A Foreigner at the 2014 Warsaw Flow Contact Improvisation Festival
I already saved the date months before: 18-23 June, Warsaw Flow 2014 Contact Improvisation festival. Given the fact that it was going to be intense to discover the limits of my senses and enhance my awareness for a whole five days together with a lot of dancers arriving from all over the World, I’ve decided to extend my stay in order to have a chance to explore Warsaw itself.
CI : Contact Improvisation
Contact Improvisation is a partner-based dance form focusing on the physical principles of touch, momentum, shared weight, and most quintessentially - following a shared point of contact. The form was created in 1972 by Steve Paxton. Integrating his background as a modern dancer and his studies in the martial art form Aikido, Steve developed CI through explorations with his students and colleagues at the time. This dance practice explores the skills of falling, rolling, counterbalancing, lifting using minimal effort, making ourselves light when being lifted, centering and breathing techniques, and responsiveness to our partners and surroundings.
Contact Improvisation is honoring of every moment. There is a sweet surrender that occurs 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 stay still. In this form one learns to get involved fully at each choice, never forcing, never rushing. When the body, mind, and spirit are united in their instinctive wisdom, one finds oneself at home in every moment, expressing ones true nature.
Contact Improvisation in Turkey mainly takes place at ÇATI (Contemporary Dance and Dancers Foundation) in the form of weekly workshops and “Contact Jam Sessions,” which attract a growing community of dancers and others who are interested. The resident team of ÇATI Studios has been conducting many activities since 2006, following tremendous personal input from Defne Erdur, with the aim of sharing this wonderful experience with whoever stumbles upon it.
Warsaw Flow 2014
Poland Contact Improvisation Festival: Warsaw Flow 2014 was an amazing accomplishment for a very select community of contemporary dance enthusiasts. Since the first organization in 2010, the festival crew succeeded in delivering a wonderful experience once again in its 5th year. Well-known pioneers of Contact Improvisation Nancy Stark Smith, Ray Chung and Andrew Harwood, accompanied by improvisational musician Mike Vargas and many other valuable instructors from all over Europe and the United States, provided new perspectives on simple movement techniques and shared their lifetime experiences. Other than an intense program of classes and laboratory work, Contact Jam Sessions took place every night of the festival with different themes.
Accommodations for guests from different cities and countries were arranged at a really nice hotel, which was walking distance from the classes and dance spaces, and included delicious meals from a local bistro.
Another traditional and Global CI event led by Nancy Stark Smith herself, “Global Underscore,” was also apart of this year’s festival and took place on summer solstice 22th of June between 16:00 and 20:00 in synchrony throughout the whole world.
First Days of Arrival
I took my first step into this foreign country three days before the start of the festival. Right after my plane landed on a Monday evening, I went directly to 45 Ujazdowskie Street to satisfy another passion of mine: “Tango Argentino”. A local friend informed me about the best weekly milonga in Warsaw, “Milonga Una Emocion”, which takes place at a lovely old-fashioned restaurant. Thanks to my good friend Monika Sitek, my first four hours in Poland already felt like the beginnings of a festival.
I had to leave the milonga a bit earlier than I would have liked, hoping to get “some” sleep before my short train trip to another historical city of Poland, Cracow! With no worries over lack of time for shower or sleep, I caught my 04:30 train and started enjoying the ride. God, I had missed traveling by train!
Another good local friend, Sylwia, took me by the hand and showed me around in beautiful Cracow. Unstained by the Second World War, the entire city stood like a monument. Most buildings in the town center are older than a century and it was an amazing delight to dance/walk trough the city with Sylwia. After my first impressions on Warsaw, I realized that Cracow is the “real” tourist attraction. Local residents of the city don't enjoy this fact very much.
The rest of the day was all about enjoying life in lots of nice café houses and trying out some traditional snacks. Some sour sweet strawberries, which Sylwia picked up before meeting with me, were amazing treats. Our day ended with a dish from the local cuisine, “Pierogi”. As other Turkish guests, I noticed its obvious similarities with “Turkish Mantı,” but the ingredients in Pierogi still made a huge difference.
My perfect day in Cracow, combined with my travel exhaustion from yesterday, made me head to bed early. Another great breakfast by my amazing host and enjoying the remainder of the strawberries provided me with the right energy to enjoy the returning trip.
As always, I was the first to arrive at the Contemporary Art Center inside the historical Ujazdowski Castle, earlier than everyone else. I enjoyed this extra bit of time by walking around, admiring its astonishing ambience, and engaging myself in a “mental arrival”.
Registration started with the arrival of other guests and lovely Paulina, among the team of organizers. Up to this point, my experience in getting to know CI dancers was limited to my friends in Turkey, and it struck me to recognize the same enthusiastic sprit and lighthearted way of enjoying life here in Warsaw. I was looking at these faces with lots of anticipation and trying to inhale the atmosphere itself. Just by coincidence, I met my soon-to-be roommate, Johan Ljunggren, and we decided to move our luggage into the room.
After some small talk with several people and rushing through a pleasant dinner, we ended up in the laboratory building and took our places in the opening circle. The organizing team, instructors and guests totaled up to approximately seventy people, filling the beautiful space with much more presence than their actual beings. Introductions followed by four hours of dancing devoured every bit of energy we could spare until we ended up sleeping peacefully in our beds.
The following days were really simple; “Eat, Dance, Sleep…Repeat!” Really intense classes with Ray Chung and Andrew Hardwood easily deconstructed and rebuilt my idea of movement all together. I spent my days testing my own physical, mental and spiritual limits and enhancing my awareness while meeting these very interesting people surrounding me wherever I went, and nights broke free from every bit of mental block while I flowed with my body all over others.
This quite primitive communication method, although I was pretty new to the idea, started to shape my mood and personality while I continued to make my way through each day seven hours of class, which ended with dancing all night until the very last minute. I was really amazed to share the same space with everyone else who came from their own distant lives, with different educational backgrounds in different disciplines, but who all eventually ended up there.
Putting aside the intensive program, exclusive laboratory work and a different themed Jam session every night, raw and basic human contact was the primal experience for me to overcome my own being and broaden my horizon in life. Enhancing my mental awareness while discovering CI with people back in Turkey whom I can understand on many levels was something, but inferring similar ideas of awareness from these people with whom I don’t even have the same roots was mesmerizing.
One of the themes that took place in the Jam sessions was “Blind Jam”. In order to have this marvelous experience every participant is supposed to wear blind folds and try to understand their surroundings by simply trusting their remaining senses. Every “body” that I got used to disappeared one by one and was redefined as a whole single being in the room. Single handedly, this part was the most intense experience of the festival.
After attending one of Ray Chung’s classes where he proposed the concept of “Swimming under your skin”, every occasion of simply touching someone created beyond the imagination an experience of “being together”. A simple stroke to someone else’s arm resulted in feeling their bodies as an extension of my own mentality and even beyond that any idea of perception dissolved very easily with the flow of the movement. Meanwhile, in Andrew Hardwood’s exercises, we experienced looking beyond our immediate surroundings; beyond the person we are in actual contact with and accepting the whole room with animate and inanimate objects around us to become both an inspiration for our improvisation and input for our perceptions. Those exercises resulted in releasing our individualities into a collective form of thinking, as would be the case for a flock of birds or a school of fish moving in unity: A thoroughly satisfying experience of taking leadership and giving it away while being a part of the collective.
The term “Underscore” is a sub-contextual concept for CI gatherings, suggested in 1990s by Nancy Stark Smith and developed ever since. Similar to all types of improvisation, CI suggests a truly free willed and independently inspired way of moving. Nancy explains that, as with every other social gathering, a CI Jam naturally follows the pattern of simple phases and the flow of a score, which is not kept by anyone. This flow may or may not consist of individuals physically and mentally arriving at the space, acknowledging others and the environment itself and adapting to their surroundings through several types of warm-up exercises on their bodies and awareness.
Anyone who “has arrived” and “is aware” eventually comes across different ways of contacting others through various methods spanning from physical contact, getting together and splitting apart, to simple empathy or a feelings of contrast, all of which are thoroughly analyzed and beautifully described through an artistic point of view. Obviously, all these declarations of a score are mere suggestions, since every individual is free to experience the event in their own way.
Since I didn’t have a chance to work with Nancy Stark Smith at this year’s festival, I was really excited to attend her briefing about Global Underscore. All the information I gathered about her greatness proved to be true throughout the two hours of her talk. Her approach to dance is definitely scientific, which I can fully relate to as an Engineer myself.
As she explained “Global Underscore” is a worldwide event that annually takes place during the summer solstice. Every attendant should be informed about the concept of an underscore and follow a not so strict flow of phases in synchronization with other people in many other locations worldwide. Although there is a center or headquarter to this event –which was Warsaw this year–the main idea is to create a mental connection and a feeling of unity throughout the communities of CI that exist around the world. This year, an amazing number of dancers applied from forty nine countries to Global Underscore and locations covered extreme distances like Australia and Russia, which is even more amazing keeping in mind some sessions started at 04:00 am in certain locations.
Global underscore starts with an opening circle and is followed by free movement while comprehending the phases of our pattern suggested by Nancy. At a predefined time interval people started standing still and listening to their bodies in “Small Dance” form which is an involuntary type of movement suggested by Steve Paxton, performed while facing the direction of the upcoming Underscore location in east Odesa, Ukraine. The whole globe in synchrony faced the closest next location in the east and imagined that we are creating a full circle in global perspective and creating the desired collective way of thinking about one another.
After that period was over, the following three hours were a satisfying blur of movement and pure mental commitment to the moment itself, so much so that I still have trouble trying to figure out what I was doing at any given time! The dominant feeling was thinking about all the other people attending this flow, and my friends back in Istanbul, even though they weren’t properly registered for the event, were also rolling on top of each other inside a very familiar space to mine. Almost by pure luck, while I was just trying to catch my breath on the side of the stage, Nancy shouted “Last five minutes,” which created a dramatic change in the atmosphere. The crowd reached a peak in the emotional impact of free movement and the collective mind was of a lunatic at that point. I had a chance to record a brief video of that special moment and eventually joined in myself.
In the closing circle, everyone enjoyed treats of sliced watermelon and chocolates, which definitely tasted more delicious at that moment. The Global Underscore ended with individuals sharing their feelings and comments throughout the circle.
Final jam and beyond
The festival ended with a final closing Jam and circle after the Global Underscore. An improvised performance by the instructors was scheduled for the following night, which left us with a free Monday. In contrast to all the dense emotions in me, I was still very enthusiastic to continue moving more and more. It was the perfect moment for a friend to suggest an outdoor performance for us to plan and attend it.
Little did I know, it was a tradition for the festival guests to pick a location in the city and create a site-specific performance, limited only by the chosen time and space. As a group of twelve people we started roaming through the city on foot trying to visit as many places as possible until the performance time that night. I was still over flooded with kinetic energy and couldn’t stop messing around with the environment, my friends or other innocent (!) people passing by. Our furor was met with curiosity and interest by the locals, as well as kind warnings by the local security officers.[Unknown A1] Kolumna Zygmunta (Seigmund’s Column) in the old city of Warsaw was the chosen location for our performance to come at the end of the day.
Another performance “Women – Retrospective of Madness” preceded the main event of the night, which was a lovely contemporary application of the subject, showing the contrast between any woman “fashioned” by society and the freedom that follows after leaving their respective shells. I couldn’t take my eyes off a specific dancer named Paulina Jędrzejczyk, whom I had the privilege to dance with three nights ago at the silent jam session. Through and through, it was a very satisfying performance for me.
The moment our professional instructors stepped on the stage, the atmosphere changed fully. Their great experience in reflecting mental insight via their rich way of movement was definitely inspiring. Their dance was so intense and mesmerizing that I almost felt every touch, push or smudge as my own. The key element to the performance was of course the “child play” that comes naturally with CI. When you consider any one of them bearing an average of forty years of dance experience, it was delightful to see the stage turn into somewhat a toy park at a kindergarten.
The next day began enjoying a nice cup of coffee with my roommate Johan before we headed out to our site-specific performance location. The opening circle gathered a bit later than planned and it was decided to have certain limits like time and space coverage.
Since we were already full of intense emotions, we easily lost ourselves in the movement while some spectators gathered around and even some joined us without fully contemplating what we were actually doing. In my own mind, I didn’t notice any difference inside me only because it was supposed to be a performance; rather, it was a delicious sensation to be working once more and creating together with these beautiful souls.
I’m not certain if it will be ever possible to describe it fully in words, but my trip to Poland resulted in an experience of “contact” beyond space, time and the organization itself. I can easily say walking hand in hand through Cracow with Sylwia; lovely people I’ve met at the hostel; festival people who inhaled the same air with me for days; the random big guy whom I gave a shoulder lift at 3a.m. and who was “too curious” about what contact improvisation is about, and every single person who passed by me and smiled back while I was walking/dancing the city, all managed to reach under my skin.
I was really happy to say – and even happier that it was recorded in the closing circle of Global Underscore – that I got to “know” every single person sitting in that circle that day. I’ve picked up various bits and pieces of all these people to carry them with me from now on, and to get inspired by them in shaping the remaining days of my life.