Theatre maverick and pioneer in documentary

Al Wunder says he has had four lucky breaks in his life.

Improvisation in storytelling and movement: Filmmaker Michelle Dunn has made a documentary about theatre pioneer Al Wunder and his extraordinary career from the US to Australia. Photo: Kate Healy.

Improvisation in storytelling and movement: Filmmaker Michelle Dunn has made a documentary about theatre pioneer Al Wunder and his extraordinary career from the US to Australia. Photo: Kate Healy.

Each one of them was in his right leg.

Now approaching his 74th birthday, Wunder attributes his career in improvised dance, movement and theatre to a weakness in his femur that saw him suffer three fractures in that particular bone, and another elsewhere. Between the ages of 12 and 15, he says, he was bedridden for 18 months.

A friend introduced him to dance in his hometown of Brooklyn, New York. This, says Wunder, saved him from pursuing a vocation as dentist – something he regards now as being likely to turn out badly.

“I changed my focus from being a dentist – it never would have worked out – to studying with this man, Alwin Nikolais, not with the idea of ‘ooh, I’ll become a dancer’, because of the physical therapy that I started for my right leg, but the improvisation just turned me on to continue studying.”

Image from the documentary.

Image from the documentary.

Alwin Nikolais was a world-famous United States choreographer and composer who brought multi-media and improvisation to the fore in his work for 60 years.

“The more I studied with him the more I realised it was the improvisational element I enjoyed than anything else,” says Wunder.

Studying for eight years with Alwin Nikolais led to Al Wunder moving to San Francisco and starting a career as a teacher of dance and improvisation. His teaching and life are now the subject of a documentary by local filmmaker and photographer Michelle Dunn.

Image from the documentary.

Image from the documentary.

The Wonder of Improvisation explores the art and philosophy of improvisation through the recollections of Wunder and those he has worked with and taught. He and his collaborators have used dance and trapeze to investigate the stories of everyday people.

Along the way, Al Wunder met the love of his life, dancer Lynden Nicholls, which led to him relocating to Australia and creating The Theatre Of The Ordinary.

“This is a wonderful thing, for people to learn to get up and tell their stories,” says Wunder.

Image from the documentary.

Image from the documentary.

“Emotionally it’s a very opening, freeing experience. It’s a practise you can evolve; everybody’s story changes from day-to-day.”

The Wonder of Improvisation took three years to create, and was filmed in USA and Australia, and will be launched at MADE on Thursday October 12, between 7 and 9pm.

As part of the film launch, there will be a performance by local improvisation trio Jam ’n Jar, led by Wunder; a screening of the film, and a Q&A session afterwards with the artist and filmmaker. 

Image from the documentary.

Image from the documentary.

Ballarat’s launch of The Wonder of Improvisation is supported by the City of Ballarat as part of Seniors Festival and is free, but bookings are essential via Eventbrite