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Impro in Brazil: Samba and Sparks

This week began with a bang! Dale and I were invited by our new friend Roberto, a former genetics professor at UFMG, to the rehearsal of his samba club, Unidos do Samba Queixinho, in a warehouse near downtown Belo Horizonte. We had no idea what to expect and when Roberto’s group began, we almost jumped out of our skins! Imagine approximately 60 people playing samba drums (of all sizes), tambourines, and chocalhos (a “shaker” instrument with numerous rows containing pairs of jingles called "cymbalettes” made of galvanized aluminum jingles), and with choreographed movement. It shook our entire bodies, in a good way, but earplugs were a necessity. We lucked out because another samba group from Bahia, fronted by a row of conga players, were also practicing in the space on this particular night, so we got to experience two very different samba styles. The most wonderful moment, however, was when these two groups played together for the very first time, in almost perfect syncopation! Like improvisers, these samba players knew the rules and the structure; and with a tall, charismatic band director leading, they were able to jam for about 30 minutes non-stop, to our delight! These players are not professional. They are folks from all walks of life who come together twice a week and for festivals and carnival to make music together. For over 2 hours, Dale and I were absorbed in Brazilian culture. Samba forces you to “Be-Here-Now.” A kind of loud meditation that vibrates every cell in your body!

In my 2nd Thursday “Impro for Leading, Collaborating, and Creating” class, we discussed major points of the essay I assigned. In fact, it was an essay I wrote, published in 2017 in Portuguese as the first chapter of a book about pedagogy, creativity, and creation. I went over concepts like "group flow," Keith Sawyer’s "group genius" (creativity driven by collaboration emerging from a “series of sparks” from multiple minds), "co-adaptation strategy" (from team cycling), "give and take," and what Sawyer says is one of the “laws of innovation”: “Without failed ideas, there would be no successes, and more ideas usually translates into more successful ideas” (Group Genius, 163-64). I then connected Sawyer’s thoughts on ideas to Keith Johnstone’s. In “The Abyss,” Keith’s 1965 essay on clowning, he wrote: “Ideas are not things to be stored up, or carefully selected. Ideas are commonplace, we float all the time in an ocean of them. It’s only our desire for the ‘good’ ideas that limit our imaginations.”

Keith’s “Blind Offers/Justify the Gesture,” which I had them play again this week, is the best way I've found to get students to practice generating idea after idea as well as making them conscious of how often they censor their impulses, especially when they think their idea is not “good” enough. It is also about throwing an incomplete idea (abstract gesture/blind offer) out there that hopefully inspires your partner. So this exercise is also about giving up control, because when you give a blind offer to your partner (rather than a controlling offer), you are allowing your partner to determine how they’d like the scene to begin. And the most brilliant part of this exercise is that if your partner’s blind offer doesn’t inspire you, or you find yourself denying your first impulse in search of a more clever idea, or you just don’t know what to do with the offer given, you are allowed to put your partner back to neutral with a slight touch, and your partner still thanks you or, in Brazil, says “Obrigada/Obrigado!” What an enjoyable, corporeal way to train students to be benevolent leaders: leaders who acknowledge the offers made by their team members, leaders who say “Thank you” to offers, even if the offer doesn’t immediately inspire.

And it works in the other direction, too. In processes that require creative collaboration, for example, leaders must be willing to relinquish control with no attempt to manage or impose their goals on the process unfolding. By getting comfortable with throwing out a physical gesture and allowing your partner to make meaning out of it, you are training for creative collaboration. The activity “I Am A Tree” (not a Keith exercise) is also a simple and effective way to get students to practice what Keith insists on, i.e., “Not getting too attached to your ideas.” The students loved “I Am a Tree” and felt this exercise along with “Blind Offers” allowed them to experience group genius, co-adaptation, give and take, transformation and recycling of ideas, and to practice throwing out idea after idea, spark after spark! (See photos below of my students playing “Blind Offers” in the courtyard. And we had black-tufted marmoset monkeys watching from nearby trees!).

In my Saturday Impro System Lab class, we did “Status” work for at least 3 out of the 4 hours, beginning with Keith’s “Insults” exercise in two large groups using only gibberish (see IMPRO, p. 53-55). As Keith advises, I reminded the group that every insult must be received (you must be altered!) or it doesn’t work. It is absolutely joyous to work with this group of improvisers, clowns, dancers, and actors. They are courageous, connected to their bodies, curious, and compassionate. I’ll write more about working with this group in future posts.

The week ended with an invitation by my colleague, Mariana Muniz, to see the professional children’s theatre production she directed, funded by a government grant. It is called Quem é Você? (“Who are You?”), and it is an allegory about why we shouldn’t bully those who are different from us. Perhaps this production needs a U.S tour? I didn’t need to understand Portuguese to follow the story and to be completely absorbed by this ensemble of 8 dancer/actors who delivered the narrative primarily through gesture, choreography, and excellent physical characterization. Haunting and humorous. Bravo Mariana! (Photos by Dale Dudeck)

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