Theaters of the Body: K.J. HOLMES with Tess Michaelson
As an improviser, performer, and teacher, Brooklyn-based K.J. Holmes draws on the intelligence of the body to explore unknown territories in being and making. Her practice is based in cultivating imagination, awareness, and a sense of play in the investigation of self among others. A second-generation practitioner and teacher of Contact and dance improvisations, K.J. has helped to develop the form among forerunners Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, and Lisa Nelson. Her work is luminous with the vibrancy of being.
A few months after Contact’s fiftieth anniversary at Oberlin College this July, Holmes sat down with her student Tess Michaelson to reflect on the theater of the body, the athletics of intimacy, and a work-in-progress inspired by the “mess” of bees.
Tess Michaelson (Rail): I think a lot about beginnings and endings, and what it means to get to a place where beginning can happen. By way of starting our conversation, maybe you could talk a little bit about Contact Improvisation. How do you think of the practice of Contact? How did you come to it and what has it become for you?
K.J. Holmes: Contact Improvisation is fifty years old now—1972 it began. There was just a big celebration at Oberlin College, and it was epic in many ways: 289 people from all over, a lot of different approaches to it, and also a lot of friction, the same friction that’s in other parts of the world about gender, race, identity, ownership, and colonization, of body or land. It was very stimulating. I started Contact in 1980, so it was eight years old.
Rail: Just a kid.
Holmes: Just a kid, that’s right. Like many things in my explorations in theater and dance and voice, it kind of came as an unexpected turn. I was more of a singer growing up. I love singing. Then due to a big upset with a voice teacher, I stopped singing, and that’s when I started dancing. I did everything: ballet, jazz, tap, modern. I was in musical theater school for a while. I went to school for dance therapy. I was really trying to find the weaving between my mind and my body. Then I attended The New School and I had a dance teacher, Julie Sandler, who turned me on to this work called Ideokinesis. She sent me to her teacher, this incredible man, Andre Bernard. He formulated a connection to something that I had imagined, but no one had ever really talked about: how image and words bring us to sensation. I had been searching for my language of the body. Andre led us into resting and imagining movement and really getting into specific drawing and tracing of the skeleton.
Then someone told me about a workshop in Vermont at The Putney School. She said that people were dancing from Andre’s point of work. In those days it was called release technique—now it might be called somatic practices—which was a way of letting go of a certain concept of how to move, sensing the inner source by experiential learning of your anatomy, by knowing the physiology, by engaging with the imagination. I went to Putney, and Danny Lepkoff, who was part of the first generation of Contact Improvisation, was teaching vocal improvisation, so I found myself singing again. A dancer named Marsha Paludan was teaching Contact Improvisation, and I was like, I love this work. I remember feeling like I landed in myself so strongly. It was almost religious. I didn’t think about this until years later, but I was an early student for practitioners learning how to teach the form. I think that kind of taught me how to teach, always keeping the form alive.
Rail: In some ways, it seems like you’re wanting to emphasize something that gets overlooked, which is the rigor and the real work of it, the real practice of improvisational forms. It’s not about doing whatever you want—it’s about committing to understanding what it is that you want. Understanding, again, being a rigorous process of physical, cognitive, and psychological knowledge building. It takes a real commitment to attention.
Holmes: I think there’s a rigor in playing with the senses in different ways. There’s a rigor with perception, there’s a rigor with silence.
New York in the 1980s was such an incredible time for downtown dance because so many people were exploring and discovering what their form was. There was Open Movement, which was held at the former Performance Space 122 every Monday night, and it was just like an open jam. It was kind of chaotic and crazy and then also really quiet sometimes. It was very collisional—not unlike the streets of New York. It was a laboratory for many of us, and then I think I reached a point, probably in the late eighties, when I felt I needed to get another perspective on dance and I had to leave New York. I started working with some people out in Eugene, Oregon, in a dance company called Joint Forces—Alito Alessi and Karen Nelson. I spent a lot of time as well in northeastern Vermont working with Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson—Lisa Nelson, the brain and body of the Tuning Scores. And Steve, of course, the initiator of Contact but also his solo practices. Then I studied Body-Mind Centering® for four years. I was in a small company with Simone Forti at the time as well. I think for the first fifteen years or so of my relationship with dance improvisation, Contact was very much an important practice for me. Something started to shift where I got more interested in working with Lisa and improvising with composition, in a group called Image Lab.
My friend Karen Nelson and I made a lot of work together. We were in Lisa’s lab together, and we worked with Steve together. We made a duet, Swim/Sea/No See in 1991 that was playing with interrupting the usual flow of Contact. We were looking at how we edit our dancing so that we could create more of a theater of the body. When this Oberlin anniversary came around, I suggested to Karen, “Why don’t we perform Swim/See/No Sea?” It was our way of honoring the form of Contact Improvisation. I speak of it now because of how Contact Improvisation has changed for me. I wasn’t going back to this duet to reclaim it. This duet actually showed me the thirty years since we performed it: three decades with Contact, a lot of acting training, and my involvement with theater and films, writing, and the poetics of somatics and performance. I felt the fullness of the experience, I guess. Rather than looking at the age of my dancing or the age of me, it was more like I realized that this duet really was a container for playing with Contact as one of the many forms that I love.
Rail: As you become who you are as a person, you’re going to continue to evolve through things. You talk about finding Contact as a kind of spiritual experience, of having found a place where you can be. But that doesn’t mean it’s a place where you must stay. Being able to move with it or away from it or back to it, it’s kind of like a macro version of what happens in improvisation itself.
Holmes: I think the place I found to be was me. What Contact offered was a three dimensionality, you know, working with weight and resistance and momentum. I love swimming for the same reason because you can really feel your body against the resistance of flow.
That spiritual experience of, “Wow, this is what I’ve been looking for”—I’ve found that in other things as well. Depending on what’s happening, you know, where the next evolutionary step is. I remember in 2003, when the Iraq War started and I was very engaged with protesting, I felt I needed to do something where I could really start using my language more. I wanted to become more articulate as a speaker and as a writer, and that’s when I did a two-year acting training of the Sanford Meisner technique with master teacher Terry Knickerbocker. The training was really, for me, about engaging emotionality into language. And I feel like that’s a big influence. You go through all these improvisational prompts to uncover your truth and engage with the active space of between.
Rail: What is a theater of the body?
Holmes: I think it was a term that came from trying to create a work I made several years ago that was looking at the terra incognita of a person. The undiscovered parts of ourselves are usually rejected. I was making a piece with an ensemble and directing them into the parts of themselves they didn’t know and having those parts be expressed. It just led me into thinking, and this came up as well when I was at Oberlin, that a lot of the body studies, Body-Mind Centering®, or Alexander Technique, or Feldenkrais, or any kind of somatic practice, is so much about looking at the facts of the body and understanding the physiologies, like the verbs and nouns of the body. But there’s also something about understanding the story of your body and who you are. Then there are the parts of ourselves that we don’t know—those are more the fictions of our body. That piece was called HIC SVNT DRACONES,(2013) which in Latin means “Here Be Dragons.” That’s what cartographers used to put on maps when they were going out to explore and they didn’t know what was there.
So the theater, the body, for me is like letting an unknown part speak. I wonder about how to give ourselves permission to drop into the play of it. And I’ve used that in my classes. I like the word play. Play is what children do. Play is what musicians do with their instruments, and play is also what we call the dramas. We can get really dramatic and also be simply with following sensation.
Rail: I’m thinking about the character of the listener that you mentioned, and the capacity for listening to be a real creative exercise. I feel listening gets overlooked in the urgency to produce. Can listening ever be a kind of making? And how do we continue to listen while we’re performing?
Holmes: I’ve always done a lot of performance work with live music, and I was intrigued by that idea of listening. Musicians listen to each other and they can respond by where they meet the other players with sound and vibration. I really wanted to find a way to do that with dancers, and it’s not the same at all, but there is something about being able to be still. When I listen to live music, I love watching the players who aren’t playing yet, watching them kind of absorbing and what they do when they actually join. I think that’s a skill for a mover.
Rail: I think a lot about the process in jazz improvisation of coming together as a group and that coming together itself as the so-called product or the so-called performance. We have nothing left to do once we have found unity or togetherness. Or maybe we come together and there’s time to play. Or maybe it’s not possible to really come together, and maybe we end with a kind of separateness intact. I’m thinking about how that can happen in dance as well: taking our time to come together. Sometimes that process gets rushed. You’ve said sometimes in the opening moments of class, “there’s no place you need to go” or “there’s nothing you need to fix.” How can we extend that space rather than feel like, “I need to find my partner and we need to become close”? I’m really interested in playing in the space of a resistance to closeness a little bit more, rather than rushing to confirm some kind of intimacy. Is it possible to be with, entirely with, another person?
Holmes: I think that’s a really important consideration. I love watching people work when they wrestle with their own tendencies in improvisational settings. And it’s not like, well, now I have to get over it. It’s more like that’s improvisation.
The dragon piece was about leading the performers into an improvisation and then afterward, they would say, “There’s this one part that I really don’t feel so sure about.” And I’m like, that’s where we’re gonna work. I want you to hang out there—not to fix it but to really give it voice. Maybe that’s the theater of the body.
The piece I’m making now, that I’ll be working on during my residency this September in Alaska, is called 900 Bees are Humming. Four years ago, after following an unidentified buzzing in a tree in Sweden, I discovered some bees. Later, I went to a conference about bees that happened to be at NYU, where I teach in the Experimental Theatre Wing. It made me think about how bees are living off the decay of something that’s dying, but creating new life. American poet and theorist Fred Moten was there talking about bees, and about how important mess is. He kept using that word, mess, and talking about how to really get into the mess of it instead of trying to unmess it. I love that. It’s not like we have to create any chaos, chaos exists.
Rail: The humming makes me think about your vocal practice, too. I’ve been thinking a lot about noise. Maybe the messiness of noise. It’s different from sound. Noise is more plural and amorphous. Sounds aren’t being distinguished from each other. Humming feels like that. It has that energy force of noise and messiness. There’s a hum to noise.
Or what it means to be in New York—needing to be part of a noisiness. Being in the city as a kind of will to be interrupted—and knowing that about yourself, that you’ll need to be interrupted.
Holmes: I think one of the reasons I love the city, too, is I love being in a crowd, and the anonymity of being in a crowd and also joining it—the swarming Fred would talk about in terms of bees, of cogency. It’s the resistance of swimming or doing Contact—you can feel so much.
I love etymologies and origins, language origins but also body origins and place origins. I think that The Athletics of Intimacy, my ongoing Saturday morning class at Movement Research, is interesting because the two words are kind of contrary. Part of the definition of intimate or intimacy is getting closer to yourself. I think that’s something we forget. With Contact Improvisation, with a lot of moving through touch and with somebody else’s physical force, I feel myself more.
I’m also an Ayurvedic and yoga practitioner, and I love that work so much. Soma in Latin means the body, but in Sanskrit, it is a nectar of the gods. You can release its “nectar” from your fluids in your brain, and then you can kind of taste your own experience. When I look at it—and here again is the theater of the body—somatics is getting to really understand the instrument of the body, but it’s also getting deep into the imagination. It’s about playing in and with transition.
Rail: It’s a fluidity, a practice of non-possession of any singular moment. Maybe articulation is more about finding a rhythm that suits the meaning rather than finding names and nouns by which to call things. Once in a while in class, you’ve suggested the textual implication of what we’re doing, the body as a kind of text. Could you talk a little bit about your own writing practice, and how it’s integrated into your thoughts about movement and improvisation?
Holmes: I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost this morning. She writes about desire as being a state of longing. There’s something about remaining in the state of longing that is so beautiful. To achieve is different than achieving, the action of it.
Rail: I think a lot about that, too. How can we stay in the verb?
Holmes: Yeah. It’s an action.
Rail: Or in the continuum, the ing of it.
Holmes: Do you know Jeanine Durning? A beautiful performer. She did a piece called inging, and it was constant. She never stopped talking and she never stopped moving.
The practice of writing for me comes from years ago practicing a dance form called Authentic Movement. Authentic Movement is where one person is moving with their eyes closed, and then there’s a witness. It’s also called sourcing. My teacher at the time, a beautiful dancer, Susan Schell—and this is in the late eighties, early nineties—she would have us write after dancing. If I stayed within the experience, whether I was a witness or a mover, I always found that some images would come from that, rather than explaining or charting the experience. That really kept me alive with language and words. Dancing can be a kind of gross motoring in a way, and then when you go into writing on a page, it becomes a finer motoring, neurologically. It’s beautiful how poetics come from letting the words follow a movement, and then they become a map back to the moving experience.
Rail: Writing as a document of gesture.
Holmes: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. To introduce the idea of a gesture allows what you’re doing, following sensation and then holding the gesture, to become dramatic. What does the gesture say? Within that one gesture are so many possibilities, and how do you read that?