On the evening of Friday, Jan. 17, the contact improvisation group Set Go came to campus as the second installment in the 2019-2020 Dance Series put on by the university. Set Go is a research and performance ensemble founded in 2016 including five members with over 60 years of contact improv experience combined among all of them as well as an incredible background in dance and education. Performers Sarah Konner, Paul Singh, Bradley Teal Ellis, Shura Baryshnikov and Aaron Brando put on a jaw-dropping performance in their piece “In Motion.” Along with the dancers, there was also live improvised sound work with the help of Associate Professor of Music Mark Urness on bass, Instructor of Music Matt Turner on electric cello and Instructor of Music Loren Dempster on cello. The Dance Series was put on and organized by Instructor of Dance Margaret Paek.
Set Go posed questions about communication in the modern, technology-reliant and disconnected world and what form of communication works to humanize people through it all. The group believes that contact improv provides new modes for people to connect in the current world. According to them, dance reveals identity, telling a story about each individual and the histories of an entire group. As they stated in the “In Motion” program notes: “We telescope in and out, attentive to our own somatic experience but also to those who we are in direct relation to and to a global sense of time and space within the composition. We attempt to hold it all in our attention in Motion.”
The performance began with Singh and Konner in duet. Immediately, the audience latched onto their seemingly gravity-defiant movement. The more the two worked themselves into the space, the more it became apparent of their great relationship with one another and their art. Each swift movement was so precise in its execution that it was difficult not to just watch in complete awe. The lines they created with their arms and legs were mesmerizing; it almost felt like they were graceful blades of grass or trees interacting with wind. They soon came to a stop when Ellis walked on in a bright red jumper and stopped their dance with a quote that seemed more directed at the audience than at Singh and Konner’s dance. A few of these “quote bombs” occurred throughout the piece and acted as a commentary on the issues Set Go were confronting with their movement. In the moments when all five of them were performing, it was beautiful to see all of their bodies communicating in a fluid way that never felt weird or unnatural. They moved so smoothly and stepped so lightly that it was hard to believe they were not in water or air or some other place where gravity would not be a factor. However, they were also able to integrate a comedic tone when there were openings where it made sense, captivating the audience not only with their enchanting skills but also with their wit. It was a refreshing performance: fun and elegant all in one.
At the end, the musicians and dancers answered a few questions about their work as improvisers. The dancers expressed gratitude for the live music. Brando said that it felt like a “beautiful breeze passing by” that he was able to notice and play with. Baryshnikov commented in a similar vein: it was like moving into a lighted space that connected to a somatic feeling. Speaking for the musicians, Urness added that oftentimes it felt like there was a kind of tension between them and the dancers because they were trying to make the sound match the movement but also make the dancers match their sound. Urness stated that for him it is important for the music to have its own integrity, same as the dancers. Contact improv, for Set Go, is organized around community building and inviting people into the space.