Art People: Chris Aiken, Angie Hauser | dance improvisers

Last modified: Monday, May 05, 2014

To create improvisational dance that is destined for performance requires years of training and experience, and hours of offstage preparation. It is what Chris Aiken and Angie Hauser do, and they spend a lot of time together creating their art.

Aiken, 53, and Hauser, 43, perform together frequently as dance improvisers, locally, nationally and internationally. They are also husband and wife.

Contrary to what some may believe, they say, dance improvisation isn’t the same thing as winging it. Their work has developed over more than a decade of intense and deliberate collaboration.

“A lot of people think that improvising is dancing from the top of your head, and your heart. That’s not how we approach it. We’re creating material, we’re creating a piece,” Aiken said. “One of the reasons I’m drawn to improvising is the human challenge of being present, of making something in the moment.”

Aiken and Hauser met more than a decade ago, when they were guest artists at a university in Ohio. Aiken was already a skilled improviser and teacher, while Hauser was in the early stages of a career. That they fell in love was, perhaps, inevitable, but that they would work together was less certain. Even so, Aiken says, he was immediately drawn to Hauser’s dancing.

“I could feel right away the technical synchrony — the intelligence that she brought to what she was doing. That totally inspired me.”

Successful improvisational performance demands the integration of technique and compositional skill, Aiken says. That’s what he and Hauser teach their students at Smith College, where they share a position as assistant professors in the dance department. Dancers also must have the emotional fortitude to deal with the unknown.

“It’s a challenge to stay focused when it’s not going well,” Aiken said, “or you get yourself into situations that are tricky.”

Creating improvisational dance is about crafting possibilities for movement in performance, but to thrive as an improviser, Hauser says, a dancer must be open to the possibility of failure.

“You can’t hide,” she said. “When you feel yourself fail, you keep going. … The challenge is to pick yourself up and say, ‘What do I do now?’ ”

Indeed, if a dancer’s strategy is to cover mistakes, Aiken says, the audience will know right away.

“They see that as a shtick. It’s a trope, a trap. I don’t want the audience to feel that I’m hiding my imperfections. I want them to say, ‘Wow, how does he deal with that now? How does he continue?’ Onstage, I don’t need to see perfection. I want to see humanity.”

Aiken says people often underestimate the importance of the audience: When he’s onstage, he says, he’s always observing what the audience is attending to. When he’s not looking at them, he’s listening to their responses.

“They are co-creating the performance,” Aiken said. “I’m in relationship to them. They are influencing the choices that are being made onstage. ... I want them to feel that they are part of what’s happening. That’s the measure of the success.”

— Kathleen Mellen

Aiken and Hauser will present “Threshold: An Evening of Dance, Music and Image,” a collaborative performance with landscape architect and photographer Anne Whiston Spirn and musician Mike Vargas, Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. in Theatre 14, Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts, at the college. The free event is part of a residency by Spirn at the college, and her photography exhibit that is on view through Aug. 31 at the Smith College Museum of Art.


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