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What is contact improvisation?

Definition of Contact Improvisation

Contact Improvisation (CI) is a dance where two (or more) partners have a spontaneous and non-verbal body dialogue playing with gravity, inertia, using each other as a support and finding inspiration from a touch to improvise and create. It prepares and tunes the bodies of the dancers to show maximum freedom and abandon, opening oneself for emotional interaction and revealing the natural beauty of a personality, remaining safe. Some researchers point out Ensemble thinking, a system of special exercises, skills and rules that tunes in the attention of the dancers (or actors, in the context of a theater) with the environment and develops the sense of composition giving the group a chance to improvise together.

This new art appeared in 1972 and became popular on the eve of the new millennium thanks to the increasing interest of the mankind to becoming aware of all the aspects of life, perceiving the depths and fundamentals of being, of one’s true self, and improving it. We can even talk about Contact Culture.

Contact Improvisation: a diverse phenomenon

Contact Improvisation is a diverse phenomenon that has the features of performance (that stands at the crossroads of theater and dance) and, if we simplify it a little, of an artistic sport. It has its healthy aspect, if used as a dance therapy. It can also be identified as a communicative practice - which brings it close to psychotherapy. This explains why CI is a social phenomenon and, apparently, an important one.

In spite of (or, rather, thanks to) its seeming eclectics and easiness, the future is with CI, and it is only too bad that the echo of this ‘humane’ phenomenon had not reached Russia before. But it might be that this human touch is so difficult to find now, when the world is perplexedly apprehending a new World War. In a state of confusion, people really need to see and demonstrate positive examples of healthy interaction and cooperation, and friendliness to each other.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CI

In January 1972, during Grand Union, a conference in Oberlin College, Steve Paxton, a Judson Church Theater dancer (New York), who had worked with Merce Cunningham, one of the best known modern dance choreographers, showed a 10 min piece where he and a group of 11 dancers were stumbling, wallowing, jumping and throwing each other. The piece was called "Magnesium".

In June 1972, Steve gathered the 15 best male and female athletes to study with him for 1-2 years exploring the principles and possibilities of communication revealed in "Magnesium". The first week was full of rehearsals. During the second week, they presented their working process in public at John Weber’s Gallery in NYC for 5 hours per day.

We should mention that a lot of ideas were there before: Steve Paxton used Release technique, aikido and some other methods in his teaching. Besides, new exercises were found to develop senses connected with flights, lifts and skills of mastering these extreme forms. The necessary physical force was found through "correct", i.e. the basic reflexes that had to do more with the inner sensations than the external form. There circumstances were contradicting a pre-learnt movement technique. It was an idea for at least two people. It was neither a fight, nor sex or ballroom dance, although it contained the elements of all the three. This work was a research of the possibilities of fusing with another body remaining here and now, under constantly changing external conditions. This research resulted in a new technical approach that requires working with both a physical body and thinking and imagination, with kinetic images that match the movement and are accepted by the body. This kind of work needed a proper name to be referred to without undesirable parallels. The new form was called CONTACT IMPROVISATION.

In early 1973, Steve Paxton, Kurt Siddal, Nancy Stark Smith, Nita Little and Karen Radler toured the West Coast doing CI master classes  and organizing unconventional performances without music, special lighting or costumes, with the audience around the dancing solos, duos and trios. Hundreds of other individuals and groups then entered the never-ending dialogue about developing contact improvisation.