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Photograph by David Papas
Need A Lift?: Choreographer Scott Wells and dancer Lindsay Gauthier collude against gravity.

Flight Makes Right

Contact improv master and former Santa Cruz resident Scott Wells returns for a show and workshop.

By Michelle Camerlingo

Scott Wells took his very first modern dance class at Cabrillo College when he was 20 years old and was instantly hooked. But it was contact improv that stole his heart.

"It felt completely natural for me," says Wells, now 51 and an award-winning choreographer based in San Francisco. "The movement worked with my body."

Contact improv is an anarchic product of the social revolution of the 1960s. The basic principle is to use the initial point of contact a body makes (be it finger, toe, elbow, head, wall, floor or another body) to soften perpendicular impact into a sideways roll. The former Santa Cruzan's company, Scott Wells and Dancers, has been thrilling audiences with its daring use of the form for the last 15 years.

After graduating from the University of Illinois, in 1992 Wells, then 33, returned to the Bay Area with only five dancers and an idea about how to take contact improv big. Soon after, he began presenting his work. Today, his shows are among the few contemporary dance productions to sell out regularly. 

"People were ready for us," he says. "It's like we were instantly popular. I think audiences were looking for something fresh."

Wells' company dancers have training in gymnastics, wrestling, ballet, modern dance, tumbling, capoeira and music. Free-spirited combinations are encouraged; Wells himself once did a contact duet rolling around on the floor with his partner while playing little ditties on a guitar--all without missing a beat.

His dancers follow suit. Using contact improv with props, music and costumes, they effortlessly flip through the air, somersault off couches and are caught like weightless creatures. But what make Wells' pieces extraordinary are the intricate, subtle interactions between the dancers. This isn't just a series of acrobatic tricks; he's melding gravity-defying movement with layers of emotion.

While Wells' choreography is often loosely structured, he says the trust is absolute. And so is the fun. The show features a dance with two world-class jugglers melding tricks and contact improv with a duet about a tempestuous relationship. It's an updated piece that Wells choreographed during the angst of college.

"A lot of my choreography during that time was very stormy," he recalls.

The company will also be performing A Dance for Eight Men, an all-male number with dancers moving to the voice of a feminist lesbian poet. "It's a risqué piece," says Wells. "The story is very racy."

The performances have been known to inspire athletic and sensual movement. Wells' choreography is reminiscent of that of Mia Michaels, an Emmy-winning choreographer from Fox's So You Think You Can Dance. Wells' movements are fluidly unconventional and not bound by the rules of ballet--it's more real and raw.

Among two of the top honors on his trophy shelf are the Martha Hill Award for choreography from the American Dance Festival and the Emerging Choreographer's Commission from the Bates Dance Festival in Maine. But Wells said he considers teaching the biggest reward--good news for those Santa Cruz students who might be thinking of signing up for his weekend contact improv workshop.

"Teaching gave me the means to make a living from dance and put me where I am now," he says.

SCOTT WELLS AND DANCERS perform Friday, Feb. 13, at 8pm at the 418 Project, 418 Front St., Santa Cruz; $15 advance/$18 door; 831.466.9770.

JUMPING - FLYING, a weekend workshop on flying, catching, landing and fluid acrobatics, happpens Saturday-Sunday, Feb. 14-15, 1:30-5:30pm at the 418 Project. Tickets are $110. Tickets and registration at

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