History, Origins, Legacy
Contact Improvisation (CI) is a movement form that arose out of the Judson Church era of performance. Its origins are usually credited to Steve Paxton who, in 1972, gathered together a group of athletes to create a performance called Magnesium at Oberlin College. Paxton had a background in aikido and an interest in applied physics that are evident influences in CI from the start.
Videos of the Magnesium rehearsal process show experiment after experiment involving a body hurtling through the air to collide with another standing body. The person standing was to find ways to deal with the on-coming momentum. These highly dynamic practices were joined with subtler practices such as “the small dance.” In the small dance the dancer stands in a relatively still meditation, watching the subtle automatic reflexive movements and adjustments the body is always doing to remain upright. It is a training in perceptual sensitivity and in bringing subconscious physical impulses into conscious awareness. So, from the beginning, CI joined the cultivation of perceptual and physical skills with the exploration of dynamic physical puzzles.
The Question of Codification and its Implications
Paxton was interested in physics. He and his co-explorers wanted to understand the physical possibilities of two bodies sharing a center of gravity in a context of momentum and gravity. As they recognized the breadth and potential of the form, they were eventually faced with the question of ownership and codification. After on-going dialogue and debate, they made a historic and formative decision not to go the route of so many martial arts forms, with belts and certifications and a process of gaining permission to teach. There would be no official rulebook or collection of approved exercises. There would be no teacher trainings or certifications. True to the anarchic times it was born from, a CI teacher is identified only by their ability to attract students into their classes.
Perhaps this decision was in part based on the recognition of something larger than the explorations of a particular group that was being birthed. The origin story above is one fascet of a many sided story. CI is not the brainchild of one or a few people. Rather it is a natural expression of the times from which it was born. The 60s was a time of relative economic ease, allowing artists and choreographers to live affordably in cultural hubs and put energy towards exploring new forms. Churches, loft spaces and galleries were christened as performance spaces. People across the country were watching a war ending badly and were looking at ways to pull out of hierarchical power structures and commercially mediated activities. The result was an attempt to find dance and performance forms that "increase spontaneity, informality, and collective action (Novack, 43)." The protest movement supported a vision of collective action that was supported by the ability of each member to express their individual truth.
Somatic practices such as Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais created an interest in the "truth" of the body. Social technologies such as gestalt therapy and process groups were appearing, offering a trust in the intelligence of the collective.
Meanwhile, the feminist movement and the questioning of gender roles worked its influence into this dance that has no set leader or follower, where same sex partners can dance together. Early CI focused on the body as an instrument of physics, noticeably playing down the sexual energy present in so many social dances.
Paxton is often credited with the beginnings of this form but, As Keith Hennessy writes in, The Experiment Called Contact Improvisation, "[Paxton] is ambivalent about his role and some of CI's early participants have divergent stories about the development of the work." Many artists and somatic pioneers were exploring new ways of exploring touch and weight exchange. Some other specific artists walking simultaneous tracks that influenced what CI would become included Anna Halprin, Yvonne Rainer, The Living Theatre, Trisha Brown, Nita Little, Simone Forti, and countless others (Hennessy).
The legacy of the decision to honor and trust the collective intelligence from which CI was born by not codifying it continues to shape the culture of contact improv. Every mover is welcomed, with their own unique patterns, curiosities, and influences to bring their own contributions to the ever-evolving form. This precedent has made CI accessible to a wide range of dancers, including a whole mixed ability movement. It has opened the arena to any number of explorations that early originators may have placed outside the box. Paxton once said “If you're dancing physics, you're dancing contact. If you're dancing chemistry, you're doing something else. - Steve Paxton (1987).” Yet, because he let the baby grow up on its own, without dictating its development, there are many people exploring the chemistry of contact and calling it Contact Improv.
There is an annual festival called The Touch and Play Festival that explores the boundaries between contact, and power roles, and sensation play that take influence from BDSM culture (Bondage & Discipline, Dominance & Submission, Sadism & Masochism). Karl Frost offers workshops with titles like “CI and the Human Animal.” I offer workshops exploring themes such as subtle energetics and CI or different qualities of touch and intention as a way to bring more human and relational content into the dances. Contact is making its way into dance jams and social contexts of all kinds. ConTango classes and jams have been arising recently that combine the tight structure of tango with the weight play of contact.
Thus, CI has become an organic anarchic organism.