from Nina Martin’s article on Ensemble Thinking in Summer/Fall 2007 issue of Contact Quarterly.
I began my studies of ensemble improvisation in New York City in 1976. At that time, I was studying with Simone Forti, working with simple movement vocabulary on an imaginary grid on the floor for long stretches of time. I also studied with Mary Overlie, who was developing her Viewpoints Theory, and Nancy Topf, whose ensemble work was influential for many dance artists. And I began to study Contact Improvisation in early 1977 with Danny Lepkoff. Though I had never studied with them, I understood that Barbara Dilley, Anna Halprin, and others had influenced the improvisational work that I was studying in New York. I also took theater workshops with the Wooster Group and Andre Gregory, and joined the faculty of New York University’s Experimental Theatre Wing, where I worked with Anne Bogart, Steve Wong, Wendell Beavers, and Overlie.
In the early eighties, I cofounded the improvisational performance collective Channel Z with Robin Feld, Stephen Petronio, Daniel Lepkoff, Randy Warshaw, Diane Madden, and Paul Langland. We all had enough experience as improvisers to articulate sophisticated concerns regarding improvisation for the stage. Since Contact Improvisation (CI) was a common vocabulary within Channel Z, the group quickly identified practices within the CI form that did not always support our ensemble goals. For example, we didn’t want to confine ourselves primarily to duets, and we wanted to animate the edges of the performance space. We went on to develop work that continued to emphasize our passion for Contact Improvisation but within an ensemble sensibility. Within this nonhierarchical cauldron of anarchy, my perceptions were honed, and improvisation became a reliable and exciting performance tool.
In the early nineties, I continued my improvisational investigations in NYC with Locktime, a group whose primary artists were Jennifer Keller, Johanna Meyer, Alexandra Hartmann, and I. In 1994, I cofounded Lower Left in San Diego, CA, with Karen Schaffman, Mary Reich, and Jane Blount. This innovative West Coast collective grew to include Andrew Wass, Kelly Dalrymple, Margaret Paek, Rebecca Bryant, Alicia Marvan, Jessica Radulovich, and others. Over the years, my work with all these artists helped me develop a systematic approach to dissecting the elements that make up this unwieldy and challenging dance form, which lives in the spontaneous moment.
In addition to my studies and performance experiences, my approach to improvisation developed out of my teaching of Contact Improvisation. I started teaching Cl in NYC at the invitation of Christina Svane in 1977, As I witnessed my students’ struggles as they approached Contact as a performance language, I was inspired to develop tools that eventually came to be known as Ensemble Thinking (ET) and Articulating the Solo Body, which help the performer move seamlessly between ensemble, Contact, and solo dancing. The development of ET would not have been possible without the hundreds of students who were willing participants in my exploration. Many of these students went on to become artistic colleagues and to make contributions to the further development of this training tool.