Contact Improvisation – Some Reflections - International Academy for Deep Transformation

Contact Improvisation – Some Reflections

and striding            
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,                
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend

– Gerard Manley Hopkins

Although I first heard of Contact Improvisation (CI) in the 1970s, and experienced some distant echoes of it – basically shared as a simple following a point of contact between the index fingers of two people – I didn’t have much actual contact, so to speak, with CI until observing it on the fringes of a series of conferences on ‘Science and Non-Duality’ in the Bay Area a few years ago..

Real involvement for me began with workshops and a CI festival held in Bali, in March-April 2014. The festival was a revelation because, not only did different teachers bring different flavours, but practitioners from different backgrounds also interacted with each other through quite diverse styles in the same workshop.

Later, when I observed, on two separate occasions, a CI facilitator opining to another: ‘What you do isn’t really Contact Improvisation’, I began to wonder what exactly makes Contact Improvisation, Contact Improvisation? And what does it mean to me?

Four Facets of Contact Improvisation

Reflecting on the different styles I had observed, I felt they grouped around four main emphases, according to whether the facilitator or participants favoured what we might loosely term:

  • Aesthetics (dance),
  • Gymnastics (athleticism)
  • Theatrics (ludic, playful, dramatic)
  • Proxemics/Haptics (physical contact, closeness, and intimacy)

4Styles.jpg

Some of these differences of emphasis arise from the background of the founders of Contact in the 1970s. For instance, Steve Paxton and Nancy Stark Smith themselves straddled the worlds of gymnastics and dance.

In effect, Contact owes something to all these four elements, and although one or more of them can become foregrounded at any time, I feel that Contact Improvisation loses something if any one of them is either present to excess or completely missing.

 

For iAesthsmall.jpgnstance, if Aesthetics are emphasized too much, it can mean that dance and performance are highlighted in a way that is exclusive and can lead to a kind of Narcissistic artistry without connection.

On the other hand, the lack or absence of aesthetics can result in a form of movement that is boring, brutal, functional, or just plain clumsy.

 

 

 

 

If the ContaGym.jpgct veers excessively towards Gymnastics, we can have a style of movement that is leaning towards athleticism and technique, becoming soulless, sweaty, and rather mental. Prowess and endurance chase away beauty.

In contrast, when the gymnastic edge disappears, we can have movement with a restricted range and an impoverished use of the possibilities of the body and of space. Consciousness becomes cramped and the movement potentially dampened down and joyless.

 

 Dram2.jpg

Where there is an excess of Theatrics, the practice can become excessively ludic, not so much childlike, as childish, and the movement again impoverished, mental, devoid of ecstasy and delight in the freedom and beauty of the body.

On the other hand, a lack or absence of Theatrics can mean the dance becomes excessively serious, losing its lightness and playfulness, displacing mind and the more expressive parts of the personality altogether in a more beauty or body-oriented encounter.

 

 

Proxemics and Haptics denote the nature and quality of physical closeness and touch. It is the prominence of physical interaction that gives CI the ‘Contact’ part of its name.

Proxemics and Haptics imply not only the degree of physical proximity and interplay, but its nature and quality. Not only how close we are physically and whether (or how) our bodies are touching, but the nature and quality of that closeness and touch. How close are we, both in the physical and metaphorical sense? How do we touch each other, both body to body, but also how much do we touch each other, person to person?

Proxemics and Haptics Relat.jpgthat reflect a high degree of physical intimacy can mean that the Contact slides towards a kind of grope or pick-up opportunity. The full celebration of the body can be lost in the restricted range of a sensual clinch with virtual strangers in which dance and movement are almost forgotten.

From the other side, where the Proxemics and Haptics among dance partners become excessively distant or detached, movement can become mechanical, impersonal, and disconnected, while relationships lack sensitivity, warmth, sensuality, passion, and intimacy.

It strikes me that we all have tendencies to excess in one or more of the four styles or facets of CI. We all have one or more areas where we are typically much less at home. We each have our typical mix of tendencies and preferences.

Moving out of our usual biases can be particularly rich and, for me, is one of the gifts of CI. I find the dance fuller when it allows ample space for all four flavours or styles to come in and out of focus and mix in new ways. Moving with different partners stimulates fresh possibilities, as the interaction with the other challenges habit and invites new combinations and flavours to emerge in the space between us.

 

I very much enjoy the way Contact Improvisation embraces these modes and styles, owes something to all of them, and leans now in one direction, now in another, without becoming excessively anchored in any of them. For me it is rather satisfying that Contact includes and transcends them all, owing something to each without defining itself definitively in any one of its flavours.

These thoughts brought me closer to the heart of the questions I was asking about Contact Improvisation. What is it really? What is its essence? What attracts people to it and what does it really offer?

Perhaps, as I reflected on the fluid interplay of the four facets of CI, it is the ‘Improvisation’ part of CI that makes their mix so magical.

 

Improvisation and Contact Improv

In a way, Improvisation provides a ‘fifth element’, at the centre of the mandala of the four styles of CI. Improvisation makes CI more than the sum of any ones of its parts and allows them to meet and merge in delightful and interesting ways.

Improvisation happens at the edge of Awareness, both arising from it, bubbling up within it, while also enlivening it. When we improvise, we surrender a good portion of our habitual control. Staying present in a spirit of Not-Knowing, we receive what emerges at the edge of Awareness and respond innocently to it.

Improvisation allows a great flowering and richness as the four facets of CI miraculously recombine in ways that we would not have imagined or anticipated.

For instance, Aesthetics and close Proxemics/Haptics can join to make dancing that is both beautiful and sensual, passionate and creative, while Aesthetics and Gymnastics make for a dance that celebrates body and space, in way that is vigorous and daring, graceful and liberating. Theatrics appears as playfulness colouring both Aesthetics and Gymnastics. And so on.

And all this freshness has a way of taking off and taking us – but only when we let go and truly transcend the hackneyed habits of thought and movement. And that is the challenge of Improvisation. How can we really let go of habitual responses and allow that which is fresh and original, perhaps astonishingly never encountered before, yet happening quite spontaneously, beautifully and surprisingly, with all the shock and joy of the new, to arise?

When we are able to let go of our usual patterns, and allow the spirit of Improvisation to take us fully, we open the door to an extraordinarily heightened and ecstatic encounter between being and becoming in the dance. Through Improvisation we are astonished to meet the New in the Now.

 

Relationship and Definition of Contact Improvisation

Fortunately, this meeting of the New and the Now is not only dependent on our relationship with ourselves. Improvisation can also flourish relationally, where a joint commitment to let go and receive the New in the Now, may sometimes more easily bump us out of habits than moving alone. Full Improvisation, taking us beyond our clichés, is at once intrapersonal, arising within ourselves, and interpersonal, happening in the space between us, connecting me and you.

Improvisation can help us nudge each other out of old ruts taking us suddenly out of the familiar into the unexplored and undiscovered. When this happens, it feels as if we encounter a quality or field beyond our separateness, something transpersonal that embraces and infuses us both.

 

As such, we might define CI as a systemic and embodied presence to an innocently unfolding relationship, normally through a shifting point or points of physical contact, with at least one other, in which there is a heightened sensitivity to space, and, within space, to the inspired interplay through movement, touch, and feeling of the living energy within and between each other.

In other words, at best, Contact Improvisation involves being present to an unfolding relationship, with at least one other person, in which, connecting and interacting physically in space, without planning or expectation, we surrender something of our habitual sense of separateness and control in an energetic and aesthetic encounter that enlivens a shared field where self-boundaries soften. In this enlivened field there is a beautiful and blissful sense of being neither one with the other nor separate from them, but in between and both.

 

We can represent this summation of CI as a triangle with three apexes: Relationship, Space, and Energy. And at the centre is Innocent Awareness or Presence. These elements, for me, sum up the full range of CI from its subtle essence to its rich and embodied sensual expression on the dance floor.

In and through a Relationship with at least one other during CI, we activate, enter, and explore a kind of field, where we are neither two, nor one. In this Non-Dual field, we interact Energetically with each other, through inner and outer feeling and weighted touch within the subtle organizing intelligence of Space that we shape and sculpt, while being moulded and held by it. And connecting and containing these three elements of the process is our Innocent Awareness or Relational Presence, which is the embracing reflector of the unfolding (improvised) interplay of these three fundamental elements of the dance: Relationship, Space, and Energy.

UnfoldingthruCI.jpg

From Relational Presence to Living Awareness

At best, in Contact Improvisation, we are fully Present to these three elements, shifting among them, balancing and including them. We are focused and sensitive to the quality of relationship. At the same time, we give in to the possibilities of embracing and inhabiting our space. And we also exchange and awaken to the passion and promise of unfolding energy in and through the body. When this happens, we enter a delightful sense of both dancing and being danced in an ecstatic encounter. In this encounter, we blissfully touch another’s essence and are touched by theirs, in a way that nourishes and expands individuality, while transcending it in something extraordinarily beautiful and great beyond both.

When this happens, it moves me enormously, enlivening a sense of being closer to my true nature and the great beauty and harmony of all that is. I feel bliss, gratitude, and a sense of the grace and holiness of life’s core. I think, ultimately, that is what CI gives me and how it nourishes me and, quite likely, those who share the space with me.

In effect, CI, through its three elements and four facets, opens wide a great portal to a direct sense of embodied awakening. It is that embodied awakening, or what I have long termed ‘Living Awareness‘, which life’s journey patiently and persistently draws us towards. I am deeply grateful for that opening to Living Awareness. And I deeply grateful to those who have carried and shared the flame of this extraordinary creative impulse from the radical demotic experimentation in the margins of the performing arts of the 1970s.

Peter Wrycza, PhD, Sidemen, Bali, April-October, 2015

 

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Annalisa Adelberg who stimulated my interest in subtle interpersonal energetics and re-introduced me to CI on the margins of conferences on Science and Non-Duality in California

To Rolf Gibbs for providing a regular, safe, and warm context in Ubud, Bali, to develop that interest

To Inna Pavlichuk, Sasha Bezrodnova, Alex Postnikov, and the many teachers and participants of the 2014 Indonesia Contact Journey who showed me the range and variety of approaches to CI

To Angela Doniy for giving me a sense of CI as a Way of unfolding presence and awareness as we move through life

To Stephen Batts for wordscaping the way Zero can infuse performance to illumine ‘the dearest freshness deep down things’

To Irina Sbaglia and Jonathan Magaw for their generous feedback and sharing

And lastly to Olga Berdikayan for the photos depicting the four flavours of CI