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PERFORMING ARTS

A festival where dance is a contact sport

January 17, 2008|Mindy Farabee

IF your idea of dance improvisation comes from the "Waiting for Guffman" scene in which Corky St. Clair's syncopated hips wrestle ineptly with his muse, well, then choreographer Jones Welsh would like to explain something about the physical ingenuity that'll be on display at the fourth annual Improv Dance (iD) Festival.

"The acrobatic skill of swing dancing, the rhythm and playfulness of salsa and the sexiness of tango are in there," he says. "Like all social dancing, it's an opportunity to take off your hat and experience people in their raw form."

Workshops at this seven-day event began Tuesday, with public performances starting Friday. Although participants are studying several forms of improv -- including site-specific and prop-dependent -- much of the festival will center around contact improvisation, a rolling, tumbling, energetic push-pull in which ensembles gracefully contort themselves to sustain points of contact. Think of it as an undulating, perpetual chain of responses.

Contact improvisation is relatively new, widely considered to be born in 1972, when dance innovator Steve Paxton unveiled it in New York. It has since spread across the globe, even meriting its own biannual journal, Contact Quarterly. Never a discipline solely consisting of dancers, engineers and investment bankers have been known to show up at weekly jam sessions, as well as choreographers seeking new steps, artists keen on developing awareness or therapists intrigued by its mind-centering properties and the healing powers of touch. "A lot of people feel it's a way to be playful with another human being," says long-time contact improvisation performer (and past iD participant) Stefan Fabry. Conceptually intriguing as it may be, there has been some question as to whether it makes for a good show.

Leo Garcia, artistic director of Highways, the Santa Monica performance space where Welsh originated iD (and still home to the analogous Soma Fest), assures that it does. But he also says audiences should come equipped with patience and an alert eye, tuned to unpredictable moments of breakthrough. "Dancers are exploring a new language with their bodies," Garcia says. "They have to go through an uncomfortable place to get there, to moments when they're riffing." Moreover, when the dancers can spark a connection, unconsciously syncing up, says Fabry, the results are startling. "Watching those moments of plugging in is riveting," he says.

Instructors have gathered from across the country for this year's festival, and Welsh says the only dictate he's laid down is that they attempt to form as many new and sizable collaborations as possible. A select group of workshop participants will join the performances, and the musical accompaniment will be varied, with some dancers bringing musicians along and others dancing with no music at all. Some will likely incorporate language, Welsh says. Some will even incorporate the audience.

"Some artists use audience suggestions and their responses become part of the show," Welsh says. Where this could all lead remains to be seen.

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-- Mindy.Farabee@latimes.com

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iD FEST 2008

WHERE: Diavolo Performance Space, the Downtown Brewery Arts Complex, 616 Moulton St., L.A.

WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun.

PRICE: $15-20. Pay what you can at Friday performance.

INFO: (800) 838-3006; www.idfest.org

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