship to others and the environment around you.


The Small Group Practice helps dancers transition from the solo to ensemble practice. Broadening from solo to ensemble awareness begins with bringing your sensorial attention to include other dancers in the space. We facilitate this expanding attention by forming duets, trios, quartets and eventually small groups. 


Time spent working in small groups gives dancers time to develop the interdependent skills essential to achieving the communication capacities we’ve identified and deem necessary for participating in an ensemble. Learning to negotiate partnerships in small groups gives dancers the opportunity to experience the unfolding of emergent forms on a smaller scale as they transition from soloist to ensemble member. This also provides the practice of tracking at local, regional, and global levels in the development of a composition.

[To read about Small Group Practice: hover over the boxes, below, and click on the menu items.]


Compositional Tools

Unison, Spatial Patterns, Foreground/background, Solo/Chorus, Framing, Retrograde, Rhythmic Patterns, Narratives/Images, Amplification, Repetition, Referencing, Interruptions, Sudden Changes, Entrances/ Exits, Stillness, Shadowing, Partnering, Nesting

Emergent Structures

Washes, Charges, Main Event/Chorus, Glacial Erratic, Waves and Eddies, Pathway, Landscapes, Fields, Tableau


Ensemble Capacities for Self-Organization:

Pattern Recognition, Negotiation of Roles, Listening, Tracking, Attention to Development, Balancing Individual Impulse with Ensemble Choice Making

Emergent Forms

Complex Unison Form, Memory Form, Recall Form

Forms in Development: Landscape Form, Dream Form

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Attuning and cultivating small group connections 


In science, interdependence refers to the idea that all things in nature are connected, like a network of mycelium. I like the term interdependent because it honors togetherness without neglecting autonomy. It strikes a balance between partnership and independence. It also suggests that we are strengthened rather than weakened by coming together in partnership. Navigating the constellation of skills mapped out for composing within an ensemble requires interdependent intelligence. Developing interdependent intelligence among partners and small groups means cultivating mutual reliance and shared responsibility. These connections are forged by awakening and expanding the following capacities through duet, trio, and small group practices. 


Interpersonal Awareness

Begins with noticing and pairing with another mover in the space. It's the ability to see both the self and other, to hold both equally. It’s also the ability to sense that you are aware of each other and that together you are aware of moving in the same trajectory. This includes recognizing and taking responsibility for how you effect and are affected by your evolving dynamics. 



The ability to relate to others. It is a core component in any emergent collaborative process of creation. In my writing about autism and Emergent Improvisation, I define empathy as ‘an intelligence and sensibility, which does not grant us the power of transcendence, but allows us to experience a sense of relatedness and to cultivate the capacity for understanding. It also requires us to recognize and respond to the sophisticated emotional and kinesthetic influences of our partners. Empathy does not imply that we share the same emotions, thought patterns or even physicality, but that we are able to create meaningful parallels based on our own histories and experiences.’



The practice of exchange. When you are moving collaboratively with a partner and your motivations are aligned, your capacity to lead or respond is tethered to your engagement with one another. From this place, you can engage in an exchange of materials with mutual responsiveness and commitment to task. This requires striking a balance between what you offer and receive in response. How this looks and feels can vary each time you explore a new partnership. Each partnership you engage will cultivate its own unique reciprocal balance. One that allows you to move with a sense of shared responsibility for the composition, with or without agreement and or despite likeness. 


Collaborative Adaptability 

The willingness and capacity to move in synchronicity with the trajectory of the emerging composition. This requires fluidity and flexibility, a commitment to growth, and an honoring of change. It not only demands cooperation but coordination. 


Forging these connections and attuning ourselves to these sensibilities is vital. Without them, we fall short of effective communication and our ability to co-create suffers. They are paramount to our ability to tune in, listen, track, and contribute to the emerging composition. 



Shared movement practices 


Begin your shared movement practice in duets. The duet form focuses on developing a composition with one other dancer. Spending time in duets is essential to honing the skills that allow for interdependent intelligence as you continue to expand your explorations work with trios, quartets, and slowly build to small groups. This investigation process can include but is not limited to the following practices:



A term I borrow for my work with children on the autism spectrum. I liken this experience in dance improvisation to recalling and or being in unison with your partner. Joining in both of these scenarios tends to look identical to mirroring to the outside eye. However, joining is not a simple imitation. Joining calls for a deeper level of engagement with the activity. It’s about diving into and awakening your sense of inquiry and uncovering what’s hidden beneath the surface. This requires you to tune in, deepen your understanding of what it means to listen to, observe, and embody something that is not your own. 


Witnessing and Tracing

A practice in seeing and being seen. Take turns witnessing each other in a solo practice. Notice how it feels to witness and be witnessed. After witnessing your partner as a soloist, attempt to trace what you’ve just observed. Imagine that your partner has left behind a blueprint, or a silky snail trail. Your job is to find your way through your partner's composition. Be liberal in exploring what this means to you. Go with whatever impulse resonates. Take on one or several aspects of what you remember and allow yourself to discover something new as you trace their path.


Leading and Following

Leading a partner should be approached with intent. You're not just a soloist with a shadow. Explore the sensations and tones that emerge for you in the leading role. Following is less direct than mirroring or tracing. I like to think about the following like riding a wave. Pick up your partner's material, maintain their timing, and keep moving in the trajectory, but don't ignore the impulses that emerge from within you as you continue following their lead. This is not about getting it right, let the line get blurry.  


Agreement and Disagreement

Actively practice making choices that agree and disagree with what your partner offers.  Notice how this is different from ignoring what's been presented or abandoning it for something altogether new. This is a practice in understanding how to offer juxtaposition. 



Explore your range of physicality through the practice of contact improvisation as set forth in the work of Steve Paxton and Nancy Stark Smith, among others. Click here to learn more and explore resources on the Contact Quarterly site.


Initiator, Responder, Framer

One dancer initiates solo material. A second dancer joins and responds by taking on similar qualities, gestures, and phrasing, or contrasting material. A third dancer then enters to frame the duet. Framing involves directing the focus towards the duet by various means: anchoring the space through stillness, echoing a gesture, or creating a boundary through a repetitive spatial pattern. This exercise gives a chance to explore the possibilities of three different compositional perspectives. 


These exercises engage our interpersonal awareness, ignite our capacity for empathy, and allow us to experience collaboration and adaptation as mutually reliant. They prepare us to engage the complex communication skills utilized in ensemble dynamics. They are designed to give us a range of experiences to draw on as we transition to work within larger ensembles. 

The Recall Form Theater by Terry Gannon.



In Emergent Improvisation we build forms by identifying recurring patterns of development. We order the structural elements of these particular developmental patterns to create a unique, repeatable sequence that guides you through a more formal shared movement practice. Each form has a distinct lifespan and unfolds building in complexity over time. Approach these forms like frameworks that can be adapted across disciplines or tailored to your own line of inquiry. 


The Recall Form

A duet


“Social psychology studies have demonstrated that imitation and mimicry are pervasive, automatic, and facilitate empathy.” -Marco Iacoboni


The Recall Form is influenced by scientific theories related to mirror neurons in the brain. These neurons, which activate both when we observe the actions of others and perform or do those actions ourselves, are believed to provide the capacity to empathize and understand the intentions of others. The capacities for empathy and non-verbal communication are central to building an improvisation ensemble’s ability for self-organization and collective choice-making.


The Recall Form unfolds in four stages:


The Duet Exchange

One dancer begins by performing a series of three or four movements she has created while the other observes.  The other then instantly recalls what she has seen and adds a few new movements while the first observes. They continue to take turns adding new movements, observing one another, and recalling the accumulated material until they’ve established a phrase that encompasses elements of each individual offering, but is new to both.


Unison Recall

The two dancers execute their new phrase at the same time. Unison in this case does not require the dancers to achieve the same timing, quality, shape, but allows them to acknowledge and experience the new material by performing it together. This prepares them to transition into the next phase.



The dancers simultaneously begin to develop the newly created vocabulary for themselves, co-existing in the space as they expand and hone the core of their material. Each investigates the qualities, rhythms, emotions, and subtexts of the movement.  During this phase they can intermittently come to stillness and observe their partner. As new patterns begin to emerge in their awareness, the dancers shift to explore compositional and relational possibilities of the material to the space and each other. When they feel they’ve accumulated enough shared experience, they arrive at stillness and exit the space.



Using their shared vocabulary, the two dancers reenter to construct an improvised composition that reflects and responds to the experience they’ve accumulated. Their memories shape how the composition unfolds. Their responses can involve spontaneous reactions or follow an unfolding opinion, image, or new idea. The dancers maintain a willingness to engage with, repeat, support, and explore their partners movement choices and ideas. This encourages a deep sense of listening and a shared sense of responsibility for what emerges.


Ensemble Worlds 

A small group form


(You can name this exercise after the soloist who begins the composition, e.g. Susan’s World)


This exercise gives the ensemble an opportunity to explore how they can build distinct compositional worlds by listening, supporting, embodying, and responding to the choices of a soloist. It gives a soloist practice in making clear movement choices. The focus is on establishing a shared world. The first dancer initiates a solo material. Ensemble members then enter to join the soloist, selecting particular qualities, gestures, contrasts, or phrases that seem central to the movement that the soloist is creating. The initial soloist can enter or exit the dance throughout the exercise, and also calls the end of the exercise once he or she feels the world has been clearly established.


It’s important to remember that the practice of Emergent Improvisation is fluid. Even though we offer a chronological sequence for advancing through the practice, continued growth and development is not a linear process but one that allows dancers continually to move back and forth between each of the stages as they continue to hone and refine their skills.


The sections on Initiator, Responder, Framer, The Recall Form, and Ensemble Worlds, come directly from our Contact Quarterly Chapbook, Emergent Improvisation: on the nature of spontaneous composition where dance meets science.


Connecting in a time of Isolation 

Follow the link below to check out some experiential projects that offer opportunities for connecting at a distance. 

Movement Crossings >>


Sgorbati, S., Climer, E., & Haas, M. L. (2013) Emergent Improvisation: on the nature of spontaneous composition where dance meets science. Northampton, MA: Contact Quarterly.


Haas, M. L.. (2018/19) Emergent Frameworks. Personal Writing. 

photos by Terry Gannon

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