One step beyond

Improvisation takes dancers into another dimension.

Most art is, by its very nature, intentional—you see what the artist wants you to see. It's planned, framed, and organized. Improvisation is an exception to that set of rules, a practice where the only thing you really count on is the unexpected. All performance has an element of risk, but an improvised event takes that edge even further. The benefit for the Seattle Festival of Alternative Dance and Improvisation, held at On the Boards last weekend, was a gratifying example of the rewards that chance can bring.

Steve Paxton and Friends

On the Boards, March 27

The featured performer of the program was Steve Paxton, best known as the developer of Contact Improvisation. Contact (as it's usually called) is based on the physical connection between performers, sharing weight and support while dancing. It's give and take with a doctorate, and requires an attention to the moment and to the group that transcends other conventional performance skills. The dancers aren't necessarily trying to show you anything; as an audience member you have to be as attentive to the process as the performers are.

In the solo Some English Suites, Paxton seems to take the attention he would usually give to a partner and transfers it to the floor. As his feet glide or dig in, the stage takes on a resilience beyond its construction; when his arm hovers above the ground it's as if he's hesitating before touching a lover's cheek. Paxton is a master of the place between equilibrium and unbalance, and spends considerable time not falling down when you think he might, but instead swoops in another direction through some aikido-influenced rolls back onto his feet. In the beginning, his attention is focused on his hands as they test the air, perhaps in response to the Glenn Gould recording of Bach's English Suites. Later, that shimmering ease is translated to Paxton's whole body as he travels downstage, arms gently waving, like a wayward Shiva.

Emery Blackwell's work in Tightrope posed a different set of challenges for the dancer and his audience. Although Blackwell has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, he doesn't consider himself disabled. He dares us to look beyond the usual responses of concern and pity, and see his work as a series of choices taken from a palette of movement. It's a tough assignment, but in the context of a dance form where anything is legitimate material, he highlights the fact that we're all limited in some fashion. When he slides from his chair to the floor, it's a decision rather than an accident, and when he shoves the chair so that it rolls offstage he may be alone, but he isn't necessarily abandoned. Neither a triumph or a tragedy, his action is just the way it is.

Following the movement of a solo figure is one thing, but it's quite another to track the 12 musicians and 10 dancers in Co-Brew, curated by Karen Nelson, Brent Arnold, and Carl Farrow. Using two different structures to coordinate the action (Lisa Nelson's Tuning Score for the dancers and John Zorn's Cobra for the musicians) the group trades shapes and impulses, with rhythms moving from musicians' feet to dancers' hands as often as the other way around. Both structures have elaborate feedback loops, so that participants can guide parts of the ensemble. Tuning Score uses a set of verbal cues ("hold," "play," "reverse"), so that the phrase "I'm over here," spoken as a dancer entered the space, translated to "ereh revo m'I" as they were instructed to reverse. Cobra includes hand signals, flash cards, and hats as semaphores in a denser matrix of commands, but these rules, like the children's games they resemble, grant considerable freedom to both dancers and musicians. The stage was full of action, roiling and shimmying, that resolves itself in a serendipitous moment—only to take off again. At one place, a trio shuffles across the stage, pointing here and there like the three wise men in the Christmas tale, only to have someone jump lightly onto their shoulders. Later, a wonky group rumba spreads out into a chorus line that gradually falls to floor.

One analogy that Paxton has given to describe contact improvisation is the game of basketball. The players may practice drills or work to get familiar with the ball, but in the end, like the direction in Tuning Score, they just play.

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