What's New in Modern Dance?

Contact Quarterly 1977English
Contact Quarterly Vol.2 No.3 (Spring, 1977): 27-28.

item doc

Contextual note
"What's New In Modern Dance?" was the first contribution to a new section named Cross Currents in Contact Quarterly. This first article comes with an open call: "Cross CURRENTS is the name of a new series of articles in the Contact Quarterly designed to share information concerning the work of artist, anthropologists, physicians, physical educators, etc. who have dealt with Contact ideas and forms within their own contexts. This kind of research and exposure enriches our perspective in viewing Contact Improvisation. Please contribute to this series by sending in Cross Currents articles as well as information on which to base further study. “What’s New In Modern Dance?” begins the series."

While scanning through the dance collection in the library at Hampshire College I came across an article by Daniel Nagrin. In 1972 I was a member of the Workgroup, performing company directed by Nagrin. As dancers we were involved in exploring the space between structure & spontaneity (commonly known as improvisation). We focused on the shifting emotional and physical states within our bodies – alone and during interaction with others. In pursuing the expression of these states, physical contact was a natural & frequent occurrence.

After leaving the Workgroup and returning to teach at Bennington College (1972) I had my first glimpse of Contact Improvisation. It seemed to extract out of the ocean of possible improvisatory forms for 'dancing together' a structure rich enough to become a discipline in itself - a form that had at its source a purely physical focus. Herein, emotional states are noted not as initiators (as they are in the Workgroup) but as a natural by-product of the physical engagement. In the light of this reflection I find this excerpt from Nagrin's article, “The Creative Method of Tamiris,” published in Focus On Dance V/ Composition (196?) particularly interesting:

“... “Follow through” was a phrase often used. It always came up specifically in an exercise called "body contact" which was done by two or more dancers. The simplest version involved a pair of dancers facing each other and clasping each other's hands at shoulder height. The rules of this improvisation were: the initial movement could be started by either partner whenever he felt like it; the initiator had to follow through whatever he started to the utter limit; the one being moved had to offer life or presence, that is, enough resistance to create pressure against the specific action started by the initiator but never a rigid unyielding resistance. When the initiator had gone his limit, the partner would then initiate an action. Generally, the tempo of movement was quite slow, and one never moved except to follow through or respond to the other's pressure. Body contact was a startling exercise because in the dialogue between the two bodies, any pretense, a desire to look pretty or exciting, a lack of sensitivity to the object, a lack of vitality (unthinkable in a dancer), and the inability to follow through completely, would immediately become evident. Many of Tamiris' students received their first inkling of what she was driving at by doing and observing this exercise.

Body-contact exercises could be done by a minimum of two dancers and then by three, or by any number of people who would link arms, hands, legs in a variety of initial positions. Sometimes action was simply what was felt at the time. Other assignments would give each dancer a specific action, unknown to the others, as " to protect," " to lift the others high," or " to desire isolation." The contradictory actions when done fully and simply were improvisations full of life and gave the participants a sense of dance and inner action.

Tamiris herself used body-contact exercises creatively several times. In the 30s there was her suite for Walt Whitman, and in the late 50s, her "Dance for Walt Whitman" which built to a climax of more than 20 dancers linked in a great chain of movement. In the 60s she created "Arrows of Desire," a work that contained several passages of 2 and 3 dancers linked, swinging and pressing in complex intertwining passages of body contact.

In thinking it through today, one might say that body contact was her metaphor for choreography. She tried to help her students of choreography find movement through the most fully sensitized interplay of a specific action with a specific object, making that invisible object as palpable as the other dancer had been in the body-contact exercise...