Emergent Improvisation is a unique process for understanding structures in all principles of organization applied across disciplines.

Emergent Improvisation relates the act of structuring to natural, complex systems and time-based artistic practice.

Emergent Improvisation uses research, education, and performance to understand the act of structuring in nature and art.

Solo Practice
Ensemble Practice
Emergent Forms
Projects & Research
Artists' Information
Video & Photo



Emergent Improvisation
c/o Susan Sgorbati
Bennington College

One College Drive
Bennington, VT 05201


Emergent Forms As in the science of complexity, in EI, forms appear when there is enough order in the interaction of components to sustain a recognizable pattern and enough freedom to continuously integrate and adapt to new information. This condition is a delicate balance, defining the lifespan of a form before it dissolves or collapses. In EI, once we identify forms that emerge out of the improvisation, we use them as frameworks for development.

Over time, an ensemble builds the capacity to identify recurring patterns of development. We can then order the structural elements that guide a particular developmental pattern and repeat them. Each of the forms we’ve identified in Emergent Improvisation has its own specific nature. In the description of each form below, we include a sequencing of the various components, building from simple to complex. The sequences clearly indicate the building of complexity within each form and practice helps us to understand its essential elements. The forms can also unfold in more open-ended environments. It is important to note that these forms can be adapted as practices for musicians as well as dancers. We have identified and named four forms, the fourth currently under development.

Complex Unison Form

The Complex Unison form evolves in three stages:


Gathering has four simple rules: walking, varying speed, varying direction, and stillness. There are two possible ways to begin spontaneously: one by one, or all at the same time. The ensemble can then divide into smaller groups and remerge at will, but the rule is that an individual cannot go off as a solo. There is no particular leader. Individuals attend to who is nearest them, the small group around them, and the whole space. Like the movement of a flock of birds, patterns begin to form. The simplicity of the structure keeps the focus on the self-organizing nature of the group. The ensemble notices patterns in their collective behavior.

Simple Unison

Simple Unison begins when a dancer adds a gesture to their walking or stillness that the others can respond to or mimic. Initiating, assembling, and dissolving group relationships; amplifying (or multiplying) gestures through the space; and creating tableaux are each elements in Simple Unison. It is not about perfect imitation, but rather similarity in shape and timing. Simple variations in direction, level, and speed produce a shifting landscape. Bird migrations, schooling fish, herds of antelope crossing a savanna, and clumps of leaves wafting across a field are simple unisons found in nature.

Complex Unison

In Complex Unison, more complicated phrasing and variations develop within the ensemble, creating reference points as the ensemble explores more diversity while maintaining the coherence of the relationships of the whole group. Solos and small groups, and main events and choruses are possible.

Based on patterns found in nature, Complex Unison reveals the progression from groups of individuals in space, to a unified sharing of material, and finally to the interplay of that material. It is an open-ended process where the ensemble is constantly adapting to new information and integrating new structures that emerge and dissolve over time.

The Simple Unison phase reveals Kauffman’s order for free, as the dancers continuously select for patterns in a zone between chaos and order. The Complex Unison phase reveals an interpretation of Bak’s self-organized criticality where, without an outside director, patterns evolve into a prime state for change, displaying endlessly adaptive and complex behavior. There is a finely tuned balance between the new information of variation and the patterns that are holding the material together. Here also, Edelman’s concept of degeneracy—the ability to develop many different ways to get to a similar outcome—is in evidence. Performers are continually selecting for dynamic interactions among elements that result in a strong collective pattern. The observer can witness a continual assembling, dissolving, and reassembling of patterns.

Memory Form - Video by Elliot Caplan

Memory Form

“The number of such differentiated scenes seems endless, yet each is unitary. The scene is not just wider than the sky, it can contain many disparate elements—sensations, perceptions, images, memories, thoughts, emotions, aches, pains, vague feelings, and so on. Looked at from the inside, consciousness seems continually to change, yet each moment it is all of piece—what I have called ‘The remembered present’—reflecting the fact that all my past experience is engaged in forming my integrated awareness of this single moment.”

–Gerald Edelman

In this form, the dancers create an event that is observed by the ensemble which then recalls and reconstructs the event over time. Inspired by Edelman’s concept of the remembered present, memory of the initial event reveals itself as a fluid, open-ended process in which the performers are continuously relating past information to present thinking and action. Memory of action is based on observations of relationships of time, space, and gesture. Its reconstructions develop variations that reveal subtexts through continual selection of valued information. The reintegration of past into present draws on repetition, nonlinear sequencing, and attention to the emergence of patterns to construct new adaptations.

The Memory Form unfolds in five phases:

The Event

The ensemble creates an event that usually consists of a sequence of five to seven short simple movement phrases. Each phrase is offered spontaneously, one after the other, by individual dancers entering into a defined spatial frame, e.g., a square. The dancers remain in the space until the entire sequence is complete. They then return to the outside of the frame.

Repeated Event

The same dancers repeat the same sequence of phrases to the best of their memories.

Substituting Roles

The event is repeated again with each dancer taking a different dancer’s role in the same sequence. This phase can be repeated a number of times, with different dancers substituting for each other’s roles each time.


The event is repeated a number of times, each time with groups of dancers spontaneously filling singular roles. The sequence of the original phrases can begin to be varied. While on the outside, dancers have a view of the composition as it unfolds which informs their choices about when, where, and how to enter the reconstructed memory.

The Remembered Present

This is the fulfillment of the form where dancers begin to play with the texture and quality of the original phrases and select smaller portions of them, revealing subtexts or new narratives embedded in the material. The original event is no longer being replicated, but plumbed for deeper meaning by the collective memory of the ensemble. Dancers continuously exit and reenter in a process of composing, remembering, and reconstructing their present reading of the unfolding movement metaphors.

Recall Form

“Social psychology studies have demonstrated that imitation and mimicry are pervasive, automatic, and facilitate empathy.” —Marco Iacoboni

The Recall Form is influenced by scientific theories related to mirror neurons in the brain. These neurons, which activate both when we observe the actions of others and perform or do those actions ourselves, are believed to provide the capacity to empathize and understand the intentions of others. The capacities for empathy and non-verbal communication are central to building an improvisation ensemble’s ability for self-organization and collective choice-making.

The Recall Form unfolds in four stages:

The Duet Exchange

One dancer begins by performing a series of three or four movements she has created while the other observes. The other then instantly recalls what she has seen and adds a few new movements while the first observes. They continue to take turns adding new movements, observing one another, and recalling the accumulated material until they’ve established a phrase that encompasses elements of each individual’s offering, but is new to both.

Unison Recall

The two dancers execute their new phrase at the same time. Unison in this case does not require the dancers to achieve the same timing, quality, shape, but allows them to acknowledge and experience the new material by performing it together. This prepares them to transition into the next phase.


The dancers simultaneously begin to develop the newly created vocabulary for themselves, co-existing in the space as they expand and hone the core of their material. Each investigates the qualities, rhythms, emotions, and subtexts of the movement. During this phase, they can intermittently come to stillness and observe their partner. As new movement and patterns begin to emerge in their awareness, the dancers shift to explore compositional and relational possibilities of the material to the space and each other. When they feel they’ve accumulated enough shared experience, they arrive at stillness and exit the space.


Using their shared vocabulary, the two reenter to construct an improvised composition that reflects and responds to the experience they’ve accumulated. Their memories shape how the composition will unfold. Their responses can involve spontaneous reactions or follow an unfolding opinion, image, or new idea. The dancers maintain a willingness to engage with, repeat, support, and explore their partner’s movement choices and ideas. This encourages a deep sense of listening and a shared sense of responsibility for what emerges.

The Recall Ensemble

The Recall Form can be explored with larger ensemble groups and with musicians. When working with an ensemble, it is crucial to limit the amount of material initially presented by each participant to one or two actions. Musicians are co-participants throughout, initiating material as individuals during the exchange phase, then generating and developing the elements of their sonic and movement vocabulary individually and collectively.

Landscape Form

The Landscape Form is currently in an early stage of development. We include it here as an example of how an ensemble comes to identify and define the building blocks of a form.

Over time, within our practice, we began to notice recurring patterns that reflected the structure of natural landscapes. In the spring of 2010, we organized a small working group to explore what structuring principles are at play when these images arise in our perception. We began by identifying visual patterns that are commonly recognizable as a landscape. Then we looked for structuring principles that could guide the ensemble’s attention to these patterns during an improvisation. These principles included spatial relationships, texture (weight, qualities of movement), amplification, repetition, and nesting. Finally, we observed how constraining our improvisation to these compositional elements would affect our composing.

Structuring from the visual into the language of EI:

Visual Image: We begin by looking together at a visual image of a landscape—a photograph, a painting, or a view of a real natural setting. We identify the essential compositional elements of the image, which might include foreground/background, pervasive textures, and spatial relationships.

Identification of Structuring Principles: We translate these elements into structuring principles that can guide the movement vocabulary and interactions of the dancers. Textures within the image might suggest particular qualities of fluid states to guide the movement vocabulary. Spatial relationships in the landscape might guide the ensemble’s use of space. The elements of the landscape image might also suggest a nature of relationship between events, e.g., the passing of time (i.e. washes, retrogrades, rhythm, or theme and variation).

Practice: We enter the improvisation using the structuring principles as constraints.

Adaptation: Once the ensemble has experienced the landscape from the initial structuring principles, we enter a process of selection through repeated practice—adapting and renegotiating the structuring principles to best capture or embody the nature of the landscape. This phase involves consideration of what degree of constraints enables us to repeat a specific landscape while offering the greatest possible freedom of choice-making to the performers.

Application: The ensemble can apply the constraints built in this process to recognizing and developing landscape images within open-ended improvisations. Setting up a pathway, a strong fore- ground/background relationship of contrasting textures, or a solo that amplifies gestures of other dancers throughout the space can become signals to the group that a landscape form is emerging.


Copyright © 2014 Emergent Improvisation | Website by designnorthampton.com