Contact improvisation, performer, dance educator and author
Class begins in a pool of metaphor—a fecund pond of skeeters and leaf mush, bottom slime and the sudden undulating tail of a pollywog vanishing into the dark.
The images form a bridge into sensation and movement. Within minutes the room fills with a swirl of moving bodies. The dancers discover an ease—perhaps moving like they have never moved before…
Since 1980, I have performed and taught contact improvisation (CI) dance in thirty-two countries on six continents. Tracking and disseminating regional styles and developments, I have worked in universities, conservatories, local communities, and professional dance companies. Teaching in English and Spanish, I have worked with as many as twelve nationalities at a time.
David Montee, the director of the theater department at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, says of my nine years of residencies with his drama students:
[Martin] is articulate, open, gentle yet challenging, and his humor and love of his work infuses everything he does. … Martin does not simply teach movement techniques and “tricks”—he imparts an entirely new perspective for [the students] on what their bodies are indeed able to achieve. In a wonderfully patient and non-threatening way, Martin teaches fearlessness, an absolutely essential quality for a performing artist.
Working in Different Settings with Diverse Populations
I am privileged to be a Fulbright Senior Specialist. I’m listed in Who’s Who in the World for my contribution to the development of contact improvisation.
My organization, the Dancing Ground, has introduced dance to non-dancers at conferences focusing on mythology, race, and gender. I’ve produced conferences and symposia for groups of 10–1,000 participants with James Hillman, Robert Bly, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Subonfu and Malidoma Somé, Joseph Campbell, Anna Halprin, Gary Snyder, Etheridge Knight, and others.
While dance generally attracts more females than males, one of my significant accomplishments has been introducing dance at conferences and events for men. This has included multicultural men’s conferences that brought together a cross-section of society. Two of these events included teenagers from inner cities and men just released from prison.
Along with residencies at institutions of higher education around the world, I was the first instructor invited to teach contact improvisation at Stanford University and at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (National School of Fine Arts, Mexico). I have been the principal teacher at dance festivals worldwide, and I have been a consultant for Touchdown Dance, an organization that teaches contact improvisation to the visually impaired. (See list of teaching history.)
I am recognized in my field for facilitating contact improvisation teacher conferences. Being a “teacher’s teacher” allows me to gather and disseminate a diversity of viewpoints. This has increased my role as an ambassador as I work with improvisational dance communities. Brenton Cheng, a dancer on the faculty of Moving on Center in Oakland, California, says,
[Martin] shows a courageous willingness to enter unknown territory without pretension or hubris. I witnessed one incident in which he entered a politically charged situation and, with incredible delicacy and compassion, articulated the sense of self-isolation and territorialism that was keeping members of the local artistic community from working effectively with each other, and then helped them begin a process of finding greater trust and cooperation.
My approach to writing and teaching are the same—I trust the body to provide the imagery that viscerally communicates what the body knows.
A few days following 9/11 I traveled by train from Boston to teach in Washington, D.C. Experiencing first hand the holes in the New York City skyline and the Pentagon infused me with the desire to create something tangible that would outlive me. A year later I self-published The Art of Waiting: Essays on Contact Improvisation.
My essays appear regularly in the principal academic journal for improvisational dance, Contact Quarterly: A Vehicle for Moving Ideas. My writings have been translated into nine languages. I have published in Pritazhenie (Gravity), Russia; and regularly in the Australian dance journal, Proximity. (See list of publications.)
My books include: Hope Beneath Our Feet: Restoring Our Place in the Natural World (2010), published by North Atlantic Press; As Much Time as it Takes: a Guide for the Bereaved, Their Family and Friends (2005); and a section in Contact Improvisation: An Introduction to a Vitalizing Dance Form (2006), by Cheryl Pallant.
A Brief Chronology of Influences and Achievements
I was born in 1958 into three generations of professional puppeteers and dancers. My father danced with the American Ballet Theater and my mother with the Royal Canadian Ballet. Both pioneered the use of puppets in children’s television in Canada.
In 1968 my family moved to Mexico, and in 1974 I moved to the USA—my bones are Canadian, my blood Mexican, and my muscles are American.
At age fifteen, as an alternative to formal education, I initiated apprenticeships with architects, artists, theater directors, and my family. The following year, I became lead puppeteer for La Farandula, a mime and puppet company that toured central Mexico.
As a student at Stanford University in the mid-1970s, I became involved with Columbae, an organization that advocated social change through nonviolent action. A performance group I cofounded there employed physical theater to educate the students and faculty about the university’s investments in apartheid South Africa.
After Stanford, I became a “Roads Scholar” and hitchhiked 24,500 miles crisscrossing North America. These travels culminated with an overseas trip to spend time in Buddhist monasteries in Japan and Korea. In 1979 I was ordained as a Dharma teacher in the Chogye school of Zen Buddhism. For a brief time I was the director of the Empty Gate Zen Center in Berkeley, California.
1980 was the turning point in my life: I began dancing—and then teaching and performing—contact improvisation. The diverse strands of my life coalesced into this form of dance; I was home.
My greatest sense of accomplishment comes from seeing students increase their capacity for sensation and risk—seeing them dance less with their “ideal” and more with their partner—and the profound gratification of introducing contact improvisation to those who then realize they have found the dance form they were seeking all their lives.
Contact improvisation has no steps—it is a dance form based in curiosity. I attempt to teach and model that the beauty and reach of our questions, in the end, determine the beauty and reach of our lives.