Countdown to Gala 2017, Day 33: Excerpts from Issue #18 of the Movement Research Performance Journal

The 2017 Movement Research Gala on May 8 will celebrate 25 years of Movement Research at the Judson Church and 50 Issues of the Movement Research Performance Journal. As we count down the days until the Gala, we’re posting #50DaysOfMRPJ with Editor’s Notes and excerpts from each Performance Journal.

Movement Research Performance Journal Issue #18 was released in Winter/Spring 1999. You can view the full Table of Contents here.

*The Movement Research Gala will take place Monday, May 8 at 6pm at Judson Memorial Church. For more information, to volunteer or to purchase tickets, click here.

#MRGala2017 #50DaysOfMRPJ

MRPJ#18: Release

Movement Research: Release Technique: Nancy Topf

by Sophia Cowing, Loraine Corfield, Tania Apelbaum and Jon Gibson

A great loss befell the dance community this fall when Nancy Topf, dancer, choreographer and teacher died in the SwissAir plane crash. For twenty-five years, Nancy was a pioneer in the areas of bodywork, release technique and dance improvisation. She was a dancer first — studying ballet and working with Delacroze teachers Lola and Mita Rom as a child and culminating in an intensive study with Cunningham as a young adult. Living in New York City since the mid-sixties and teaching at the University of Illinois in the early seventies, Nancy was part of the atmosphere around the very beginnings of release and contact improvisation, working with dancers such as Steve Paxton, Marsha Palludan and Mary Fulkerson. But it wasn’t until John Rolland introduced her to Barbara Clark, a pupil of Mabel Todd’s, that Nancy found the knowledge that inspired her life’s work.

Todd and Clark’s work was based upon a study of the mechanics of skeletal support and muscular release through developing precise mental images of the bones and muscles. In Nancy’s dance classes and workshops she used the skeleton and pictures of the anatomy to clarify these images within the body. These images, such as the curves of the spine or the roundness of the hip sockets entered into the dancer’s internal process; they engaged the imagination and attuned the mind to the body. “All this naturally brings release,” said Nancy. “Your musculature follows the skeletal structure. So when you direct the mind toward the skeletal structure, you free the body for movement.” These images guided Nancy’s exploration and kept the release principles very pure in her work.

From Nancy’s point of view, release work evolved simultaneously with contact improvisation. She felt many aspects united these two forms of movement, for example: interest in the creative process, improvisation, experimentation, exploration, and a redefining of the use of the body and weight.

“Release form, for the most part, comes first,” said Nancy. “It evolves a way for dancers to find solo improvisations. Anatomical imagery guides the movement, and energy follows, leading the body into the dance. The dancer discovers contact with the self in this way. I remember that Marsha Palludan sometimes called release work ‘solo dance form.’”

For Nancy, release work was always exploring the relationship of weight to gravity. She said, “In release work, it’s about the perception of weight. A sense of the weight of your own arm. Or of your head. Or your pelvis. In contact, it’s about the weight of another body in relationship to yours. Another question of weight occurs in falling. In release work, there’s falling by oneself. And in contact, there’s falling on each other.” Nancy thought release work helped people feel the weight issue before they came into contact.

We students remember Nancy telling about the time she and John Rolland were on their way to a party. “John and I were just walking along when we decided to figure out how to walk using the least muscular effort. That’s release, right? Well, John and I started walking slower and slower, until three hours later we arrived, only guess what? The party was over. We missed the fun, but boy, did we learn release.”

One of Nancy’s students, Sophia Cowing, writer and dancer, recalls coming to class for the first time at age fifty-five after having raised five children. “When I saw the release work Nancy was doing with her dancers, I told her I’d return after a year. She asked me why so long? I told her, ‘It’s because I need to develop some muscles to release.’ But after five years of her work, I gained more flexibility, balance and agility than I had in my twenties.”

Nancy’s dancers studied the direction of energy, or flow of the body’s tensile and compression forces, through the bony structures as well as a few important muscles such as the psoas and the sternocleidomastoid. The dancers learned to visualize these energy cycles in their minds. They acquired the ability to connect these cycles to the various parts of the body through an inner perception of sensation. A mind-body coupling took place, an important linkage that enabled the dancer to release unnecessary tension and develop an understanding of the body through a more integrated experience of self.

Nancy felt anatomical images and energy cycles brought the dancer to reflection, wonder, and curiosity. In this way, they fed the mind. “The images are a hook to turn inward to the body,” Nancy told her dancers, “and all this begins with the spine and especially the psoas muscle.”

Loraine Corfield, video documentarian and dancer, remembers the first time Nancy guided her hand to the lumbar spine. “I was so shocked. I suddenly realized how huge those vertebrae were. In a profound way I understood how these bones really could support my body. Before this, I had experienced the frustration of trying too hard as the mind focused on the tight muscles I wished to release. The desired result became so important that it increased tension rather than releasing it.”

Nancy felt that many people hold quite unclear concepts of their bodies. Even many dancers do not understand how these concepts and partial anatomical images influence the body’s responses and patterns of movement. “A dancer’s underdeveloped images lead her to tension and holding,” Nancy told her students. “This, in turn, results in many undesirable effects in the body including shortening and asymmetry, compression of the joints, a restriction of the breath, even a tightening of the emotional system.”

Nancy used different forms to help her dancers find this deep release, such as workshops, weekly classes, and bodywork. Realizing the body’s essential wish and desire for movement, Nancy initiated an internal process in her students rather than a rigid outer motivation. She remarked, “Dancers need to acquire a fluid yet very strong inner attention to focus upon images of the skeletal structure. Muscles follow bones, so that attention directed toward images of the skeleton frees musculature for movement. Through this logical progression dancers unify their feeling and sensing capabilities with the body’s thinking function.”

“As my dancers advance,” she continued, “They often experience emotional release, creative growth, and an increase in energy. Greater relaxation occurs, and a more natural alignment. Increased range and fluidity of movement, better posture and balance, healing and reduction of injuries– all this happens, while the very inward quality of the work aids the development of a stronger and more relaxed person, one who is more in touch with body and self.”

Tania Apelbaum, Brazilian physician, opera singer and dancer remarked, “Learning to trust the image, believing that transformation will take place if I am faithful to the images, that was, for me, one of the big challenges. Finding my support, my center, the anchors of the body, the clarity of movement initiation set me free to move and very slowly changed the quality of my attention towards the body.”

Nancy believed that the aim of her work was not to reach specific goals, but rather to develop a life-long process to support and guide the subtle, inner growth of an individual. “The work is not about knowledge quickly gained,” she stated, “It’s about the slow gathering of experience over a sustained study, requiring constant–that is, even daily–application of centering and release principles.”