Using contact improvisations

Contact improvisations are spontaneous physical dialogues that range from stillness to highly energetic exchanges.

Alertness is developed in order to work in an energetic state of physical disorientation, trusting in one’s basic survival instincts. It is a free play with balance, self-correcting the wrong moves and reinforcing the right ones, bringing forth a physical/emotional truth about a shared moment of movement that leaves the participants informed, centered, and enlivened.From Caught Falling by Nancy Stark Smith and David Koteen

Contact improvisation is a developed form of improvisation, usually a duet, between two experienced dancers. Our interest here is in the starting point – a point of contact. The improvisation is the movement that develops from that. Even if you’re not a trained dancer, you can experiment with shared movements. Think about how the effectiveness of a stage punch depends on the reaction of the recipient. The movements are associated and work together.


You can explore simple contact improvisation in pairs by exploring simple touch, eg starting palm to palm using two basic dynamics of ‘to push’ and ‘to pull’. You could move onto another simple exercise by maintaining a point of physical contact at all times with a partner. Here you could explore three basic rules:

  • to absorb an impulse by the partner
  • to resist or ignore it
  • to respond to it

Test your understanding of Physical theatre

Answer the question then check your response against the sample answer.


Suppose that the devised work you’re doing is based on the idea of fairy tales in a modern or somehow different setting. Your group has chosen Hansel and Gretel. What effects could you create through Physical theatre?

If the trees in the wood are portrayed by the actors, they could invoke fear in the audience. They could do this by moving slowly and ever so subtly closer and closer to the actors portraying an initially oblivious Hansel and Gretel. This could be a very effective scene for the audience to witness. You would have to be careful of veering into comedy so the physical movements by the characters playing the trees would have to be subtle. For example, one tree could just shift ever so slightly to the left followed by another and another. Hansel and Gretel could glimpse this movement but initially think their eyes are deceiving them as the ‘trees’ become still and statue like.

It’s possible in this way to make the characters’ journey the stuff of nightmares but also frighteningly realistic. If the setting is modern, it could become an allegory of neglect or abuse.

The scene could end with the trees abandoning all subtlety in movement and aggressively reaching out for Hansel and Gretel, restraining them and perhaps overpowering them – a homage to the ‘grabbing trees’ in Hollywood’s The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Tree from The Wizard Of Oz, 1939
Credit: MGM/Ronald Grant Archive
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