Georgia – Contact Improv Journey
Contact Improvisation is an honoring of every moment. There is a sweet surrendering that happens when our bodies stay faithful to what is happening now, and now… and NOW! One learns to recognize and differentiate subtle impulses in our movement choices and our partner’s choices. We begin to decipher the cues that we give and receive which tell us when to lead or follow, when to go up, when to go down, where to touch, how to lift, when to slow down, and when to be still. In this form one learns to stay in integrity with each choice, never forcing, never rushing. When Body, Mind, and Spirit are united in their instinctive wisdom one finds ones-self at home in every moment expressing one’s true nature.
– Mark Moti Zemelman
22 June – 2 July 2014
As if going to Georgia weren’t unusual enough, we decided to go there with a traveling contact improvisation dance (contact improv, or CI, for short) group and dance our way around the country. It was pretty funny trying to explain those two things to those who asked about our travels, but, now, after the fact, we can’t think of a better way to see a country. We danced in the National Theater, in a bohemian puppet theater, in an ancient cave city, in the forest, and high up in the Caucasus mountains. Georgian TV came to film us. Twice. Contact improv, to viewers who have no idea what it is, can look like a bunch of crazy people on drugs acting like total degenerates. But we were the soberest, sanest, wisest group of misfits.
The organizers made this video at the Kiev CI Festival, a few months prior to our journey. Many of the same dancers joined us in Georgia.
In CI there is no choreography (of course) and only one rule, “Take Care of Yourself”, which refers not only to knowing your physical limitations, but to a broader philosophy of self-responsibility in relationship. The dance begins when two (or more) people approach each other and decide based on body language whether to get closer. How much closer? It’s all up to the moment. When physical contact is established, it can include anything from a brief brush of skin to holding the entire weight of a partner, and everything in between. Once you touch, contact is maintained, except when it’s not, if you’re playing with space. Otherwise, weight is shared, and skin, muscle, or bones can be explored. Who leads and who follows is constant or constantly changing. Sometimes the movements are imperceptibly slow, sometimes uproariously fast. Everything is on the table. You might be up in the air or rolling over each other on the floor.
Contact improv feels radical, provocative, and subversive. Maybe most forms of dance felt so at some point in their history. But CI just totally blows out the speakers with the level of its daring.
Consider how many places there are in the world where unrelated men and women rarely talk to each other, and certainly cannot touch each other. The radical thing about CI is that total strangers can meet and dance in full physical contact: men and men, women and men, women and women. We’re talking much more contact than other partner dances. We’re talking rolling on the floor over each other and sometimes ending up with your partner’s butt in your face.
I love that in CI, I can strike up a dance with a stranger in confidence that even full-on physical contact will be respected as dance, safely in non-sexual space. Even dancing with many partners from many countries, I have always found a mutual respect for each other and for the dance.
That this dance can exist gives me hope. I also think that it can heal the debt of physical touch that many people have in our sometimes impersonal cities, offices, and lives. Indeed, many people say they appreciate exactly this quality of the dance, a safe, non-sexual source of intimate, creative and playful physical contact.
For me (Jacob), CI used to make me nervous. Because it looks so fun and allows for a theoretically infinite range of expression, I always wanted to be better at it. For these 10 days, I entered fully into this formless dance, participating in all the experiments and dancing with as many partners as I could. I love that I could try on different personas and play out roles and emotions I might usually avoid, just like in improv acting. The space created by the overall improv philosophy, where everything is welcomed, made lots of room for my spontaneity and playful expression. I had some of the most fun dancing I’ve ever had, and in the most inspiring settings. Between the people and the activities, this group was one of my favorites out of the six or so group experiences we’ve had on this trip.
In our group, most of the participants were from Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia (there was also 1 from Kazakhstan, 1 Australian, 2 Israelis, 1 Canadian, a handful of Europeans, and us – the only Americans). The dominant language was definitely Russian. We LOVED these dancers and the improvisational life they exemplified – that present-moment agility, that readiness-for-anything – and improv was not confined to the dance, but saturated daily life. And so, as a group of 40, we adapted with flair to all kinds of living, eating, traveling, and dancing conditions. It was profound, it was skillful, it was beautiful.
Georgia is a special place. Although it has been invaded many times by different civilizations (Persians, Russians…) its culture remains unique. The Georgian language looks similar to Burmese, with a curvy, symbolic script, and it is not related to any neighboring languages. The people are at once proud and friendly – Americans can stay for 365 days in the country with no visa. The dominant languages are Georgian and Russian, and thank goodness we were touring the country with a group of Georgians and Russians. Otherwise, it would have been perhaps impossible to get around.
In many ways Georgia felt familiar, and for once we didn’t stick out walking down the street. Styles of dress and styles of interacting were more casual, and sometimes the country seemed to exist in a bygone age, like an America before there were public safety rules. Smoking was the default – sometimes there were no non-smoking rooms in hotels, and taxi drivers immediately lit up without consulting us. During the four hours from the train station to our remote destination in the Caucasus mountains of Upper Svaneti, our driver stopped twice – first for some vodka shots and then to drink beer, all before noon.
Georgia is known for its theater, dance, and singing – we were treated to the most beautiful impromptu concert our first afternoon there at a cafe. Three men sitting at another table drank copious amounts of wine and gave us a free sample of their culture’s famous polyphony.
Georgian food was a delicious surprise. I had never heard of any of the traditional dishes – things like khatchapuri (flavorful local cheese [oh, how I miss it!] between pillow-y layers of bread, similar to a quesadilla) and khinkali (dumplings). My favorite things were lobio (baked beans in a clay pot with spices) and lobiani (refried bean pie). And lots of tomato and cucumber salads with walnut sauce.
With our dance tour, we got to be in hostels, a home-stay, and a hotel. In the forest, our home-stay was a large complex out in the countryside, where all 40 of us filled two houses, along with local residents. Some people slept outside. Jacob played chess with an old Georgian man who lived there (won one, lost one), and Inna (one of the organizers) cooked us three thoughtful vegetarian meals a day.
Our lives for 10 days were a dreamy repeating pattern of sleeping, yoga, dancing, eating, dancing, eating, bonding, writing, and dancing. It was the best life.