Limbic Fix

at Link’s Hall, July 19 and 20

By Laura Molzahn

This is an era when many bemoan the big-business side of the arts–the overpaid stars and producers, the expensive technical effects, the big-budget ad campaigns. I’ve bemoaned it myself. It’s an era ruled by big money and big egos, when every art form from the movies to performance–once touted as an alternative to commodified art, now dominated by the larger-than-life success of Laurie Anderson–is seen as a route to the big time. Everyone poor-mouths. Everyone has a hand out. And this atmosphere makes our experience of art anxious and provisional: at the same time that we feel money is more and more necessary to the arts’ survival, we’re aware that resources are shrinking. On the Joffrey’s opening night I found myself unreasonably preoccupied by the flowers pinned to the backs of the seats: Was this festive touch worth the money? Or should it have been spent on toe shoes?

In this sultry, ominous climate, which simultaneously produces new and larger stages like the Music and Dance Theatre and anxieties about filling them, Limbic Fix is a gale of fresh air. A new contact-improvisation company of four women, they need only a bit of open space, some comfortable clothes, and their own nimble bodies and brains to produce art on the spot. No music, no props, no set or choreography.

Not that it’s easy. Contact improvisation is 25 years old (a product of the hippie counterculture)–Limbic Fix member Kathleen Maltese has been doing it for 20 years. The other three women are much younger, but they’ve gotten together with Maltese at least once a week for at least a year. Not to rehearse, of course, but to learn one another’s bodies: their heft, the distribution of weight, their characteristic velocities and directions. Contact improv can be described in deceptively mechanistic terms; in a program note, Limbic Fix calls it “dancers explor[ing] flight, momentum, weight exchange and pathways through space, combining the laws of physics with the lawlessness of imagination.”

I’m glad they didn’t leave out the human will and soul, because that’s what came through in the highly dramatic evening I saw at Link’s Hall. Wisely, Limbic Fix divided up the concert–called “Gravity Games Re-Turns”–into several sections, giving shape to what might otherwise have seemed an hour of unfocused tumbling. Opening with a solo improv, they moved into brief timed improvisations of only 5 to 60 seconds; these had clear starting and stopping points, freeze-frames that let us in on the ground rules for the improvs that came later. Then there were two longer duets, after which the women switched partners to perform another pair of duets. A long foursome followed, but gradually the dancers dropped in and out of it until finally only one was left–Maltese–to finish the evening with another solo.

There were no “subjects” for these improvisations. They weren’t about anything. Yet I found the duets in particular mesmerizing: we seldom realize the wealth of information we pick up about other people from their bodies (how can you “love” someone you know only on the Internet?). Seeing two people interact spontaneously, you see them in fundamental ways. Maltese is small and sturdy, grave and lighthearted–someone who treats her own occasional self-consciousness with humor, who responds to the need to get across the floor with an exaggerated step right out of John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks. Both grounded and facile, she’s a catalyst for change when change is needed. Jen Abrams on her own is strong and exotic, with a sinuous way of moving and quirky rhythms; interacting with others gives her even more energy. Probably the foursome’s most aggressive member, she’s not an egoist–during the quartet she was often at the bottom of some pile, and apparently happy to be there, the bedrock for the others. Leslie Teng is the gentlest member, a woman who without being retiring is never going to rock the boat. There’s something similarly reserved about Julij Miller, who has a penchant for stillness but whose shift out of stasis was electrifying.

She and Teng are well matched physically, long and slender, but their duet together–one of the two initial ones–was a little too polite, as Miller in particular seemed more preoccupied with the picture their two bodies made than with moving. Abrams and Maltese, likewise one of the two first pairs, are also well matched physically, compact and powerful; their duet had warmth and density–a kind of blood connection in Lawrentian terms. The second set of duets, when Limbic Fix mixed things up, were even more interesting. Maltese and Teng were wonderfully complementary because of their differences: Maltese was more active (as she scuttled back and forth across the floor, Teng was upright and slow), less inhibited (she often laughed out loud), and more humorous (I remember one self-consciously dramatic pose off to the side, head lifted, palms on chest). But in the emotional high point they came together, embracing and rolling over each other like two kids tumbling down a hill.

What really floored me, however, was the duet between Abrams and Miller. There was an immediate tension between them as Abrams literally pursued Miller around the stage, goading her into interaction. Miller resisted, first consenting only to intertwine hands, then running away. Like sisters quarreling, Abrams tried to tap Miller’s head and Miller irritably swung it out of touching range, then Abrams jumped Miller as she crawled away. Cornered, Miller faced Abrams with hands up, fingers curled, in a caricature of delicate resistance. After more chasing and retreating, Miller finally stopped resisting. I saw her make the decision to engage Abrams physically and emotionally, and what followed was remarkable. Rolling together, she and Abrams looked deeply involved in the sensuousness of their interaction, feeling weight against weight and skin on skin. Their connection made even such simple gestures as a hand on a rib cage piercing and fresh.

The intricacies of character and interaction revealed in the duets made the quartet seem inconceivably complicated. Not everything worked, but overall the drama of these people moving together seized and held my attention. When would they choose to end a piece? If they reached a high point, would they take the risk of moving on? When would a person shift from lifted to lifter? Why? Watching the dancers’ choices unfold proved an existential exercise the likes of which I’ve seldom experienced.

Contact improvisation may not be the answer to all our arts woes, but especially in Limbic Fix’s fresh incarnation it offers a new perspective–a kind of back-to-basics, grassroots approach that’s appealing not only for its cheapness and lack of pretense but for its accessibility. Lovers do contact improv, and so do parents and children every time they “wrestle” or tickle. True, the form is not a new one, and it grew and throve in the soil of the 60s and 70s. We’re more jaded now, utopia seems further away than it did then; perhaps we can’t go back. But as bureaucratic structures in the arts grow gargantuan and Byzantine, it’s refreshing to be reminded of how full of drama the simple human body can be.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photograph of two unidentified dancers (possible Kathleen Maltese, Jen Abrams, Leslie Teng, Julij Miller), uncredited.