Shura Baryshnikov teaches the art of touch

  • Shura Baryshnikov (center, standing) leads Academy dancers through exercises as part of her December master class on contact improvisation.

A few days after wrapping up their final performance of The Sleeping Beauty, Interlochen Arts Academy dance students returned to the studio for a session with a special guest.

Shura Baryshnikov, daughter of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jessica Lange and a professional dancer, visited the Hildegard Lewis Dance Building in December to teach the students about contact improvisation.

In the wake of preparations for The Sleeping Beauty, Baryshnikov encouraged the students to simply relax and enjoy the class.

“You’ve just accomplished something very challenging,” she said. “This is your time to let loose.”

And let loose they did. Baryshnikov began by playing soft instrumental music on the studio’s stereo and asking students to take off their socks. She then asked the dancers to form pairs. As students began to gravitate towards their friends, she added a stipulation: Find a partner whose thumb most closely resembles yours without speaking to anyone. For the next few minutes, students wove between their peers, comparing thumbs silently, nodding their approval or rejection of the match.

Once partnered, Baryshnikov asked the students to sit while she gave instructions and introduced lesson concepts. Her three key ideas—muscle tone, organization and modulation—would help the students understand each element of the lesson.

Baryshnikov’s first exercise helped students learn about their own and their partner’s tone. Each partner took turns lying limp—or “low tone,” in Baryshnikov’s terms—while their partner jostled their body.

“The way you touch is important,” Baryshnikov explained. “When we speak, we’re asking for information; when we touch, we’re also asking for information. Through touch, you’re learning about the tone of different parts of your partner.”

As the partners swapped roles from jostler to jostled, Baryshnikov encouraged each to remember what they had just experienced. “Be considerate with your touch,” she said. “You know what it felt like when you were touched, and now you’re offering touch.”

After each partner was suitably jostled, the students lay on the floor for a few moments to soak in or “harvest” what they had just learned. For the next hour, Baryshnikov led the students through a series of floor exercises. The students worked in silence: the only sounds were the soft music, the squeaking of bare feet on the painted floor, and the howling blizzard wind outside, occasionally punctuated by an instruction from Baryshnikov. The class ended with a question-and-answer session.