The aim of the research is to differentiate, analyse and train compositional elements that are relevant to the social improvisation of sex and intimate encounters. The research involves:
- Embodied in-depth interviews about our sexual (hi)stories with focus on composition and learning
- literature research in the relevant fields of sex-positive and queer feminist research, improvisational and compositional theory and practice, cognitive studies
- practical work in the studio as artistic research lab at our host theatre Sensemble Augsburg
The practical sessions are at the core of the research. They serve to differentiate, analyse and train compositional elements in the improvised performance of sex and intimate (physical) play. Both a tool and a product, the work involves the creation of choreographic tasks and exercises that focus on specific compositional elements and dimension as well as skills, competencies and sensibilities of the improvisational practice of sex.
The creation of these exercises is based on the existing improvisation method Present Time Composition® (PTC) by Dr. Alan Bern. Originally created for professional musicians in the frame of his DMA program (Doctor of Musical Arts) at the University of Cincinnati in 2005, PTC has since evolved into a learning structure and at the same time an analytic frame work to understand, practice and teach “free improvisation” to musicians of all ages, instruments and musical styles and is in the process of transposition to dance by a group of choreographers and dancers since 2017. Valentin Schmehl, facilitating participant of our flausen+ research, has been trained in PTC_music since 2013 in annual workshops and part of the creation of PTC_dance from conception. Valentin started the practical research of “Layers of Intimacy” as artistic and academic process in 2019.
PTC is a rich and useful base for our research in “Layers of Intimacy”, both in its structure and pedagogical approach, as well as in the analytic and academic principles that it combines and invites into the practice.
To better understand how we have been working in the practical sessions, we will first outline PTC as a method, then describe the 1 ABC methods, and finally conclude with a somewhat “complete” list of our research activities in the first week of our flausen+ residency at Sensemble Theater Augsburg.
Practical and Analytic Base: Present Time Composition (PTC)
PTC is a method for collectively improvising highly differentiated, original performance works. It draws on our ability to make coordinated, cognitively rich decisions in real time. In its training and performance structures for ensemble work, it is deeply democratic while aiming at the aesthetic complexity typical of notated works by single authors. It is informed by cognitive studies and decision- making psychology as well as the rich fund of traditional composition theory, which –at least in musicology- is established as an academic practice usually accessible to scholars as well as composers, but less to performers and thus still until today perpetuates work hierarchies of traditional (19th century) author/interpreter divisions. PTC aims at using this fund of compositional knowledge as an embodied practice, boiled down to the level and speed of an impulse: so that it can be fast enough, and appropriate to the specific improvised situation. Improvisers are meant to take compositionally interesting decisions at any time. As we are talking about humans doing things with their bodies, these “compositionally interesting decisions” are always also in relation to social realities: if they are to succeed and create a meaningful artistic interaction, they have to deal with the needs, curiosities, boundaries and (in)abilities of the other improvising members (or, in a solo: of oneself) in the given moment. A strength of PTC is that it takes these human dimensions seriously, but aims at artistic and aesthetic quality. We have to take into account our performer ego’s (“It’s been a while since I did something, it should be my turn again”; “I’m a bit shy to enter with a big high note now, whilst compositionally it would be a great contribution” and so on) while not getting stuck in it and being reduced in our precision and aesthetic radius. Thus, the basic principle of PTC is: in a personal union of two roles, as improvisor you are always composer first and performer second.
Sex and intimate interactions are in most settings (even in professional contexts like sex work, tantra, porn etc.) improvised interactions involving large quantities of compositional nuances just like musical or dance performances. As in the performing arts, in sex and intimate interactions we are constantly confronted with taking decisions – and those can be taken from the point of view or the interest of a composer or a performer. We believe that sexual education and reflection of one’s own sexual “styles and aesthetics” are generally poor in our society, and merely not encouraged by public discourses. To apply an understanding of ourselves as composer-performers of our own sexual improvised co- creations helps framing and practicing embodied and deliberate (kin-)aesthetic choices in the making of sex. It supports understanding patterns, norms and standards, developing a critical and evaluative capacity and supports the active shaping, affirmation and/or transformation of those patterns in specific contexts. A crucial difference to performance arts is that most sexual interactions are not happening for an external eye. The composer-role as an “outside-eye” relation to the shared activity (the co-created sexual performance) is not directed towards the evaluative reception of someone on the outside of the experience, but bridges the gap between momentary experience of the performers “being inside” and a guiding creative relation to a shared experience.
The second major principle, applied both as a working tool and as perspective to notice and analyze the practice, is the impulse as smallest creative entity of the improvisational practice. Impulse is a phenomenological term defined as a variety of information-stimuli urging a cognitive system to take a decision and/or change the current state. Impulses are understood as any kind of shift, “anything that goes on”, in the perception of the improviser. An impulse is the base of information on which you ground the desire to do something – to (re)act by turning your head, by scratching your shoulder, by taking a deep breath, by letting go a loud long note, by saying a word, by feeling the need for a hug … The term is borrowed from cognitive studies and relates to the working mechanisms of “System 1” according to Daniel Kahneman’s differentiation of fast thinking and slow thinking1, implemented by Dr. Alan Bern in his method and further explained in his article “Think Fast!”2
The basic idea in PTC-training is that we want to train becoming aware of our (vast ranges of) impulses, we want to be able to act on them fast enough and without inhibition, and we want to learn to choose them according to (situationally appropriate) compositional decisions. The aim of all these exercises is to create a learning and training space in which compositional abilities are boiled down to the level and speed of an impulse. If one is to react in meaningful and differentiated ways in present time in an improvised situation, one needs to be fast enough to recognize, interpret and transform a stimulus/information from the outside into an action. If, as improviser, you choose to reflect on the proposition done by your fellow improvisers or even just a stimulus (change of light, sound, sensation in your own body…) within an ongoing improvised solo and that thinking is not already a quickly- embodied, so-called “intuitive” cognitive act, your reaction will be too slow. If you are a moderately experienced car driver, driving in a city you have never been to before, and you do not get in an accident despite busy traffic, then you are capable of transforming your impulses instantly into appropriate (re)actions. PTC as improvisational system asks the question: what do we need to learn to improvise complex, interesting and differentiated aesthetic form together in present time? How can we boil down complex compositional knowledge to the fast level of an impulse? This involves, to name a few, the training of awareness, of compositional forms and elements, of (embodied) social communication skills, of technical abilities with the instrument and/or body, and of sensibilities with regards to rhythm, narrative, intensity, space and others more.
With Layers of Intimacy, we argue that in sex and intimate interactions, the same principles are active and can be applied as lens to frame the improvised compositional practice. The creation of nuanced sexual improvisations is based on a spontaneous interplay of impulses that occur in the body and are mostly processed unconsciously and through fast embodied thinking. It is important to note that in researching sexual improvisation from the point of view of compositional thinking, it is not interesting to be reduced to “chunky” formal elements like sex-positions, the analogue to “steps” in dance. Understanding, practicing and developing improvisational skills in sex demands highly nuanced perspectives on the social, poetic and kin-aesthetic subtleties in the negotiation of form and meaning. It involves the same dimensions of training as described above, and thus can be supported by similar approaches as given through PTC.
1 Kahneman, Daniel: Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Macmillan, Kindle Edition, 2011.
2 Bern, Alan, “Think Fast! An Introduction to Present-Time Composition (PTC),” in Researching Improvisation, Bielefeld: Transcript, 2016.
Week one: Diving into the world of IMPULSES
Impulses are the smallest entity within the action-reaction matrix of a performing body and form the basis for any improvisational (in fact: any compositional) action. Broadly defined, any shift in attention and awareness in the improvisers body qualifies as an impulse. It is important to train the awareness for the smallest kinds of these shifts, as they all are potentially relevant information 1) to the own performance activity, and also 2) to the other performer(s). Being unaware of impulses that arise, as they are being ignored or the attention-threshold is too high, does not hinder them to be noticeable from the outside. Intimate partners might notice slight shifts and reactions in the body of the other and interpret them as a suggestion for the continuation of the sexual composition. If unintended and unnoticed, the level of ambiguity might lead to miscommunication and lessen the quality of the sexual interaction in terms of togetherness.
Noticing impulses in PTC_music is worked on in the 1-note-exercise: it combines repetitive simple activity (“play any note, but only one note, on the piano”) with the task of noticing all impulses that arise. It is timed to one minute. In a workshop setting, the other participants are observing and giving their full attention to the activity of the active person. Translated into the sexual realm, the performer is asked to repeat over the course of one minute exactly the same small movement drawing “from the sensual realm of movements”, simple enough to not absorb too much capacity of the owns attention. The performer is free to define what a sensual movement is. The 1-note-exercise knows three phases, named A, B and C. For all of them it is important to note that the performer is not yet meant to be creative – it is an awareness training noticing “what is there anyways”, without needing to add aesthetic judgement yet. In the A-mode of the exercise, the performer is to only notice all impulses during the repetitive movement over the course of one minute. In the B-mode, whilst the whole set- up stays unchanged, they are to act out the very first impulse that they notice, without choosing nor planning. In the C-mode, they are to let a number of impulses pass and act out one impulse. The reasons for jumping onto that specific impulse in C-mode can be manifold, but they should always stay on the level on an impulse, meaning not yet getting into cognitively slow “planning”.
For any sort of physical improvisation, but especially for sexual interactions, the experience of watching and sharing in this exercise is of crucial importance. Watching a person giving full attention to their own impulses makes them visible to the outside. It makes clear that a lot of the minimal information processed in and through our bodies are in fact not private and invisible, neither too small to be noticeable. But in fact, in tiny changes of the repetitive movement intentions, distractions, inhibitions and impulses become public, even if we don’t actively intend to communicate them. This experience is an important realization to understand how we create intimate interactions where (subconscious) decisions and changes in the composition often happen on the bases of tiny, supposedly invisible physical information.
A further step in working with Impulses as the smallest entity in the composition of sexual encounters is what Dr. Alan Bern calls “channeling”. Impulses appear, phenomenologically speaking, in different types and sources – they can be emotional, narrative, or sound-related impulses, as well as kin- aesthetic or special. This list is not exhaustive. Performers can be asked to focus on a specific kind of impulses (without yet going into a mode of selection) within the abundance of impulses they experience each second. This process is then referred to channeling. It shows in the practice that people are tuned into some types of impulses more than others and have the tendency to ignore other types of impulses more eagerly. This especially shows in the so called 1B exercise, where performers are asked to act out the very first impulse they notice after beginning with a repetitive sensual movement (the “catalyst”). Typically, a performer exhausts a certain similar type and range of impulses and can be invited to focus on other existing ones too.
This phenomenon already points to preferences and habits in the sensual practice of the respective performer. Opening up the awareness for a kind of impulses usually ignored invites options and forms into the sexual improvisation that usually get inhibited by attractor states and patterns.
WEEK 1 – Exercises, activities and try-outs.
A somewhat “complete” list of our research activities
- Day 1: Introduction to the theatre touch base and connecting with the hosts
- Introduction to the method of PTC – Present Time Composition1 a) b) c) Exercises – learning to use a catalyst (i. e. a repetitive movement) to broaden the performers’ perception and becoming aware of the vast multitude of impulses
- lowering filters
- becoming aware of patterns and tuning into different types of impulses (“channeling”) – 1 ABC_sex in various constellations (solo/ ping pong/ labbing) 1 a) b) c) ON THE PIANO As the method PTC was initially created for music, we used the piano to experience the original 1-note-exercise. 1 a) repeat one note as catalyst as accurate as possible for 1min. Notice all impulses coming up while doing that. Intentions? – To be technically the most “safe” (pressing a key)
- temporarily „unlearn“ your musical knowledge and references to being open to a wider range of impulses
„We do not create music yet“ What differences do we experience when doing it on the piano? – the piano becomes a dominant point of reference for us
→ reminder to broaden the perception again „there is still the whole world to access “ → including channeling How to guide each other in 1 a) b) c)?
- Give full attention to your own body and impulses arising. Support the active practitioner based on scanning what you feel, what’s missing, and by noticing relevant subtle patterns.
- Coaching supports the active practitioner in broadening their listening – pointing to the overlooked, maybe the uncomfortable … → seducing each other beyond our individual comfort zones, bringing to awareness our biases and dead angles
→ examples for channeling work: emotional, kin-aesthetic, spatial, narrative, sound- related…
- needs, wishes, boundary talk
- confidentiality, videos/ pictures
- no-goes, bodily/ physical sensitivities; injuries, practices/ forms we are fine with/ enjoy experiencing, are curious about, turn-ons and -offs -> We agreed to have a morning check-in ~ 3min each, to share where we are at with the research work, vulnerabilities, emotions/questions that arose, organizational needs…
starting to work in Duos
The 3 phases
1. Discovery – we enter with a repetitive movement (similar to 1 a)) OR a pose, OR any impulse and discover cohabitated space
2. Adjustment – we relate to each other in what we do – this can be the tiniest, nearly invisible adjustment
3. Identity – ah, that is it! Experiencing reaching a (momentarily) equilibrium in the relationship
Further added, as “1A”-Quality in this exercise:
4. Feeling potential development – staying in Phase 3 (Identity) and noticing all impulses vis-à-vis the further development of the relationship
„free improv, nourished by 1 a) b) c)
„creativity exists in the space of the 30% – implicit misunderstandings“
- introducing force out: the third person decides to step into the improvisation and therefore forces one of the other two performers out, and drop out: one of the performers on the inside steps out and therefore another performers enters
Transferring PTC_music/_dance to PTC_sex in the continuous duos
- bring the realm of sensuality to the centre
What changes/ other aspects does that bring to the method?
What else is needed to train our collective intelligence?
- field-research in expanding our collective practice to specific sexual forms & practices
As part of our research, outside of the frame of PTC, we engaged in:
- naked massage carousel
- domination-submission circle (score by Felix Ruckert)
- self-interviews on sexual biography and composition
Mentor Dr Alan Berg visiting
FOCUS on SOUND in CONTINUOS DUOS
What does it offer?
- first rounds reactions: additional layer over staying embodied and connected with one’s own sensuality
- can open and inspire to new sensual impulses
→ we have to practice more to be at ease with emphasizing sound
→working with speech is a whole dimension to work on
→ any new aspect might be over-accentuated in the beginning, to later become more differentiated and nuanced
Questions that linger:
How to simplify 1 a) b) c) to access PTC_sex easier? I.e., when sharing the method in a workshop.
all photo credits: https://thisismywork.online/