lisa nelson

I happened across an interview with the remarkable US improviser Lisa Nelson the other day. It features prolonged footage of her dancing with Steve Paxton sometime in the 1970s at Judson Church in New York.

She is such an articulate and thoughtful person, and — with that warm and gravelly voice – she says some beautiful things.

On dance in the Judson era:

We didn’t really know what we were doing. It was like being in a tidal wave of change and playfulness, and theatre and dance was happening on the streets. So the seriousness of purpose that came with Judson was a very small piece of that pie.

On the uniqueness of contact improvisation:

Contact [Improvisation] was very special in two ways that I can say. One is that it was the first body-based improvisational format. All the others were working with either psychology … I won’t say theatricality, but with human interaction — it was sourced from movement as gesture, as action, but not the actual matter of the body.

This [contact improvisation] was very interesting to me. The body could teach itself what it needed to know.

On learning, video technology and making choices:

I was able to see it [video technology] as an external body, also it gave me a very clear way to watch a learning process; my own learning process. How did I learn from this external body? Because it’s about movement, video is is about movement. By approaching an instrument with a fixed frame I was able to look at my dancing in another way. It was as if my body had become a camera, and the analogies between the body as frame of experience, was very strong. And the idea about the movement of the camera, the choices of the camera. Improvisation is about making choices, and these choices come from two things: habits – patterns, learned patterns, genetic patterns; and then from a kind of intuitive dialogue with your own circumstances. When you are watching me dance are you improvising? And of course to me you are. You are looking for signals to follow, you are organising on your own choice. Nobody says you have to look there or look there. But there are patterns of entrainment, of course, with our eyes, and our attention and our expectation that make traditional dance important to reaffirm the culture over and over. So without these constraints, looking at an instrument like an external eye that you have to use your whole body to make choices.

Here’s part one of the video.


I’ve had a couple of opportunities to do workshops with Lisa, both in Brighton organised by Movement 12. The first was working specifically with cameras, and the second on improvisation, but both dealt with her remarkabletuning scores.

I’ve included my notes from the latter workshop below just in case it’s of interest to anyone.

Saturday 2 April 2011


  • tuning score” — version of it
  • Hands to face. Both surfaces (aware of both surfaces). One isolated (moving hands about face, then face about hands). Then both moving. Sensitising. Attention.
  • Then moving long slow. Eyes open when still, closed when moving. Vary the speed. Work in opposite (open when moving, still when closed). 


  • Playback Score.
  • One person. Goes in. says start” (or begin”), and end” (after making the proposition).
  • On Playback, group says begin” (once people have assembled’ — i.e. can be any number of playback people. 
  • Group says end”.
  • Next version: someone in group says again” - and playback the playback (as well as original version).

Sunday 3 April 2011


  • Duet: move with eyes close, stillness with eyes open. Qualities of listening in the contact. Don’t try to impress” your partner. Clear contact. 
  • I did this with eyes moving and open in stillness — strange dislocation between intimacy and otherness.

Watching the watching.

LN: I’m watching change” LN: no hierarchy in watching obvious or surprising changes (or something like that)

Afternoon Unison trio eyes closed:

  1. Trio syncs up (with still position — but one progression is to start in movement).
  2. says begin” (in the group).
  3. timed — 3 minutes (but very short)

Progression: group or watchers can say open”, or closed” — can move to or away from unison. No rules there. Also say pause” (if in danger, but also as an option).

Group: Putting up hand to register change in attention (whilst watching). Group discussion with eyes closed. Group discussion all talking at once. 

Thresholds — attention to thresholds. Games — learning the rules, or making them happen with the barest of rules to start with. Very like children’s games.

LN: Notice what you are attached to” Consider organisational systems/principles.  This is the tuning.

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