Vidali Extended Review

Five Ways In

Mike Poltorak, Sonja Bruhlmann, and Alyssa Lynes, dirs.

This is the extended version of  Vidali’s review in American Anthropologist (September 2017). We are very grateful to Debra Vidali for allowing us to publish it here.


Debra Vidali

Emory University



Five Ways In is a beautiful film. Gentle, lyrical, surprising, and loving. Starting with the sounds of soft laughter, voices of many textures and resonances, we see the movements that define the practice of contact improvisation and the eager, open faces, smiles, and applause of welcome from the 300 participants gathered for the 2012 Contact Improvisation Festival in Freiburg, Germany. Our lifespan in the film begins on day one at the festival’s beginning and ends on day five at the festival’s closing ritual. Our exit is just as loving and welcoming as our entrance. As we leave, we us/the camera move through two rows of hands that are reaching out to touch and caress, and hold dear, and support each being that passes through. If only we can be open to receive. To feel.


I walk down the stairs, my laptop swings from my hip to my lap, guided by my hand, I sit on the couch and type on the keyboard, seeing a slight bounce on the screen, with the give and take of balance on my thigh, pressure first from the left hand with the typing of the letter r and then from the right with the typing of the letter o, back to the left with w, what is this row of lines that is not straight but angled and bouncing in the moment of writing? Can I call this a form of contact improvisation too? It is the review. Is the contact with the keyboard and the bouncing of the screen something I enjoy, tolerate, dislike, or am obliviously to? Can I respond and continue to flow physically in the moment with hyper-awareness and with full intuition and non-awareness?


I imagine most things that humans do in the world are about contact improvisation. But humans rarely foreground or consciously attend to this. And exceedingly few seek out teachers and festivals to delve further into the experience: to engage in an intensified form of conscious experience and inquiry, to train, and to meet others who wish to privilege contact as a heightened sensory modality for a week.


Five Ways In brings us close to five festival goers who are seekers. Each, in their own way, is seeking out a deeper experience with Contact Improvisation (CI), a dance/performance practice/philosophy with a global following that was first established in the 1970s in California. CI’s fundamental technique is to improvise, respond, and flow with the physical contact and movement of a partner. A CI dance might begin with partners having one contact point such as the hips or the palms, and then flow intuitively in relation to ambient music, an image prompt provided by the facilitator (e.g. a spiral), or nothing at all. CI’s fundamental principle is about the experience of relationality and the experience of desire. Workshop sessions during the week long festival are not just about dance, however, but about the cultivation of feeling and bodily awareness on all levels.


Through a subtle ethnographic mode of being in the moment, with no direct narration or analysis, the film is a resounding success in capturing the rich multi-sensorial immersion that takes place in the CI world. The camera eye shows us moments where participants are guided to consciously activate and feel with every sensuous part of their being a desire to be in the world, in relation to other people and things. There is a joy, fierceness, and frenzy to the activation. Deep love. Union. Weeping. An exhaustion. “Crash mode.” And loneliness. The festival goers want, crave, and feel pleasure in the combining of human energies. And in the contact with all aspects of the physical world. They give themselves over to workshop leaders’ invitations to encounter and deeply feel the air, rocks, and dried leaves. At food breaks, this heightened sensory engagement continues for many. We see participants play with touch and the creation of temptation, desire, and deprivation. One teasingly offers and then retracts peanut butter covered apple slices to fellow attendees. The camera lingers as hungry mouths moan and laugh.


Anthropological gems abound in/with this film. Ethnographically, the film documents, breathes with, and analyzes a subculture, a set of practices, and an event. We learn that “contact” ultimately is not just about touch. It is about multisensorial subjectivity in relation to life. We are led to ask — along with workshop facilitators who implicitly guide participants to do this through exercises — if and how ‘life’ can be experienced in its most pure and non-acculturated form. What happens when ‘life’ is stripped of meanings? When it is stripped of stories, desires, identities, and chronological time? When it becomes ‘being’ in the moment?


At this level, the CI community and the film are an inquiry into existential anthropology. Phenomenological and psychological themes permeate this territory. We learn how the heightened multisensorial subjectivity cultivated by CI is at once intersubjective and also highly ego-invested. This paradox itself is anchored by the film’s framing narrative. Five people attend the Freiburg festival, each for different reasons. There are five ways in. Once “in”, exercises in intersubjective attunement, along with the immersive festival world, lead for many to the dissolution of the subject. A flow of life that is being in union. Five ways in, to one.


For some viewers of this film, these features of the CI culture will be relevant for broader conversations about mysticism, ritual, and religion. Others might pursue the connections to social movements and other forms of alternative world creation. The CI practices and the temporary CI community present a fundamental challenge to Western forms of normativity. The film hints at the liberatory power of what is taught and learned and explored and created. It leaves unstated what is lost by mainstream culture’s sensory deprivation, over-control of the senses, barely conscious embodiment, and limited intersubjective acknowledgement.


The film purports to use a conventional documentary storyline as it follows five people attending the festival. Footage is chronological. We meet Jashana, an American at a transition point in their life; Raquel, a Brazilian festival volunteer; Camille, who is from France and is new to CI; and two teachers, Lior, from Israel, and Johan, also a Swedish gardener. At the beginning, each tells the filmmakers something about their background and why they are attending the festival. Jashana is a longtime practitioner interested in the political potential of CI work. Lior is wondering how to be more open and connected with people. Raquel wants to be clearer in life and in dance. Johan, a regular festival attendee, is there to sharpen bodily awareness skills and enjoy the festival. We also see him sitting on the sidelines writing and drawing in his journal. Camille says less about his reasons, but the filmmakers dwell more on his unfolding processes than on those of the other four participants.


Through and alongside these stories, the camera gently travels through the festival space. Soft laughter. Groups creating songs in Brazilian Portuguese. Plates of food. Clothes draped over a drying rack. Silhouettes in thick black paint on small white sheets of paper. They are dances. They are points of contact and expansions of being. The camera pauses. A visual documentation of visual documentation. Of multisensorial engagement.


And when the camera gaze dwells on these drawings in the hallway, the core tension of the film’s project becomes acutely apparent. The film is less an ethnography of individual journeys than it is an ethnography of CI practice and festival culture. Moments of interviewing are limited; some are predictable. Perhaps half of the footage draws attention to the dynamic and richly populated world of the CI festival. The specific journeys of the five protagonists function more as bookends than as unfolding narratives. An ethnography of individual journeys might offer a richer sense of what Jashana, Raquel, Lior, Johan, and Camille are doing and experiencing, who they spend time with, and who they are outside the festival world. Their growth points, conflicts, and dilemmas are alluded to, mainly via self-report; they are not closely tracked in an experience-near way.


But, is the film really aiming to be about five people and their ways in, or is it about the five senses and their ways in? Perhaps the five people and their journeys are a pretext, to simply get us all in. Viewers might be misled to expect the conventional narrative of protagonist’s journey, only to find out that something deeper is documented and that they have made a journey. In this way, the radical invitations of CI might work in an immersive and non-narrative way, even at a distance via ethnographic filmic contact, while viewers are overtly anchored by the safe space of documentary as usual. As an inquiry into what CI knows and does and is, Five Ways In is also an inquiry into “body intelligence” and the ways of knowing that are possible in and through film. To quote one participant’s remarks about the CI experience, there is “nothing tangible that stays, only vibration in the heart.” The film beautifully creates this vibration. A realm of being — and knowledge — much wider than any individual journey.

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