Improvement Club: SXSW Review

Improvement Club - H 2013
The dance sequences are the most compelling part of this self-absorbed glimpse of avant-garde artists at work and play.

The members of an experimental Seattle theater troupe play versions of themselves in a fictionalized account of one of their productions.

The experimental dance-and-music piece at the heart of Improvement Club, the first feature by choreographer Dayna Hanson, is a work that her Seattle-based troupe performed across North America. Performance art is generally strongest when it’s not explained, and the film, which combines rehearsal routines, music-video-type sequences and backstage banter in a fictional making-of, works best at its most abstract. The mildly dreamy, decidedly noncommercial picture had its world premiere at SXSW.

Gloria’s Cause is a theater performance piece that explores “the ironies of the American revolution,” as Hanson and the piece’s co-creators, Dave Proscia and Peggy Piacenzia, explain in faux TV interviews. The line between earnestness and parody is hard to judge as the group discusses those ironies in the broadest terms, and especially when the squirm-inducing, if fearless, Piacenzia dons an eagle’s mask to get in touch with her inner American symbol: “an empathetic bird with an ironic nature.” There is a nice touch of humor, though, when a local showcase draws negative reviews and Proscia questions the validity of critics’ perspectives because they’re “subjective.”

The story, such as it is (indie filmmaker Lynn Shelton served as script adviser), involves the troupe’s preparations to perform Gloria’s Cause at a New York festival. When the trip falls through, Hanson puts off breaking the news, worry clouding her gaze as she continues to play the maternal taskmaster as though nothing has changed.

As the film’s most developed character, Hanson is a nuanced screen presence who commands attention. The rest of the group’s real-life members — Paul Matthew Moore, Jessie Smith, Wade Madsen, Pol Rosenthal, Maggie Brown, Jim Kent — play versions of themselves that never quite come into focus, even as their camaraderie does. Most of them impressively double as dancers and musicians. The dancing has an unforced lyricism, whether in a rooftop rehearsal or an impromptu run-through in a narrow hallway, captured in artful simplicity by cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke.

Whatever ideas and questions fuel Gloria’s Cause remain unclear. The work-in-progress is seen only briefly or indirectly, through rehearsals, research-sharing sessions and brainstorming over drinks — none of which sheds any penetrating light. With backstage action that never compels, Improvement Club feels for too much of its running time like a work that would be of interest mainly to those involved in its making. In the final stretch, though, when a gig takes the group to rural Longbranch, a mythic ferry ride away, an element of unpredictability injects some nicely offbeat energy into the narrative.

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)
Production company: Improvement Club LLC
Cast: Dayna Hanson, Paul Matthew Moore, Jessie Smith, Wade Madsen, Dave Proscia, Pol Rosenthal, Maggie Brown, Jim Kent, Peggy Piacenzia
Writer-director: Dayna Hanson
Producers: Mel Eslyn, Dayna Hanson
Director of photography: Benjamin Kasulke
Music: Today!

Production designer: Tania Kupczak
Editor: Sean Donavan
No MPAA rating; 98 minutes