Mellon Workshop


Project Title: Improvisation Studies Workshop


  • Susan Rose, faculty member, UC Riverside Department of Dance
  • Renee Coulombe, faculty member, UC Riverside Music Department
  • Nina Galin, graduate student, UC Riverside Department of Dance
  • Walter Gershon, graduate student, UC Riverside School of Education
  • Undergraduate members: Ilknur Demirkoparan and Vuslat Demirkoparan, UC Riverside Department of Visual Arts


Our Research Group will bring together members of two performing arts departments and an advanced doctoral student in the School of Education, to investigate the ways in which improvisation and improvisational theory provide new models for the exploration of spontaneous inter-corporeal interactions. Centered on an investigation of the role of improvisation in the experimental contemporary performing arts, we will focus on several theoretical implications of improvisation including (1) how improvisation can mediate cross-cultural, transnational and/or cyberspatial (inter)artistic exchanges that produce new conceptions of identity, history and the body; (2) how improvisation functions as a key element in emerging postcolonial forms of aesthetics and cultural production; and (3) how improvisative production of meaning and knowledge provides models for new forms of social mobilization that foreground agency, personality and difference. These major issues will be examined in areas in which the co-investigators are engaged, both as music/dance improvisers, new media artists, choreographers, educators, and as scholars theorizing across media. Finally, we have chosen to put forward two undergraduate members for the group for two reasons: first, to increase the presence and "official voice" of student artists in the workshop group and second, to provide a professional mentoring opportunity for two talented and highly dedicated artists who have demonstrated a professional-level commitment to improvisation in the visual arts.

The group will ask questions concerning how improvisation expresses notions of ethnicity, race, nation, class, and gender, as well as how improvisative works are seen as symbolizing history, memory, agency, difference, personal narrative and self-determination. We seek to understand how improvisation mediates cross-cultural, transnational and cyberspatial (inter)artistic exchanges that produce new conceptions of identity, history and the body, and how improvisation fosters socialization, enculturation, cultural formation and community development. In this regard, the work of Paul Gilroy (1993), though problematic in terms of his musical theorizing, is crucial, as is the work of Benedict Anderson (1991), Stuart Hall, Arjun Appadurai (1996), and Anthony Cohen (1985) on the fluidity of symbolic community and Diaspora, globalization and ethnic cross-identification.

Finally, the group will investigate how improvisation can ground new forms of social mobilization that foreground agency, personality and difference. Improvisation may be read as one of a number of "forms of public-declared resistance" to practices of domination; these include "public counter-ideologies propagating equality, revolution, or negating the ruling ideology." Thus, a theorization of the nature of agency as it is manifest in many improvisatory practices could illuminate the role of the individual in relation to the social. For instance, how might the study of improvisation help us to envision new definitions of, and potential structurings for, collective endeavors? How might an examination of the distribution of power in improvised expression provide models for social responsibility and action? The work of Bhabha (1994), Sakolsky and Ho (1995) and Mattern (1998) provide a number of answers to this issue, and the well-known 1960s work of Guy Debord (1994) identifies the strong political implications of the uncontrollable spontaneity of large-scale group-improvised spectacle.

Workshop Structure:

This group will be structured around monthly reading/discussion groups focusing on emergent theories surrounding improvisative and interactive forms of artistic expression. Because all proposed members of the workshop group are focusing on improvisatory theory in some respect in their scholarly work, several meetings over the year will be dedicated to the presentation, discussion and exploration of members' scholarly endeavors. For instance, Renee Coulombe, a music theorist, composer and improviser is currently writing a chapter on Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians founder Muhal Richard Abrams, attempting to adapt historical musico-theoretical concepts to spontaneous music making. Graduate Student in the School of Education , Walter Gershon, is attempting to use improvisative theory as a model for deciphering student-to-student interactions in the classroom at the middle-school level. Choreographer and Dancer Susan Rose's work has long examined the physicality-musicality nexus of spontaneous dance movement. Nina Galin's extensive work on the musicality of gesture will ultimately inform her dissertation in Dance History. Students Ilknur and Vuslat Demirkoparan are currently exploring new intersections of visual and performing art with music and dance improvisation - most notably through a series of three-dimensional sculptural music "scores" for improvisation, to be performed by the UCR Free Improvisation Ensemble this spring.

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