The Motional Improvisation of Al Wunder

Hilary Elliott

Research output: Book/ReportBook


Fondly dubbed the grandfather of improvised movement theatre in his adopted home-land of Australia, Al Wunder has spent more than forty years developing a distinctive approach to teaching improvised movement theatre as form of live performance. Working loosely within the transatlantic currents of American and European dance practices that form the basis of his aesthetic genealogy, Wunder has crafted a deeply egalitarian approach to practising and teaching. I examine and discuss the creation and theorisation of his pedagogy, Theatre of the Ordinary, from both an inside and outside perspective; my embodied research starting in that first class in 1998. Further intensive studies as part of the vibrant improvisational community that constellated around him in Melbourne in the late 1990s and early 2000s, followed many years later by a valuable workshop series in Berlin in 2013, consolidate the significance of my lived experiences of Wunder’s practice to this scholarship.

I draw on Wunder’s own book, The Wonder of Improvisation (2006), as it offers tantalizing glimpses into the life, career, working methods and pedagogical values of the humble, self-effacing person whose entry to the world of modern dance and movement improvisation began with the ‘boredom of a fifteen-year-old who hung around home with the slothful meandering of an unfocused 1950s New York teenager’ (Wunder, 2006: 1). Wunder’s desire to explicate his life and work in writing is somewhat hamstrung, however, by an understandably ambiguous relationship to the permanency of the written word. He feels a mismatch between the perpetuity of words on a page and the fact that he has devoted decades of his life to researching and teaching improvisation, celebrating the unpredictable, delving into the unknown and ‘learning through experimentation’ (ix). ‘I change constantly and so does my teaching’, he says (141). Whilst a persistent openness to investigation, freshness of output and instinctive bent towards the novel do characterise his teaching, there are pragmatic approaches and philosophical points of view that have remained steadfast and continue to undergird the ongoing investigations and improvisational puzzles that Wunder sets himself and his students. My hope, therefore, is to faithfully examine and document the foundational operational principles that lie at the heart of Wunder’s craft and pedagogy as I, and others, have experienced and researched them. These principles are therefore accessibly situated within pertinent educational theory - a layer understandably missing from Wunder’s book - but one that enables the cohesiveness, rigour and efficacy of his pedagogy to be aligned with contemporary understandings of experiential learning. I also reference filmmaker and photographer Michelle Dunn’s recent documentary DVD of Wunder’s life and work, also titled The Wonder of Improvisation (2017). This is an engaging resource - and the first to advance sustained insights into Wunder’s working methods.

Of crucial importance to this study is the careful positioning of Wunder’s praxis in relation to the broader historical-socio-political climates in which he operated. His creative genealogy most explicitly begins when he started training with New York-based choreographer Alwin Nikolais (1910-1993) in 1961 at the age of nineteen. Nikolais’ philosophy and methods are covered in depth in Chapter One: Theatre of the Ordinary, with particular attention paid to his theory of ‘Decentralization’ and the way in which the ‘The Big Four’ of his aesthetic - Space, Shape, Time and Motion - have been taken up and adapted in Wunder’s work. A fascinating artistic lineage pinpointing points of correspondence in pedagogical and creative agendas is then sketched beyond Wunder to Hanya Holm (1893-1992), Mary Wigman (1886-1973) and Rudolf Laban (1879-1958). Chapter One concludes by attending to the wider practices and politics of movement improvisation within the experimental dance scene of 1960s New York as illuminated by Judson Dance Theater.

Chapter Two: The Dancing Drummer explores the role of the Hum Drum in Wunder’s work, a continuation of the practice of percussive accompaniment in the movement studio developed by Nikolais, Holm and Wigman. It has also felt crucial that this chapter casts a wider socio-political-geographic net, by highlighting the contribution of non-white/European musical practices to Wunder’s musical development.

Chapter Three: Shifting Place explores the effervescent social, political and improvisatory ferment of San Francisco in the early 1970s where Wunder first taught, and later collaborated with Terry Sendgraff, founder of ‘Motivity Aerial Dance’ and Ruth Zaporah, founder of the globally practiced form of movement improvisation ‘Action Theater’. I then turn to the vibrant independent movement and improvisation scene of Melbourne in the 1980s and 1990s, in which Wunder’s work became a central hub of activity. It was in a charming inner-city studio called Cecil Street that I first encountered his vitalizing and unique approach to teaching ‘the wonder of improvisation’ (xi).

Chapter Four: Positive Feedback and Power Sources is devoted to the innovative pedagogical foundations underpinning Wunder’s work; the former a style of critique in which improvisers and watchers talk only - and over time extremely precisely - about what they found enjoyable and the latter Wunder’s appealing method of capturing the wellsprings of individual performing style. Further pedagogical rubrics are explored in Chapter Five: Developing A Descriptive Language. This chapter includes a comprehensive outline of phenomenological description and a discussion on the challenges of describing personal experiencing through the lens of an increasingly refined somatic/perceptual awareness.

The centrality of improvisational articulacy to Wunder’s thinking and pedagogical frames is explored in Chapter Six: Basic, Necessary and Clarifying Articulators. The Four Modes of performance - Pedestrian, Character, Caricature and Abstract - are discussed in Chapter Seven as a uniquely cross-modal assortment of attitudinal values and composite guide for ways of being in performance. The inclusion of Character and Caricature aligns Wunder’s approach with the conventions of dramatic improvisation, whilst the addition of Pedestrian and Abstract signals a cross-over with some historical and contemporary dance improvisation practices. A further palette of unusual categories - Four Possible Ways of Entertaining an Audience: Expertise, Being Beautiful or Profound, Humour and Challenge - are interrogated in Chapter Eight.

Chapter Nine: Words and Movement considers some of the ways in which Wunder approaches the spontaneous generation of the spoken word and the polyvalent registers and significances that verbal utterances can carry within improvised performance. It includes a piece written by Peter Trotman, whose approaches to lively lexical invention are a trademark of his performing personae and a focus of many of his teaching experiments.

In order to ameliorate something of the partiality and limitations of a single authorial voice, this book also includes a range of contributions from previous students who have continued to formulate and disseminate their own incarnations of aspects of Wunder’s work to newer generations of movement and music improvisation aficionados. Contributors were approached by Wunder and myself because we thought they might be interested in following up Wunder’s own request in his book for some reflection on ‘what elements of my teaching influenced you to the extent that you are using them in your own work’ (142). We received a range of fascinating responses, excerpts of which are peppered throughout the book. Chapter Ten: Beyond Wunder is devoted to longer pieces of writing that provide illuminating additional perspectives on, and applications for, Wunder’s work. All of the contributors live and work in Melbourne or its environs, signalling the profound impact that Wunder has made on creative performance practices and discourses in and around the city he adopted in 1982. Together, I like to think that these voices honour Wunder’s statement that ‘I love the written word, it’s just that I prefer others to do it!’ (14).

Chapter Eleven: A Unique Lexicon lists the pithy and quirky neologisms that are an abiding feature of Wunder’s teaching before the book’s Concluding Note glances both backwards and forwards as it reflects on the wonder of Wunder’s legacy.

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 15 Sep 2019

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    Elliott, H. (Accepted/In press). The Motional Improvisation of Al Wunder. Routledge.