Contact improvisation (CI) is a dance technique in which points of physical contact provide the starting point for exploration through movement improvisation.
Contact Improvisation is a form of dance improvisation and is one of the best-known and most characteristic forms of postmodern dance.
The development of Contact Improvisation was inspired by a dance performance created by Steve Paxton in January 1972.
Called Magnesium, it was performed with 11 students at Oberlin College and combined inner-focused movement and athleticism including wrestling and falling, jumping and rolling.
Over the following summer, Paxton explored this movement vocabulary further, rehearsing with a group of dancers, including Nancy Stark Smith, at the John Weber Gallery in New York City and gave the first Contact Improvisation performances which reportedly had 'a powerful emotional and kinesthetic effect on audiences.'
The dance form subsequently saw a development of movement qualities from the risky rawness and danger of the initial experiments, to a period of smooth, continuous controlled flow in the late 70s and early 80s, followed by an interest in conflict and unexpected responses including previously avoided eye contact and directive hand contact.
In 1975, the dancers working with Steve Paxton considered trademarking the term Contact Improvisation in order to control the teaching and practice of the dance form, largely for reasons of safety. This idea was rejected in favor of establishing a forum for communication, and the newsletter consequently created became the journal Contact Quarterly. The journal reached volume 38 in 2013, and continues to be published by the nonprofit organisation Contact Collaborations, incorporated in 1978.
Practice and Theory
Contact Improvisation (also referred to as "Contact" or "CI") is practiced as both a concert and social dance form. It is an improvised dance form practiced by two or more people who attempt to keep a physical point of contact between their bodies while moving freely without music. The dancing may be slow or fast and often involves rolling and weight-sharing; it is practiced barefoot with loose fitting clothing. It has been described as 'a hydra-headed, worldwide phenomenon: "art sport," theatrical form, educational tool, "urban folk dance," therapeutic bodywork, even awareness practice.'
The central characteristic of Contact Improvisation is a focus on bodily awareness and physical reflexes rather than consciously controlled movements.
One of Paxton's original collaborators, Daniel Lepkoff, comments that the "precedence of body experience first, and mindful cognition second, is an essential distinction between Contact Improvisation and other approaches to dance."
Another source affirms that the essence of Contact Improvisation is "mindfulness, sensing and collecting information."
In the performance context, Contact Improvisation is used either as a dance practice end-to-itself or as a dance research method for identifying new set choreography.
As a social dance, the regular meetings (often weekly) of practitioners that take place world-wide are called "jams," in which participants participate and watch as they choose over the course of some hours. Dancers practice both known CI technique and conduct new dance research with different partners or groupings over the course of a jam session.
The name "jam" is used in keeping with its use by contemporary musicians, who come together to spontaneously explore musical forms and ideas, with some group agreement about structure and duration of the exploration.
While there is now an established CI Fundamentals technique, CI dance vocabulary is not closed, so all who practice the form contribute to the constant expansion and greater understanding of the dance form's vocabulary, which is exchanged and taught among practictioners world-wide via regional jams, classes, week-long festivals, both print and online publications and, since its inception, via video in a process of dancing/watching/refining.
While CI dancers usually stay touching or in physical contact for much of a dance, a CI dance can occur in which partners never touch yet there is a clear "listening" and energetic connection/intention that creates the "contact" of their shared dance.
CI practitioners may also draw on other Somatics and New Dance approaches such as:
Laban Movement Analysis
Martial arts, especially Aikido, T'ai chi ch'uan and capoeira
Newton's laws of motion
Skinner Releasing Technique
When used as a choreographic technique, movement sequences that emerge during Jam research or rehearsals may be adapted and set to form a part of set choreography, or a score (a set of rules or limiting factors and transitions) may be employed to give dancers a structure to navigate through a performance.
CI Scores can have few or many rules, (less rules are referred to as more "open" scores, more rules or closer to set choreography are more "closed" scores).
Novack, Cynthia J. (1990). Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture. University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-12444-4.
Banes, Sally (1987). Terpischore in sneakers: postmodern dance. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Kamenetz, Anya (3 December 2002). "On balance". The Village Voice. Retrieved 5 November 2013.
Novack, 1990 op cit p. 156-8.
Smith, Nancy (1998). "A question of copyright - some history". Contact Quarterly: a vehicle for moving ideas 23 (1): 35.
"About Us". Contact Collaborations. Retrieved 2 November 2013.
Ugincius, Leila. "Contact improvisation is unlike any other dance form you have seen before". Style Weekly. Retrieved 5 November 2013.
Novack, 1990 op cit p. 152
Lepkoff, Daniel (Winter-Spring 2000). "Contact Improvisation". Contact Quarterly: 62.
Kaltenbrunner, Thomas (1998). Contact Improvisation:Moving, Dancing, Interaction. Aachen (Germany): Meyer & Meyer. p. 93.