Student Reporter Project

Contact: This is an Experiment

By Emma Cullen
  • Dance Artists at Pulse Ontario Dance Conference / Photo courtesy of Emma Cullen

Merce Cunningham once described his creative process by stating, “There’s no thinking involved in my choreography … I don’t work through images or ideas. I work through the body … If the dancer dances, which is not the same as having theories about dancing or wishing to dance or trying to dance, everything is there. When I dance, it means: this is what I am doing.”

I think there is a false impression around dance culture nowadays. Thanks to western media and reality TV shows such as Dancing with the Stars and Dance Moms, dance has become more about competition and performing manicured steps and less about the freedom to express oneself though movement and creativity. We are so used to seeing the perfected finished products of dances that there is little appreciation for the journey there. Have you ever wondered how pieces of movement became part of a dance in the first place, or why a choreographer chose to do that particular step at that particular moment in the music? Well … it may seem strange to some, but a lot of inspiration for creating movement is derived from playing with improvisation.

Creating movement through experimentation is an integral part of the choreographic process, but it is rarely put on display for people to appreciate. Many young dancers have not had the opportunity to be exposed to the creative process or the idea that dancing without planning can lead to spectacular creations of art. However, at the Pulse Ontario Dance Conference held in Ottawa May 12th through 15th, high school dance students from across the province gathered and were enlightened by the experience of witnessing the extraordinary artistic products of contact improvisation.

While at Pulse, one of the evening performances titled ‘Contact’ really stood out for me and many other Pulse attendees. The performance showcased ten artists in total, including Lauren Cook, Jasmyn Fyffe, Frost Flow, Karen Kaeja, Allen Kaeja, Amanda Davis, Francesca Chudnoff, Shakeil Rollock and DJ Nigel Edwards. What is important to note about all of these dancers is that they all come from different dance backgrounds. Some are classically trained, others were classically trained but are now urban contemporary movers. There were experts in contact dancing, and even a b-boy. Despite the diversity in this group of artists’ dance styles, they all had one thing in common. Whatever type of dancing they chose to do during the performance was absolutely improvised. Everything from the music to who was dancing together was completely random.

Names were drawn out of a hat by members of the audience and five duets were made. It all happened in the moment and it was extraordinarily organic. The excited reactions of over one hundred Pulse delegates inside the theatre created an electric environment. For Darci Cziranka, a grade 11 student at O’Neill C.V.I, it was by far one of the most breathtaking performances she’s ever seen: “The performance had such an unbelievable energy, everyone in the audience sat at the edge of their seat unsure of what was about to come.”

I think that was the beauty of this particular event, because both the viewers and the dancers were on an even playing field, each unaware of what was about to happen. Sure, there were definite moments when things just didn’t align or make sense, but there were many more times full of what I have learned to call “happy accidents”: moments that work so well together, it just feels too good to be true. Whether it was a complementary shape the dancers made or unexpected synchronicity between the movers and the music, situations like these capture the essence of creating through experimentation. The dancers who were fortunate enough to attend Pulse were given an exclusive look into the important role improvisation plays within the creative process.

There is something beautiful about working with raw movement, material that was created from deep within the dancer’s body. However, moving like this is a real skill to be mastered.  The ability to dance without over thinking is tricky because it requires the confidence to be free in your movement and not calculate the next move you plan to take. Contact improvisation demands trust and unspoken communication between partners. As much as you must get outside of your own “head space” to create successful improv, you must get inside your partner’s to try to understand their movement patterns and predict their next move. In a situation like ‘Contact’ at Pulse, where the performers were in an unfamiliar environment, working with unfamiliar dancers in unfamiliar styles, the ability to adapt was needed as well.

Of course, not everything in improvisation is going to work out, but nothing is ever useless. Choreography is rarely set in its first draft; refining or editing almost always follows. The choreographic process is just that, a process. Experimentation is a tool to help develop, guide and inspire you in your movement creation. Nevertheless, improvisation is the truest reflection of your own dancing because it comes from inside the soul, a place untouched by over thinking and over-analysing. In this, you can let yourself be you. 

Pulse Ontario Dance Conference is an event providing high school dancers and educators with the opportunity to gather, participate, explore, inspire, learn and grow in dance. The conference ran in Ottawa, Ontario from May 12th through 15th at the University of Ottawa Theatre Facility.

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