The Art of Contact Improvisation – in conversation with TAMARA MAKSYMENKO

stay in contact from the distance – how close can you be without touch? – is it more difficult to be the leader or to be the follower? – this is a space where you get instructions, but at the same time the allowance, not to follow the rules – what is a mistake? – who tells you what is right and what is wrong? – where does your body stop you? did you reach a limit? is it really the limit? can you go further? – go into a duet with your first partner, the floor – the body language is clear, we don’t need the words – your body is your teacher – your body knows more than you think

Tamara Maksymenko practicing lifts | photo: Nayeli – Špela Peterlin

some sentences I noted during the Solo & CI Festival Tyrol 2022, some of them spoken by the workshop teachers Violetta Matyushenko and Michał Ratajski, some of them by the participants. We were in Mutters, 300 meters above Innsbruck. Around 20-30 dancers gathered there from September 8th–11th for an international dance festival of Contact Improvisation. This year marks the 50th anniversary of this contemporary dance form which was founded by choreographer Steve Paxton in 1972.

The improvised dance form is based on the communication between two moving bodies that are in physical contact and their combined relationship to the physical laws that govern their motion – gravity, momentum, inertia. The body, in order to open to these sensations, learns to release excess muscular tension and abandon a certain quality of willfulness to experience the natural flow of movement. Practice includes rolling, falling, being upside down, following a physical point of contact, supporting and giving weight to a partner.

Workshop with Violetta Matyushenko | photo: Nayeli – Špela Peterlin

In that sense, CI festivals are not to be understood as events which participants are joining solely as passive audience, but rather as active dancers. Thus at the Solo & CI festival in Mutters, Violetta Matyushenko was teaching the class “Step by Step” with focus on quality of movement and developing a common interest between dance partners while Michał Ratajski, who has a background in Martial Arts, was teaching I_GO_SYSTEM – a combined method for increasing body awareness and exploring correlations of body, mind and breath. Another essential part of CI festivals are daily dance-jams. In Mutters they were held in the evenings, guided by Nayeli – Špela Peterlin and accompanied by inspirational live music. 

This year’s Solo & CI Festival Tyrol was already the 4th edition organized by Tamara Maksymenko, a 32-year-old professional dancer from Ukraine who has been living in Tyrol for the past five years. For komplex, she was answering some questions on her personal understanding of Contact Improvisation, its connections to the art world and her impressions on the Tyrolean dance community:

Tamara and Violetta presenting an exercise | photo: Nayeli – Špela Peterlin

Tamara, how do you describe Contact Improvisation (CI) to people who haven’t heard about it? 

Just yesterday I was in this situation to explain my activities to people who are very far from art. I would say, CI is based on Martial Arts and Dance, it’s a mixture between them. It’s physical contact and it’s improvisation – and then people start to imagine something. [laughs]

You just mentioned „art“. What is for you the artistic part of CI? 

I think it’s expression. A dance that is not for your own pleasure, but an expression for the outside. When I see the movements which I carry out with a partner, and I feel something deeper – this can be an image of something. The dance that touches you deeper than physical joy, I would say, this is already an art. I would not cut the meaning of art though. Art is a very huge concept. 

But then, does the dance need to be performed in front of an audience to become art or do you consider it already art in the context of a CI-festival?

At CI-festivals we always have also an audience which are the participants. I would say, in arts it depends if you do it for yourself or for others. My clear decision is doing it for people. That’s why I always ask for feedback – I like to adapt to interests, feelings or needs for society, and to create a reflection. There also exists another form of art, when artists focus on their personal inner world only and their main aim is to express it to the outside, no matter what is happening around them – I don’t work in that way.

When did you start with CI? 

When I was nine years old. And with 16 years old, I gave my first workshop. So, I would say: all my life. 

As you started practicing very young, are you still faced with challenges when you attend workshops of colleagues? Do you still learn something new?

Yesterday, during Violetta’s workshop, I was reminded. When you start doing organization, you dance less than before. I still dance a lot, but the focus is different and as a professional dancer you always have to be in shape, that means that every day you should do something for your body – which I don’t. So, sometimes, when I drop into classes of other teachers – maybe the knowledge is not like new-new for me, but it’s like: “oh, I forgot about my pelvis there”, it’s the same knowledge, but I can always find something that can make my dance fresh and interesting, also for myself. I think it’s important.

Did you have any inspiring teachers that influenced you a lot?

I had a very strong teacher-student-connection with Thomas Mettler; however, he is not only CI teacher, but he is also physical theater teacher. Those teachers who really inspired me and whom I followed for years, they were all somehow not only CI teachers, but plus modern, plus pantomime etc. when there was a search between CI and art, then it grabbed me. 

CI is often connected to the term body research. What does it mean to you in that context?

At the very beginning of CI, teachers like Steve Paxton, really did that research, because it was very very new, they explored all kind of physical possibilities and functions of bodies. They would walk eight hours per day just to feel the hip joints and how they move… I think, this kind of research is not so important anymore, because there is already a huge knowledge in CI, we can only add something to it, develop new systems, bring in new approaches… In my opinion, research now is very different from research 50 years ago. Maybe now it’s more related to personal research, when people start feeling themselves, their balance, their muscles fighting with gravity, and so on… 

You have been living in Tyrol for five years now. How did you decide to establish an international CI festival here? 

This was very funny. I was in Isreal with my friend and co-organizer Alexander Kosko. I don’t remember exactly how, but at one evening we were talking about organizing a festival and in the next morning I took already the decision to host a CI festival in Tyrol. It was in 2019 and we decided this four months before the festival took place, so it was done like that: hectic and chaotic.  

Was it difficult for you to find a CI community in Tyrol?

Yes, it was hard. Even though, concerning the festival, I was more focused on the international aspect, I was really interested in bringing people from outside to Tyrol, because I felt that the Tyrolean CI community is very beautiful – one of the best communities. There are some places of which I can really say: “wow that’s my place, those are my people”, also Sweden and Slovenian community – I felt very good there. But yeah, it’s true, here with this kind of mountain survivals, it’s hard to become close to people immediately, you need time, and as I was a new one… I had already given some classes, I met people, but relationships were not so deep and strong as they are now. 

How many people are approximately in the Tyrolean CI Community?

That’s hard to say. I belong more to St. Johann community, organized by Rebecca Plattner, who is now also co-organizer of the festival. I would say, there are around 10-15 people. And in Innsbruck, I don’t teach there often, but for sure there are like 20-30 people. All in all, it’s for sure a very small community. 

Workshop with Michał Ratajski | photo: Nayeli – Špela Peterlin

I was starting with CI during the pandemic, which in times of social and physical distancing almost felt illegal. How was it for you to experience the pandemic as a professional CI dancer? 

When the pandemic started, we were just planning a big workshop for 26th of march with an Italian CI-teacher, which of course didn’t happen. In the first weeks of pandemic, I was very stressed, I could not find a word, I could not find an explanation, everything I had planned was canceled. But in the second half year, I was the happiest person and I understood: when the pandemic started, I had been burnt out already. I didn’t want any physical contact, I didn’t want to dance, it has been already too much, too many people around me, too much touch – for more than ten years in a row – no rest, no vacation, and if I had a vacation, I would still teach. I think, I really needed those two years to have a “pausa”, not completely “pausa”, but you know, not to be that much into it – like we are again now. 

Do you feel that something has changed in CI community or CI practice due to the pandemic or is it like before? 

I think, a community like CI has its changes. For sure, I would say, we had been split into two sides already before – we danced together, but still, it was divided into artistic point of view and the hippie point of view – which are two worlds that can exist parallel. But now, after the pandemic and with the war, I can feel the division more. People became different, also me – I became less tolerant towards things I disagree with in CI community. It doesn’t mean that I fight, but I say things more honest, I say what I like and what I don’t like. But still: contact is there, dance is there, beauty is there – it’s maybe just an evolution for CI and for art. 

In what sense you became more intolerant? 

I started posting political statements on my social networks, which maybe don’t belong to CI community, but then, I was like: “okay guys, but I can not lie to people, I’m an artist and I will speak up about things, I will not keep silent” and of course, I met a lot of disagreement from the CI community, I could feel that it was too much for some people. Sometimes though, I’m also surprised about reactions, especially, when people tell me “wow, I was afraid to say that, but I agree with you”. People now are afraid to say things because it’s a time when it seems to be forbidden – concerning politics, we have one right statement about the world and if you have another opinion, you will get excluded. And of course, politics affect CI community too. 

How is the war in Ukraine affecting the CI festival, as you mentioned it? 

From the beginning, I was dreaming to bring Ukrainian and Tyrolean CI community together. In our first edition 2019, we had already a lot of people from Ukrainian community here. Then, for the next two years, during pandemic, they were not allowed to come, because Austria closed the border. Then, the war started and on second day all my friends from Ukraine are suddenly in Europe – no vaccination, nothing, but they are in Europe. So now, it’s very different. Not only that now we have a lot of people from Ukraine here, which is beautiful, but also the festival itself is smaller (in the last years we had more than 50 participants, now it’s only half). And I think, the focus and the feelings of people are different. This year is a year of losses, it is a year in which many of us broke our pink glasses – mine were broken for sure – in many senses. So, this festival is different on more levels.

As the practice of Contact Improvisation is very much related to communication, do you feel that it has the power to change the society?

When I visited Ukraine before the pandemic, I went to a CI jam and there was a man of whom one my previous students told me: “you know, this guy is our new judge in the city court”, and I was like “holy shit!”, I mean, I thought that those people don’t dance contact at all [laughs]. She also told me, when he appeared the first time, he would say that it had changed his mind in a lot of perspectives. I don’t know, if it influences his attitude at work, but still, I’m convinced that CI changes something in you. It gives you a wider angle to see the world and I think that especially for those people who are working in sectors like court or government, this would be nice, as they would be closer to bodies, to feelings and maybe it would encourage to a more humane behavior and decisions. 

How do you finance this festival – do you get any funding? And can you live on dancing and organizing festivals? 

No funding, I finance it just through people who participate, then I pay teachers and all expenses like food, accommodation, space… for me it’s kind of volunteering to create a holiday for others, you know [laughs]. I mean, this year it’s like that, also because of the small community and the war. In general, it’s possible to earn money with organizing festivals. There is a lot of work underneath, so, it’s important for organizers to get paid. Last years were okay for me, but it was not a lot. When I spoke to locals and told them about my salary, they would be like: “oh my god, you work one year and receive less than people earn in a month” – in comparison to that, it’s true, but at the same time, for me, it’s possible to live from dance, teaching and organizing. It depends however, how you manage your time and how you live – if you want to drive a cabriolet… [laughs]

| Brigitte Egger

Tamara Maksymenko

is a professional dancer, choreographer and a teacher of contact improvisation and contemporary dance for 17 years already. She has been teaching many workshops all over the world (Poland, Spain, Israel, Austria, Italy, Greece, Finland, Egypt, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Morocco, Bulgaria, Sweden, Portugal, France, Turkey). She is the founder of Motion Mode Dance Theatre (MMDT) and the creator of many dance projects.
28 years of dance experience (since the early age of 4). She got medical education in body therapy and sociology at Dnipropetrovsk National University and trained at the Physical Theatre in Intragna (Switzerland) with Thomas Mettler.
Now Tamara is a member of Ukrainian Contemporary Dance Platform Association and she is a member of OFFTANZ Tirol Association (Austria). The founder of „Solo & CI Tirol Festival“ and „West meets East“.


Motion Mode Dance Theatre

Michał Ratajski – I_GO_SYSTEM

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