Improv at the Ballet

We had an extraordinary workshop experience last week because of an exchange on Twitter:

Mar 24
Helen Pickett is making the dancers…improv. Eek! Ballet dancers’ worst nightmare!

Mar 24
Maybe we can help?

Mar 24
Please do! Wanna crash a rehearsal soon and show us how it’s done?

Mar 24
Yes And! We’d be happy to. Call or message us through

And on April 11, it came together!

Apr 11 workshop! If we can survive an hour of improv in a format we don’t claim to be good at, we’ll kill it in Petal.

Apr 11 : The most elegant improvised pirate ship ever!

Apr 11 Thanks for today! We had such a blast. Opened our minds and made us laugh!

In speaking with choreographer Helen Pickett (see an interview with Helen) before the workshop, I realized that we were taking two forms – dance and acting – and connecting them with the bridge of Applied Improvisation. The workshop itself came pretty directly out of the corporate workshop playbook, and it was very enlightening.

Dancers typically are told exactly what to do and when to do it. When faced with moments of improvisation, the openness can be overwhelming.

We explored that through exercises aimed at:

  • Listening / Observing
  • Accepting
  • Supporting – going where you are needed
  • Taking competent risks (after all, these people have amazing physical tools at their disposal – freedom to use those tools is exhilarating)
  • Letting go of mistakes

The last item – letting go of mistakes – seemed to really hit home.

One of the best things for me was seeing tension give way to laughter – and a gathering crowd of folks on the other side of the glass who wished they had chosen to play with us.



Minds opened.

We hope to collaborate further with Oregon Ballet Theatre!


Update: I got to see OBT in action on April 24, and Petal was astounding – I could not tell what was improvised! The whole evening, called Celebrate, was partly in honor of retiring principal dancer Alison Roper; there was a multi-media retrospective of her life and career (dance, images, music and a voice-over interview), plus two of her favorite dances – Cor Perdut (absolutely stunning) and Girl From Ipanema (her first big role at OBT).

Following the performance was a talk-back featuring Artistic Director Kevin Irving and four dancers. Makino Hayashi gave our workshop experience a nice shout out (and I even got a hug). The improvisation was the most asked-about and talked about element. Kevin expressed regret that he had had to miss the improv workshop, and hoped I would be willing to come back.


When improv performer and instructor Patrick Short dances, people laugh. Petal was part of the Oregon Ballet Theatre production Celebrate, which ran April 17-26, 2014 at the Newmark Theater at Portland5.

The Sounds of Silence

This is a very difficult concept for some people, and I am well aware that it applies to me.

Sometimes, we just have to stop talking and let other people teach us what we need to know.

At some point in their careers, stage improvisors have usually experienced the sense of panic and doom when there is silence in a scene, and silence in the audience. We’re taught to embrace the silence, but achieving that level of calm takes time – and agreement from the rest of your team.

Of course there’s a connection to business!

Drake Baer writes in Fast Company that if you want to get ahead, you have to stop and listen.

“This is also something you learn in journalism school: that during an interview you don’t need to fill the space with your questions. If a source finishes her sentence, but doesn’t answer your question, you can let the silence hang–and the elaboration will (most likely) follow.” What works for journalists also works in sales.

We most often associate salespeople with fast-talking, manipulative methods. That’s why most salespeople drive us nuts. The best salespeople listen, both to hear what the customer really wants and how they want it sold to them. If you are patient, your customer will help you by elaborating. Being a good, focused listener also helps the client realize that they are in a partnership.

An exercise we use in our Applied Improvisation training, called First Letter, Last Letter, has participants in a dialogue where the first word anyone can use starts with the same letter as the last letter of the last word their partner used. In addition to finding out who struggles with spelling (not important) and who likes to make life difficult for their partner by constantly ending in the same letter or using x a lot (which could be a more important insight), participants are pushed by the game format into listening all the way to the end of their partners’ statements. Instead of deciding on a response and waiting to speak, the partners listen with intensity and focus – and hear things they would have otherwise missed. During our debrief of the exercise, I’ve frequently heard people say, “I really felt listened to!”

And while a source for Baer’s article says that ” ‘You learn nothing by saying something,’ since, by definition, you already know what you’re going to say.” I don’t think that’s entirely true. Many people solidify what they know, place things in memory and test theories by telling them to others. That’s absolutely the way my storytelling family works. Don’t immediately judge those who talk a lot – they may just be learning with you.

Respect that. Listen. Be a good partner.

Here is the article from Fast Company.

Patrick Short is one of those people who learns by talking, but he also learned to stay as quiet as possible on sales calls and maintains a pretty good closing ratio.