Creating Contact

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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Culture craves contact. We are in an age where we feel in constant connection with everyone, tapping into each other's lives through instant messaging and social media. It seems that the concept of doing things on your own, without external validation has become an alien concept. Even previously observational pursuits of attending performance and cinema are becoming increasingly concerned with making the experience interactive. Ventures into virtual reality, 3D and immersive experience are becoming the norm. Performance art and exhibitions now encourage the audience to experience things up close, at a sensory body level.

Dance has always, in effect, been an interactive experience, the audience's feeling uplifted, moved or exhilarated by empathically sensing the movement they see. However, it is an interesting question to ask whether a dancer (or anyone) needs to gain a better connection with themselves before they can reach out to others? Should we not have full awareness and insight of our own abilities and boundaries so that contact in any form is safe and affirming, not submissive or even damaging?

A way in for self expression and awareness is practising improvisation and Contact Improvisation (CI) as vital part of a dance performer's language. Where the vocabulary of movement is universal and there is no judgement or requirement for technique as such. However there is a concept and underscore which allows personal growth and professional exploration in a held and guided environment.

In the emerging interest in interdisciplinary arts practice, it is no co-incidence that a group of like-minded people have come together to catalyse a growth in this exploration of artistic experimentation, improvisation, contact and body work. @TheGlasgowJam (@TGJ) was formed in 2012 by Tom Pritchard and Penny Chivas and the first jam followed shortly after. Partly supported by Dance House, Glasgow who led much of the work before, they have endeavoured to develop a community in Glasgow and beyond (Edinburgh following having regular groups and a strong link to the work in the city).

In 2014 @TGJ celebrated their 50th jam and was formalised as an unincorporated association. It now has 20 facilitators / workshop leaders and 7 others are currently taking part in the New Jammers mentoring programme.

@TGJ an open space for arts practitioners that are initiated by a facilitator but the core is the art itself. As Tom explained, when you facilitate work well, the discipline is nurtured and feeds the energy which then carries the group. It follows a premise of finding yourself, discovering impulse, intent as well as connections and boundaries.

New Jammers was set up as a programme in 2014 to encourage practitioners to train to become facilitators. It ran informally for a year before the programme received support from Creative Scotland in 2015. There are seven participants currently on the course and it will culminate in a co-facilitated session led by all seven Jammers on June 21st. The essence of a rich contact jam is in its facilitation. It requires successful holding of the space in order to for people to let go. The scheme trains the leader to set boundaries to allow freedom within. They learn how to encourage exploration and nurture self knowledge, to ensure safe contact and above all, create choice.

The Challenges

Some people find the idea of CI difficult. I have heard many dancers, performers and artists struggle with the idea of getting into contact with others, feeling their personal space or even bodies being invaded, rolling around in a situation in which they feel out of control. This is never the aim of contact improvisation, and the @TGJ has great passion in honouring its true ethos. As Steve Paxton, the pioneer of CI said;

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, centred, and enlivened.- Steve Paxton

If one can listen to oneself, respond to impulse and be intimate with others in a non-sexual way this is an incredibly educational and liberating experience. We can learn to stand and say no with our bodies and when to say yes;

Contact Improvisation is an honouring of every moment. There is a sweet surrendering that happens when our bodies stay faithful to what is happening now. One learns to recognize and differentiate subtle impulses in our movement choices and our partner's choices. - Moti Zemelmany

There has been a recent and positive shift in the way that dance artists are expected to be. No longer just bodies for choreographers to create upon, directors and collaborators are looking for dancers to bring their own creativity and instinct into the process. Strength and technique are still paramount, but more and more dance artists are encouraged to be creators and comfortable with contact and partnering work. Increasingly auditions call out for dancers to be able to improvise, be willing to experiment, to take risks, use their weight and physicality and even their voice.

Contact improvisation is a place where you can do all that. However, the journey of self discovery in the CI arena is not exclusive to movers or dancers. A jam is open to all artists and encourages other practices to be explored in the sessions; this offers huge possibilities of professional development and growth. @TGJ has run specific workshops to encourage this.

These have included The Underscore (Nancy Stark-Smith's model of self-sufficient jamming) Capoeira, Drawing moving bodies, Voice and text improvisation, and Inclusive practice as well of course the original concept of Contact Improvisation. All of these elements allow an artist to develop their own practice within the jam space and learn how to interact and be influenced by others artistry.

Going Beyond

CI stretches beyond creative dialogue, where we not only immerse in the body for ourselves but as the universal body. It allows a larger understanding of us as humans and how we relate and connect to ourselves and our environment. In effect, the contact community also stands for the bigger community and because of that, there can be an incredible sense of energy, empathy and possibility.

Fundamentally, the jams can be a platform for an artist to research themselves as well as their craft. Tom and Penny were adamant that this was a vital aspect of the work. They also reinforced the need for enough specific information to be continually passed on to people to further facilitate the work as a community, which allows the @TGJ to take and maintain ownership of itself and its activities.

The ethos of the Jam? It gives people a voice, it allows possibility. It is professional and personal development, if we understand ourselves, we understand others - it follows the developmental process - communication is connection but as any dance artist knows this has to be primarily through our bodies.

Top image: Professional dancer, aerialist and teacher Nikki O'Hara teaches Friday contemporary class to a group of third year students at Bird College in London. Photo by Article19

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