Soft collisions

Anya Cloud searches for answers in the messy aftermath of modern dance

Watching Anya Cloud dance is a study in contradictions. Tall and muscular, with her hair shaved close to her scalp, she strikes an imposing figure that’s only amplified by the frequent intensity of her glower. She’s capable of lifting and supporting other dancers, demonstrating bursts of physical prowess that beautifully mess with conventional perceptions of a dancer. Yet in other moments, often within the same performance, Cloud can find a gentle and lithe touch that belies her stature. The University of Montana graduate just as easily glides above the floor with arms and fingertips extended as she withers to the ground or folds into the body of her collaborators like a vulnerable child. This level of versatility is inherent to contact improvisation, the style of dance that Cloud specializes in and that has allowed her to travel the world teaching, performing and ultimately testing the limits of the art form.

“I’m interested in physically rigorous work that asks for the full range of states and qualities, from subtle and detailed to expansive and athletic and everything in between,” Cloud explains. “Basically, I am interested in the impossible.”

Originally Published: August 15, 2018, Missoula Independent

Cloud describes the difficult nature of her dancing from a similarly challenging environment: she’s typing responses to interview questions on her phone, in the middle of the night following a full day of teaching and performing, while in Germany. She’s spent the past five weeks in Europe on tour with San Francisco-based choreographer Sara Shelton Mann, debuting a new piece she helped create titled “Echo,” as well as assisting in intensive contact improvisation training sessions in Vienna, Spain and, now, a festival in Berlin. As soon as she’s done with this leg of the tour—“Echo” makes its official premiere in San Francisco in October—Cloud will fly to Missoula as one of two featured guest artists at this year’s Mountain Dance Festival, starting Aug. 20.

While the travel is exhausting, it’s also provided Cloud an opportunity to expand her experience and use dance as a way of breaking down barriers. Contact improvisation promotes communication and collaboration; as the name implies, the dance form relies on participants trusting each other through an open-ended exploration of movement.

“The thing is that dance, contact improvisation included, is about people and movement,” Cloud says. “Dance spaces can become focused incubators for the best and the worst of current culture.”

Cloud, 35, doesn’t shy away from testing this type of interaction. Last year, she led an intensive in the Ukraine called “Contact as an Act of Resistance.” In March, she co-taught a workshop in Mexico that explored how to use dance and music as a way to counteract “many of the xenophobic and divisive” elements of current society. She also recently traveled to the Israel Contact Improvisation Festival, where she, among other things, taught teenage girls at a Nazareth dance school run by Palestinian women and met with the director of a cultural center in Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the West Bank. She describes the Israel trip, with the “explicit militarization of the culture and the people” juxtaposed by the “vibrancy of daily life,” as particularly unnerving.

“I couldn’t find my grounding there,” Cloud says. “It is the only place I’ve ever traveled where I couldn’t find the grounding through my body … I came away with far more questions than when I arrived.”

Cloud embraces these types of complicated endeavors. While contact improvisation can be exhilarating when everything works, it can also result in disaster when nothing does. Through her travels, Cloud has seen both ends of the spectrum as dancers wrestle with all types of issues that find their way to the dance space. 

For instance, at the West Coast Contact Improvisation Jam earlier this year, the theme was deconstructing power, and the current #metoo movement played a prominent role. One of the jams was interrupted by a protest initiated by some of the dancers.

“It ended up being quite powerful. Messy, but powerful,” Cloud says. “I think that we can’t be afraid of the mess if we want things to change.”

Cloud talks so passionately about her outreach work and continued study—after UM she earned her master’s in 2013 from the University of California in San Diego, and she’s currently training in the Feldenkrais method of movement therapy—that it almost overshadows her presence as a performer. In her pieces with Mann and others, she’s the rare featured artist who can command an audience with even the slightest of movements, knowing anything is possible in the next moment. In her collaboration with Eric Geiger, she called this style “Intelligent Recklessness,” or a type of high-stakes dancing that features “soft collisions, velocity, abandon…” It sounds contradictory and unattainable, but perhaps no more so than using dance as a form of diplomacy around the globe. “To me, contact improvisation is a beautifully queer proposal that asks me to assert and surrender all of the time,” she says. “… I think that dance is only as powerful as the people inside of it. It isn’t the answer, but it can offer a beautifully embodied experience of questioning. And I believe in that.”

Photo by Tim Richards.

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