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All photos by Nataraj Hauser(c) unless otherwise noted.Feature
I came to contact improv through a workshop taught by Nataraj Hauser in June 2005 at the Pagan Spirit Gathering in Ohio. At the time, I had not been closer to a man than a handshake for almost 20 years. When it was my turn to check in, I drew myself up to my full 5’ 2” height and growled, “I’m a radical, lesbian feminist, and I don’t usually dance with men, so watch where you put your hands.” Shortly thereafter, I fell into the arms of one of the male students. Go figure. One year later, I’m still enthralled with this mysterious, transformative dance form. My deepest appreciation and respect to all my teachers.
Oh, no, the elder dancers will groan silently, politely
Arranging themselves elegantly on the floor
Not another gushing paean to “The Dance”
Not another limb-tangled, sweat-filled ode
With standard disclaimer of non-sex-u-al-i-tee.
Yet how to express gratitude for such deep reshaping
As this first year folds back upon itself, settling in my bones.
Here, then, is what I have learned and know is true:
Gravity works, every time.
If I fall I will not die, but I will make a loud bang
Like a rolltop desk being tipped over.
Good technique will not keep me from looking like a fool;
It will, however, keep me from breaking my head.
I am stronger than I look.
I am small enough to fly.
I can dance with a man and still respect myself in the morning.
At some point, parts is just parts.
The walls and floor love me just the way I am.
The act of standing upright is a miracle.
Stillness can express everything.
Rolling on the floor with a Buddhist monk is a sacred act.
My teachers have never used the word “wrong,” not once.
Feel the fear and do it anyway.
“I remember feeling literally transported to another world when dancing, a world in which I was able to become a stronger self than I lived with day to day Ö the realm of contact improvisation I realized was not “dance” but living, the forces at play between two people dancing are those forces which exist day to day Ö I was left with the ever present challenge to realize my strong self in day to day living as well as the responsibility of achieving a healthy and true communion with those people I meet day to day.” ~~~ Danny Lepkofftop
thoughts on virtuosity
This article is republished with the permission of Proximity. Unsolicited contributions to the magazine are welcome and worldwide subscriptions are available. Visit the site for more articles on contact improvisation, performance improvisation and new dance. If you have images or writing please feel free to contribute.
For me Contact Improvisation is like Ulysses by James Joyce. There is no doubting its significance to contemporary practice. It is simultaneously breath-taking, difficult and liberating. I have started reading Ulysses eight times, but usually stop around page 81 (it is 704 pages long!). Since 1982 I have sporadically attended contact improvisation classes and jams, I have had a number of wonderful teachers, but every time I start and then stop. I always feel like I am starting to read Ulysses and beginning as a contact improviser.
One of the philosophical attractions of contact improvisation was its evolution in the early 1970's as part of a "social experiment in egalitarianism and community" (Novack, 1990, p4). Its character was essentially subversive. It was part of a move away from the virtuosity of traditionally trained dancers, towards art practices based in "the theme of the everyday...and...the role of chance and indeterminacy" (Novack, 1990, p.55). In the early 80's of course this would attract me; I was completely without training and as a mover I was certainly 'everyday' and 'indeterminate.' However, contact improvisation did not prove to be for me in a sustained way.
I watch with envy as (usually men) commit acts of near suicide with impunity, and I see others (usually women) demonstrate a strength and physical integration that cats take for granted, but which humans (me in particular) usually lack. Well obviously people get good at it, that is not a problem. But while it attracts and sustains the highly skilled thrill seekers is its claim of a democratic heritage merely rhetorical? I remember being challenged on this issue in a forum run as part of Al Wunder's and Martin Hughes' inspiring workshop on Contact Improvisation and Performance this year. As a response to an intemperate outburst from me, Martin and Wendy Smith calmly stated that the gung-ho neo-suiciders do not necessarily represent virtuosic contact improvisation. This being so, especially, if they are not operating in the 'mutual negotiation' paradigm that is at the centre of and the solution to so many of the dilemmas of contact improvisation practice. I well remember watching a jam in PS 122 in New York during a brief visit in 1996 and watching one (male) quite experienced and mature participant serially injure three (male) partners, and manage to clear a significant part of the studio. In contrast I remember my first contact encounter with Nancy Stark-Smith in which I felt so completely met that there was a sense of enormous potential. I later watched her engage in some spectacular contact improvisation with more highly skilled practitioners, and yet I never sensed any frustration in her in negotiating contact with me and my limited resources. Here it was the inquiry that mattered: "what is possible between us?" was the question, rather than "how far can I push myself." This redefinition of virtuosity within contact improvisation into the realm of awareness, sensitivity and openness has proved to be very useful for me. The "high risk" behaviours that I observe as I cringe in the corner at jams are a demonstration of the outcomes of virtuosic skills of sensitivity.
It is argued that the democratic heritage of contact improvisation can, and is being maintained by inclusiveness and in particular by its practice with mixed ability groups. (See Anne Cooper-Albright's Choreographing Difference for a provocative and intelligent discussion of this.) The noble pioneers of contact improvisation were passionately intent on claiming and charting the territory of inclusiveness. This does not mean we are all equal but that the form should seek to be as inclusive as possible by providing equal access to participation. This was an idea that swept through our education, social welfare and public health systems in the seventies. It is an idea that is not often articulted in the realm of 'high' art.
It is my belief that we live in an time when ALL the good ideas of the 1970's are being questioned, and many are being dismantled and discredited. We now live in a world when it is routinely asserted that we cannot afford such things. But does a notion such as equity of access have relevance in the arts? We are being encouraged to believe that all arts practice is partially a sifting of wheat from chaff. that artistic practice has selection at its very essence. Is contact improvisation more properly a form of personal practice, a forum for community development, an excellent source of physical development, but not an 'artistic endeavour?' (The answer to these questions may not matter apart from its implication for whom we might ask for funding.) The reasons why contact improvisation emerged (entrenched forms of elitist traditional dance practice, etc) have been challenged and diminished for a decade or so, but, I suspect, are being strengthened again. Maybe we once again need contact improvisation for subversive reasons. But what is subversive now? Contact improvisation cannot rest on its subversive heritage. It must seek to articulate itself more and more clearly, to not let itself rest in self congratulatory language but to genuinely inquire into its own relevance. I often hear it described as a physical activity, and hear participants describing its benefits to them personally. I do not hear so frequently it articulated as a democratic form, one that seeks to undermine what dance would be in our community if we left it to the academies to define it. When taught well it should be subversive, it should make the deans of our dance institutions very nervous! Not because their highly priced investments might be injured, but because it might place funny ideas in their heads about what dance is, or could be.
Contact improvisation now has a tradition and pioneers to respect. Contact improvisation will do this best not by trying to replicate their movement style, but by 'maintaining the rage' that led to their movement style, by continuing to undermine principles of elitism that would make dance so precious as to be unavailable to people like me.
I consider myself to be lucky, eighteen years down the track, I have found my form in dance, but I would not have done so without the influence of forms such as contact improvisation.
Keep going! Or as James Joyce (p.704) puts it, "And yes I said yes I will Yes"
Cooper-Albright, A. (1997). Choreographing Difference: The body and identity in contemporary dance. Hanover, NH: Weslyan University Press.
Novack C. (1990). Sharing the Dance. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press
Joyce, J. (1922/1968) Ulysses. Hammondsworth: Penguin
Worth Watching from Google Video
A streaming video interview with Karl Frost with lots of good footage of techniques. HERE
World Jam Map
Going traveling? Check out the World Jam Map put together by Mark Zemelman!
Too, too funny, this YouTube Video features two GI Joe dolls doing contact improv amidst the sounds of war. A bit of politics at the end...
A nice photo series from the West Coast Contact Improv Festival on Flickr by Erica Hagen.
Three, two, one — contact!
Excerpt from an article by Janet Cromley posted at the Sout Florida Sun-Sentinal.com
It looks like child's play, what with all that flying and colliding, but contact improv is a serious workout.
By Janet Cromley
Times Staff Writer
Posted July 31 2006
We're squirming around on the floor tangled up like puppies — my friend Laura, the dance instructor and I. The teacher rolls his leg over mine as he moves an arm over Laura. He's talking very quietly about the importance of getting in touch with one's center.
Laura, a former dancer and choreographer, clearly understands what he's talking about. Me, I'm thinking my center is probably pretty close to my stomach, which will be receiving a well-earned cheeseburger when this is all over.
Attending this weekly "Contact Improv" jam at Dance Home in Santa Monica had seemed like an excellent idea when I first heard about it from a trainer.
An off-beat progeny of modern dance, contact improv is usually performed by two or more people who stay in near constant touch via rolling points of contact, while exploring the physics of shared weight — bodies pushing, lifting, colliding, charging and rolling off one another.
This sounded right up my alley — something akin to navigating the half-yearly sale at Nordstrom.
When performed well, contact improv reportedly improves balance, agility and core strength. But I was quickly finding that getting to the "performed well" part is tricky, involving intense concentration, an ability to lock into the mood and physical intentions of your dance partner, an evolved sense of body awareness and a willingness to move with childlike abandon.
Oy. On this quartet of characteristics, I'm 0 for 4.
This highly tactile art form emerged in the early 1970s as part of the postmodern dance movement. Dancer and choreographer Steve Paxton is credited with introducing contact improv in 1972 at five afternoon performances at the John Weber Gallery in New York. Paxton said that the term "contact improvisation" was first coined at those performances.
Since then, contact improv has spread throughout the world, with unofficial centers in Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Argentina, Italy, Australia and Russia, among others.
Contact improv dancers resist organization. There is no governing body, no rule book, no registered trademark. One of the few publications devoted to contact improv is the Contact Quarterly, which comes out biannually. The magazine has a readership of more than 1,000 worldwide, about half of that in the U.S.
There are a number of groups scattered across the U.S., including in the Bay Area, that are practicing contact improv. However, in Los Angeles and the surrounding area, it's slimmer pickings. The one dependable weekly jam is held from 6:30 to 9 p.m. on Sundays at Dance Home, an unpretentious yoga studio with mirrored walls and scuffed wood floors.
Every third Sunday, the Santa Monica jam devotes the first part of the evening to beginners instruction, which explains my presence here on a sweltering night in July.
Bodies in motion
Contact improv tends to attract an interesting spectrum of people — a lot of architects and engineers on one end and therapists and dancers on the other. Builders and designers are apparently captivated by the trajectories of bodies in motion, and those who work in helping fields appreciate the physical connections involved. It also transcends physical boundaries in more ways than one. Of the 15 participants who arrived for the jam, there were two Bulgarians, an Israeli and a Russian.
We began by simply standing, eyes closed, "getting in touch with our centers." Then we separated into pairs. Laura and I began back-to-back, rolled arms against each other a few times Ö then ran out of inspiration. The instructor, Matt Faw, came over and joined us.
A TV producer and editor, Faw has been doing contact improv for about 15 years. He's very light on his feet and quick as a bug. With very little talking, he began weaving himself between and around us, as we moved from standing to lying down to standing again, continually rolling onto and off of one another.
In short, Laura and I were tumbling about with a complete stranger like overgrown monkeys — something I hadn't seen close up since my first and last frat party. Which brings us to the nitty gritty of contact improv. It's not inherently sexual, but observers might be forgiven for jumping to that conclusion.
"The only context we have for people touching each other that closely is either wrestling or sexual," says Shel Wagner Rasch, a UCLA contact improv instructor with more than 20 years experience. "Obviously there's a lot of caring involved, so it tends to be interpreted toward the sexual. But when you're doing CI, there's no time to be keying into these feelings because your limbs are flying Ö "
Nevertheless, contact improv dancers acknowledge that this can be a difficult area to navigate, particularly for beginners.
read the rest of the article HERE.
A collection of miscellany; poems, rants, stray thoughts, and overheard comments.
Poetry based on the Fibonacci series
A friend sent me an invitation to go our for a beer one Friday. Nothing unusual about that. It was in the form of poetry. Nothing unusual about that either. We often dance back and forth with words, frequently using haiku to set plans for the evening. This time, her poem was based on the mathematical progression known as a Fibonacci series. This progression starts with 0 and 1. Each successive number in the progression is the sum of the two preceding numbers. Thus, the first few numbers are: 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21, and so on. She chose to interpret the progression as the number of syllables present in each line rather than a word count. Amused with the form, I thought I'd try my hand at a bit of Fibonnaci Poetry - Fibonnacerty? - about contact improv. Rather than work with an open-ended progression and quickly reach lines of Hemingway proportions, I chose instead to mirror the progression. I attempt to include the zeros by indicating a deliberate breath.
rapid transitions; sudden falls,
invigorating transitions of weight on the fly.
Both dancers listening to the voice of the other's body; each whisper, each shout.
Dance of life with no beginning and never ending
Embracing the force of chaos
riding the moment
back down to
Nataraj Hauser, 2006
If you have something you’ve written that you want to get out to our community: An article, a poem, or even just a paragraph you think is important, send it to me and I’ll include it. (nataraj.hauser (at) gmail.com)
One request has been for more photos, so I included a bunch in this issue. If there is something else *you* would like to see, let me know.
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Photo from the web used without permission