The Vault

Contact Improvisation Classes

By Lucia Walker

 

In Contact Improvisation we work on overcoming the fear and disorientation associated with rolling, falling and jumping; and on allowing duets to develop from sharing weight and points of physical contact. Lifts and falls evolve out of a continuous process of finding and losing balance, of yielding and resisting.

The form encourages a playful state of readiness to respond to each moment and possibility as it happens, and challenges the tendency to stick with preconceived ways of controlling both the flow of movement in the body and our state of mind.

Preparatory work includes exploring and expanding our individual movement skills and opening new possibilities for physical coordination, awareness and energetic responses.

The individual skills, physical characteristics and personality of each partner are brought to the encounter, but the dance is in the discovery of a dynamic that is not controlled by either individual.

For those who work on exploring and applying the principles of the Alexander Technique, and who like to move, Contact Improvisation is an exciting area to test and play with our openness to respond to new and unknown situations. The whole body contact also provides endless opportunities to observe your own habits of tension and timing and when they most commonly occur.

As a participant at the Congress I was keen to share with other Alexander Technique teachers and students some ways of exploring these principles. I led an entirely practical workshop, choosing to spend the whole session moving and playing together and assuming that any discussion would follow at other times. These were ‘taster’ sessions, to introduce some of the possibilities I work with when I teach movement, and to look at how those relate to my Alexander Technique teaching and vice versa.

Led by Steve Paxton, Contact Improvisation was initiated as a movement form in America in the early 70’s. Steve Paxton had trained as a gymnast and then a contemporary dancer, but had begun to be increasingly interested in ‘pedestrian movement’ as a form of theatre. In Contact he began to explore the possibilities of more energetic movement that was not controlled in its range and aesthetics as most dance forms were.

As a dancer I suppose I became self-conscious because I was being trained and then I wanted to find out how to be conscious of myself without being self-conscious about being conscious. … In Contact I guess the highest aesthetic ideal is a totally integrated body. S. P.1

I was first introduced to this form in 1981 and was delighted with the way it was possible to develop awareness and extend the range of movement possibilities in any particular moment. I attended workshops with Steve Paxton and later with Nancy Stark-Smith, another participant of the early explorations in Contact.

Nancy continues to teach, perform, investigate and write about Contact Improvisation. She edits and produces Contact Quarterly (since 1975), her writing, and more centrally her teaching have been a great inspiration to me.

After my initial introduction I began to work, play and later teach with a group of other dancers, participating in intensive workshops when opportunities arose.

Contact is the only technique I’ve come across where the work is really the teacher. J. McD.2

Investigating movement and performance really made me recognise what an essential ‘pre-technique’ the Alexander Technique is for any learning process. And for me it really facilitated my enjoyment, helping me towards a more integrated body, towards increased lightness and strength, towards observation without judgement and towards delight in the unforeseen.

Each time I dance with a partner or group I make discoveries about fixed patterns and ideas and have a really good time. People often ask if dancing in contact with a partner, particularly when the weight giving and bearing are involved, is about learning to trust your partner. I see it as being about trusting yourself, about knowing your limits and reactions so that you remain responsive, safe and stimulated. About being able to learn and extend the limits of your personal possibilities.

You just go on opening up in finer and finer detail and far more attention on a lot of levels. … Maybe you can find some place where, if you wanted not to have a habit, you could have it changed. That to me is what Contact is a tool for. It is to point out things like that and then if you want to change it, or if you want more information about it you can go and get it. S. P.3

The process of improvising, the way the learning opportunities continue endlessly, and the fact that you are not learning ‘how to do’ something, really connect to my learning and teaching of the Alexander Technique. We are not learning a finite selection of ‘good body use’ but a way of approaching things, a way of using conscious choice to reinstate natural coordinations, reflexes and more spontaneous reactions.

For me too, improvisation is a practice in disorientation—training the reflexes to read confusion as a challenge not a threat; that a moment cut loose from its moorings has the advantage of being able to move in any direction... Without the willingness to risk one’s point of view, to be temporarily at a loss, improvising can become a sleepy exercise in restating what’s already perfectly clear. Nancy S-S4

Some Teaching Concerns in Contact Improvisation

The undoing of habitual tension that masks the sensation in the body and interferes with response and recovery mechanisms.

The release of weight. Not in order to experience heaviness, which is how some people seem to interpret that suggestion, but in order that you can let go, that you can be available to move in any direction. Also so that you can experience movement within the body, as well as of the body through space.

Maintaining the freedom of the neck and the release of the head away from the tailbone. This is part of an exploration of how the concept of ‘primary control’ applies when the head neck and back are not in a vertical relationship to each other or the ground.

Connecting to Centre. This refers to the concept of ‘Centre’ as expressed in T’ai chi and Aikido. a point located in the centre of the pelvis seen as a focus and fount of each individual’s energy.

Working with this idea helps the process of accessing strength, speed and energy without undue strain and effort. In fact once again it is about ‘letting go,’ a bit like turning on a tap, the more open the channels are the greater the force released. Allowing the ‘Centre’ to move through the space seems to help us leave the legs alone more, letting them respond to the needs of the movement rather than pushing us around.

In a more directly anatomical sense I focus on the pelvis as an important area in relation to supporting and giving weight, i.e. to lifting someone up or being lifted.

Re-learning to play. To practise being curious, independent and responsive. To make decisions without being committed to pre-judged outcome. To enjoy surprises.

Changing state. How to be committed to an activity and clear about what is happening without holding on to that longer than is appropriate, or leaping towards a pre-decided outcome. How to be willing to change from strength to lightness. From extension to fold. From stillness to movement. From flight to fall.

Content of Congress Presentations

The two sessions I led at the Congress were about an hour long, with around twenty-five people in a hotel room. The small floor area was compensated for by the high ceiling, big windows and the sky blue carpet. In the second session most participants had some experience with movement forms other than Alexander Technique while in the first very few did.

A long-time dance colleague who trained as an Alexander Technique teacher at the same time as me, joined the workshops and we danced together to demonstrate some of the activities we played with. Although most of the learning is focused on experience and sensation, not on imitation of shapes and forms, demonstration can be very helpful. In this context especially, with people whose observation skills are very developed, the qualities and possibilities within a duet were immediately picked up on.

We worked first on the transitions from sitting to lying and on comfortable rolls as preparation for falling. We thought about recognising the journey from on place to another, on staying ‘awake’ through unfamiliar places and positions.

We played with exerting a firm downward pressure on a partner as they moved from lying to standing, looking at how, in the same way that the pull of gravity sends you up, that pressure could energise the bones’ capacity to support and the skeleton’s desire for space. How it could revive an upward intention.

As a group we walked, ran and fell through the space. Everyone is encouraged to move in varying rhythms but at a pace that is both comfortable and interesting.

We moved on to gentle falls towards a partner, finding the ease in mutual support and maintaining that to change positions, to make contact with different parts of the body,

Turning up the volume of energy we tried to maintain that same ease as we pushed and shoved each other across the room. Varying degrees of pressure, and playing with yielding and resisting, we maintained the movement towards the partner.

Only in the first workshop was there time to finish with some more open ended improvisation, with people walking into a circle made by the group, to meet a partner. People were encouraged to allow any of the possibilities that we had worked with to occur and to enjoy any others that might arise.

Participants engaged with the principles very readily and generated plenty of energy, fun and talk. Many expressed the desire to do more of this work. I am continuing with both my individual Alexander teaching and the teaching and practice of movement and Contact Improvisation, finding in both absorbing questions and endless discoveries. 

 FOOTNOTES

1. New Dance magazine, 1977, Jane McDermott interviews Steve Paxton.

2. Ibid.

3. Contact Improvisation by Steve Paxton in Theatre Papers, no. 5, 1981-2.

4. Contact Quarterly, 1985, Editorial by Nancy Stark-Smith.

BIOGRAPHY

Lucia Walker is based in Oxford, England where she works as a dance teacher and performer, as well as teaching the Alexander Technique privately and on teacher training courses. In both areas ease, energy and curiosity are central concerns.

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