On improvisation - an extract from A Choreographer’s Handbook by Jonathan Burrows
Published by Routledge, an imprint of the Taylor and Francis Group, 2010
Improvisation / Cut and paste / Choreography


Improvisation is one way to work. For some, in some instances, it brings freedom: the freedom to follow impulse and the intelligence of the moment, the freedom to arrive at the right parameters for the structure of that moment without binding it with formality, the freedom to work at the speed of a thinking body and mind.


This freedom is also there, sometimes, in set forms: the freedom not to be responsible for making a choice, the freedom to deviate because I have something to deviate from.


Improvisation can be a principle for performing. This is an approach to making performance that demands as much focus, clarity of intention, process, integrity and time as any other process. If choreography is about making decisions - or about objects placed in relation to each other so that the whole exceeds the sum of the parts - or about a continuity of connection between materials - then improvised performance is as much of a choreographic act as any other approach, the decisions are just made faster. For some people this is the right and only way for them to work. For some pieces this is the right and only way for them to work.

The question is this: what is the right way to work for the thing that you want to do?

What can you do, at this moment, in this process?

What will be gained and what will be lost in the way you choose to work?

There will be loss.

All of these questions can be asked even if you don't know what you're trying to do. So long, that is, that you know you don't know what you're trying to do.

It's ok not to know what you're trying to do.


Improvisation can also be a way to work towards finding material that will be structured or set in the final piece.

Working this way can produce a lot of material very fast. It isn't, however, always easy to know how to use what you find.
My picture looks like this: I improvise and find myself in the middle of a complexity beyond my ability to grasp; I am flying. I try to recreate that moment, using my memory or video, but it's never the same - either I must improvise or I must accept that I can only find back 70% of the complexity.

70% of the complexity may be enough.

There is, embodied within the form of Tai Chi, the idea that you use only 70% of your capacity and force. The missing 30% is the space within which your body has room to develop.

Many great pieces grow from processes which accept that what is lost leaves room for something else to arrive.

Cut and paste:

The use of improvisation as a tool to find material is intimately linked to that kind of choreographic process which finds things first and then decides the order to put them in. Let’s call this process ‘cut and paste’. It’s a very good way to work for many people.

Cut and paste is perhaps the most effective way to deal with fragments found by improvising. We improvise to find the strongest movements and then use cut and paste to put them together – we develop skills of cutting and pasting which draw us back each time to improvisation as a primary tool to find material. It is a practice that can trap us into thinking this is the only way to work.

Improvisation is one way to find material.

Improvisation is not the only way to find material.

Cut and paste is not the only way to choreograph.

Try also not improvising.


Improvisation is a negotiation with the patterns your body is thinking.


Choreography is a negotiation with the patterns your body is thinking.

© Jonathan Burrows, 2010