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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Internal landscapes
Animated, Spring 2001. By its nature, contact often engenders a more holistic approach. Caroline Waters shares her thoughts on improvisation in performance, from the road, and finds community wherever she goes

To start from the body and to progress to the word. The individual to the group. A process that involves each time searching for common denominators. Starting with oneself. Working to recognise the sensations and alignment of ones own structure, focusing on locating the natural way one is built to move, to slowly develop fitness and sensitivity to the signals one is receiving from the body. To recognise the sound of ones own internal voice, spending time listening to the thoughts that run through one's mind constantly, mastering ways to witness without judgement the things that one thinks and feels. All these developments happen simultaneously and according to the experience of the group one can start with any focus, be it dance, vocal work, writing, music, etc.

The importance for me of the physical training of contact improvisation as an invaluable tool for perceptual training and finding space, is to work with sensation as a resource for movement. It has many levels of learning and approaches and imparts a good basis for understanding group work. There is an inherent belief that you have to be responsible for yourself and your interactions. Even in the most potentially dangerous lifts or paths of movement, you are responsible for your own safety, of course you are always working to be sensitive to other people but at the heart of the form is self responsibility. (Although one starts from the simplest premise of risk - a catch and fall from walking or a fall from lying.) This gives a reference to then understand your role in the group and skills to witness the way you and the group are operating. Working with sensation as a guide is a good way into finding freedom in your movement. Being open to receiving stimuli from your environment through your perceptual capacities is a very important part of the training. To work towards finding one's self as resource and recognising how to place that self within the resource of the group. Another premise that contact contains is a place where you are working in a way that you are achieving a range of actions, movement possibilities, because you are exploring with another person so you go beyond what is possible in solo, this also provides the bridge from self to group.

Contact places the emphasis on the natural way the body moves, encouraging you to build on what you already have. That dance can happen in any part of the body, makes it very accessible to a range of people. There has been a healthy disability dance community steadily growing through this form internationally, because of the idea that you are working from a place of what you can do, not necessarily working from external images and with precise movement forms that the training of something like classical ballet creates. There is a different appreciation of the physical form, not just as a perfect object of beauty in motion, but as beautiful humanity in motion. Often the weight or support of another body creates the pathway of movement not normally accessible to you individually.

The touch being the focus of the dance can also lead you into a safe way to explore movement, because you are not the sole inventor of the movement, but together you are finding out where the sensation wants you to go, both following and leading at the same time, listening into one's self and one's partner simultaneously creating a physical dialogue. Instead of feeling the pressure to come up with a good idea, you work together to find out what evolves through the activity. So, it requires your active participation with a sense of sharing. Touch is a taboo subject in society, and can often elicit an emotional response from those newer to the form, but once an ease is set around the use of the body (through the physical contact a certain amount of barrier breakdown happens) a relaxed body is a much more receptive body, new and nervous people can often find a more relaxed place to experiment from after receiving a massage in motion. I work to find ways to cease fear of the body, and fear of being seen moving your body if you do not locate yourself as a dancer.

For improvisation in performance, I have also drawn a lot from the work of Augusto Boal and his exploration of Image Theatre. Through very simple physical improvisation exercises I ask people to create and build three-dimensional images of a situation or picture that has a resonance for them. To use the other members of the group to realise their vision, just like a sculptor or painter. Everybody has a turn at creating images; then the work of the group is to put the images together. The random selection can often create a very exciting dynamic to move between, once the images are set the journeys between are improvised. The whole group works to find a way to individually move, yet be part of a group scenario. In this way the rhythms for the observer goes through the witnessing of chaos and clarity. It is usually a satisfying exercise that prepares people for performance; one reason maybe because it alleviates the fear of getting lost. There are some fixed points that as a group you are trying to get to, but how you get there is up to the improvisation of that moment. Often when people are faced with the idea of performing impro they can be afraid of freezing or feeling too personally exposed. So, I try to work to develop safety mechanisms that provide a support to the activity, this exercise being one of them.

Training in the ideas of 'real time composition' takes you to the ideas of working with space and time. This incorporates the ability to be able to read information and to recognise what is occurring to be able to respond with awareness, not unconsciously reacting to everything - creating in real time. Often with improvisation for performance being able to repeat sections of activity is another invaluable theatrical mechanism. Knowing the value of repetition for the audience as it often provides a way in for the observer, providing a visual safety mechanism, and it can give you a basis for compositional decision making. Once you become more comfortable with moving you get then to hone your responses to your external environment, crafting your physical response to your internal stimuli and consciously placing your decisions out in the space. It is helpful to start solo to develop the discipline of being able to be inside and outside of yourself at the same time. You can use these skills within a contact dance and as a way of moving in towards and away from your partner. Real time composition is a place where you can mix more traditional choreographic techniques for creating material, with simple ideas of following, mirroring, reflecting changing dynamic, clusters, solos, duets, trios, group etc. When working with impro you can turn any of these focuses into scores for the group to work on seeing how the composition changes according to the instructions.

Improvisation brings for me accessibility because we are not focusing on the perfect moment with need to replicate again and again. As in trying to find the perfect word. This can support working with people who speak different languages or different physical abilities. Here if you conceptually understand what is required you can find ways to interact that go beyond the limitation of the spoken word or fixed idea or movement. The debate over meaning can be held in suspension as you work to try to find out where you are physically going and relating more in the language of images and physical composition; how you place yourself and your activity in the space to that of the group.

There is often a fear or misconception with this work, that it is therapy. It is generally agreed that the therapeutic process and the artistic process have many things in common; dancing often gives the feeling of well-being and a sense of health. With the training of the impro performer the first block you come up against is that of the self:

  • all the patterns and habits of a lifetime that we have assimilated as ourselves

  • to recognise our ability to relate to ourselves and how that relates to the group environment

  • training the mind's eye to witness our behaviour, impulses and to make decisions accordingly.

For me I state at the beginning I am an artist not a therapist. If you want to develop what is happening into a therapeutic exercise for yourself then that is your responsibility. I am working to train the self as a resource for performance and hope to create the skill to be able to perform, with a sense of depth and integrity, material that comes from self, taking into account the external environment and other sources.

Contact itself has been swallowed up by the community dance scene maybe because of its humanitarian emphasis, but it still is an artform no matter how many people use it in a therapeutic context. We as an audience though have little training as to how to view contact impro and improvisation. It seems that people do not know how to witness and understand such freedom of expression. Throughout the last 30 years, contact has been successfully performed in gallery settings. I wonder if it is because we are inclined to watch something with a different eye if we see it in a gallery, having slightly different expectations than that of a theatre space. For me I miss the sheer physicality of the work and its potential to show relationship when it is only placed into more choreographed partner sequences, or where improvisers never touch each other just relating spatially. Although every kind of performance has its place, I am sad that there seems to be a lot of fear around touch and use expression of intimacy and the witnessing of imperfection on the stage. We are still controlled by the ideal image of advertising and the idea of achieving the perfect body in this dominantly vertical logical society.

In terms of spirituality the impro world has many parallels, because you are working to develop your inner witness (a basis of many meditation disciplines) trying to find the unity between thought and action, allowing yourself to experience the different states of the body/mind that this life affords you, bringing the experiential into the melting pot of your own movement resource. Drawing from other practices like yoga, martial arts and t'ai-chi the connection can be seen also with the transformative affect of performance. As human beings we use a sense of ritual to understand our existence, through the repetition of activity and transformation of the more mundane tasks in life we find meaning. Ritual in a more classic sense also was a way for a community to find expression for itself, a way of bringing a group together. Performance by ways of setting up a sacred space, having witnesses and protagonists, raises power of some kind, to have a changing experience whether it is cathartic, efficacious, entertaining or/and enlightening. Improvisation in performance can provide a rich area for human communication working on a subtle and tacit level if we only knew the ways in into witnessing it. I never should underestimate how travelling has informed my methodology. In the early days I realized that it was hard to sustain a local economically viable life for impro. I noticed that often I had to travel long distances to find people to work with. Networks were soon established to make it easier for work to happen. The establishing of newsletters and magazines that dedicated themselves to the articulation of the forms created another way of connecting into a network. I am involved in the participation of and sometimes organiser of the European Contact Improvisation Teachers Exchange a travelling conference dealing with pertinent issues of the form, including teaching, performance, documentation and networking. This event takes place annually hosted by a different country and now 15 years later is a lively place to debate, perform, skill swap and meet a wider community of practitioners, providing many opportunities for a rich cultural exchange and access to work in other countries. I myself have benefited greatly by this particular conference. And in turn I have organised my own international events with a wide ranging base of practitioners to invite because of these ever developing communication networks now of course supported by the expanding field of new technologies (the internet being one of them).

The nature of the work, often engenders a more holistic approach which leads to the finding of great locations for practicing and continuing study. I have been led to many amazing mountain studio locations, desert environments, or harsh city landscapes, all of which give me juice for creativity and keep me curious with the work, not only researching the internal landscape of both myself and co-workers, but I also get to experience the incredible variety of landscapes in this world. Although a relative stranger and often a solo traveller, I find community wherever I go.

Caroline Waters, independent dance/theatre practitioner. Email cfw379@hotmail.com

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001