Every year for over 25 years, about 200 dancers come together sometime around the 4th of July, in the Sawtooth Building in Berkeley, for The West Coast Contact Improv Jam. WCCIJAM comprises five days of classes, jams, discussions, presentations and performances, aiming to offer introductions to the form, practice opportunities and expanded research of contact improvisation (CI). After undergoing an organizational reboot last year and a name change (the event used to be called the West Coast Contact Improv Festival, WCCIF) the jam is engaging myriad questions and considerations around the purpose, importance and meaning of this dance practice in the Bay Area today. I asked just a few of the many teachers and organizers who have been part of making this event happen over the years to discuss some of my own questions. Keith Hennessy, pioneering performance artist and choreographer, and one of this year’s series teachers; Cathie Caraker, BMC practitioner, teacher and organizer; Brenton Cheng, stellar CI researcher, performer and teacher; Rosemary Hannon, another favorite local CI teacher, performer and WCCIJAM organizer; and Karl Frost, interdisciplinary artist, behavioral scientist and longtime CI teacher, all graciously contributed their thoughts. The article that follows recaps what I drew from our exchange.
It’s a curious phenomenon within CI that its most avid practitioners do not agree on exactly what it is, or could be: a technique, a somatic practice, a performance score, a social dance? Contact originated as a set of choreographic explorations by Steve Paxton that generated highly athletic performances by professional and student dancers. Since its inception, however, it has steadily expanded beyond choreography to include a thriving culture of practitioners who do not have performance as primary reference point. As Brenton Cheng points out, “as a skillset providing psychophysical readiness and an expanded sense of partner touch possibilities, CI is relevant to any embodied practice, including simply living.” Because the originators of the form resisted formal codification, variations in style and philosophy have flourished. Most of my respondents agreed that while there are some main principles and forms, a cultural ethos of anti-authoritarianism prevents anyone from laying monolithic claim to contact technique. Rosemary Hannon explains that for her, while “contact technique consists of principles for dealing with gravity in dynamic situations in and out of weight sharing … it needs to be deconstructed by each individual encountering it.” To me, this is a kind of rigor, one that requires the dancer’s self-reflection and critical choice-making, placing high value on personal responsibility and individual investigation.
Diversity of practice, skill and intention are often evident in the contact jam setting. These low-cost, no one turned away, weekly events are open to one and all, and represent open exchange in the development of the form, learning opportunities, and more broadly, the democratization of art, ideals that hearken back to experimental dance scene in the seventies, when elite level dancers became interested in breaking down low art/high art hierarchies. Jam culture can vary depending on time and place: jams may feel like a party, a deep meditation, an acrobatic training session, or like performance art. They also serve a social function. Here’s Cathie Caraker on the social value of contact jams: “In a mainstream culture that is so tragically disembodied, that continues to objectify and commodify the body, and in which so many people are unhealthy and unhappy in their bodies, CI offers a way in.” Karl Frost likewise cheers jams as “a wonderful way to break down pleasure-phobia and body-phobia in our culture.” To mention pleasure can be triggering. CI dance is fundamentally an exploration of physics and body mechanics, yet there is frequent debate within the contact communities around the boundaries of acceptable jam behavior. Frost, who has historically been interested in psychological and emotional explorations accompanying CI, nonetheless expresses concern for a construction of contact improvisation as “an open exploration of touch and movement with no predefined form,” yielding jams filled with “amorphous cuddle piles.” While we may not wish to say flat-out “Hey, that’s not contact,” there is, in the community of teachers and dancers hosting the WCCIJAM, a traditional expectation of what Cheng calls a “baseline social neutrality of the jam container to ‘hold’ my dances.” In other words, there is something that makes a jam not a party. For me, that thing is art—when I step into improvisation or deep play, and away from my socially constructed identities and boundaries, I lean into somatic sensation, proprioception and spatial awareness as scores. For my money, jams could be viewed as art-happenings. I’d be quick to add, however, that that’s not the same as suggesting they are performances.
Generally, the notion of performing “just contact” was met with cautious resistance. Hennessy has been calling his work “post/contact;” in it he is “exploring relational dances under the influence of queer, difference, failure, and negotiation.” Almost everyone agreed that Contact was a useful tool in the improviser’s kit, though certainly not the only one. It also seemed important to everyone to distinguish the technique of contact from contact as a performance score. I would be inclined to agree with Cheng where he states: “I think that what reputation CI has as a soupy, monotonic, boundary-less, anything-goes mess reflects an ignorance of its possibilities by doer and watcher, and often limitations in how it’s been taught. It’d be like slamming Tai Chi for only being soft and flowy—an understandable impression, but incomplete.” In my own work, I’ve recently been having the surprising sensation that something is still deeply radical about contact improvisation in performance. I’m partial to the idea of contact as meditation, meaning that it requires deep, real-time focus that is not a matter of presenting form or accomplishing feat, but of mapping a moving boundary through fine tuning of spatial perception and reflexes. With some generosity on the part of the performer, contact can make us open to the vagaries of reality, transparent and vulnerable, all qualities I value in experimental performance.
Early CI performances experimented with breaking theatrical conventions and blurring the line between performer and audience. Clearly, in a context where the audience might jump in to the action, an internally focused dance gets contextualized differently than in a proscenium setting. Hannon adds: “The non-performance Come, we’ll show you what we do [the title of a CI performance tour c. 1975] aesthetic made sense. Things are so different now; art makers are asking different questions. So I think CI’s influence or progeny shows up in performance more than naked CI does.” Asking about the relevance of CI to contemporary dance yielded general agreement that the influence of CI is palpable in a range of contemporary choreographic methods and dance techniques, with many of its visual forms often recognizable. As Keith Hennessy wrote of a recent piece by Marc Brew: “The spiraling lifts and women as lifters reveal a direct influence of CI practice and research on dances being made today.” Simultaneously, Caraker suggests that while “contact-based choreography…has been popular since the 80’s…outside of our small and highly rarified scene of improvising dancers, true contact improvisation is rarely seen in performance.” Indeed, Hennessy was keen on discussing “why CI seems so irrelevant or perhaps anachronistic to most of the contemporary dance and performance contexts I’m familiar with.”
A form now in its forties, CI can certainly no longer be considered cutting edge. Perhaps there is a notion that contact today is for hippy dippy softies who want to roll mindlessly about. Hennessy contends that “’professional’ dancers want to distance themselves from both the social scene and the embodied ideology of CI— of universality, of liberal humanism, of uninterrupted flow, of ‘we’re all the same’…which gets read as both hetero and white to those who aren’t.” Yours truly values some of the social and healing aspects associated with contact, though to my view it is a pity that such a rich art form be reduced, in the public eye, to a new-age social pastime. I expect there will be ongoing debate on to what extent the values Hennessy mentions represent some embodied ideology of CI, whether they are desirable values, and in what way they may or may not be predominantly “white” and “hetero.” This is fuel for the WCCIJAM. Interesting too, to consider what is meant by “contemporary,” a word which for Frost invoked “a mythology of linear progress or movement in ‘performance’ practices.” Perhaps, if rather than direct lineage and rigid forms, we chose to see a web of interacting influences, we might be relieved of needing to define a single role for contact improvisation within the performance world.
The West Coast Contact Improvisation Festival (now the WCCIJAM) was the first major contact improvisation festival in the world, and has historically been a forum for research and experimentation. “With its mix of classes, jamming, performances, lecture-demonstrations and labs, WCCIF proposed a model for CI that has been adapted to countless festivals worldwide,” Hennessy notes. Today, the WCCIJAM is poised to really invest in experimentation of how performance is presented at CI festivals, what teaching contact means today, and what the possibilities are for the evolution of contact jams, all while generating an event that reflects the diversity of Bay Area contact culture. Caraker sums it up best: “WCCIJAM attracts serious dancers, social dancers, beginning CI students, itinerant gypsies, people seeking connection, fun, healing, play, art-making and community… I think it’s a beautiful thing that so many diverse needs can be met by one dance form and at one venue. I have come to appreciate the creativity, the anarchy and the heart of this community. It makes sense for the place where we live and the times we are in now. It’s a wild garden that I hope will continue to grow with some basic maintenance.”
This year’s West Coast Contact Improvisation Jam will take place June 29–July 3. For more information, head to wccijam.org