Experiencing the Body

Most dance forms are predicated on the notion of fluid control; while they may appear to be unbounded, they are in fact the product of long hours of rigorous rehearsal. In essence, while the dancers give the impression of moving unconstrained by organization, they in fact have command over even the most minute physical gesture, each one of their movements having been built upon ingrained technique and intensely thorough training. The original aim of contact improvisation was to give birth to a form that was both practiced and performed without a predetermined map—to allow for improvisatory moments in space unfettered by common opinions of what dance and movement should be. What emerged was a form that challenged notions of performativity and control, and which could be used both in performance and as an exploratory process in and of itself.
Improvisation in history has rarely appeared in performance settings, and in America has most often been used as the means to an end, rather than the end itself. Especially in dance, unrehearsed movement appears to indicate a lack of mastery over the form. As Cynthia Novak writes in Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture, “disorientation in American social behavior is usually interpreted as a sign of mental instability, and lack of physical control is generally thought of as a sign of injury, illness, or intoxication.” She elaborates: “contact improvisation is virtually the only contemporary American theatre dance form that emphasizes the wildness and awkwardness of falling, relying on conditioned or reflexive controls and strategies rather than on choreographed movement” (151). There is potential danger there—as there would be with anything in which so much trust is involved. But there also seems to be a misconception that contact improvisation is completely uncontrolled. In fact, contact improvisers learn and practice a range of movements including falling, leaning, supporting weight, and being supported. Contact improvisation necessitates a familiarity with a certain set of techniques, even though those techniques are founded upon the absence of choreographed movement. But above all it emphasizes a fluidity of focus, an acknowledgement of the possibilities of a moment, and an acceptance of the ways various and disparate bodies move through space.
The inherent danger in contact improvisation originates from both the risk of complete physical trust in another person and the highly politically and socially charged implications of one body being so physically intimate with another body in an un-choreographed performance setting. I like Novack’s observation that “Contact improvisation, which posits as its central technique the physical encounter between two bodies considered as weight and mass, usually conveys sensuality. But its construction of the body as not gendered enables perception of interactions as not sexual” (163). Alternatively, many other highly historically and politically choreographed dance forms such as ballet “incorporate social and emotional gesture . . . concerning love and desire” (163), and therefore appear to be more emotional and sensual in nature.
This contradiction is part of what makes contact improvisation such a fascinating societal and artistic experiment; in its inception, no one had any conception of the kind of reaction it would provoke or the body of work it would produce. Its new approach to the body in space allowed for something previously missing from the professional dance world: an open inquiry into both individual and collaborative physical ability and the possibilities that just might lie in trusting the moment completely.


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