Contact Moscow Festival

panta rei dans lullaby

Video - Panta Rei Danseteater 'Lullaby'

Norwegian dance company Panta Rei Danseteater, late last year, conducted a little experiment whereby three dance makers created two pieces with the same name based on the same idea, featuring three male dancers and two musicians, to see what the outcome was.

June 2nd, 2016

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Professional dancer Helen Parlor ventures behind, what was, the iron curtain in search of a unique dance experience at the annual Contact Improvisation Festival in Moscow!

Summer is the time of festivals and in dance terms this means summer schools, courses and contact festivals. Now, listening to the experiences of other dancers and friends in the profession, a huge quantity of people opt to go to ‘Impulstanz’, the dance festival/course held in Vienna every year. However, I felt the need to experience something a little different and take the risk of going to a course that no-one I knew had been on. I was also keen to do a contact improvisation course and also really wanted a chance to perform contact dance as part of the festival.

These few criteria led me to finding ‘Contact Moscow’ held every year in and around July time, for ten days. The festival takes place just outside Moscow in a huge complex of halls and training gyms which are all fairly old school, but certainly provide you with enough space to practice what you came there to do. There is a great range of teachers from around the world (Caroline Waters, Lemmer Schmid, Eckhard Muller, Pen Dale, Ester Momblant Ribas, Steve Batts, Joerg Hassmann, to name but a few) all of whom offer their very careful insight into the world of contact.

Getting Acquainted

The festival is no Ritz hotel though, so be warned!! You pay one price and for that you get the course, which lasts from 10am to whatever time in the night/morning you want to go on for (as it is all under one roof and there is plenty of space!!), you get a space on the floor on which to sleep (which is concrete, although you do get a camping mat) and you get your food. There is space to camp in the grounds and there are hot showers (lots of them, some more dribbly than others).

I went with a friend, Stuart Waters, and on reading the description of the accommodation we decided to go deluxe the night before and stay in the Marriott in Moscow for our last taste of ‘posh’ for ten days. It was hard to leave those king sized beds behind, especially when we saw the bus that came to pick us up, full of dancey type back packers! We were even a little scared and we have been in this profession for ten years!

But! What was so great at the start of our rendez-vous with the team was the welcome we got from the festival leaders! ‘Angela’, who was a massive source of energy throughout the course, came bounding up and hugged and kissed us both welcoming us to Moscow , telling us that we were going to have a great time. We also got handed a huge bag of food after we sarcastically mentioned it was difficult to leave breakfast behind at the Marriott.

It was certainly a unique welcome.

On arriving at the venue for ‘Contact Moscow’ I noticed a huge range of ages sat around me and thought how great that was. I knew that, during the next ten days, I was going to experience a lot of different journeys and subtleties within contact dance.

The festival was big on getting the group together, having a united feel, and at the beginning they called this the ‘opening circle’. Everyone sat around, teachers were introduced, rules chatted about and everyone in the circle introduced themselves. There were people from all over: America, Norway, Germany, Ukraine, Australia, Finland and so on, all sat in a circle eager to dance with one another.

It was almost as if someone had said ‘Let the dancing begin’, because soon everyone had disappeared, putting their stuff in the different ‘converted classrooms into sleeping dorms’, got changed and then came down for their first jam.

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Different Levels

Dancers at all different levels attend this course and I think it's fair to say that you get out of the course what you put in. You sign up for a number of classes throughout the day: Intensives, CI workshops, Performance Research and Open Jams.

Most of the classes and jams are without music but there were some jams on evenings that had live musicians which I found really nice. Too much silence can sometimes be a drag on the energy! The performance research workshops were informally leading to a sharing on the last week as part of an improvised performance in the space.

Everyone seemed to take part in this and it was nice to have an aim and a chance to watch each other in that context. The classes were generally three hours long, although never seemed it, and the teachers all offered something unique. This, I believe, is essential for contact as if a brief remains absent for too long the dancing can fall into the trap of being mundane and lacking dynamic.

So, if what you are after is new insights to contact dancing and re-evaluating your approach, then this is a great festival to attend. Knowledge is communicated as offerings to practically explore and presented as choices which you may wish to consider during your contact dancing.

Some of the information is quite loose and I felt at times it could have been communicated a little bit more directly into the dance, and observing its effect, but having said that it was evident that during the course there were some real ‘nuggets of gold’ to be remembered and later practiced. These little trinkets of information will continue to affect my dancing for some time yet. I think in that lies the success of the course: coming away with something and not feeling like you missed out.

Teachers were generally friendly and fairly open and during the festival there is an opportunity to watch the teachers perform onstage which was very interesting. The great thing is that all the teachers still seem inspired by what they do and that was very clear through their communication with the course attendees.

Explaining The Rules

What was particularly great, and I have not witnessed this during other contact sessions (excluding Motionhouse who are excellent at presenting the dangers), was the set of rules that accompanied the course which were shown to us through a fairly comic demonstration by the teachers and helpers.

The rules all seem fairly logical but you would be surprised how often they are not applied, so it was great for them to point them out. Rules included not ‘hanging on’ when dancing with a partner (therefore endangering yourself and your partner), protecting yourself and avoiding danger, not lying on the floor in the way of other dancers and being aware of activity around you by ‘opening your eyes’!

The demonstration was very very clear and they were put into writing and hung up in the practicing hall. I personally have been to too many jams where people have stopped dancing and are lying smack bang in the middle of the space, getting in everyones way and being an obstacle, increasing the risk of injury to themselves and everyone else. It was just great that the teachers made it crystal clear that the space was for those who wanted to DANCE in it.

Classes covered useful information to give your dances strong foundations providing a series of explorations and Ester Momblant’s class covered ‘breaking the rules in jamming’ which was a greatly energised class, elements of which I enjoyed exploring during subsequent jams.

Downfalls of the course? Well, I won’t try and trick you and say it was perfect. The course is very intense and you are almost sleeping on top of one another in the dorms where any noise can and probably will wake you up. The food seemed great in the first couple of days, but by day three the thought of eating ‘buckweed’ again made my spine shiver so we had to keep going to the local shop for meat and alcohol!!

However, the advantages of the course far outweigh the few ‘problem’ areas. People are, on the whole, very friendly. Dancers are notoriously ‘affected’ and unfriendly in course or class situations ( I have been to many, so don’t try and argue with me. Although having said that:good dancers are usually like normal people, hmm that tells you something!!)

Teachers are open to discussion and are happy to chat, sing and dance away with you. There is a great environment to share things and discuss dance and we spent hours sat round with red wine having a chat about the days occurrences. (I think us Brits made the whole affair a little more alcoholic, the shame, the shame!)

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Exchange Some Energy

I had some lovely dances with people of all different levels, subtle dances and energised/risky dances. I had the opportunity to try out ideas from the classes with people and also had a great opportunity to watch others and learn. Sometimes that can be a part of the experience missing in the UK.

Do we watch and learn from others dancing enough? Do we pick up on their little intricacies? The pattern in their energy? Perhaps we do, it is simply a question. Moscow allowed us to watch for long enough that it made us, it definitely had an effect on me, question our own dancing and the habits we get caught up in.

After many many hours of dancing, exchanges in energy, lifting of body weight and travels across space, we came to the evening of our open performance.

This was an opportunity to present some work that you wanted to share. There was also a ‘pick the names out of a hat game’ and improvise to the chosen ‘theme’ or set of instructions. The night was a great sharing and communication of ideas and energy. Also, people were funny and not everything had a serious tone.

There was some live singing and suddenly you were able to see individuals shine that you may not have noticed before in regular jam situations. This kind of event gave the group a bonded feel. One evening we also had a film night (dance film of early contact improvisations, not the Matrix) and from this, discussions were had about the history of contact, how all the teachers we were experiencing during our stay were tied in with one another leading up to pioneers such as Kirstie Simson and Steve Paxton.

So then you realize the great wealth of experience standing in one room. And the great thing is that we all had the opportunity to dance together. Teachers came to jams, which was the conclusive evidence to show that this festival was about sharing information. In evenings we all sat chatting and joking and there was a real level of respect throughout the festival. When teachers spoke, people really listened (sometimes a little too intently moving in to be about 1 metre away from the teacher’s mouth during every comment), and the offerings were given time to be applied during our dance.

One evening the teachers performed for the us in a small theatre which we all managed to cram ourselves into. They had a structure, sometimes there was singing led by Carol Swann and again it was a lovely experience that I have not witnessed elsewhere.

Drawing To A Close

The final event of the festival was the improvised performance through different areas of Moscow: through a wooded area, on a bridge overlooking the water, in trees (yes we are going very contemporary dance now) and so on.

Although it was set very simply it was nice to see that the group could manage a performance through a city centre in a successful way. There were even surprises for us. In one area there was an amphi style theatre where we were told to sit and be still awaiting instructions. At this point we had no idea what was going to happen. A ‘composer’ then entered and we went through a series of compositions vocally, led by the ‘composer’ and her ‘magic stick’. It was a good laugh anyway!!

After the performance we wandered back to camp and there waiting for us were a series of candles laid along the floor, cakes and drink as a little goodbye party for the final night. But, that was not it!! The next day during our final jam (the jam the night before went on until 2/3 am) the closing circle was set up in the disguise of a corridor.(!) One by one you walked down the corridor of people, with your eyes shut, and people were invited to share
their goodbyes with you.

I know this can all sound rather pretentious (ya think? Ed!) and I would usually shy away from this kind of thing, but I have to say it was quite lovely and genuine. I stood and watched for a while and it was a very peaceful exchange of communication between people that you very rarely witness. There were tears (I even started to weep, shameful), there were hugs, there were ‘I hope to see you again’ moments, but it was a very nice end to a great festival.

As I sat on the bus with my buddy Stuart on the way back to the ‘normal world’ we sat there a bit stunned by what we had experienced. We had just had ten days in this weird and wonderful sphere of dancing and buckweed, our bodies ached but our souls felt strangely lifted and inspired. And that is exactly what we went for.

I would recommend this festival to anyone who has a love for contact dancing. It is great value for money, the course only costs 300 euros. However, it is not all perfect remember(!): basic accommodation, drab food and some fairly annoying people. But! The upside is you get to experience some REALLY inspiring people and situations, you are able to share ideas and more importantly you can just dance, dance, dance.

[ Contact Moscow ]
[ top image by Pavel Losevsky ]

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