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Contact improvisation comes of age.

How is Contact Improvisation like the Internet?

Lots of ways, it turns out. Both the dance form and the electronic network came into being in the early 1970s. Both revolutionized the way we communicate. Both have spread dramatically, becoming worldwide phenomena. "Surfing" is part of the lingo in both. And neither has managed to make much money.

"Does everything have to make money?" Steve Paxton asks when I try out this comparison in a telephone interview. Paxton "instigated" contact improvisation, to use his word, in New York City in 1972, after experiments during a residency at Oberlin College with the Grand Union. (See sidebar.)

In contact improvisation (CI), two people share a dance by giving weight to a single "point of contact." They might stand forehead to forehead, of one's shoulder might lean into the other's hip. "It looks like a cross between a ballet pas de deux and a barroom brawl," said one dance critic. Each dance is effectively a trio, with the third partner being the floor. Early experiments were conducted on gym mats, soon discarded in favor of the solid footing a harder surface provides.

It's nonhierarchical; no choreographer is directing. Participants speak of being "danced" by the point of contact. Paxton, a wise, laconic artist of 65 who guesses he's partnered 20,000 people worldwide in the past thirty years (see sidebar), says, "I was trying to understand what makes integrity in movement. I thought I spied in CI a form arising from us rather than imposed upon us. It's a game that takes two people to win, so it doesn't create losers; it ignores gender, size, and other differences. It's about attending to your reflexes in a touch communication--faster than words, faster than conscious thinking." About the way CI uses space, he says, "I came to think of the space as spherical, a tumbling sphere as opposed to a pedestal sphere. This seemed to be a big change from the [proscenium] dance I was used to."

CI has exploded dramatically in the past thirty years. From its genesis at Oberlin and Bennington College, where Paxton was teaching, CI found its way to art galleries in New York and Italy and spread across North America, gradually penetrating other college dance departments and studios and festivals on every continent.

Nancy Stark Smith, the Massachusetts-based teacher and performer who cofounded and co-edits Contact Quarterly (see Resource List), was present at the creation at Oberlin, where she was an undergraduate active in sports and modern dance. "CI could have been a single piece Steve Paxton made in 1972. That it would become a worldwide movement form was not anticipated at the time. I started to share it with people, because you can't do it alone. That was the most important factor in its spread."

Although Smith, an improvisational performer, often extends her work from CI as a strict form, she continues to use it as a teaching tool. "There's really nothing like it. It challenges people to be curious, to initiate, to follow, to be sensitive, to listen, to resist when necessary, to innovate, to risk, and to enjoy. There's an aspect of play in it: you're learning, satisfying, challenging; you're lost, you're solving phenomenological problems. It's so versatile. Some people use it for choreographic research, others as a contemplative practice."

Thirty-two years since its "instigation," people offer contact classes and host "jams"--freewheeling gatherings of dancers--in thirty-six states, six Canadian provinces, twenty-five European countries, and Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Brazil, and Argentina. Doing contact creates a nurturing community, which proved especially therapeutic in Argentina during the recent difficult times. Teachers estimate that 200 people a week have been showing up at jams in Buenos Aires, seeking the grounding, intimate experience--bold and daring, yet in a protected environment--that the dancing provides. Dancers in Israel report the same phenomenon.

There are large contact communities in San Francisco, Seattle, Montreal, and Vancouver. Practicing CI takes a lot of time--perhaps an hour to warm up, two hours for dancing, and then time to relax and share a drink or a meal with partners. New Yorkers find this hard to schedule (though a Monday evening dance jam has been flourishing in Manhattan for decades).

The question of whether CI is, on its own, a "performance form" continues to engage artists and audiences. Alito Alessi of Eugene, Oregon, and other West Coast artists, like Nita Little Nelson in Santa Cruz, California, integrate it into their choreography. The Vancouver-based Holy Body Tattoo is a contact-informed troupe, and Vancouverite Peter Bingham has been teaching across Canada since 1977 (and choreographing since 1984), as has Montrealer Andrew Harwood. "Contact on the West Coast was much more visceral," says Bingham. "On the East Coast they took a more intellectual approach."

Downtown New York choreographers Stephen Petronio, David Dorfman, Bill T. Jones, K.J. Holmes, Bebe Miller, and Bill Young have thoroughly absorbed contact principles into their aesthetics, and recently the British renegade group, the George Piper Dancers (See "25 to Watch," DM, January, page 32), combined CI with ballet. Vermont-based Lisa Nelson, improvisational performer, co-editor of Contact Quarterly, and a longtime dance partner of Paxton's, directs Videoda, which produces, archives, and distributes videos of improvisational dance.

Chris Aiken, who co-directs a dance program at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania with Cathy Young, said, "I liked to dance socially. Contact was a way of combining my love of athleticism with my interest in improvisation. My dad thought team sports were fascist organizations. Contact was a sale way of exploring a language of touch and intimacy."

Aiken, who, while living in Minnesota, introduced CI to a number of dance companies, including James Sewell Ballet, Zenon Dance Company, and Cathy Young Dance, said, "Anybody can dance with anybody. There's no prescribed movement. You're working with the physics of the body, with alignment, weight, and gravity. Over the years I've tried to create an environment in class where there's a real understanding of how to take care of yourself, to take risks but not be reckless."

Contact dancers generally wear layers that can be peeled off: sweatshirts and pants over T-shirts and tights, bare feet, knee pads and ankle warmers for extra protection. Beginners often contemplate dancing naked, but it doesn't work: Sweaty bodies get slippery, and clothing provides the friction necessary to keep a stable balance on another's hip or shoulder.

Contact is not a dream world: strong dancers tend to seek out other strong dancers, and a beginner can feel like a wallflower. That's the point at which the psychological lessons begin to unfold. Are you prepared to engage in an unpredictable encounter? Are you ready to catch yourself, to tumble safely out of a precarious position? Are you prone to clutch a partner, or can you ride the movement gracefully, like a surfer on a wave? People from nine to 90 have participated, as have disabled and blind people. It's an unending adventure, a renewable resource, and a dance you discover afresh in every moment.

RELATED ARTICLE: Steve Paxton unpacked.

The man who hatched contact improvisation in 1972 trained as a gymnast, and studied modern dance, ballet, Aikido, Tai Chi Chuan, and Vipassana meditation. He was an Arizona State runner up tumbling champion before moving to New York in 1958, performed with Jose Limon in 1959, and with Merce Cunningham from 1961 through 1964. He was a co-founder of the experimental Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s and of the Grand Union, an improvisation collective in the early 1970s.

A Grand Union colleague, postmodern pioneer Yvonne Rainer, recalls him thus: "Charismatic in every respect, on and off-stage, muscular and broad shouldered with a long neck and small chiseled head, he looked like a saltimbanque just jumped out of a Picasso painting." Two of his dances, the 1964 Flat and the 1967 Satisfyin Lover, are among the landmarks of 1960s dance history. In the first, he takes off his clothes and hangs them on hooks attached to his body; in the second, large numbers of people simply walk, stand, of sit, eventually crossing the space. His stage direction for the piece: "The mind should be at rest."

Mikhail Baryshnikov, director of the White Oak Dance Project, produced both Flat and Satistyin Lover as part of a program called PastForward, which toured in 2000-2001 (See cover story, DM, November 2000). "Steve Paxton is a performer of amazing depth, mental stamina, and originality," said Baryshnikov, who performed Flat himself on the tour. "Working with him was an invaluable learning experience which I will always cherish, and watching him dance was unforgettable."

Paxton's concepts and choreography have won him two Bessie awards, a Guggenheim, and other prestigious fellowships. His essays are available in back issues of Contact Quarterly, to which he's a contributing editor, and his work has been discussed in a host of dance history books, notably Sally Banes' Terpsichore in Sneakers.

"Grand Union was a luxurious improvisational laboratory," said Paxton by phone from his farm in northern Vermont. "All of us were very formally oriented, even though we were doing formless work. Three or four companies came out of that period, out of the experience of watching forms elude grasp." Examples are the Trisha Brown Dance Company, David Gordon Pick-Up Company, and Douglas Dunn and Dancers.

He's recently performed with sublime improvisers like Trisha Brown, Lisa Nelson, and French choreographer Boris Charmatz, around Europe and the U.S. He developed a project to teach CI to the visually challenged, called Touchdown, at England's Dartington College. He now teaches Material for the Spine, a study focusing on "what the spine is doing in that tumbling sphere with another person--a kind of yogic form, a technique that focuses on the pelvis, the spine, the shoulder blades, the rotation of the head." His solo improvisations to Bach, both complex and serene, are legendary.

This summer he's teaching at the Verbier Academy in Switzerland. "I love to watch people try to teach improvisation. I'm not sure it can be taught. I think it's up to the student to learn. It's hard for dance students to realize that they can take initiative and figure things out."

Points of Contact

Contact Quarterly

This biannual journal, beautifully edited by Nancy Stark Smith and Lisa Nelson, contains fascinating articles on C1 and somatic practices as well as listings of workshops and CI points of contacts worldwide.

Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture

By Cynthia J. Novack. University of Wisconsin Press. Available from CQ.

This useful historical analysis is wide-ranging in its topics and has lots of great photos.

Taken By Surprise: A Dance Improvisation Reader

Edited by Ann Cooper Albright and David Gere. Wesleyan University Press.

Albright, who teaches at Oberlin, and Gere, who teaches at U.C.L.A., have assembled essays by Steve Paxton, Nancy Stark Smith, Sally Banes, and other seminal thinkers about improvisational dance.

Improv Dance Jam in New York City Weekly gathering of contact and other improvisers, at Children's Aid Society. Contact James Dowling at 718.768.3492.

Earthdance, in Plainfield, MA, is a center for CI and other improvisation, Nancy Stark Smith teaches a workshop in June.

West Coast CI Festival, July 2-7,

Also see and dancedirectory for events and workshops.

--E. Z.

Elizabeth Zimmer, the dance editor at The Village Voice, began studying contact improvisation in 1977. She edited the text of Envisioning Dance on Film and Video, published by Routledge in 2002.
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Author:Zimmer, Elizabeth
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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