Soft contact

A master of improv invites the audience into his studio.

LAST WEEK, 40-YEAR-OLD New York choreographer Andrew Marcus met me at a local dance studio. During two weeks of e-mail correspondence, we had barely scratched the surface of his intriguing theories of dance improvisation, so I still had many questions and wanted to experience his approach firsthand.

Andrew Marcus' "Technique For A Soft Body" Informal Open Observation

Velocity Studio

January 8, 9:30-11:20am

We began by sitting on the floor in our sweats talking about what Marcus calls a "soft" technique. "Dancing is more satisfying and beautiful," he said, "when the body is sensitive and permeable—in other words, 'soft.' To make the body really open, receptive, and expressive is a skill, but the dancer must desire it and be willing to work through and set aside a lot of defenses." I had seen Marcus embody these elusive movement characteristics beautifully in solo and duet performances at last year's Seattle Festival of Alternative Dance and Improvisation. Now he suggested we try a duet. The intent, he said, was to pay attention—to myself, to the environment, to him—and respond honestly through movement.

Marcus set the timer for five minutes. I was so disoriented at first that I felt as if I had been airlifted onto Mars, yet I managed somehow to walk around in geometric patterns, limbs gesturing, vaguely playing follow-the-leader, uncomfortably aware of trying not to look stupid.

Marcus' verbal dance language (line, shape, flow, etc.) is deceptively open to interpretation. For instance, it took us forever to figure out that I equate "line" with attenuation, and he does not. He assured me during our discussion afterward that openness does not imply laxity. "Unfortunately," he said, "a lot of improvisers and as a result, audience members, feel that improvised performance is an excuse to be indecisive in intention or unclear in execution. A lot of artists work improvisationally out of convenience. Somehow the excuse 'I was just improvising' protects them from having to take responsibility for clear theatrical expression."

MARCUS' TASTE for rigor developed early on. He grew up attending both the ballet and performances by Martha Graham. Both styles of dance are extremely codified, structured, and controlled. In college, his education in art derived from the classical European tradition in painting. When pressed to make analogies, he replies, "I have a strong interest in light, spatial clarity, and psychological depth, similar to Vermeer; I believe in a refinement toward abstraction and a consistent, spiritual search for truth as in Mondrian. I also identify with Pontormo [a little-known Italian mannerist], who, coming out of and abstracting the lessons of the Renaissance, invented the most beautiful, personal conception of the human figure and its movement."

For years, Marcus was only interested in seeing ballet because he believed it was the only "real" dance. But then in 1983, he underwent an epiphany. "That year I went to see a series of contact improvisation performances that had a profound effect upon me. It seemed to me the most generous, revealing, and at the same time challenging approach to performance that I had ever experienced. I decided I had to study this work." Later, he studied martial arts, yoga, and myriad alternative movement techniques, including Alexander, Klein, and Releasing.

Marcus currently teaches improv at the Experimental Theater Wing of New York University and at the Theater Division of Eugene Lang College at the New School, as well as in festivals and workshops around the country. "When I first began to explore experimental dance," he said, "I went to see the Cunningham company and thought it was a joke—I hated it. So even though it is in my nature to seek new forms, it took a long time for me to change the way I see. As a painter, if I want to create 'perfection' I can make an unchanging image. As a dancer, what thrills me are the mysterious and ever-changing conditions of the body and mind."

By the time of this printing, Marcus will have taught four days of his weeklong dancers' workshop in "Technique for a Soft Body." His Open Observation session this Friday at Capitol Hill's Velocity Studio will afford people a rare opportunity: a look, up close, at the master at work with his students as they learn to dance with agility and awareness.

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