Contact improvisation -- a dance technique of mutual support and weight shifts based on the spontaneous interaction of two partners -- was conceived by Steve Paxton in 1972 as a non-theatrical form. That was abundantly clear Saturday when the eighth D.C. International Improvisation Plus Festival presented an evening of contact improvisations that must have been stimulating to perform but were boring to watch.
The program at George Washington University's Marvin Center -- the first of the festival's two programs in a two-weekend schedule -- supposedly featured interactive video and sound technology with dance, but this was the case with only three of the seven works presented. The visual stimulation of live camera feeds (as in the effective "Between" by the Brazilian team of Lali Krotoszynski and Soraya Sabino) and a bodysuit with electronic sensors that controlled music and images (Hedkikr's repetitive "Cytoblasty") was short-lived.
For most of the program, the audience was left to grapple with the tedium of watching groups of unskilled dancers perform long sequences of ordinary movements (sometimes accompanied by words) that explored balance and mutual trust. Nancy Havlik's "Scrapple" and Sharon Mansur's "trajectory altered slightly" should have kept to Paxton's original intent and stayed where intimate contact improvisation fares best: in the studio, where it serves as an exciting exercise for participants. Thankfully, New York's Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People and the international trio Asphodele Danses Envol presented only excerpts of works, for even these were unbearably long. Despite being backed by huge screened images, "3-D View/Future View" by George Washington University professor Maida Withers (who founded the festival) suffered from the same self-indulgent movement doodling.
True, contact improvisation has evolved since the 1970s and is often presented nowadays as spectacle in a group performance (instead of by a duo), as it was on Saturday night. But any and all improvisation is a delicate matter. Many dancers enjoy improvising, but few do it well. We accept that when it comes to jazz musicians, for example. So why should we expect anything different of modern dancers? The true value of this festival is the experience that the participants have improvising and interacting. If this performance was any indication, observers must be prepared to feel secondary.