From time to time most of us perform tasks using whatever is at hand, without any preparation. That is called improvisation, and there are some who would love to do it for a living.
They are the 15 members of Improvisations Unlimited, a resident troupe at the University of Maryland in College Park. Meriam Rosen, an associate professor of dance at the university, is the company's director and was instrumental in its founding in 1978.
Rosen describes her own dance background as "eclectic." She began in ballet and wound up in modern dance. "I had negative feeling, as a student, toward college-level improvisational dance. It was poorly done. Teachers put on a phonograph record and told students to emote.
"A visiting instructor held a workshop in improvisation on campus about four or five years ago," Rosen recalls. "There was great feedback from the students, which led to our development of a company -- an extension of the classes.
"We started going around to campus buildings, doing improvisational sets in lobbies. I think some people thought we were a bunch of crazies. Then we tried broader public spaces, environmental spaces (parks) and buildings. At the end of that semester the students wanted to keep working -- and that's how Improvisations Unlimited came to be."
The group is open to students outside the university, and to non-students. Many of the members are not dancers. The original members are gone; Rosen says there is some turnover each year. "We would like to stabilize the company, but I doubt if that will happen. It's hard to maintain repertory with a such a turnover, but we would like to accumulate one or more new repertory pieces every year."
The question of audience expectations has been a challenge to Improvisations Unlimited. Rosen says many cannot accept the performances. "They view most of us as dancers. Sometimes, if we don't meet their dance expectations, they become belligerent. Some shout at us, and even throw stuff. We can't please everyone, but we can learn how to perform for a more adult audience."
In its most recent performances, last weekend at the EE Building studio/theater on the Maryland campus, the company helped to acquaint the audience with its style of "beautiful accidents" by offering four improvisational sets. Movement was totally spontaneous within a loose choreographical structure. The only rules were commands from the group leader or the audience. Student and alumni performers were informally required to be at certain places on the floor at particular times, but "how they got there and what they do is up to them," Rosen explained.
"Dreamcatchers" was a rehearsal work by New York choreographer Kei Takei, who coaxed Rosen into performing in it after an eight-year absence from dance performance. Dark-hued Japanese outfits (black, red, yellow and burgundy) suggested 10 performers, experienced in a ritual. One young woman in pink moved at a different pace, eventually maturing into the custom of the others. Magic moments occurred in between the performers' grunts and shouts of Oriental nothings, when the only sound was the loud chirping of crickets outside the theater's windows.
"Three Times," choreographed by Rosen, served as a test of balance in frozen positions and coordination in slow motion. Early ragtime music and turn-of-the-century costumes created a period setting for the three parts, "Best Time," "On Time" and "It's About Time."
"Budget Movers," choreographed by Graceanne Adamo, had four performers trying to move a piano with every diversion -- including coffee breaks -- keeping them from doing the job.
Rosen says the group is not planning to change its format, but aims to "do better what we do." A concert on campus in January, and perhaps an appearance with the Fairfax Symphony in its "Hansel and Gretel," are in the company's plans for the future.