Everybody likes to do the fancy stuff, big impressive throws. They are fun to do, but it is really the basics that are important. When folks start aikido, it is about memorizing where to put your hands and feet. By the time you get shodan, you should know all the common techniques from all the common attacks. As you move on, you get away from names and categories, and just do aikido. Sometimes I have to think about what to call a technique I just did.
From what I remember, O Sensei wasn’t big on names. He’d just demonstrate something, and tell the class to practice that. His son, Kisshomaru, was apparently the one who systematized things. That does make it easier to teach and to learn. But it is cutting aikido up into convenient chunks. At some point, you need to go beyond that and work on the underlying stuff. When you work on a named technique, you are practicing aikido. When you work more directly with an attack without names getting in the way, you may be doing aikido.
So as you progress beyond shodan, it is increasingly important to look at angles, distance, and timing. Angles are what allow a physically smaller person to overpower a larger person. Distance determines what one person can do to another, and as two people are often different in size it is not necessarily symmetrical. Timing determines the dynamics of the interaction. Often quite small changes are all that are necessary.
Angles relate to both uke and nage. Uke needs certain angles to deliver an effective attack, and nage’s angles in relation to that line also effect how dangerous an attack is. Nage needs certain angles relative to the line of attack in order to deal with that attack, and certain angles relative to uke in order to be able to move uke. Useful angles start with the feet, where they are pointed, and so on. Angles of the body (hips and shoulders) and arms are also important, and are based on the feet.
The obvious aspect of distance (ma ai) is whether uke can hit you. As the distance decreases, there comes a point where uke goes from being unable to hit you to where he can hit you. If he is intent on doing damage, crossing that threshold will trigger the attack. The distance will of course be different for different weapons, whether natural weapons (foot vs fist) or others (e.g knife vs jo). There is even a difference in distance between an open hand (shuto) vs a fist.
Both parties can affect this distance. One of the most important aspects of timing is controlling that distance. If the distance is changing at a regular rate, the timing of the strike is very predictable. Nage can manipulate the timing by his own movements. And, of course, so can uke.
So, back to basics. Exploring these issues works best with techniques you are very familiar and comfortable with. If you are working on improving a technique, you are probably not able to also work on angles, distance and timing. So we all need to improve our techniques, but as we get up in rank we also need to work to transcend them.