Dance Improvisation Workshop Brings Stars Together
By Lou Fancher
Rarer than the supermoon total lunar eclipse that wowed skywatchers last September, as the full harvest moon slipped between the sun and Earth and glowed eerily red, three stars will line up to offer a three-day workshop May 20-22 at San Francisco Conservatory of Dance.
While the cosmic convergence has happened only five times since 1900 and won’t occur again until 2033, the constellation of burnsWORK founder and SFCD faculty member Christian Burns, contact improvisation teacher/performer Chris Aiken, and performer, teacher, engineer, and artist Ray Chung has never occurred before and may be a once-in-a-lifetime happening. Burns says an “incubator session” of rehearsals by the three renowned improvisers will be used to sculpt the architecture of the workshop, titled Degrees of Freedom.
“The actual nitty gritty of what we’re going to be investigating is going to be discovered in those three days of rehearsals we’ll do prior to the workshop,” says Burns.
Already, it’s fair to say that participants will benefit from the trajectories Burns, Aiken, and Chung represent in the field of contact improvisation. Approaching from movement origins that include formal classical ballet training (Burns), Alexander Technique, ideokinesis, fascia research, and ecological psychology (Aiken) and martial arts, bodywork, and Authentic Movement (Chung), the three artists arrive at the nexus of contact improvisation with nearly 60 years’ total experience as performers and investigators of the art form.
“After 45 years the form has changed the way contemporary dance is taught and the assumptions about what skills a dancer needs to know in that world,” says Aiken. “When practiced with intelligence this form teaches dancers skills that allow them to adapt to rapid change and uncertainty, it teaches them both how to listen and to be courageously present and playful. It teaches dancers how to communicate through touch.”
Perhaps improvisation’s broad, every-person-could-benefit practicality is why, unlike any other movement practice except yoga, contact improvisation has made distinct inroads into areas other than dance. In science, researchers and improvisational artists collaborate on studies of the brain and other human functions; in the business world, corporations offer special workshops, hoping to gain insight into activities that boost team-centered thinking. Other examples —in education, cross-cultural social projects and more— add credence to contact improvisation’s increasingly widespread appeal.
“As a tool, improvisation is helping dancers have more agency in extending the choreographer’s ideas,” says Burns. “Beyond that, there’s more interest in improv in terms of looking at it in philosophy and neuroscience. There are conversations going on about the intelligence of the brain and kinesthetic responsiveness and learning. Dance is a multidimensional practice and the larger world is starting to recognize that.”
Make no mistake, Burns says the workshop at SFCD is intended for people with a moderate level of contact improvisation experience. “But don’t be intimidated by the “intensive” label,” he says. “It’s helpful to have some experience, but the material lives where you’re at. It’s playful, fun, human.”
The first day, a two-hour session is primarily a guided warmup and “getting to know each other” jam, with the three leaders “passing the ball” during the session. The following two days are full: a morning session warmup followed by body work and skill practice (floor work, partnering, upside down skills), lunch; and an afternoon session focused on creative expression, composition, and shaping the work.
More than anything, Burns will be seeking and hoping people in the workshop experience a feeling he had decades ago. “I credit my parents for being creative people who formed my critical thinking mind. I always felt connected to something more subterranean underneath ballet. When I was exposed to formal improv in 1994, it was a light-switch moment for me. I was in hysterics the whole time because it was euphoric, playful, touch-filled. I loved partnering and when I could get my whole body involved, it was like coming home.”