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Talking Politics of Contact Improvisation with Steve Paxton

  • Royona Mitra

Extract

In the autumn of 2015, on the back of the publication of my monograph Akram Khan: Dancing New Interculturalism (Mitra 2015), I was settling into my Brunel University London-sponsored sabbatical to kick-start my postdoctoral research project, then titled “Historicizing and Mapping British Physical Theatre.” At that stage, this new field of study, methodology, and tone of enquiry felt significantly different from the decolonial spirit of my book, which examines the works of the British-Bangladeshi dance artist Akram Khan at the intersections of postcoloniality, race, gender, sexuality, mobility, interculturalism, and globalization, arguing for his choreographic choices as discerning political acts that decenter the whiteness of contemporary western dance from his position within this center. With this new project I was keen, instead, to investigate the development of “British physical theatre” as an interdisciplinary genre that emerged interstitially between and through its “double legacy in both avant-garde theatre and dance” (Sánchez-Colberg 2007, 21) with a particular emphasis on what the import of the choreographic vocabulary of partnering would have brought to these experiments. Very conscious that the now ubiquitous aesthetic of partnering in contemporary Euro-American theater dance derived its roots from the somatic explorations of contact improvisation, I was intrigued to examine how the genre of British physical theatre would have engaged with choreographic touch from its somatic beginnings in contact improvisation to its politicized and aestheticized manifestation in partnering. I was also conscious, of course, of the role that Steve Paxton, the artist whose name has become synonymous with contact improvisation's inception and development in 1970s United States, had to play in teaching contact improvisation in the dance program at Dartington College of Arts in the United Kingdom (UK) in the 1970s and 1980s. Driven by a need to examine the potential relationship between Dartington's 1970s movement experiments with Paxton and contact improvisation, and the emergence of partnering as a key aesthetic within British contemporary dance, specifically its manifestation in physical theatre, I wanted to interview Paxton himself. Needless to say, I was of course fully aware of the difficulty in making such an important research opportunity materialize. However, within months, the remarkable generosity of our dance studies network, in this instance embodied by Professors Susan Foster and Ann Cooper Albright, and the dance artist Lisa Nelson, led me to the inbox of Steve Paxton himself in November 2015. Paxton was instantly responsive to my e-mail communications, and deeply invested and committed to sharing his experiences and insights with me. We arranged our Skype interview for early 2016, agreeing that this would give me enough time to research existing interviews with Paxton, in print and on video, to ensure that I could delineate my own questions for him in productive ways. The more I researched, the more a feature of the extensive archive of interviews with Paxton revealed itself: the predominant absence of bodies and perspectives of color from the early days of contact improvisation's experiments. This absence, in turn, became more and more present in my thinking.

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Footnotes

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I am indebted to Professors Susan Foster and Ann Cooper Albright, and dance artist Lisa Nelson for leading me to Steve Paxton. This interview and the pathways it opens up for reimagining the future of contact improvisation, would not be possible without their generosity. I am also grateful to Arabella Stanger for her insightful and vital comments during the drafting of this piece. Most importantly, I am thankful to Steve Paxton for his openness and warmth in all our interactions, and of course his reflections on contact improvisation through the lens of my very particular set of questions and positionality.

Footnotes

References

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Albright, Ann Cooper. 2017. “The Politics of Perception.” In The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Politics, edited by Kowal, Rebekah J., Siegmund, Gerald, and Martin, Randy, 223243. New York: Oxford University Press.
Fraleigh, Sondra, ed. 2015. Moving Consciously: Somatic Transformations through Dance, Yoga, and Touch. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Goldman, Danielle. 2010. I Want to Be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Horwitz, Carol A. 1995. “Challenging Dominant Gender Ideology through Dance: Contact Improvisation.” PhD. Diss., University of Iowa: Iowa City.
Keogh, Martin. 2018. Dancing Deeper Still: The Practice of Contact Improvisation. Intimately Rooted Books.
Mitra, Royona. 2015. Akram Khan: Dancing New Interculturalism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Mitra, Royona. 2016a. “Contact Improvisation: Research Interview.” E-mail to Steve Paxton, February 10.
Mitra, Royona. 2016b. “Interview Questions.” E-mail to Steve Paxton, February 16.
Novack, Cynthia J. 1990. Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Pallant, Cheryl. 2006. Contact Improvisation: An Introduction to a Vitalizing Dance Form. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Publishers.
Paxton, Steve. 2008. Material for the Spine: A Movement Study. (DVD-ROM). Brussels: Contredanse Editions.
Sánchez-Colberg, Ana. 2007. “Altered States and Subliminal Spaces: Charting the Road Towards a Physical Theatre.” In Physical Theatres: A Critical Reader, edited by Keefe, John and Murray, Simon, 2125. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
Yohalem, Hannah. 2018. “Displacing Vision: Contact Improvisation, Anarchy, and Empathy.” Dance Research Journal 50 (2): 4561.

Talking Politics of Contact Improvisation with Steve Paxton

  • Royona Mitra

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