Clash of the Titans

CHRIS AIKEN, LOCAL improviser extraordinaire, has a mission: to transform the world of dance improvisation from a marginal, low-tech amusement for the already initiated into a popular form of entertainment. It's a lofty goal, all right, considering most theatergoers would rather eat battery acid than subject themselves to what they perceive to be a form of art therapy. Over the last few years, however, dance improvisation--that is, movement without set choreography--has made impressive leaps toward Aiken's goal. Aiken and other nationally known improvisers perform around the country to enthusiastic audiences, receive glowing reviews in the New York Times and other national newspapers, and teach workshops all over the world.

"We've been a blip on the dance screen for so many years," Aiken commented after a weekend of performances with British improv virtuosa Kirstie Simson, at Dance Theatre Workshop in New York City. "We're finally beginning to come out, and it's really exciting."

Aiken's latest project is his most ambitious yet. With help from the Jerome Foundation, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, the Walker Art Center, and the Southern Theater, Aiken has assembled the dream team of improvisers for a weekend of performances here in Minneapolis. There's Steve Paxton, the legendary father of contact improvisation and one of the most outstanding performers this side of the Atlantic; Ka Rustler, a leading member of Germany's Tanzfabrik Berlin; Ray Chung, one of the Bay Area's finest practitioners of contact; and Simson and Aiken.

Prior to their residency at Jacob's Pillow this summer, the dancers all knew each other, but had not necessarily worked with everybody in the group. "My first criterion in bringing these people together," says Aiken, "was that all had to be experienced performers and at the point in their careers where being onstage is not an issue anymore and it's simply about the work. Improvisation is extremely delicate in terms of interpersonal dynamics, and it requires confidence and trust on everybody's part."

The assembled gang are all technicians par excellence, but Aiken is quick to point out that a successful improv has little to do with the number of tricks in the bag. "Impressing the audience with your skills is not enough. I mean, if it's not about connecting with them, why are we asking them to come? When the audience is unresponsive, that's when you resort to your craft."

The Improvisation Project runs Thursday through Saturday, October 22-24, at the Southern Theater; 340-1725.

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