A flock of contact improvisers walks around the floor en masse, one hand open at their foreheads like helmeted legionnaires. But they move swiftly and smoothly, more like swallows than soldiers, going one way and then suddenly streaming out to the side and going another.
This is a performance at the fourth annual Australian Contact Improvisation Convergence, which took place in the Byron Bay area of New South Wales in June 2008 – 70 dancers from across Australia and New Zealand gathered to rub their bodies against one another in the friendliest manner imaginable.
Described as the dance of natural philosophy, CI – which celebrated its 36th birthday this year – explores spontaneous movement by taking a point of contact with another body (or a physical object such as the floor or the wall) as its starting point for exploration through physical movement. It’s considered a form of dance improvisation and one of the most well-known styles of modern dance.
The Contact Improvisers stand still for 36 minutes, part of the international anniversary celebrations for CI. There is more going on here than meets the eye – a silent meditation and also an awareness exercise on the act of standing still. Known as the Small Dance, the stillness has been a part of CI since its first recognized performance in 1972 at Oberlin College, Ohio. During this piece – called Magnesium – founder Steve Paxton and ten other trained dancers threw themselves at each other through the space and then stood still for several minutes.
CI developed within an institutional context but early on a decision was made by its founders not to codify the form, making it both widely accessible and often misunderstood. The form is not trademarked and there is no certification for teachers.
At its core, CI is about the exploration of movement and its possibilities between two people in physical contact. As a larger movement, though, CI represents a non-hierarchical form of artistic discovery, innovation and improvisational fluidity. Over the last three decades contact communities have transformed and developed alongside the technical aspects of the dance itself – CI is now a social movement as well as a technical form. People can choose to practice CI for its community connection, for its artistic beauty or as a way to simply explore their physicality – it’s practiced by all varieties of dancers and performers as well as therapists.
A group of Contact Improvisers – known as a jam – gathers in a good-sized room with an inviting wooden floor. No one is in charge here, though an individual may ‘hold’ the space, sweep the floor, welcome newcomers and keep an eye out for dangerous behavior. The very structure of the group is a culture jam, with its non-hierarchical model of relationships between the participants. When you retreat to the sidelines you’re still in the jam, witnessing, holding, responding. There can be music; duets and trios of dancers split and merge without pattern, or with a pattern too complex to discern from the floor. Sometimes bodies puddle in the center in an ecstasy of voluptuous touch.
I challenge you to enter any of the hundreds of jam spaces across the globe and not be moved. The ACIC itself is a five-day residential gathering that sets a high standard of Ways to Move Through the World complete with organic, local catering and a respectful use of natural and cultural spaces. Most CI communities or performances operate in much the same way. And yet, leading Australian dancer Jacob Lehrer takes issue with the idea that Contact Improvisation represents a utopian community, as some devotees claim.
“CI is a university-based dance form; people forget that. It’s not for everyone, and the idea that if everyone practiced CI the world would be a better place is rubbish. Serial killers would just be better dancers, that’s all.”
For Lehrer, CI remains a physical practice, with the community a by-product and not its raison d’être. He hurries to explain that those who focus on the emotional and social aspects can be just as rigorous in their approach but justifies his own position by returning to CI’s birthplace in the dance academy. Despite these rationalist objections, however, Lehrer himself is not without contradictions. He is known as a dancer and teacher of Contact Improvisation but claims not to teach CI – the dance is the only teacher.
“It’s the improvisation thing – the not-foreseen, the irreducible. Whatever I say about Contact Improvisation can get blown apart in the dance.”
Perhaps it is this that draws Lehrer back to the contact community, which in Australia is expressed in its fullest form at Byron Bay, in June.
“I go to ACIC so that once a year I can get access to new bodies of knowledge, literal bodies and community bodies. If they dance with me, I get restimulated, agitated.”
Sometimes someone gets hurt. It can get a bit crazy. The dance speeds up and bodies fly through the air – sometimes they come down hard. People get squashed – the air gets pushed out of their lungs and they have to yell for those around them to stop. Others will not even know how to enter, they will wander around the edges of the jam, not knowing how to get in, how to catch a ride, how to offer someone an inviting surface. And when they finally do, they can barely describe the exhilarating feeling of moving in this unthoughtful way. The truth is no one here knows what’s going on – no one is in control. And the consolation is, we’re not alone.