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by Steve Paxton

First published in Contact Quarterly Fall 88.

When an apple fell on his head, Isaac Newton was inspired to describe his three laws of motion. These became the foundation of our ideas about physics. Being essentially objective, Newton ignored what it feels like to be the apple.

When we get our mass in motion, we rise above the constant call of gravity toward the swinging, circling invitation of centrifugal force. Dancers ride and play these forces. Beyond Newton’s third law, we discover that for every action several equal and opposite reactions are possible. Therein lies an opportunity for improvisation.

We are looking at performance of Contact Improvisation, a duet movement form. This tape takes a sweeping look over 11 years of practice by Nancy Stark Smith, from her first exposure to the form I was working on when it was new in 1972, through moments chosen from consecutive years of performing with me, Steve Paxton, and with others.

Nancy solos by testing her movement, playing with gravity and the floor, which are, in this work, not taken for granted, but are considered constant partners. She doesn’t direct herself—she starts moving and then lets it happen, finding ways to cope with momentum and gravity.

Here, in 1976, Nancy and her partner Curt Siddall move to follow the point of touch as it moves—a basic focus for their improvisation. In the play of moving and being moved, specific movements are unpredictable, but they occur within a knowable field—of gravity, centrifugal force, support and dependency.

Human touch unites the forces which act upon the body with the sensations they provoke within the body. This interaction makes it possible to keep all the parts of both their bodies harmonizing.

They were not so adventurous 4 years earlier. In this first performance of Contact Improvisation, they were getting used to moving by touch. By feeling their way, they brought back clues about the form and about themselves and their perceptions.

The performance which attracted Nancy to this form was a high energy study called Magnesium. I made Magnesium for a group of men at Oberlin College in 1972. It investigated the reflexive quality of touch with momentum, falling, rolling and colliding.

Magnesium ends with five minutes of standing, to draw a great distinction in the scale of movement.

Standing still is not actually “still.” Balancing on two legs demonstrates to the dancer’s body that one moves with gravity, always. Observing the constant adjustments the body makes to keep from falling calms the whole being. It is a meditation. It is watching the reflexes at work, knowing they are subtle and dependable—not just emergency measures.

Standing became one of our disciplines, keeping the mind attentive to the body’s present moment. This simple practice was preparation for the complex interactions that would arise with a partner. As were the throwing and catching practices that called for instant response, introducing ourselves to adrenalized states.

At first, there seemed to be only two options—trying to follow the flow of communication or resisting it. Each dance is a series of on-the-spot decisions. And they are on the spot. The soft skin is alert to the points of contact, signals telling the dancers where they are, orienting them to their partner and the floor.

Their perceptions are stretching. They are adrenalized. Inside their minds, the many touch events and constantly changing relationships blend into a continuity of moving masses which creates a logic reached only in the heat of the dance. A logic as secure as that found when standing alone and watching the reflexive dance of one’s bones.

Higher momentum brings new areas of risk. In order to develop this aspect of the form we had to be able to survive it. The support needed from the unconscious reflexive parts of the brain is more present when the conscious mind is not afraid. The calmness of standing is extended into the fall.

There are hazards. One of them is thinking ahead. What the body can do to survive is much faster than thought.

It is useful to re-train the reflexes to extend the limbs rather than contract them during a fall. During this very disorienting fall, Nancy’s arms manage to cradle her back, and this spreads the impact onto a greater area. And she doesn’t stop moving. That helps to disperse the impact over a slightly longer time. She doesn’t seem bothered.

Taking a brief scan through time, we begin with the first duet in which I danced fast with Nancy, dancing with abandon and thrust to get into momentum. It seems rough and disorienting for her, but she was up for it.

One year later, the sensation of movement was more continuous, the flow of movement longer. There was more time to feel what was happening.

While in contact, we attend to our own reflexes, which have been stimulated by the other’s movements. Our reflexes move us, and this causes our partner to move. This cycle of movement responses is continuous and forms the basis of the dialogue.

When physical safety could be assumed at a more instinctive level, we were free to play with time and the subtleties of touch. Phrases of movement could be extended indefinitely when we no longer needed to stop and check our situation.

By 1978 we had examined the timing of the body on its own for six years, and began searching for ways to change our habitual patterns. Using music was one of these ways. For this performance, Collin Walcott played, incorporating the random sounds of our movement into his drumming. We danced to his rhythm and he played to ours.

During periods of extended soloing, we each expect physical contact at any moment. We wait for the moment of decision to be taken by our partner or by ourselves.

Over the years, the principles underlying our movement remain the same. As the senses expand into spherical space and the muscular system learns to respond to touch on any surface of the body, any point can be the fulcrum for leverage and continuity.

Nancy and I have danced with many other partners of varying backgrounds and skills. Each partner posed their own kinetic puzzles which were danced through, contributing new elements to the body of work, the network of Contact Improvisation.

The main focus of training is retuning the senses. It isn’t just the sense of touch which must be expanded, but all the senses must become elastic enough to navigate through spherical space, to handle any position, any change of acceleration.

It seems that what has emerged is two bodies acting as one within the domain of the physical forces. Newton proposed ideas about the forces and their interaction. In addition, Contact deals with ideas or images which are sensations first, then felt by the mind.

Every person who has danced Contact Improvisation taught their variation to their partners. This network spreads information among us.

As a member of the first generation to study Contact Improvisation, Nancy not only learned it but helped to define it by the direction her training took her. When she began, no one knew what sort of body would result from the practice, nor what properties would be developed.

We have seen the first Contact event Nancy saw, Magnesium. This piece must have left an impression upon her, which in turn must have been altered by the development of the duet form.

We have been able to see Nancy’s physical change in the early years of her study, and the development of her performance style. In looking at performance footage mainly, we have seen little of the daily work, but have seen the public forums in which Contact Improvisation became widely defined. In looking at Nancy’s development over 11 years, we’ve seen one strand of the physically rigorous and interwoven structure of Contact Improvisation.

An important aspect of Contact Improvisation is the pleasure of moving and the pleasure of dancing with somebody in a very spontaneous way. It happens in a framework which considers the body in all its variety as the primary focus from which the mind can draw. With this, the dance is refinable to ever more precise relationships with the physical forces.

© 1987 Videoda

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