Pain and sacrifice are needed to be a good collaborator. You must check your ego at the door, give yourself fully to a new collective identity, learn how to give and take, choose trust over distrust, be ready to fail, and commit to the unfurling nature of process.
It is worth it. A good partnership brings fresh inspiration, useful limitations and a supportive structure. The pushback of collaboration can carry you to places you never might have traveled to on your own. Most importantly, its challenge provides great training for any kind of creative intelligence.
If collaboration is boot camp for creativity, then post-modern dance is boot camp for collaboration. In 1972, a dancer named Steve Paxton and a handful of his friends at Oberlin College got together, rolled around, hurled themselves at each other, practiced falling and improvised their way to a radical new dance form. They called their invention “contact improvisation”, which Paxton described as
“the communication between two moving bodies that are in physical contact and their combined relationship to the physical laws that govern their motion—gravity, momentum, inertia. The body, in order to open to these sensations, learns to release excess muscular tension and abandon a certain quality of willfulness to experience the natural flow of movement”.
Contact Improv (as it is often called), is a movement language that emphasizes responsive reflexes and generates choreography from the alchemy of bodies in contact with one another. Paxton’s experiments with this mindful movement of the body turned traditional dance on its head and laid the groundwork for postmodern dance as we know it today. Contact Improv has qualities both edgy and raw as well as smooth fluidity. Its influences are apparent in the work of Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs and many many other seminal choreographers.
My first introduction to all of this was in college in the nineties. My friend Abby insisted that I come to her contact improvisation workshop. Nervous to be out of my element, I was relieved to find myself in creative paradise. This was not the “five, six, seven, eight, chasse, two, three, four, and keep it pointed six, seven, eight…” sort of dance I had been accustomed to. Not at all. This was playful, unselfconscious and gloriously body positive. We experimented with finding true responsiveness to touch and impulse, weight bearing and giving, and moving as a single entity.
Contact Improv is fantastic practice for becoming a solid collaborator. Yet, as Paxton points out, it is important to remember that we are always collaborating with something. Even when alone.
“Solo dancing does not exist: the dancer dances with the floor: add another dancer and you have a quartet: each dance with the other and each with the floor.”
CREATIVE PROMPT: SMALL DANCE
Steve Paxton created an exercise called “Small Dance”. It helps you to feel creatively attune, relaxed, and to realize that you are constantly collaborating with your body, gravity and the floor.
Further reading and resources:
I highly recommend seeking out a class or jam session. Contact Quarterly has a directory of teachers and centers. Take it from me, you do not need to be an expert to engage in this practice.
American Dance: The Complete Illustrated History by Margaret Fuhrer, traces that richly complex evolution of Dance in America. From Native American dance rituals to dance in the digital age, American Dance explores centuries of innovation, individual genius and collaborative exploration.
Contact Improvisation by Cheryl Pallant.
In most forms of dancing, performers carry out their steps with a distance that keeps them from colliding with each other. Dancer Steve Paxton in the 1970s considered this distance a territory for investigation. In this book the author draws upon her own experience and research to explain the art of contact improvisation, in which dance partners propel movement by physical contact.