Exploration through improvisation

Pianist and teacher Jonathan Chapman Cook leads a master class in improvisation for W&L Dance Repertory Company

Faith Isbell

As a liberal arts university, Washington and Lee allows its students to experience and engage in the fine arts with departments and programs ranging from Art and Art History to Theater, Dance and Film. One skill in particular has a presence all across the fine arts: improvisation.

Under the instruction of freelance composer, pianist and teacher Jonathan Chapman Cook, W&L students were able to explore the art of improvisation.

On the evening of Oct. 6, about 40 students gathered in the South Jefferson dance studio for an hour-long master class led by Cook. The majority of the students came from the W&L Repertory Dance Company, although a number of students from the theatre department participated as well.

Director of Dance and Associate Professor of Dance Jenefer Davies first reached out to Cook, who specializes in improvisation, over the summer. Cook and Davies then met to discuss and brainstorm for a collaborative class.

Cook’s class is a part of a larger master class series that Davies formed in order to bring in professional artists that are trained in areas that aren’t traditionally offered in the W&L dance program.

“In this way, I hope to expose the students to different philosophies and ways of moving,” Davies said. “I would like [the dancers] to explore beyond our W&L dance world.”

Cook led the class in a series of movement exercises that guided the improvisation and encouraged certain movements and dance interaction.

“I wanted to encourage the students to break away from labels and preconceptions,” Cook said. Although Cook had arranaged a lesson plan for the class, Cook’s piano music was entirely improvised and largely inspired by the movement of the dancers.

“I feel an accumulative vibe as to where the energy [of the dancer] is at,” Cook said. “I follow that energy when I play.”

Although Cook described the class as an introduction for the students who hadn’t worked with improvisation before, he feels that the lessons learned from dance improvisation are applicable to daily life.

“As human beings, we’re adaptive organisms. We adapt constantly to changing circumstances,” Cook said. “Yet, we have this tendency to cling back to certainty, even though we can never gain full certainty.”

Lauren Arcinas, ‘19, is a member of the W&L Repertory Dance Company and attended the master class as a part of her University Dance course. Although Arcinas had improvised for her high school dance team in the past, this was her first time improvising in a large group setting.

“It was very freeing,” Arcinas said. “It’s okay not to know what you’re going to do next. You can do whatever you’re feeling in that moment, and no one will judge you for it.”

Elliot Emadian, ‘17, is also a member of the W&L Repertory Dance Company and is currently choreographing three pieces for the fall and winter shows. Emadian had not taken a formal class in improvisation before; however, after attending Cook’s master class, Emadian was inspired by the exercises that focused on dancer-to-dancer contact, such as partnering and weight-sharing.

“Improv is 100% how I create movement for my choreography,” Emadian said. “[Improv] is extremely important for an artist who is constantly changing and growing. Otherwise, we would create the same movement every time.”

Cook shares an attitude similar to Arcinas and Emadian.

“Part of the discipline of improvisation is embracing uncertainty and exploring and playing with that uncertainty,” Cook said. “It’s a really valuable skill.”

Cook’s master class is the precursor to a collaborative arts event in Staniar Gallery featuring Clover Archer’s Brooklyn-based guest artist, Jose Krapp. The event will involve both the entire W&L Repertory Dance Company and Cook. The act will seek to “interpret and reimagine” Krapp’s interactive installation through music and movement and will be entirely improvised. The music and dance will begin on Nov. 18 at 5 p.m. and will be followed by an artist lecture and reception.