Chris Aiken and Kirstie Simson

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, December 3-5

By Terry Brennan

Modern dancers influenced by the minimalist movement–the search for the fundamentals of art–have produced substantially different results. The first generation of modern dancers, Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, rebelled against ballet. The second generation, including Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs, rebelled against both modern dance and ballet, rejecting not only the classical emphasis on straight lines but almost everything to do with training the body to perform unnatural movements. Many postmodern choreographers created works for people with no dance training at all; a number of athletes became dancers, such as Chicago’s David Dorfman. Later the postmodernists created a different style based on a technique for releasing muscular tension; in this approach the ideal body moves in curves, following the motion’s momentum. In many ways, this style is a culmination of the ideas formulated by Graham and Humphrey.

Minimalist postmodern choreographers also rejected most theatrical conventions. They preferred abstract dances over narrative ones, studio spaces and natural environments over proscenium stages, silence and nonrhythmic sound over music. Some rejected choreography altogether, instead performing improvisations; of these forms, the most successful was contact improvisation. As originally envisioned by Steve Paxton, it combined improvised abstract movement and a released body with silence–a technique that could be learned easily, without years of classroom training. The defining rule is that bodies should touch as often as possible; the technique focuses on abstract qualities like weight, counterbalance, gravity, and release.

Although Paxton saw contact improv as a series of exercises for exploring released bodies, it rather quickly became a social dance for modern dancers, practiced at jams. A magazine was published, dance weekends were started, and a circuit of traveling teachers and performers came into being. Performed primarily for the enjoyment of the dancers, this social form represented a new approach to romantic relationships.

Square dancing is a traditional form that emphasizes community over romance: the partnering is less important than whether all eight dancers work together. Partners keep changing but the group stays the same, as if to say that it doesn’t really matter whom you marry as long as you fill your role. The underlying theme of a square dance is a barn raising: the community builds a barn for one of its members, then all dance in it to celebrate their community. More modern ballroom dances, on the other hand, emphasize partnering: the partners dance for each other, acknowledging the other couples only insofar as they avoid running into them. Men lead and women follow. These are mating dances, emphasizing marriage and the nuclear family; the community is nowhere to be found, but sex is present at every moment.

Contact improvisation has very few rules for a social dance. There are no set steps. People enter whenever they wish for as long as they wish, and never force their wills on their partners. Men dance with men, women with women, and men with women. The most common group is a duet; trios, quartets, and larger groups often occur, though solos rarely do. The emphasis is on friendship, on finding a compatible partner or partners. But because bodies are touching continually, the dance has considerable sexual power, a fact the dancers usually deal with by ignoring it completely. Trying to transcend sex, their intensely romantic, almost spiritual ideal is to find a place beyond ego where the mind and will are still and where the dancers lose their separate identities and become one.

Contact improvisation has also become a vehicle for devising and disseminating new ways of moving. And the technique concentrates so hard on the fluid transfer of weight–from body to floor or body to body–that all other techniques can seem impossibly stiff and artificial. In the right hands, it’s a virtuoso form. Because contact improvisation includes many lifts, it can be viscerally exciting; because it’s improvised, it can have a strong element of surprise and humor. And because people are in real danger of being hurt, it has an inherent suspense. But it’s terribly subtle and nonlinear; dancers take cues off the slightest movements of other dancers, so an audience that’s not paying attention or not familiar with the form may not see the connective threads.

Chris Aiken from Minneapolis and Kirstie Simson from Britain are master contact improvisers who gave three concerts at the Dance Center of Columbia College last weekend, assisted by musicians Phillip Hamilton and Jeff Quay and by lighting designer Kevin Rechner. Aiken embodies the minimalist antiballet aesthetic. The program bio says that he “began dancing in 1983 after many years of competitive athletics….After brief exposure to ballet and modern dance, Chris discovered contact improvisation and was hooked.” He moves as if his body had never experienced a straight line–completely in curves, even his floor patterns. In these sustained curves, one impulse switches fluidly to the next.

Aiken has the efficiency of an athlete rather than the artifice of a ballet dancer. His perfected nonballetic body is living proof that movement can be both beautiful and not balletic in any way. But most astonishing is the ease with which he generates new movement. The ballet vocabulary includes a limited number of codified moves, which are combined in various ways. But the combinations can be exhausted–and the audience exhausted with looking at the same old thing. Aiken’s techniques allow for shading and an infinite variety–or perhaps Aiken is simply inventive rather than inexhaustible. In a discussion after the show, he mentioned that he has about 20 different “things” he does, and that he’s working on exploring each more deeply.

The Friday night concert was masterful throughout, all five performers working as a team. It began with a solo for lights–a quirky idea that got the first laugh I’ve ever seen for a lighting cue. Skipping the lifts that can be stereotypical in contact improvisation, Aiken and Simson focused instead on listening to each other. In a quiet moment, both of them reclined with their legs in the air, vibrating. Their breathing was audible, and they began a vocal duet using caught breaths. Simson sat up, her face twitching like a rabbit’s. This segued into a mime of vicious bitching at someone, and later the rabbit image reappeared in Simson’s series of tiny hops. Then the battling reappeared as Aiken delicately shadowboxed. Simson picked up the image but turned it into a slamming series of roundhouse punches. And the dance continued in this nonlinear but engaging and emotional way moment by moment.

In comparison to choreographed pieces, improvised dances have an extremely light touch. They don’t seem as substantial, and they’re not as resonant in memory. This featherweight quality can be appealing, making choreographed dances seem impossibly bombastic by contrast. The quicksilver emotions of contact improv seem true to life–but they’re not intense. Since such dances don’t leave anything linear or linguistic behind, they’re often remembered as producing a warm glow rather than a transforming experience. Minimalism in dance has created an aesthetic with problems but one that also shows great promise.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Donna Kelly.