Sunday, May 8, 2011

Chance Operations and Improvisation

The way Merce Cunningham and John Cage worked together would have, once upon a time, terrified me. Cunningham would make his movement, Cage would make his sound, and then put it together for the first time on opening night, before a live, paying audience. Cage and Cunningham said dance and music were two separate things that happened to be occurring at the same time.

I had to do this recently with a few young people at my congregation. For Easter Vigil, for the assigned Isaiah reading, I turned the reading into something of a choral reading for three willing kids, ages 13 and under. I asked a high school student who is studying dance to choreograph something to go with the reading. They four were in the same room at the same time only briefly. I worked with the readers, I worked with the dancer to help her set her choreography. They never had so much as a run through together before the Vigil.

It's not how I prefer to work and maybe the kids were a little nervous about it, too. Somehow, it worked, and it worked amazingly well. I could not have predicted how well it would have worked. It was beautiful in ways I never expected.

Cunningham and Cage spoke of "chance operations" (which really means something much bigger and broader than what I describe here, but I'll leave it here for now). I prefer to rehearse all elements of something, rehearse it all together, make sure it's all together where I want it to be, leaving very little to chance. But I can't deny that Cunningham and Cage's way of working works.

+ + +

This morning (Sunday), during the offering, I noticed some slight misstep in rhythm. I guess we were short an usher or something and I think one usher enlisted his granddaughter, who was an acolyte, to help him with the offering. It's not how it's supposed to go, but as I watched it, the grandfather smiling and making a quick step to get someone who was missed, I thought, "It works. It's improvised and not according to guidelines, but it works and there are smiles and we remain church even when an acolyte plays usher."

In grad school, one of my classmates, Kelly, had been in an improvisation performance group. She gave our cohort a workshop in improvisation. As a theater major, I had always been terrified of improvisations and just accepted that I was bad at it. Well, I'm still not great at it, but for the first time, Kelly gave me a framework for at least understanding how improvisation works. The one big piece she gave me that I'd never heard before was that improvisation wasn't about being clever and especially quick on your feet (although that no doubt helps), but it was about approaching your cast mate with the attitude of "yes, and." Instead of derailing each other with new and weirder pieces, a good improvisation practitioner goes along with each other, never contradicts, never says "no" to the direction they're heading, but always says, "yes, and." (It can get plenty weird with that.)

I think that happened this morning. The acolyte said, "yes, and" to her grandfather and if it wasn't what was planned, we remained the church.

+ + +

Sometimes, things that hit me as a big lesson look dumb on the screen. Yes, of course, the church goes on and won't be brought down because an acolyte plays usher one Sunday. What I'm getting at, is that these little thing remind me of larger things. It reminded me of Kelly and it reminded me of "yes, and."

Life is full of unexpected . . . things. Loss of jobs, loss of health, loss of loved ones. New jobs, healing, new loved ones also come unexpected. Each, in their own way, can traumatize, paralyze, make you shift gears because you can't take this curve at that speed.

But, as I like to say, we can't control everything. Or much of anything, really.

So we work on our movement and have to hope someone else's sound will work with it. We can make our plans (and to be clear---sometimes a well-placed "no" is needed before the "yes, and" but that's another blog post), but in the moment we sometimes have to grab some help or make a quick step or two.

Maybe it won't always work, but sometimes something amazingly beautiful happens and we move forward into Eucharist despite it all.

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