Dance Improvisation – Exploring the Unlimited Potential of the Body
3rd Space: Welcome, Kirstie. Your Improvisation work has always expanded the boundaries of contemporary dance. Could you start by telling us about the origins of your journey?
Kirstie: I always had a strong co-ordinated body and was good at sport. But I quickly realised that sports were all about winning. I was not interested in that. So, my mother suggested I try dancing. I went to a dance college and did a formal training in ballet, contemporary dance, choreography. However, although I couldn’t articulate it, I felt something was missing; something was not right about the intense control of the body. It wasn’t until I left college, joined a dance company, and met Steve Paxton the originator of Contact Improvisation, that a light bulb switched on for me.
Contact Improvisation is all about exploring the limits of the body and its unlimited potential. There’s tremendous freedom in this exploration, in letting the body guide you. What happened was quite profound for me. In my second class with Paxton, we were doing a simple exercise, sharing a centre of gravity with another person. You had to let go to collaborate with your partner. And it was in that moment that something occurred— a prior knowing with a clear message, “All you will ever need to know in this life is already present within you.” From that moment my life changed. I recognised the truth of this even though I didn’t really understand what it meant. I remember running through the fields after the class crying, because prior to that experience I had always felt I had to prove myself worthy.
My focus switched completely. I understood intuitively that I was part of a whole, and that my life was about discovering what my unique voice was as part of this whole; that the idea of proving oneself is based on a false sense of separation. It became clear to me that there is an intelligence at the foundation of myself and the whole of life. So, I decided, “Okay, I’m an improviser. This is what I’m going to do in my life.” Intuitively, I understood it was about undoing all the habits I had acquired from a perspective of separation from life itself. I set about undoing them. And immediately began teaching.
For years I was terrified because I didn’t quite know what I was doing. But in some strange way that was perfect. I had to discover what my voice was. I wasn’t going to just teach what Steve Paxton taught. Although indebted to my early study of Contact Improvisation, I went on to explore my own relationship to the moving body studying Aikido, Alexander Technique, Meditation and the Development of Consciousness. Touch has remained integral to the Dance Improvisation that I have been teaching for the past 45 years. I still feel that I don’t know what ‘this’ is. But in a way, that’s the key. And that’s why I’m still interested in it; why I’m still exploring, still discovering. Instead of building up knowledge where I know exactly what I’m doing and who I am, it’s actually a constant process of undoing.
I’ve tried to find a way in my teaching to bring this in – to take one’s hands off and allow Life to tell you what ‘she’ is asking for. And this is something that you can practice with your body.
When you’re working very closely with others in an exploration of the unknown together, something else can start to come through. However, if you perfect this or that move, then you’re simply doing ‘moves’ on each other. And right there you’re totally limited. When I saw this, I started to practice something called ‘the hands that don’t want anything’. Placing your hands on your partner, when they move you are simply there with them. You neither direct nor inhibit them. You try not to do anything except be with them. As a result, something emerges out of that togetherness of being.
Observing all this taught me a lot. And it is only recently that I began to realise this is what decolonisation is about. I don’t use this term, but I feel life is asking us to step back, to get out of the way and see what our place really is, what needs to happen for us to protect, not dominate life, not impose our will as we’ve been doing. The planet is in such terrible shape because we’ve imposed without understanding what it is that we’re part of.
Healing the Planet, Healing Ourselves
3rd Space: it sounds like the epiphany you experienced in those early years has led you to a radically different relationship to life. Given the circumstances we are in now where so much damage has been inflicted on the world, can you speak a little about the topic of resilience and ways we can respond?
Kirstie: I think an integral part of healing the planet is healing ourselves. We cannot heal the planet without healing ourselves, and the trauma that’s been passed down due to our sense of disconnection and isolation. Interestingly, traumas I’ve suffered in my lifetime and inherited through my ancestry, I’ve healed through the movement work. Participants start to experience this also. We talk a lot about the healing that needs to be done, but it’s in a wholistic context. It’s not therapy. Students simply move with the trauma as it arises, and this brings the energy through which we can start to talk about going beyond issues.
The context which I work within now is to do with healing the planet. Our personal healing is not an isolated experience to become a better person etc. It has a bigger context. It’s part of the work that humanity has been called to do. All I’m doing is responding to the current situation and bringing this as a context for the work we’re doing together. Our issues are part of the healing of the planet herself.
3rd Space: Are you seeing students open up naturally to this larger context?
Kirstie: Yes. We have created so many constructs based on our belief in our existential separation, that if we can open up to a process that has to do with life itself, a natural receptivity starts to occur; and what life is asking for right now starts to emerge.
A Deep Listening
Kirstie: I underwent an intense experience of cancer in 2020 during the Covid pandemic. A well-known fact in the cancer world is that in order to heal, you have to understand your reason for wanting to live. I don’t have children. I don’t have grandchildren. I’m not going to see future generations, which are often the reasons that people want to go on living. But I suddenly realised why I want to live is because I know that my cancer is intrinsically connected to what’s wrong on our planet right now. I was living in a place where fields were sprayed with chemicals four times a year. I wanted to live because being fully involved in my own healing is part of the healing of the planet. The practices and physical grounding supported me through what was a scary time. Connected to the life force, it was as if I was Improvising. It was extraordinary.
This gave me all the proof I needed that what is coming through in my work, is part of a natural process that opens us up to what is being called for. It’s a deep listening.
The Process of Dance Improvisation
3rd Space: Disconnection is the water we swim in. Our education, the worldview we grow up in, has inculcated each of us with a sense of existential separateness. From what I understand, the freedom and receptivity inherent in Dance Improvisation allows us to re-connect naturally with the intelligence of life itself?
Kirstie: Yes, absolutely. But only if that’s what your focus is. There are people involved with Improvisation who, as in conventional dance practices, focus on perfecting form rather than what is actually occurring – the epiphany I had with Paxton. That’s why I have worked to find a way to listen to that life force. It’s literally about getting out of the way so that we can become aware. And in Dance Improvisation this awareness is physical.
We do a lot of work starting with being on the earth. I watch the life force start to emerge, rising in the whole group and manifesting in the moving body. I talk about intelligence celebrating itself as we move. The students are in a receptive state because they’re giving to that; they’re opening to that. Many liken this to falling in love. But what we fall in love with often gets trained out of us. We get caught up in ambition, in being the ‘one’.
3rd Space: The cultural constructs you mention pretty much define what’s considered to be success today. But what you are describing is a different order of consciousness entirely. As you say, competitiveness and ambition, as cultural drivers, are not just harmful to us personally but are creating havoc with the life systems of the planet itself. Your work seems an important portal to a level of consciousness that is critical at this point for us to be able to fully respond.
Resilience, Form and Emptiness
3rd Space: I would like to return to the topic of resilience. The messages we’re receiving from our leaders are not inspiring, in fact they can often be despair-inducing. So, resilience, especially for young people, seems important.
Kirstie: There are different ways to look at this. One of these we touched on when we talked about life as being whole, fundamentally positive. If we are involved with people or with practices that allow us to connect with that positivity, we experience resilience. But I think at this point we need to tale care not to be casual about this. To be attentive about who we’re with, and what kind of practices we involve ourselves with. We need to nourish our connection to life, the source of our resilience. For instance, I seek forms that beget freedom and resilience as opposed to those that repress and constrict us.
3rd Space: Can you say more about this distinction?
Kirstie: A lot of my work is about coming together with others. The practices I design are for people to experience being together in ways that support and enhance, rather than direct. In ‘the hands that don’t want anything’ described earlier, one has to learn how to do that, how to rest in being. This is a big part of what I do. In that state there’s a deep listening and the intelligence of each body starts to communicate, together. Practising being together in different ways versus just talking about it, supports resilience.
3rd Space: Yes. Resilience is not a ‘thing’ but more a quality of being that emerges, that we discover.
3rd Space: Your teaching methods seem revelatory by nature. So, is your role then, to direct your students’ attention to becoming more aware and receptive?
Kirstie: Yes. Instead of building a kind of vocabulary of ‘knowing’, I’ve created a framework that creates openness. But I have to enter into this myself. Not in a prescribed way. Instead, I find myself becoming a conduit for something. What happens then in the classes is what Improvisation actually is. Students share the revelations that occur. This happens of itself. The learning about life happens through their experience, not through my telling them this or that. And that to me is how life is talking to us. This creates tremendous intimacy.
Improvisation Principles and Climate Activism
Kirstie: I understand from previous conversations we have had, that within the environmental movement of which you are involved, cultural structures are also being questioned. I see a correlation in this with Dance Improvisation. Practising a different way of being together.
3rd Space: Yes. One of the guiding principles of the climate movement is non-violence. Many think of non-violence as simply not being violent. But it’s based on a practice of deep letting go, where space is created that allows for a different kind of response. One that is not reactive. In paying attention and surrendering, space emerges for the range of human emotions and instincts to be present, without blindly triggering reactions.
Kirstie: Fascinating. That’s exactly what I do. Exactly what the students do. The climate movement is aligned with wanting to protect life itself. Similarly, dance can be a conduit for the life force. In other cultures where dance has always been a conduit for the spirits, this is understood. But in our dissociated culture, we put dancers on stage as separate to us. We objectify these amazing bodies. For me dance is sacred.
Kirstie: In ‘the hands that don’t want anything’, I talk about the deeper implications of dance in terms of human life. In the context of being on the earth, I talk about being on the planet, that there’s a huge energy in the centre of the earth that’s pushing. This is an exercise of imagination, but I believe it changes something in our brains. I often ask, “What if the earth was a living body that could feel you move on it? How do you want to communicate with that body, the planet?” This changes something.
3rd Space: Yes, as you speak, I can feel how sensing the earth as a living being disrupts the deeply ingrained relationship of it being something inert and separate from me.
Kirstie: Yes, when I teach, I guide students to really commit to that image, which is more than an image. Closing our eyes, we surrender beyond the logical mind. It’s logical thinking that often prevents us from experiencing an entirely different order of reality. It’s common to think that the logical mind is what’s real. But it’s only partial. It’s wonderful. It’s valuable. But it’s part of what we have available to work with. The rational mind has been put on a pedestal, especially in the West.
3rd Space: Yes. The result is a very narrow paradigm.
Kirstie: And because we have built the rational mind up, there’s a fear that in letting go, we’ll become stupid. On the contrary, my experience has been that what I need to understand cognitively reveals itself. And when this occurs, I know it’s ‘right’. It comes from a different source.
3rd Space: We often refer to a paradigm shift in consciousness. I think what you are speaking about here is an intelligence that we’ve lost touch with?
Kirstie: Yes. We have to practice letting go. Western culture has lost touch with this in our need to prove something, to be somebody. In letting go, resilience, humility, and understanding are just present. We don’t have to learn how to be humble, how to be resilient. We don’t need to be subservient to the rational mind.
3rd Space: What you are pointing to is creating pathways within ourselves to where those qualities are already present. This goes back to your original epiphany ‘that everything we need is already present.’
Kirstie: Yes. When you let life come through you, then you’re learning to become a humble person because you are a humble person. Humility is not ‘something’ to be acquired, it just is.
Yes , drawing up the image of the earth as a living body that can feel us move upon it , and how to respond to that – felt that !
A wonderfully evocative transmission by Kirstie Simson of the profound naturalness of not being bodily separated from mother earth. It’s a lesson in trust and the mysterious power beyond the rational mind, if we are willing to let go. Reading the interview and watching the video outtakes, which express beyond words what she is pointing to, I felt drawn into the heart of life.