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Negotiating gravity and lightness

Updated: May 27

I spend quite some time without thinking much at anything. Often when I walk, or sit, or just attend to ordinary activities, I like being quiet and silent inside. But I like thinking, namely, I like trying to articulate and spelling out what often seems intuitively clear and interesting, but at first also a bit mysterious. The point is not to take the mystery away, but just to fully understand what the mystery is about.

 

Over the past four months or so, I transitioned from a very still and relatively solitary meditative practice, to a very dynamic and relational one—contact improvisation (CI). I clearly see a strong continuity between the two, but it might be helpful to spell it out. Of course, my experience with CI is still in its beginnings and I’ve so much more to learn. Yet, let me put here a few ideas down as a milestone to capture my understanding at this point.

 

We begin by lying on the floor. Let the body completely surrender to gravity, yielding to the ground fully. Or else enjoying the feeling of the floor pushing into our body, supporting it. There is a sense of release and even dissolution, a melting away, a sort of peace. Everything is relaxed, and everything is completely safe, like in a womb. We’ve got nothing to do but to enjoy this—and we can fall only in the sense of falling asleep.

 

Now, this absolute safety and protection has a cost. There is very little that it is possible to do in this condition. Yes, you’re very safe, but you’re too safe. In fact, you’re stuck. This is the first call for a choice to make: either be content with doing nothing, never, or pushing back, pushing away from the floor, taking a distance. Every inch of distance, every millimeter away creates a gap, and in that gap, new movements become possible.

 

Imagine now sitting on the floor instead of lying, coming to your knees, or standing in all-fours, or eventually coming to standing on your feet, and eventually on one foot, maybe on one toe. The less the body relies on the support of the floor, the freer it becomes in its movements. At the same time, the freer the scope of movement, the more unstable. Freedom does not manifest as a form to keep, but a constant arising and dissolving of forms that emerge and collapse in one another, like waves.

 

The ‘little dance’ (or the ‘stand’) is a very clear tool to observe this fact. As we stand, we constantly swing in all directions. Very little movements keep the whole body balancing. Every movement is in fact the beginning of a fall, and we (can) keep catching ourselves before fully falling down.

 

When standing, it becomes absolutely clear that two forces are in fact playing within us (or that we are the result of their interplay). One force is the force of gravity that brings us downward. The other force is the force of lightness that wants to move us upward. The force of gravity is the force of safety, the tendency to downregulate back to the minimum degree of activation, falling back to resting and yielding. The force of lightness is the force of bravery, the tendency to dare, to fly away, to venture into the unexplored, at the risk (in fact, with the certainty) of collapsing and dissolving at some point.

 

It is absolutely clear that these two forces are complementary and they need each other. Without a force of lightness, gravity would be sheer death, or a gloomy grave. Without a force of gravity, lightness would be just craziness, leading to scattered, ungrounded and pointless movement. Gravity creates a constraint for lightness to express itself, and lightness creates a counterpoint to gravity to function as a support rather than as a chain.

 

Everything we do, is ultimately expressed in a kinesthetic pattern. And all kinesthetic patterns are eventually a certain proportion between these two forces, a negotiation, a compromise, a polyphony. Most often, we rely on relatively rigid patterns and schemes. For instance, while standing, the ‘little dance’ reveals that we just keep falling relatively close to the same point. Standing is just falling always in the same place. While we walk, we keep falling on a straight line. Learning a pattern means learning relatively safe ways of negotiating lightness and gravity, schemes that we can predict and replicate almost automatically. In this way we embody ‘forms’, ‘masks’, we become characters. All stuff we learned at some point, we used as a scaffold, and we keep using indefinitely (or at least, until something breaks down).

 

However, at any moment many more possibilities are open. It is enough to relax the tension around the need to holding on to the same pattern to recognize that a wide variety of other options is just there, ready to be explored. Following a pattern is an indirect expression of the force of gravity, and breaking the pattern is an expression of lightness. As we stand, we can thus begin to fall in many directions, starting from different limbs, going to different levels. A whole unforeseen world is thus improvised on the spot.

 

The first half of contact improvisation (improvisation) has to do with this negotiation between gravity and freedom, safety and bravery, grounding and flying, catching and falling. There is no fixed solution, result, or goal. The negotiation is always ongoing, often moving in different ways, sometimes traversing bright spaces, sometimes dark ones. It delineates a spectrum of possibilities, which is the very spectrum of our own freedom.

 

The second half of contact improvisation (contact) has to do with how we can amplify and make this negotiation even more interesting and unpredictable by sharing it with other beings who share our same predicament. Being in contact with another human body is at first basically being in touch with another living surface, a second floor or ceiling. Like the ordinary floor, also this living floor is something in which we can lean, yield, surrender, share our weight with, being supported by, and generally explore gravity. But unlike the ordinary floor beneath, this living floor is animated by its own force of lightness, which can team up with our own force of lightness, by creating an even more dynamic and unpredictable play of forces. Is the other’s force of lightness coherent and attuned to our own? Or it is going elsewhere? Is it something to which we can adapt and play with, or is it wild and blind to us? These and other questions (which constantly arise in CI) show a whole new dimension of the negotiation between gravity and lightness, which now has to triangulate between three (or more) centers. By entering in contact with another we give up even more control from our side, and thus open up even more to the unexpected, risky, often unsafe, always brave land of freedom.

 

Contact is a way of giving even more room for improvisation, by enlarging the spectrum of possibilities, but it does not change the basic principle (the play of gravity and lightness), it only makes it more complex in its actual implementation and exploration. And as we ultimately are our kinesthetic patterns, attuning to the patterns of others is a very deep, profound, intimate way of getting in touch with them—a way that in fact touches something more fundamental than all words and symbols, since it is the very source from which all symbols and words arise (or not). Sharing this exposure to our structural risks, being together on the border of the constantly ongoing negotiation between gravity and lightness, we reach the hedge of our being, and meet (or face) our own bare essences.

 

I mentioned that I see CI as a form of meditation. At a superficial level, it is obvious from the above how deeply the practice of CI is inspired by Buddhist ideas connected with impermanence (uncertainty) and compassion or friendliness. This is not just a sheer coincidence, because among the first practitioners of CI there was quite some interest for Buddhist practices. However, this is not the primary reason why I see CI as a form of meditation. Meditation is often seen (and I’ve seen it myself for quite some time) as a tool or technique to bring you somewhere, or to make you into something. But in its fundamental sense, meditation is ‘development’ (bhavana), namely, a development aimed at freedom, which does not have any precise shape or determinate form, but rather consists in a space of possibilities, in a spectrum, a horizon. In this same way, CI does not aim at creating a specific form, even when it precipitates in specific patterns. CI is just a pathway to explore the constantly ongoing negotiation between the forces of gravity and lightness, not for the sake of finding an ultimate point of rest, but instead for the sake of wandering through the full spectrum of possibilities that this negotiation can reach. This gives a taste of the infinitude of the freedom that we have at our disposal, which is so little appreciated in most of our ordinary lives (and sometimes also in contemplative life)—and yes, it’s scary, and we’ll eventually fall, but sometimes we can fall together, or catch each other at the right time.



Postscript

 

An advantage of the idea sketched above is that it allows to put into a coherent picture several basic principles and exercises that are often rehearsed in CI practice. At the moment, I see two main headings under which I could summarize most of what I’ve done and experienced in CI. Each of these headings deals with elements associated with the force of gravity or the force of lightness—or better, with how they can be related to one another.

 

(Force of lightness) Kinesphere: this usually indicates the sphere of space within which a body can move. It entails the three levels of low (ground), middle (all-fours), and high (standing or flying).


The idea of a ‘sphere’ of motion directs attention to the ‘center’ of movement (anatomically located in the low belly or pelvic area). In turn, this leads to the further exploration about other centers of motion (chest, head) and their structural connection (spine), and how movement is affected by the interrelation between them, or about how other body parts (feet, hands, fingers, legs, arms, joints) can help, support, or hinder motion.

 

There are two basic modalities to explore the kinesphere. The smoother and more continuous one consists in linking these levels and travel through them is the spiral (a whirlpooling-like movement that extend simultaneously in opposite directions), in all its endless forms and implementations. The more abrupt modality consists in learning how to fall (or ‘faking a fall’ and catching oneself) and jump between them (this is abrupt because all motion goes in one direction, contrary to what happens in spirals).

 

When relating to another dance partner, the idea of kinesphere leads to seek a connection with the center of the dance partner’s kinesphere (hence ‘center-to-center’, regardless of whether there is weight sharing or physical contact), and to create a circular motion in which one movement leads to the next without losing connection, like the planets orbiting in the same system, or the wheels in a clockwork.  

 

(Force of gravity) Degrees of contact: being in contact comes in degrees, which reflect the different bodily structures that are involved (and how much). One can distinguish a superficial contact at the skin level, which implies very little or no sharing of weight, very little or no directionality, but mostly a sheer presence, a point of awareness. There is a deeper contact at the level of soft tissues (muscles, fascia), which involves a small to moderate sharing of weight, and often comes with directionality or support to movement. And there is a structural contact at the level of bones and skeletal structure, which involves from moderate to full body weight sharing, in which partners often split roles in ‘base’ (or the ‘under-dancer’, the one who plays the ground) and ‘flyer’ (or the ‘above-dancer’, the one who is fully supported).

 

In order to regulate these different degrees of contact, it is essential to maintain a fairly relaxed tone in the body, which is alert but not tense, ready but soft. When this is reached, the body itself (and contact with another body) feels like a bag of water. The general rule for achieving this state is ‘lean&relax’.

 

Since degrees of contact entail relation with another, this heading also includes all the more subtle (psychological) skills concerning the ability of listening, following, guiding, keeping one’s own movement while in relation to another, or co-creating something new together.

 

It is possible to experiment with each of these aspects (kinesphere and degrees of contact) in isolation. For instance:

  • much of solo dancing (there is also solo dancing in CI) can be an exploration of one’s own kinesphere, or become a way of relating with another’s kinesphere without being in physical contact.

  • static weight sharing (e.g. back-to-back) is an example of exploring degrees of contact.

  • the basic patterns for ‘lifting’ a dance partner, insofar as they arrive at a relatively stable point (in which the ‘base’ supports the ‘flyer’) are ways of experimenting with degrees of contact (usually structural contact based on heavy weight sharing).

 

Nonetheless, these two aspects are most often practiced together. For instance:

  • following the ‘rolling point of contact’ is a way of following contact while allowing the intertwining between the two kinespheres of the dance partners.

  • ‘body-surfing’ on the floor is again a way of intertwining kinespheres in the low level of motion (close to the floor) while sharing a middle to high degree weight.


This is far from exhausting the possibilities of CI, but simply captures some of the most common exercises and topics (I encountered so far). While there are many more options, details and tricks, I guess that this illustrates how this immense variety of possibilities is not random or chaotic, but reflects the experiential and experimental unfolding of an exploration of just a few basic principles, gravity and lightness—and all that can be done with playing with them.

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