January Digest: Brandin Steffensen on Contact Improvisation and the Underscore

A few days ago I took a drive around Salt Lake City with Brandin Steffensen, who was in town for the fourth iteration of a project called Glimpse (reviewed here), which he co-produced with Leah Nelson DelPorto. We enjoyed catching up on each others lives and mutual interests within the dance world. I first met Brandin when I was still in high school and he was a star of Ririe-Woodbury. Since then he’s spent time dancing in New York and Seattle (where he earned a master’s) and is now living in Oklahoma with his wife Leslie Kraus (also a dancer and teacher) and their son Otto.

We’re interested in learning more about how Contact Improvisation and other improvisational forms are evolving here in Utah. I’ve learned from Nate Dryden, that a regular jam happens on Fridays from 6:00 - 8:00pm at Performing Dance Center – 3310 S 2700 E, SLC, UT, 84109. “The jam is always open to newcomers with a facilitator willing to guide folks into the practice. The facilitation rotates between several teacher/practitioners in the community. Cost is $5. (Scheduled Jams: 1/4, 1/11. 1/18, 2/1, 2/8, 2/15, 3/1, 3/8, 3/17, 3/29.) There are often also CI classes before Ecstatic Dance on Wednesday evenings 6-7pm and Sunday mornings 11am - noon… more information at Ecstatic Dance SLC group page on facebook.”

If you know of another jam that I don’t know about please let me know at sam@lovedancemore.org!

Samuel Hanson, editor

All photos below are of Glimpse 4, unless otherwise noted. These photos are by Christopher Staser. Cast listed below.

All photos below are of Glimpse 4, unless otherwise noted. These photos are by Christopher Staser. Cast listed below.

Sam: Before I turned on the tape recorder we were chatting about our circuitous paths to Contact. I always credit the incredible Jess Humphrey as the person who introduced me to the form. But tell us a little about this project that brought you out here.

Brandin Steffensen: Glimpse has a long story. The first Glimpse was in 2012 in San Francisco. Ronja Ver and Jen Chien are both Bay Area dancers. Ronja’s in our group now and Jen Chien was going to be a part of this but had to leave, regrettably for us and for her because she really wanted to be a part of this project. So, Jen and Ronja organized for over a year with Nancy to create this workshop that would end with a retreat and then a performance of the Underscore. Glimpse has changed a little bit since that first iteration. Nancy asked them to reach out to me because she knew that I was interested in the peculiar notion of performing the Underscore. Because the Underscore is this thing that’s practice but that’s not witnessed. It’s not a show.

The idea of unveiling the practice of the Underscore was something that Nancy and I had discussed. And so Nancy had Jen and Ronja reach out to me and then invited me out and I joined the group after the workshop and their retreat. I helped Nancy, among other people craft the program and think about how to frame the Underscore for an audience. Certain things about how the space is dressed, that make it a performance installation…

This is the fourth iteration of Glimpse. The second one was in New York just on the heels of the first. I started organizing with the directors of the 92nd street Y to do Glimpse 2. We brought Nancy out for a workshop in February and later in May we did the Underscore as a performance installation at the Y in May 2014, and then Glimpse 3 was in 2016 in Seattle. Katherine Cook came to me and asked me how I could bring Nancy to Seattle. I said, I know exactly how you could bring Nancy to Seattle, and I gave her the Glimpse drive – all that information. And I said if you produce a Glimpse, Nancy will come.

So they did a Glimpse! And the structure is pretty simple now. Usually Nancy likes to do a workshop, and then there’s a community Underscore which starts a retreat. And then there’s a residency and a space to install it. Then usually it’s been two or three performances. And then there a closing community Underscore and some time for the participants to process. So, it’s a two week event. It’s really about investigating the Underscore, it’s compositional potential, how you perform a practice. How do you just practice, do your thing while people are watching you. The Underscore is a very rich dance form. And I’d love you to come to a talk through and do it some time. In the future, it could be years from now. It’s very fun, it’s usually a three or four hour event. For the performance installations we do two hours.

Sam: You instigated a practice of the Underscore in New York. Is that still ongoing?

Brandin: Yes! Jessie Johnson was holding regular Underscores in NYC. They weren’t quite regular, maybe every month. I went to her and I said if this were regular it would be more attendable. We had those conversations and I eventually collaborated with her to create Underscore NYC which is just a platform where people can organize around Underscore. Tamar Kipness and Lucy Meg Mahler are the two people I left that with. And they’ve continued that monthly practice at Eden’s Expressway, through Movement Research. That’s another thing Jessie did — Movement Research was about to take the opportunity to practice the Underscore away from us and she said wait, wait, wait, what we’re doing is completely confluent with Movement Research’s mission, and I think it was Cat Galasso who spoke with her and recognized, oh, we really do have a gem here, so they went on to embrace Underscore as part of their programing which was a big deal because we weren’t just happening casually in the space any more, we were on Movement Research’s website, the Underscore has a description there and people can find exposure to the talk through and the practice through MR and that’s a big thing. And so as far as I know there’s been a monthly practice since 2009 when Jessie and I initiated it, and even before Jessie had been doing things less regularly.

Brandin himself taking a ride on a partner during Glimpse 4.

Brandin himself taking a ride on a partner during Glimpse 4.

And then there’s the Global Underscore too, which Jessie had a hand in hosting, and the Global Underscore is another event which happens once a year, sites around the planet coordinate to do the Underscore at the same time across time zones. That’s been happening annually since 2000. Underscore is a global phenomenon, which is why I think its a particularly interesting aspect of dance culture, and in the lineage of CI and it’s a substantial evolution.

There are a lot of people in Seattle, [Karen Nelson’s] tuning scores – a lot of people doing things. But this one had such a reach. People hold their own practices, facilitate their own practices. It’s been a beautiful movement of culture one might say.

Sam: So, you’re in Seattle now?

Brandin: No, Leslie [Kraus] and I did our MFAs in Seattle. We were there for three years together. We have a child. She got a job at Oklahoma University and we moved there in August. So I live in Norman, Oklahoma now. and there’s no CI there.

Sam: Are you trying to start a contact community there?

Brandin: Not now, but I wonder about it.

Sam: Do you teach other things there?

Brandin: I had a really great summer teaching in Bellingham at Western Washington University. But I haven’t taught since we moved there. I don’t have any real hope of getting a job at OU. I may do some adjunct work at universities around there. I almost got a job at a performing arts high school that was starting up but that was too much. We just moved there, we have a two year old child. Luckily we can survive on Leslie’s single income. When Otto’s a little older I might start to do more. I miss teaching…

This has been an important project for me because it reengages me with what I love to do.

Sam: It was in the round? At the Performing Dance Center?

contact 3.jpg

Brandin: There was one empty wall, so it wasn’t quite in the round but it felt that way. [Performing Dance Center has] been a nice studio for us. We did it at Velocity in Seattle. That venue supported a more theatrical performance because its a black box with lights and seating. This felt more like doing a studio showing. As much as we dressed the space, it’s just a little more casual. Every space and every Glimpse are different.

Let’s see if I can remember everyone in this one. Ronja Ver, is from San Francisco, Anne Cooper is from Vancouver, Katherine Cook is from Seattle, I’m coming from Norman, Scott Davis, Rachael Lincoln, Elise Knudson…

Sam: I took her class once, she’s been teaching contact for MR in New York.

Brandin: That makes sense, she’s a great teacher. Anne-Gaëlle Thiriot is from London, originally from France. Leah DelPorto lives here. Funny thing, we did an Underscore together in New York, years ago, just before we switched cities, and I saw her at SFADI and that helped me to know she’d be interested in this. She is really the reason this is happening. She is really the producer on the ground here. She really has brought it in making this happen as a co-producer and it’s her first time doing Glimpse. So she’s been doing the Underscore for a long time and has found this very invigorating. That’s part of the hope for Glimpse is that it can be invigorating to a CI community like this one. I think that Underscore really complements a community that has a regular jam. It’s a kind of focussed jam. It’s an alternative to the free for all…

Sam: When I was in school Jess Humphrey had a jam, about half people from the U and some really interesting older people, including this older woman, I wish I could remember her name, [maybe some reader here will comment] but she was from somewhere in New England and had moved here to ski. She was wonderful to dance with and you could tell she’d been doing the form for thirty or more years. {On 1/15/19 she wrote to me and gave me the following info and corrections:

“That “older woman” was me, Marjean McKenna. (now ten years older)… I refer to those rich years of a weekly jam a short walk from my home as “the Jess years.” Leah’s husband, Chris, was at the U. then and a regular participant… he kept those jams going for a year or so after Jess had left.

Contact entered my life in 1976; my “origin story” is that I “defected to Utah from Colorado” in 1970 to be a ski bum. For the first ten years I was “the contact” here in Utah. Since then my local participation has waxed and waned, but CI continues to inform everything I am and do.”]

What’s your impression of what’s going on here?

Brandin: I got here on November 30 and I really haven’t gotten the chance to participate as much as I’d have liked. My impression is it seems a little disparate but still active. Often in CI there’s no central organizing. It seems like people do practice it but I wonder how many opportunities they really have. One thing I loved about New York City… you can go to a jam any night of the week.

A jam lead by Amy Frietas, photo courtesy of Frietas, 2015.

A jam lead by Amy Frietas, photo courtesy of Frietas, 2015.

Sam: When I was here last summer I jammed up at Amy Frietas’ house. In New York I used to love to go to the jam by Judson Church, at the Children’s Aid Society. It was wild, hardly a contact jam exactly.

Brandin: It was an open improv jam and the longest running in the country until it ended…

Sam: So sad… it was the descendant of Open Movement at PS 122 in the East Village. It was a huge space, you could always find someone who wanted to do serious contact but you could also do whatever you wanted.

Brandin: You could, you could just go and people were co-existing. I loved that. That was one of the reasons I moved to New York. You went there often?

Sam: The first year I lived in New York, I would go to Judson almost every Monday and then go over there afterwards. Somehow I don’t make it to the one at Eden’s Expressway or the one at 100 Grand which are more orthodox CI spaces. I like having those and the crazy, freer spaces too…

Brandin: Underscore is maybe a little too focused for some people. The fact that you can’t come and go but a lot of people think it’s worth it. Myself included.

Sam: Contact seems to be at an interesting moment now, in terms of coming to terms with its history…

Brandin: Me too, and the issue of consent…

Sam: Yeah, I just heard about the Karl Frost thing in San Francisco. And also the racial politics of who’s included and who’s not…

Brandin: No, I think it’s worth me commenting that this was a very difficult Glimpse for us. Nancy was not involved for the first time, for reasons I’d prefer not to go in to. She had a personal emergency and had to step out of the project. All of us involved had to decide if we wanted to stay on or not and we did lose some participants. We lost a man from Singapore, we lost him immediately and then we lost Jen Chien, who’s an Asian-American from San Francisco, and, it left us with one person of color in the group. And that became something that was very much a struggle for us as a group and for him as an individual and he decided to leave the project and that was not easy for us to figure out how do deal with. And it was something we really chewed on in this process. And it made this Glimpse markedly different. In the past, the racial diversity of the Glimpse dancers has been – I mean, I have to say, the people who do contact improvisation are substantially white, and that’s something that’s true in Northampton, [Massachusetts] where Nancy does the Underscore. And yes, there are people of color who practice with her there. But they’re very much in the minority. So, these things are being discussed with the practitioners and they’re on our minds. And I think you’re absolutely right, CI is reckoning with this.

Sam: Keith Hennessy just came out with a short zine on race and contact, a kind of collection of people’s questions about how to move forward.

Brandin: We had discussions about how to really create — it’s difficult because not all of us teach, not all of us hold jams. But there are some members who do and they were sharing ideas about how to make sure they were truly creating inclusive spaces. Trying to reanalyze invisible habits that support white supremacy. And that’s not to call any of these coordinators white supremacists. But that white supremacy – we live among it, it’s the air we breathe. Unless we try to go against it, we’re facilitating it. And I think there’s a new level of owning up to collective responsibility from many white people in that way. I feel like that’s new in this era, the Trump era.

Sam: But also even before and after, it’s such a long trajectory we’re talking about. Did you know Nate Dryden? He’s someone who’s been organizing things out here and who I know also thinks about these issues from the perspective of a white organizer.

Brandin: Yeah, he came to the first Underscore and he came to the jam. I dance with him a little bit he’s really cool.

Sam: I also think it’s interesting to think about these issues – and this relates to modern or postmodern dance as well as contact — the issue of how we’ve survived the last thirty or forty years, arguably by colonizing the university, and the liberal arts college maybe in particular. And how that has served us and not served us in various ways…

Brandin: I think in a way it had to colonize the university because it was being demolished elsewhere.

Sam: Do you feel like what I am talking about applies to CI?

Brandin: No, I think it’s different. I think the problem we’ve had in this country, is a lack of understanding of how the arts are public. It requires public funding just like the fire department, the post office, the police. I think the arts is for the public, it’s not for an exclusive group of elites who can afford to pay for it, it’s not for the market to set the parameters under which art is made. Art is for people and it has to be subsidized by and for people and that has been lost on us entirely. Most of the population feel like “why should my tax dollars go to fund any artist’s experiment?” And I think that is just so sad.

Sam: That’s the effect of propaganda from the eighties and well before…

Brandin: And erosion. But CI has always been self organizing. Steve Paxton said the reason CI spread the way it did is because you need a partner to do it. And so it’s been this kind of anarchistic survival. CI is rhizomatic. All you need is a little kernel and you have this whole root system. It grows around these institutional obstructions.

It is related to postmodern dance. Steve Paxton experiments came from postmodernism…

Sam: Just yesterday I was in New York watching the Stephen Petronio company perform this piece Steve Paxton did in Stockholm in 1964, Jag Vill Gärna Telefonera (I Would Like to Make a Phone Call), which I’d never seen before. I really see Trisha’s work in this piece, the sets and costumes were done by Robert Rauschenberg who also worked a lot with her. And it just makes you further question where all of this stuff comes from. The larger show at MoMA also has all these videos of Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti, her Huddle, which I’ve done, is an example of proto-Contact. Anyway, I just think Contact is such a wonderful thing to have access to once you learn it. And of course it’s hard to overstate the importance of Lisa Nelson, Nina Little and of course Nancy…

Brandin: To have it in your life is meaningful. And in different ways throughout your life.

Sam: Who have you studied with? Who got you connected with the form?

Brandin: Nancy is definitely my dance mom. But the funny thing is, I love Nancy and her ability as a teacher is amazing — she is my mentor in that way but I really haven’t studied under Nancy very much. I have a collision of interests with her that landed me some opportunities to work on the Underscore with her. But I have never formally studied with Nancy. I was her assistant at Bates one summer which was very meaningful to me in 2009. I helped her teach her beginning contact classes. I came away from that experience very confident facilitating Underscores., which had been my intention. The Underscore was my interest. And I found that from friends who had studied with her. But I learned CI as an undergrad, through grad students and Keith Johnson…

Sam: Just like me!

Brandin: Yes! Grad students who were sort of — not knowing if they should but felt compelled to teach. because teaching CI in university setting is difficult.

Sam: More so now I think. We’re both lucky we had those grad students in our lives.

Brandin: Absolutely.