INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS FROM A CHAT WITH SAMUEL DAVILMAR
Written & Edited by Jessica Cen
October 5, 2020
Hi Frog in Hand friends!
I hope you all enjoyed the last blog post. I spoke with the energetic and passionate dance artist Alvin Collantes. If you have not had a chance to read it, click here. Next, I spoke to Samuel Davilmar who is a past collaborator (Turn Out the Lights, California Tour) and friend of Frog in Hand. Samuel is a professional dancer, aerialist, creative director and teacher who has worked in film, television, and theatre across the globe. I spoke with Sam to learn about his artistic background, his in-depth tips on improvisation, and why he loves movement as an art form. It was eye-opening to hear his perspective on honesty and humility as an artist and creator.
Image of Sam from Cave Forest River Field, a Frog in Hand dance film
To learn more about Sam, visit his website: https://www.samueldavilmar.com
And to learn more about Sam's collaboration with Frog in Hand in Turn Out the Lights, the California Tour, visit here: https://www.froginhand.com/turn-out-the-lights
This blog includes highlights from our chat and has been edited for clarity.
Jessica Cen (JC): We are joined today by Samuel Davilmar, a dancer, choreographer and expert in improvisation. May you talk about your background of your practice?
Samuel Davilmar (SD): I’ve been really fortunate to have a wide range of training for my entire life and to have different places to train. I started in Ottawa at a dance studio where I was trained classically in jazz, ballet, all the good stuff. It wasn’t enough to just go after school, it was something I wanted to do every day, so I also went to an arts school, which was great as I got to have dance as a [class] and part of my high school experience. Then I came to Toronto and went to the Conteur Academy. There was so much more to learn! I studied ballet, jazz, modern, foot work, partnering, and of course, improvisation. My training has been rooted in contemporary movement, hip hop and commercial dance.
JC: Improvisation can be really intimidating, especially as someone coming from a theatre background. It’s always been so nerve-wracking for me, just trying to think of something on the spot!
JC: So, how do you teach others to be relaxed in the process, to trust their intuition, and strengthen the relationship between their body and mind?
SD: Improvisation is scary (laughs). We all know it and of all the teaching experiences I’ve had, teaching improvisation has been the hardest. People don’t want to do it or they’re afraid of being judged, or they’re fearful of what will come out of their bodies. First, I get people comfortable with themselves, the space and the people that occupy the space with them. If I’m in a classroom of five people and I don’t know any of them, I do ice breakers and get them relaxed. I try to establish a good relationship. “Let’s first off talk, let’s get to know each other as humans, let’s do a couple exercises that will make us laugh at ourselves!” Anything from shaking sporadically and running across the room or little things to get people’s blood flowing, and to get them excited, and to give them the chance to laugh at themselves and each other, so they just get that out of the way. And then, it goes on to being about improvisation! Another thing I try to do is to encourage people to be honest. Improvisation is not set. I don’t know what you are going to do, I don’t know what your journey is, I don’t know what is going to happen here. There is no yes-correct, no-wrong. This is your story. Those are the two most important things to do - just get them comfortable in their spaces and get them to be honest with what is it they are about to say when they improvise.
JC: For sure! Since starting the Summer Company, I’ve heard and seen that a lot of this free-flowing work makes you think about humility more and having humility in yourself.
SD: Yeah, 100%! Dance and improvisation are very different, especially choreographed dance because it’s defined. You can be the best dancer ever, you pick up choreography well, you have a great facility, you have a lot of things available to you that make you a great dancer, but improvisation is a whole other beast. I’ve been in classes and taught classes with very talented dancers, but when it comes to improvisation, they’re like “No!” (laughs). They get so scared because it’s new territory. As dancers, we want to be right and we want to impress. As performers people come to see us and look at us. You always want to be good and right. The fear comes from, “Oh, what if I’m not right?” But, the great thing about improvisation is that there is no right or wrong. It definitely teaches you about humility because if you think, “I’ve learned all I need to learn”, improvisation is a whole other beast. It really lets you know you have more to learn and that’s okay. You can be with mistakes and imperfections. It’s a huge part of improvisation.
JC: You’ve worked in film, television, commercials, music videos, and live performance. You must have trained with amazing dancers and performers. So, what do you think are some qualities that make a good improvisor?
SD: There’s a lot. Number one is honesty. I’ve seen really great movers in general. They are so in tuned with themselves and so present. For instance, Alvin Collantes is a beautiful mover. When you see Alvin, you know exactly it’s Alvin because of the way he moves. It’s very muscular and weighted, but also soft and there’s growth and decay happening in front of your eyes. It’s really cool. If Alvin had a bag on his head and he moved, I would know it was him. I think one of the greatest things is to see movers be so in tuned with who they are and so honestly themselves. That’s one of the big things that makes a great mover and improvisor.
Another thing is exploration. I was fortunate to have a wide range of training. I’ve always really loved the idea of being versatile like people who explore and incorporate new styles into their movement, like Irish or popping and locking. People that love to take risks and love to try new things to me are the most interesting because improvisation is not defined and set. It’s going back to that saying of “it’s all about the journey, not the destination”. So, when you go and take those risks and you try things that you never tried in your life… Sometimes it could bomb, but sometimes it could be great and it’s those moments when you don’t even realize yourself it’s great and people are just so astonished. I would definitely say honesty, exploration, and risk-taking are the huge things you can have in improvisation.
JC: You say that exploration is a big part of it. Could you explain more about that process of experimenting and not being afraid to take risks?
SD: Yes! When I went to school, it was like relearning. l thought I had a good understanding of dance and it was like “No, no, no. We’re going to show you all the different things you may have not experienced yet.” It was all about stripping away and rebuilding. One of the things I found was restriction…. What if you take away a limb? What do you do if you can only use one leg? It’s scary and risky territory. I love taking a combo and flipping it.
That’s another fun thing to bring up: you can explore choreography. Do it a different way that wasn’t the way you did it in class. Play around with different themes and it will help when you are improvising. When you hear a song and hear it’s talking about sadness and pain, think about how you can flip that to be a harder version of what pain and sadness is. There are people who are very stoic and have a lot of pain and sadness inside, but they can hide it. Think about: “How can I flip that instead of being vulnerable and be on the other side of that?” Those are a couple of ways to play with it. Exploration is super important, especially if we want to be able to grow our movement. There are so many different things you can try and do, especially if you get together with someone and partner. It’s a great way to test each other’s limits. Getting in there with another person is a whole other ball game because you have to trust another human. There are so many different ways to explore.
JC: Improvisation can be used to improve physical capacity and technique, used to create set choreography, and used as a spontaneous performance in itself. May you talk a bit about those different kinds of improvisation?
SD: For me, when I choreograph, I like to build a landscape of what I want it to be like, the musicality of the song, and what vibe it will be. I’ll listen to the song; I’ll improvise to it. If something really pulled me, I will use that as my anchor. I’ll put on a recording tool, so I can go back and see what I really loved. Then, boom! You have a jumping off point. In my professional life and in working, I’ve done a lot of jobs that have allowed me to incorporate improvisation. I’ve worked with Colleen [Snell], which has been really cool, and that has a lot of space for improvisation. I’ve worked with Julia Cratchley of TranscenDance in Eve of St. George… Each night was a different show, a different crowd. Things always adjusted. “How many people were going to be in the space at the time? How rowdy they would be? Are they coming into our scene?” Working with Ryan Lee has been a great privilege when we did “Less” at Summerworks. It was a great experience - a lot of it was choreographed but things were always changing.
As of late, in the commercial industry, there’s not a lot of improvisation. Everything is defined and set. Commercial dance is very much for the masses. Things need to be pre-determined so we know what the pictures are going to look like and what this moment should feel like. On the last tour I was just on, I didn’t get a lot of chances to improvise (laughs). You have a set track. Things are moving very quickly and if you’re over to the side improvising, you’re going to miss your cue for when the lift is going down or going up. It’s different in the commercial industry to be able to incorporate that sense of improvisation. However, the important thing about improvisation is if you get a chance to use it, use it! Because like you said in your question, it really embodies all facets of dance, choreography, performance, exploration, character building…
JC: Hearing you talk so much about improvisation and hearing your enthusiasm for it, I just want to see what’s inside your head throughout the process of improvising. What are some general tips that you would give people to improve their improvisation?
SD: Hmm. That’s a hard one because improvisation is so subjective. I can teach it all day, but it all comes down to you. I would say to know your body. That one is hard because that takes a while. Also, know what makes you comfortable and know what makes you uncomfortable and use both of those things. You can also take it from a place of character. So, if I gave you a character like someone just stole your lollipop (laughs) and you’re five-years old. How is a five-year old going to react if someone takes their candy away? Probably going to have a temper tantrum. What happens in a temper tantrum? Think about how you would actually feel in that moment. It might be absolutely ridiculous (laughs), but it’s improvisation and there is no right or wrong.
You can also take it from a place of restrictions. Closing your eyes is a great tool because most of the time, we’re in the studio with a mirror. If I take away my sight, I’m taking away the idea of what needs to be done or the idea of what my final product must look like, which allows me to be more open-ended in my movement. You have to be loose with yourself. I don’t think you necessarily need confidence to be a beautiful improviser. Gallen Hooks says, “look at yourself with kinder eyes.” At the end of the day, it’s your journey and process. Once you are able to do that, you’re going to become more fearless. Instead of thinking about our outcome and final product, think about how it makes you feel. Once you have that innate feeling in you, then you can move on to correcting and making it more of a cohesive idea. I’ve seen so much improvisation and nothing looks the same and it’s not supposed to.
JC: Definitely! You were talking about getting to know your own body and how that’s such a long process. Because improvisation to me feels like you’re being pushed into the middle of the room with a bunch of people staring at you and your being.
SD: (laughs) Yep!
JC: Just super intimidating!
SD: (laughs) The scariest!
JC: (laughs) Yeah! So, what advice would you give for people to get started on that process?
SD: I say it’s tough. I think I’m still learning about my body. I don’t think you ever stop. If you’re just taking one class all the time, in the same genre, with the same teacher, in the same studio… Go take different classes. Go take a hip-hop class. Go take a popping class. Go take an Irish jig class. In different styles, we are cognizant of certain parts of the body. In contemporary, we’re using our legs a lot and expanding and contracting or doing floor work. But in hip hop, it’s about getting lower, not so much about being upright. Take those classes to feel what it’s like to have your knees bent for the whole class because that’s very hard (laughs). Go take a whacking class if you’re not familiar with your hands; whacking is all about finding different pathways for your arms. Tappers don’t normally use their upper half they use their bottom half a lot. If I’m a tapper, let me take a whacking class.
Get in a room with other people, people who know their own body, and improvise with them. Colleen is great to improvise with, I’m sure her students know this if they’ve gotten a chance to dance with her. Colleen has a great rounded idea of what her body is, what it can do, her limitations, and what she succeeds in. Improvising with her is kind of hard (laughs) just because she has that understanding. Even though it’s hard it’s a great learning tool. You’re seeing - firsthand, in real time - what those ideas are, what the thought process is, how she arrives at those places, and how you’re part of that. So, dance with a partner because you’re learning in real time to the point where [improvising isn’t a] decision, it’s second nature. There are many ways to learn from someone, to watch someone, and to dance with someone. Take a lot of classes, improvise with others. Get to a place where you’re comfortable and allowed to make mistakes.
JC: What inspires you to dance and perform? What gets you up in the morning and why do you do what you do?
SD: When I started dance, I didn’t realize what impact it was about to have on me. I started at fifteen and I just did it because it was fun. But I realized it meant more to me because I was getting to have my moment - whatever I needed. If I was upset, or happy, it was my outlet. Over the years, my inspiration has been getting to share because I’m honestly by nature, an extrovert (laughs). I love being around people which is why [COVID] is so hard for me. I love being in spaces with people and being able to share.
Dance has also been a huge teacher. I was not a scholastic kid (laughs) and that was not my thing! I didn’t really love school, I liked it but didn’t love it. Dance taught me work ethic, drive, confidence, self-love, things they don’t always teach at school. It taught me how to be the best version of myself… constantly going to classes, auditioning and moving into these places where we have to prove ourselves again. It really allows you to check in with yourself and say, “Am I doing everything I need to do? Am I getting my training? Am I still working hard?”
The biggest thing dance has taught me is hard work. That’s the biggest take away. I have learned the gratitude for hard work.
My two years at Conteur were hard. It wasn’t what I expected (laughs). I guess I was kind of thrown into the fire. But, I wouldn’t trade it for the world because honestly it was there where I met people like Colleen, Ryan Lee, and Kelly Shaw, and I got to build amazing relationships. I learned what hard work is, man. Because we were working! We were working hard! I guess my inspirations are really being able to share and all the lessons that dance has given me. Dance continues to teach me lessons and I continue to meet people that teach me through dance. I wouldn’t trade those lessons for the world.