Breaking artistic tradition

The Impermanent Society of Philadelphia hosted its inaugural NowHere festival to promote improv music and dance.

Ayako Kataoka performs during the NowHere Festival of Free Improvisation in Sound & Movement Oct. 23. | Daniel Rainville TTN
Ayako Kataoka performs during the NowHere Festival of Free Improvisation in Sound & Movement Oct. 23. | Daniel Rainville TTN

Except for a heater’s low hum, the Mascher Space Co-op was nearly silent when Leah Stein asked her students to get into the “listening process of breath and movement.” As the student dancers laid on the floor, they exhaled deeply—a sign of freedom to move fluidly.

Stein, a professional dancer, was just one presenter at NowHere Festival. Created by the Impermanent Society of Philadelphia, abbreviated as ISOP, an organization dedicated to promoting free improvisational art performances, the festival showcased free improv musicians and artists from throughout the country Oct. 19-25.

Free improvisation is the idea of taking the rules—in Stein’s case, the choreography or the score—away from the art medium and choosing to work with or against the genre.

“Free improv is kind of like an empty canvas—where we create our own behaviors without rules, without anything,” said Eun Jung Choi, an adjunct dance professor who will perform in the festival.

ISOP co-founder Flandrew Fleisenberg attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which was informative in finding free improvisation, he said.

“I was coming from a place of creative expression, which allowed me to be freer with music,” Fleisenberg said.

Last year he worked with Steven Tobin, curator of Fire Museum Presents, a show promotion company for experimental and psychedelic music.

“We decided to make a larger organization out of it and work with others in the community who are key stakeholders of free improvisation and people interested in arts and cultures,” Fleisenberg said.

The ISOP team is comprised of ten musicians, dancers and artists, including Temple faculty Choi, Catherine Pancake and Adam Vidiksis.

The festival began Oct. 19 with a dance workshop held at Mascher Space Co-op and a music class at Iron Factory in Kensington. Later, the two classes combined to unite the mediums of sound and movement, and the movers and musicians chose to work with or against each other without choreography or a prepared musical score.

Pancake, an assistant professor of film and media arts, was one of the percussionists involved in Saturday night’s performance.

Pancake implemented electronic elements including field recordings of natural gas fracking from a film she’s currently working on. Pancake said one of the most interesting aspects of free improvisation is letting go of the structure that comes along with musicality.

“You need to learn to let go of structures and put yourself in the moment with other players,” Pancake said.

Pancake said that unlike performing traditional musical scores, free improv is about challenging oneself to connect with other players.

The film professor added the festival helps with her visual stimulation as a filmmaker.

“It has been great because I am just in contact with so much aural stimulation, which helps me with my visual projects and helps me be a better filmmaker in terms of joining sound and visual together in filmmaking,” Pancake said.

Pancake was also involved with a panel discussion Oct. 23 in Tuttleman Learning Center. The panel, which included musicians and dancers from NowHere, discussed the meaning behind the art form.

She said the panel will hopefully serve to help students in the Center for the Arts unwind from the mastery of their skill.

“It’s always nice to let that go and have a moment in which we can come together and talk about something that is about freedom in the moment and releasing ourselves creatively,” Pancake said.

Fleisenberg hopes this festival will leave a lasting impact and expand the free improvisational community in Philadelphia.

“We don’t want to be too ambitious, but we want to measure our success in that did we inspire a conversation? Did we connect with the community? We want this to be a longtime effort,” Fleisenberg said.

Emily Scott can be reached at

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