Characteristics of Contact Improvisation
Contact improvisation (sometimes abbreviated CI) is a dance form based on improvisation and contact. It focuses on exploring the possibilities for movement that arise from the physical encounter between two bodies. In essence, contact improvisation is a duet-like dance form in which dance is built on a dialogue of sharing the body’s weight, balance, reflexes and impulses between two moving people.
Contact improvisation is a spontaneous physical dialogue, often without music. The dancers’ movement is in relation to physical laws such as gravity, momentum and friction, as the dancer learns through contact improvisation the appropriate relaxation of movement. To experience a natural flow of movement the dancer has to let go of any excessive will. The exploration of movement in contact improvisation is therefore more about falling than about remaining in a static balance or posture. Sometimes the dance is wild and athletic and sometimes quiet and meditative, depending on the dancers’ dynamics. Movement sensitivity develops in fast-paced dances, where reliance on the other’s survival and survival reflexes increases. While contact improvisation is often a free play with balance, it is also an endless exploration of kinaesthetic possibilities in contact with another person.
Sometimes contact improvisation appears as an acrobatic dance, but unlike in acrobatics, the improvisers rarely seek a particular form, alignment or trick. However, practice can include experimenting with specific ways of moving, such as rolling, twisting, tumbling, being upside down, following a point of contact, supporting the weight of another body and letting the weight of one’s own body be supported by a dance partner. The exercises have certain similarities with aikido, where working with a partner and training safely are important elements.
Contact improvisers surrender to each other’s pace of movement, and dance is more about sensing and surrendering to the movement of the other than resisting the weight of that body, as for instance in wrestling. Rather than manipulating the other dancer, contact improvisers use their arms, for example, to support and follow the other’s movement. However, each dancer takes care of themselves while dancing contact improvisation and maintaining the connection with the other.
The practice of improvisation thus involves practices and concepts of freedom, responsibility and making choices. The dancer’s personal experience plays a role in this kinetic process of choice. At the same time, anticipation of the other and realising movement in improvisation express an embodied understanding of the other. Contact improvisation is a momentary, changing, sensitive and vulnerable event linked to time, place and people. It is a constant introspection of choices made through dance.
Kirsi Heimonen writes in her doctoral thesis how contact improvisation focuses on touch, creating possibilities for moving together. Heimonen describes how touch generates movement material and the mover cannot know in advance where the movement will lead. In this way, touch is given space and time and permission to lead the movement.
Contact improvisation is therefore a kind of improvisational structure in which the dancer has a constant possibility of choice during the dance. Dancers can influence the nature of the improvisation, for example by changing the intensity of the touch or the direction of the movement. In contact improvisation, bodily perception and the process of thought in movement is a historically and culturally evolved thinking in movement.
On the Origins of Contact Improvisation
The development of contact improvisation is considered to have begun in 1972 under the direction of choreographer Steve Paxton in the United States. Paxton began dancing after training in gymnastics and martial arts (aikido, tai chi), yoga and meditation. In the early 1960s he danced with both José Limón’s and Merce Cunningham’s dance companies. He was also one of the founding members of the Judson Dance Theater (1962–64) and was active in contemporary efforts to reflect on what kind of movement could be material for dance. For instance Paxton danced in Yvonne Rainer’s work Continuous Project – Altered Daily (1969); during the process of creating it, the group questioned the leadership and eventually shared leadership collectively. It was productions such as this that led to the formation of the Grand Union dance and improvisation group, whose members included Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, David Gordon, Trisha Brown, Barbara Dilley, Douglas Dunn and Nancy Green.
In 1972, during Grand Union’s month-long visit to Oberlin College in Ohio, Paxton created a work for a group of men, Magnesium, that explored the extremes of direction and disorientation. He later continued to develop Magnesium in New York, inviting Nancy Stark Smith, Curt Siddall, Daniel Lepkoff, David Woodberry, Nita Little, Laura Chapman and others to join the process. After a week of rehearsal, the piece was performed at the John Weber Gallery for five hours. The piece was advertised with a note written inside a Chinese fortune cookie: “Come to John Weber Gallery – contact improvisations.”
In the early 1970s, when contact improvisation was born, performances were not based on narrative or only one kind of aesthetic, but on the idea that ”[y]ou come. We’ll show you what we do.” This says a lot about the values of the form. The aim of the performances was to dance in the same way as in rehearsals. The event often lasted several hours, and the audience was free to come and go as they pleased. There was no special lighting, music or costumes, and the venue was often a gallery, school or other small performance space with a wrestling mat on the floor.
The name contact improvisation was coined to describe the exercises and physical experiments that Paxton created with his colleagues and students. The original name, “art sport,” also reflects its early aspirations:
I have always experienced when we were doing performances in the beginning that it was creating a phenomena to people to witness rather than performance of an image to see. There was more of a process of phenomena to check out, art phenomena and movement phenomena where it was that this word art sport came up. Simone Forti mentioned in early on that it looked like an art sport and that was really great, because it allowed us to go around the question if this is dance or not.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, several groups based on contact improvisation emerged in the United States – including Mangrove, Contactworks, Catpoto, Fulcrum and Freelance – and each group brought new perspectives to the development of contact improvisation. Especially in the early days of the form, contact improvisation radically changed the culture of dance-making. Performances were done collectively, women also lifted men into the air, and men explored sensual contact with each other. In contrast, movement vocabulary consisted of falling and moving on the floor. Nancy Stark Smith, a dancer in Steve Paxton’s work and one of the most influential developers of contact improvisation, describes how “dancing sometimes seemed uncontrollable.”
Openness and Community in Contact Improvisation
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the idea of a wise and responsive body prevailed in the United States, not only in dance and theatre, but also in various forms of therapy and sport, and Cynthia Novack sees the development of contact improvisation as part of this historical, social and cultural context. In her book Sharing the Dance, Novack explores the relationship of contact improvisation dancers to issues such as sexuality, spontaneity and gender roles. Contact improvisation includes elements of social dance, sports and martial arts, as well as personal intimate experiences.
As early as the 1970s, Steve Paxton combined contact improvisation with philosophical goals in pursuit of a way of life in which community and relationships would be integrated with art. For Paxton, contact improvisation has been an important positive environment to explore, reflect, test and engage in a dance form that is self-directed. Contact improvisation is practised by people with whom, according to Paxton, one can experiment, explore movement, create material and create dance. Paxton mentions contact improvisation as a kind of dance generator. There is no teacher training or certification in contact improvisation. Anyone can teach contact improvisation and create their own curriculum and core elements that they feel are important technical skills. This was a conscious choice that Steve Paxton made early on. He did not want to create a Paxton technique, for example, but wanted to preserve the character of improvisation in the teaching of contact improvisation. Thus, contact improvisation is a very pragmatic, practice-oriented way of dancing. Paxton wanted it to be self-directed.
A special feature of contact improvisation is that most of the practice takes place in open jams, which anyone can participate in. At jams, in addition to dancing, you can watch other people improvise and meet friends. Sociality and community are a big part of the contact improvisation culture. In traditional couple dances, the man leads the woman, but in contact improvisation there are no rules about who leads whom. In this sense, there is no gender hierarchy in contact improvisation.
The practice of contact improvisation is a process; it is never finished. The development of the form has been strongly influenced by Steve Paxton’s reluctance to own contact improvisation and to control its definition:
I think when things become institutionalized, they absolutely lose the essence that we’re talking about. I think to recognize contact improvisation as a therapy, to enter that whole chain of events, would be, in fact, to have to describe it, to bring it into words, and to get it generally agreed as to what we’re talking about – in other words, to have it leave the improvisational realm and become composed, something for which you could get a paper from an institution.
Paxton’s comment is extremely important for the development of contact improvisation. If contact improvisation is defined as something, it simultaneously escapes the grip and loses the essence of improvisation. Contact improvisation is said to contain a hidden anarchy.
Contact improvisation is also often used as part of the choreographic process in contemporary dance. The movement material freely produced by the dancers is interesting, and contact improvisation often has a community-building effect on the group. Group improvisation may seem random, but in reality it involves a huge amount of awareness of other dancers and the surrounding space. Together, all the dancers are able to sense when one of the dancers is moving, in what direction, at what speed or energy, and they can all adapt to the situation. Group improvisation based on doing, perceiving and feeling could also be called choreography of identification or empathic choreography.
1 Koteen & Stark Smith 2008, 11.
2 Chung 2011
3 Novack 1990, 8.
4 Paxton 2011.
5 My dissertation (Mäkinen 2018) deals with the values of contact improvisation in the framework of somaesthetic performance. The dissertation is based on interviews with dancers and my own artistic work. In 2010–2013, I interviewed nine key representatives of contact improvisation: Alito Alessi (USA), Stephen Batts (Northern Ireland), Ray Chung (USA), Frey Faust (USA/Germany), Joerg Hassmann (Germany), Keith Hennessy (USA), Steve Paxton (USA), Nancy Stark Smith (USA) and Carol Swann (USA). In the interviews, I asked about the values identified by the contact improvisers from the perspectives of technique, performance and personal experience. The interviews cited in this article are part of the dissertation research.
6 Swann 2010.
7 Heimonen 2009, 199.
8 Stark Smith 2006, 326.
9 Choreographer Merce Cunningham’s company included Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, David Gordon, Deborah Hay and Lucinda Childs. They are all dance artists who have been influenced by Cunningham’s work and who have pushed themselves – admiring or criticising their teacher – to create their own kind of dance. Heimonen 2009, 19.
10 Koteen & Stark Smith 2008, 318–320
11 Magnesium is the first performance and video recording of a contact improvisation. Steve Paxton describes how he first worked on a solo piece for himself and wondered if he could throw himself into the air and not care which way he landed. Paxton also wanted to see if he could teach this material to other dancers, and says he learned a huge amount from the process, as he had to be vigilant at all times to avoid hurting himself or others. Paxton 2009, 11–15.
12 Koteen & Stark Smith 2008, 318–320.
13 Novack 1990, 63.
14 Novack 1990, 63–84.
15 Novack 1990, 3–5.
16 Art Sport was the official name for contact improvisation in the early 1970s. The name was given by Simone Forti.
17 Stark Smith 2011.
18 Koteen & Stark Smith 2008, 322.
19 Novack 1990, 8.
20 Paxton 2012.
21 Paxton 2011.
22 Koteen & Stark Smith 2008, 323.
23 Paxton 2011.
24 Paxton 2009, 15.
25 Mäkinen 2018.
26 Ribeiro & Fonseca 2011.
Chungin, Ray. 2011. Interview with Mirva Mäkinen. Kiev, Ukraine.
Goldman, Danielle. 2010. I Want to Be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom. University of Michigan Press.
Heimonen, Kirsi. 2009. Sukellus liikkeeseen – liikeimprovisaatio tanssimisen ja kirjoittamisen lähteenä. Dissertation. Acta Scenica 24. Helsinki: Teatterikorkeakoulu. https://actascenica.teak.fi/kirsi-heimonen-2009/.
Hennessy, Keith. 2016. Ambivalent norms, radical potential: contact improvisation re-considered. Dissertation. California: University of California, Davis.
Koteen, David & Stark Smith, Nancy. 2008. Caught Falling: the confluence of contact improvisation, Nancy Stark Smith, and other moving ideas. Northampton, MA: Contact Editions.
Little, Nita. 2014. “Restructuring the self-sensing: Attention training in contact improvisation.” Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices 6(2): 247–260.
Midgelow, Vida (ed.) 2019. The Oxford Handbook of Improvisation in Dance. Oxford University Press.
Mitra, Royona. 2018. “Talking Politics of Contact Improvisation with Steve Paxton.” Dance Research Journal 50(3): 6–18.
Mäkinen, Mirva. 2018. Taiteellinen tutkimus kontakti-improvisaation arvoista somaesteettisen esityksen kehyksessä. Dissertation. Acta Scenica 53. Helsinki: Taideyliopiston Teatterikorkeakoulu. https://actascenica.teak.fi/makinen-mirva/
Novack, Cynthia J. 1990. Sharing the dance. Contact improvisation and American culture. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.
Paxton, Steve. 2009. “Excerpts from Steve Paxton’s talk at CI36.” Transcribed by Josphina Fredericks and Kelley Mariani. Contact Quarterly 34(1): 11–15.
Paxton, Steve. 2011. Interview with Mirva Mäkinen. Oregon, USA.
Paxton, Steve. 2012. Material for the spine. Video. youtu.be/h4JcXB04UOg.
Ribeiro, Monica & Fonseca, Agar. 2011. “The empathy and the structuring sharing modes of movement sequences in the improvisation of contemporary dance.” Research in Dance Education 12(2): 71–85.
Rustad, Hilde. 2019. “Contact Improvisation and Dance Narratives: Body Memory and Embodied Knowledge.” På Spissen forskning / Dance Articulated, Special Issue Bodily Learning 2019 (2): 27–45.
Stark Smith, Nancy. 2006. “Harvest: one history of contact improvisation.” Contact Quarterly 31(2): 46–54.
Stark Smith, Nancy. 2011. Interview with Mirva Mäkinen. Northampton, USA.
Swann, Carol. 2010. Interview with Mirva Mäkinen. Helsinki, Finland.
Yohalem, Hannah. 2018. “Displacing Vision: Contact Improvisation, Anarchy, and Empathy.” Dance Research Journal 50(2): 45–61.
Mirva Mäkinen received her artistic doctorate in dance in 2018 entitled Artistic research on the values of contact improvisation in the framework of somaesthetic performance. She has been a dance teacher at Kallio High School since 2000 and has taught dance in 40 countries. Mäkinen has choreographed works for Zodiak – Centre for New Dance, Helsinki City Theatre, Ryhmäteatteri, Tampere Workers’ Theatre, and in the independent field. She has worked as a dancer in the Karttunen Kollektiv group, in works by Valtteri Raekallio, Joona Halonen and Mikko Orpana, Circo Aereo, EchoEcho dance group and in collaborative productions with Frey Faust.