We set up this website because we want our ethnographic and documentary film ‘Five Ways In’ to make a contribution to research in contact improvisation. Our approach is anthropological in that we focus primarily on the people who practice the form and we used the philosophy and practice of the form to structure the documentary.
We named it ‘Researching Contact Improvisation’ because of what we feel should be the collaborative and process based emphasis of research on CI. In the same way that strict definition of the form is avoided, we also wanted to emphasise research as an enduring and committed practice of engagement, rather than a time restricted process that then communicates its results.
With researching there is more recognition of us being involved, engaged and invested in a process. We focus less on outcome than on the social benefits and insights that emerge from paying attention to research as process .
What is Contact Improvisation?
Strict definition of CI is resisted by those who practice it, and as the publication Contact Quarterly states:
‘Since it is essentially a dance of investigation of weight, touch, and communication, it adheres to no single definition or pedagogical certification program. All practitioners ultimately participate in the defining, disseminating, and development of the form through their own practice and discovery.’
For the sake of appreciating the history of the form an early definition by Steve Paxton and others is quite useful:
‘Contact improvisations are spontaneous physical dialogues that range from stillness to highly energetic exchanges. Alertness is developed in order to work in an energetic state of physical disorientation, trusting in one’s basic survival instincts. It is a free play with balance, self-correcting the wrong moves and reinforcing the right ones, bringing forth a physical/emotional truth about a shared moment of movement that leaves the participants informed, centered, and enlivened’. (Paxton et al Contact Quarterly Vol. 5:1, Fall 1979)
It was this aspect that made Contact Improvisation a core part of the syllabus of many dance schools. Video and contact improvisation have been connected from the beginning of the form. The early experiments in contact improvisation were recorded and have been used to inspire new developments in the form (eg Fall after Newton, Magnesium). There is much footage on people dancing CI and performances available to buy and see on the internet. However, while video has continued to be used to capture moments of dance, record performances and events there was little enquiry into the lives of people dancing the form.
We were moved by the potential of contact improvisation for personal and social transformation. All three of us had experienced real changes in our lives because of practicing the form. Through a focus on developing presence and a bodily listening to our own and others impulses CI fosters a body based communication where touch is central.
This contrasts strongly with contemporary society where touch is typically restricted to particular kinds of relationships.
One of the founders Steve Paxton, famously argued that contact improvisation was about physics not chemistry, and yet for many the dance form delivered profound insights into the dynamics of interpersonal relationships and connected them globally through travel and festivals.
We were interested in the contemporary questions people were asking about the form: Is CI a lifestyle, a spiritual practice, a tool for community building and decision making? This is where an anthropological approach, focussed on knowledge of the history and culture of the form coupled with a curiosity of what was meaningful for people doing the dance form became central. We wanted to address the questions not in the abstract, but in relation to real people at an event where these questions were present. We also wanted the editing of our documentary film to have an integrity and a form that was inspired by the philosophy of contact improvisation. How to capture the experience of CI in a festival was one of our key challenges?
‘The documentary is a form of research for all those involved with it. Academically, I was very much inspired to update in a documentary the increased internationalism of the form hinted in Cynthia Novack’s excellent ethnography of contact improvisation ‘Sharing the Dance’ published in 1990. Anthropological documentary, for me offers a more participative and public anthropology than text based ethnographies. Personally, I have been dancing the form for four years and I wanted to do justice to the personal stories and wider context of CI in everyday life.’ (Mike Poltorak-Co-Director)
Why did we film the Freiburg International Contact Improvisation Festival?
Contact improvisation in Europe has become strongly embedded in summer festivals. Freiburg International Contact Improvisation Festival was the first and biggest of all these festivals. Tickets to the festival famously sell out hours after they are made available on the 1st April. One of the organisers, Barbara Stahlberger, invited our co-director Mike Poltorak to document the festival as had been done for the previous twelve years. After initially proposing a very basic documentation of the festival he realised over months what a unique opportunity there was to make a full length documentary that really captured the contemporary form.
‘I realised I could not do it alone and so I asked two good friends whom I had met at previous teacher’s festivals and who had a long history and knowledge of CI to join me. We became three co-directors and discussed each step of the process of making the film. The documentary is very much the product of the unique collaboration of the three of us ( Mike Poltorak-Co-Director)’
Why five people?
We were interested in the personal process and meanings of CI and being at a dance festival. We chose five people to reflect the internationalisation of the form through personal recommendation, previous contact and discussion of how they could capture and reflect different interests and experiences of CI. Five people seemed an appropriate number of people to get to know in a one hour documentary on a week long festival. By the end of the festival those criteria faded as their experiences, meanings and process became central to organising the structure of the documentary.
The five protagonists of the documentary are:
Jashana (Hawai’i) is a political activist and has been deeply involved in community development through ecovillage networks. She was interested in the politics and transformative aspects of the form.
Lior (Israel) teaches and practices CI internationally. He wanted to have beautiful dances, develop professionally and survive the challenge of being with three hundred people.
Raquel (Brazil) is a dedicated dancer and was a volunteer at the festival. She was curious in the community aspects of CI and was in search of some clarity in the dance in her everyday life.
Camille (France) is a sports teacher and had only started dancing CI recently. He was interested in developing sensitivity and the ability to give weight to people smaller than himself.
Johan (Sweden) uniquely links dance with nature through his work as dance teacher and biodynamic gardener. He was particularly interested in developing his teaching and breaking down patterns.
While the narrative was driven by our five protagonists, we also paid attention to other key events and aspects of the festival to give an ethnographic sense of the festival. We meet other international teachers and commentators of the form:
- Mirva Makkinen (Finland)
- Jess Curtis (US)
- Peter Aerni (Switzerland)
- Manuela Blanchard Russi (Switzerland)
- Itay Yatuv (Israel) (He did a super TED talk on CI)
- Vega (Katri Luukonen) (Finland)
- Katy Dymoke (UK)
- Juliya Melnik (Lithuania)
Many other individuals also comment and give insight into the festival and dance practice. All the music in the film was improvised and performed at the event.
What are Jashana, Johan, Camille, Raquel and Lior doing now?
We will invite our five protagonists to tell us more about how they are using CI in their everyday lives and report back on this website.
We will use this documentary to do further research into CI following the feedback that people give us in screenings. Our research agenda will be strongly defined by what you tell us you think is most interesting and valuable for you as dancers of people interested in the form and its potential use in other spheres of life. We will also expand the website and include more footage of the festival following people’s interests.