“A craftsman always knows the result of his labor,
while the artist never does.”
—W H Auden
Part one: The Zoo
I was an unofficial consultant to Eszter Gál who almost single-handedly organized the 14th annual ECITE (European Contact Improvisation Teacher’s Exchange) in Budapest, Hungary, in 2000. She took many of my suggestions, but there was one piece of advice I’m glad she rejected.
She told me that for the performance evening she planned a four-hour marathon. Since we had over 120 Contact Improvisation teachers together, she wanted to give everyone a chance to perform—some more than once. I was aghast. I told her that people don’t have the capacity to take in more than an hour of Contact Improvisation. I pleaded with her to make it shorter and allow everyone to leave hungry for more. She looked at me kindly, thanked me, and said that in this case, she was going to do it her way.
Eszter rented the Artus/Fono Budai Music house, a factory converted into a cultural center. She turned every nook and cranny of the various buildings and outdoor walkways and plazas into performance spaces. People migrated from area to area like treasure hunters discovering what was around the next corner. There was an outdoor stage and two indoor stages. People danced in trees and suspended from fences. People performed between the tables in the café. Duets were happening on the sink tops in the public bathrooms. In the gallery that held an exhibition of remarkable dance photos by Thomas Häntzschel, there was an ongoing round-robin. On a descending outdoor walkway between the indoor and outdoor theaters, lit only by the full moon, a dozen nude bodies were curled up like boulders strewn down the path, peeking out from the surrounding foliage. One meandered through this landscape of glistening, moonlit forms.
On the outdoor stage, something might start at any time, a planned meeting or a spontaneous “pickup company.” At one indoor stage with full stage lighting, there were three rounds of one-hour performances with various dance artists each hour.
The evening served to skew people’s perception of performance and life. If people are dancing on fences and in trees, what does that mean about how I move through my life? If people are performing while we sit drinking tea discussing Hungary’s history with Romania, how does that influence our conversation? If at any time I can move to another performance, another perspective, or begin to perform myself, what does that do to my role as spectator?
Eszter was courageous in her vision and her trust in the performers to understand the potential of the various spaces.
The last performance on one of the indoor stages was a Contact duet that continues to reverberate in me years later. Rick Nodine from the U.S.A. and Jovair Longo from Brazil, both now living in London, were the finale of the evening. The stage was back-lit as they ran in together. Their silhouettes ran fast from one corner of the stage to another. Without a pause, they would turn at a corner and keep running in step and close together. The sound of their feet falling together made a compelling rhythm. Suddenly Rick fell and Jovair fell over him. Instantly they were back up and running again. Then came repeated tumbles together in the direction they were running. Sometimes they fell side by side and sometimes one would pitch or vault or plunge over or onto the other and into the floor. They continued until they were visibly tired and their hard breathing joined the sound of their footsteps.
Finally, clearly exhausted, they dropped to their backs breathing hard. As their breath settled, the two back-lit bodies began to breathe in sync with each other. We could see the rise and fall of their diaphragms and the sweat gleaming on their faces. There was a sense that as their breath calmed and joined, we too joined them in their breathing. They were in tune with each other and had tuned us to them.
Slowly, almost simultaneously, they began to move. They paced the dance and took us with them—sometimes in a slow lucid rolling of the contact point around their bodies, and sometimes with an effervescent lobbing of each other into the air and to the floor and back up again. As the dance built, the stage lights came up to full. Their relationship was filled with curiosity, tenderness, affection, edginess, near confrontations, little and big assists, and a robust physicality that left us tingling and ready for more when they finished.
That sultry evening in Budapest, Rick and Jovair brought us their dance, one you might see them do at a Contact jam. With the tuning that came from the running and breathing, they invited the audience’s complete involvement as they put their dance on stage.
They were performing Contact Improvisation. Many people question whether CI is a performable dance form. When I see duets like this, which live on in my body and imagination for years, I’m convinced that it is.
It’s perplexing that some of the most engaging dancing I see happens at jams rather than in performances. Often the same dancers who have such a solid connection at a jam abandon their Contact faculties when in front of an audience. They seem to forget about something as basic as rolling the contact point. They don’t venture off-balance. They leave their skills of discovery in the moment for more controlled movement as they shape and compose the dance. They lose the sensation as they focus on the design.
Rick and Jovair brought all the sensational aspects of CI and let us in on them.
I confess that in the past I’ve not been a good audience member. My judgmental mind would run rampant. I’d often envy the fact that it was not me on stage. For years I just didn’t go to performances. Finally, about ten years ago, I developed a score for being an audience member that made it enjoyable for me. I go with a pen and a pad of paper. After a period of time in which I’ve been completely absorbed and unself-conscious, I write down what just happened. In this way I’ve been able to articulate those elements that completely pull me into a performance. My aesthetic has become clearer. And at those shows where my attention drifts, I have pen and paper to write down my flights of fancy.
When I first started dancing in 1979, Contact Improvisation was at a big apex. I had discovered the vocation of my dream, and I threw myself into it completely. At the time, there were many Contact Improvisation dance companies in the United States and Canada, including ReUnion, Men Working, Catpoto, Mangrove, Free Lance, Contactworks, freefall, Mirage, and Fulcrum. By 1981, many of these groups had disbanded, and CI performances in the San Francisco Bay Area where I lived went fallow for the next few years.
When CI began an upswing again in the late eighties (one that continues to this day), the form had changed. Many dancers were answering the question “Is CI a performance form or just a participatory dance?” by bringing more of a compositional awareness to /their performances. Rather than allowing the physical forces to guide the improvisation, people seemed more interested in how the improvisation guided the physical forces. I miss the former aesthetic.
Ann Cooper Albright, who teaches CI in a university setting, once told me that she feels that ballet and modern dance go outward and penetrate and colonize space, while in CI, it’s the other way around—space colonizes and penetrates the dancers. CI is introverted, and it’s difficult to communicate to an audience the internal landscape of sensation and responsiveness of the performers. This is one of the greatest challenges of putting CI on stage: How do we communicate the rich tapestry of sensation, of choices and discoveries being made, when most of these are internal experiences?
Over the years, I’ve come to believe that two elements are crucial here. One is the environment—the context you invite the audience into—and the other is the tuning—how you tune the audience into your world.
When people come into a theater with a proscenium stage, there is an immediate expectation and desire to be entertained, to be colonized by the experience. For Contact Improvisation, the performers need to give the audience the tools to shift to another perspective from which to experience the performance. Doing a lecture-demonstration or seating people right on the stage are ways of changing this expectation. Brenton Cheng, a dancer in San Francisco, looks for ways to tune the audience into the mindset that they would take to the zoo. You don’t expect the animals to perform for you, you simply observe them as they go about their business, following their own rules, being who they are. This zoo environment was created in the ECITE performances in Budapest.
There are myriad ways of tuning an audience. I’ve seen many performers start with a slow arriving into their own sensations and movements as a way to tune themselves and the audience.
Rick and Jovair tuned their audience by running in step and inviting us to breathe with them. By beginning with high energy, they created an anticipation that we would see more high-energy athletic dancing later, and they fulfilled their promise several times over.
I’ve seen performers create a lot of chaos with many bodies in erratic motion and then clear out to reveal a single duet in the space. Out of the chaos came something crystalline, and our curiosity was awakened to how the duet would continue to reveal this order.
Once, in a performance workshop, two dancers entered and faced each other with just a few inches between them. They looked into each other’s eyes with this condensed space between them. With their feet planted, they let the tops of their bodies spiral back and forth around each other like two snakes. The eye contact and the closeness of their lips made this a charged beginning, filled with erotic possibilities. Their improvisation grew from there and took me with them in the suspense that comes with the presence of Eros. As audience members, we created narratives of the making or breaking of relationships, seductions, falling-outs, and reconciliations.
What comes out of these beginnings is a tuning of my perspective and expectation. Suddenly I am brought into the process of discovery, into the dance, into the sensation; feeling the choices being made, feeling the emotional responses. A conduit opens into the inner landscape of the dancers and I readily go with them into the unfolding of the improvisation.
At the zoo, we are fascinated by the unself-conscious interaction between the animals. Is this fascination a hint to what works well in a Contact performance? At the zoo, what do most people want to see? I’ve watched large groups of spectators stand engrossed as two rams repeatedly backed up and then hurtled themselves at each other with their horns colliding like thunder. I’ve heard people cheer two horses on as they nip and sniff each other in their pre-copulation dance. It’s no wonder that when two dancers exude sexual chemistry or the potential for violence, it gets our attention.
Jess Curtis and Stephanie Maher began a piece by standing in front of each other using these phrases: “Hit me”; “I don’t want to hit you”; “I want you to hit me”; “Make me hit you.” Then one slaps the other’s face. Then the other slaps back. This goes back and forth until a Contact dance grows out of it. The audience became viscerally alert, wanting to see where this improvisation would go next.
When I watch Ray Chung and Chris Aiken perform together, I feel like I’m at the performance zoo. When they dance, they are performing as themselves rather than putting on a persona. They are willing to make eye contact with each other and the audience, sometimes with some acknowledgment, like a smile, that helps put me on their side. I’m often delighted by how clearly they enjoy themselves.
I like to see their handsome bodies in motion, these skillful movers in control and out of control. It’s exhilarating to see the moments when their restrained physicality bursts into vigorous movement. And I’m engaged in the moments when their extreme physicality makes me imagine the danger that exists, that one or the other might get hurt. And I’m calmed and relieved when they take an earned stillness that comes after a lot of activity. Both Ray and Chris have mastered the skills of Contact, and when they are in performance, they use them generously.
Part two: The Feast
The dance that is based primarily in basic skills of Contact Improvisation, in the body’s response to the physical forces—gravity, inertia, centrifugal force, etc.—excites me the most. This is the meat and potatoes of Contact Improvisation.
To cleave to these skills, Ray and I often use a performance score that we call Dance On/Dance Off. We develop our Contact duet offstage and then enter the stage dancing in contact. We end by dancing off the stage together. This keeps us connected to the form, and it gives the audience the image that they are seeing a slice of our dance, a dance that has been going on—and will continue—for a long time.
What can be added to the meat of Contact Improvisation are the spices that our animal natures evoke when we come into relationship with one another. Adding a dash of spice can be just the right thing to make the play of the physical forces come alive for an audience.
There are many spices, but for the sake of this essay I want to differentiate three of them: space/time (salt), narrative (garlic), and emotion (chili pepper).
When I’m in the audience and I’m given a bowl of spice without the meat and potatoes—when it shows too much narrative or contrived emotional expression or arbitrary composing of the space and the timing—it makes me grimace. But a pinch here and a smidgen there can make the dance especially tasty.
The salt of improvisation—the awareness of space/time—is by far the most in danger of overuse in Contact. By becoming overly aware of how they are relating to the space around them or to rhythmical qualities, Contactors often lose their inner body focus and can lose track of their partner.
But a dish without salt can taste flat. Eszter Gál is one example of bringing the right dash of salt to her Contact Improvising. When she dances, the physical forces are at work and our attention is drawn to her body. We can also see her relationship to the edges of the stage, to the negative space between her and her partner, and to us. While connected to the dance she’s having with her partner, Eszter lightly salts the relationship with phrasing, contrasting stillness with motion and playing with tempo and repetition. And her use of space/time awareness often leads to dances that end dynamically with the dancers, the space, and the audience all connected.
Movement that has strong intention and specificity is the clove of garlic that creates imagery and narrative in the mind’s eye of the audience.
Cinzia Gloekler is a dancer skilled at bringing narrative into her improvisation. Though not literal, each motion seems pregnant with meaning. When Cinzia looks into space, whether it’s the space between her and her partner or out past the horizon, the space comes alive because she appears to be really seeing something. Stories are created by the relationship of her hands, which way she faces, her limbs that sometimes seem to have lives of their own, her sudden changes of velocity. I’ve seen her create an instant narrative by simply walking in step with someone, then falling behind, breaking away, or speeding up.
When we are on stage, there are many relationships going on—our relationship to our dance partner, to the audience, to what we are doing, to performing itself. We have feelings about these things. A person who can spice with emotion, or what I call chili pepper, knows how to let their feelings be seen. By revealing what’s going on inside, the power of weather systems move through the performers.
Sabine Fabie and Gretchen Spiro are dancers who include their emotional bodies in their dancing. Their enjoyment of dancing shines on their faces and in their playfulness, and their pleasure is contagious. As their emotions change, the dynamics change—from tender to aggressive, clingy, ecstatic, afraid; the list could go on and on. Their emotions bring power to their dancing.
Including the emotional palette in the dance adds tangible dynamics to the quality of contact. When I’m angry, my hand lands on my partner’s shoulder differently than when I’m feeling bored or playful or fearful. The right amount of chili pepper can make moments more charged and engaging because the audience can feel their own emotional bodies through the dance.
I saw a trio that had a wonderful balance of the physical skills of Contact and spices at CI25, the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of Contact Improvisation at Oberlin College in 1997. This Contact event, with almost 240 Contactors from 19 countries, had a particular but not unusual irony. In the two nights of performances, there were only two pieces that I would call Contact Improvisation. One was Ray and my performance of the Dance On/Dance Off score. The other was a trio with Nancy Stark Smith, Karen Nelson, and Andrew Harwood.
The three entered the stage together and each began to slowly, gently try to be in between the other two. This physical act immediately created a narrative because they each had the same goal, yet it was not possible for them all to succeed at once. Starting with this clear simple task immediately tuned the audience in to their experience and sense of discovery.
They tried sliding in, going in underneath, becoming the trickster by suddenly changing directions to go around and sneak in the other way. And then they began to move away and to jump into the center. Out of this came sudden perches, slides, and carries. Gasps came from the audience as the dancer’s bodies seemed to suspend in the air for longer than was physically possible. There were the unexpected surprises of all three jumping at each other at once, or one being knocked over by the other two. The bodies would keep falling out and the energy would constantly be recycled back into the center. It was like one of them was fuel, one was oxygen, and one was heat; they each kept igniting the others to a hotter flame. The dance built into a fast, risky, airborne, quick fall–quick rise crescendo. And then it ended near its peak.
Their task created two narratives: one filled with humor that made us laugh out loud, the other filled with potential danger that kept us on the edge of our seats. In their lightly spiced, very physical Contact Improvisation, there was a searing beauty that lives in me to this day, as only Contact Improvisation can.
This piece reinforced for me that spices don’t work on their own. One generally does not sit down to eat salt or garlic or chili peppers. But subtly added to the core body state and the pure engagement of Contact Improvisation, the performance can become a feast of the senses and imagination. It’s a big challenge to trust the basic principles of Contact Improvisation when in front of an audience. But dancing in a suitable environment and tuning the dancers with the audience can allow us to do the dance our bodies know. Adding the spice of relationship can bring the dance up to the level of art.
(Endnote: “Cat’s Pause and Bare Feat” was the title of an evening of Contact Improvisation that I did with Riccardo Morrison in 1981)