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POST BY CAROLINE PALMER, Special to the Star Tribune
Steve Paxton (pictured below) is a world-famous dancer and choreographer with a career spanning some five decades but he lives under the radar.
The José Limón and Merce Cunningham company member during the 1960’s, key instigator within the transformative Judson Dance Theater and Grand Union postmodern movement groups, inventor of contact improvisation in 1972 and much sought-after teacher doesn’t have a manager or booking agent. Now 75 and a self-described “old guy,” Paxton lives at Mad Brook Farm in northeastern Vermont, a place he calls home with artists, artisans and other folks seeking alternative communities. But for the next two weeks he is the central figure of the Walker Art Center’s mini-festival “Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton.”
“I started dancing professionally in the 1960s, and over 50-odd years you develop your instrument, your body and your mind,” Paxton said from Vermont during a recent phone conversation. And while aging has exacted a toll, he said that “the feeling is still in my nerves and muscle memory continues even as the muscles stop functioning.” He noted that Cunningham choreographed into his nineties.
According to Philip Bither, the Walker’s Senior Curator of Performing Arts, Paxton “is under-recognized and deserves a much broader public understanding of his influence.” William Forsythe, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jérôme Bel, to name a few major artists presented by the Walker have all drawn inspiration from Paxton and his innovative peers (including Trisha Brown, David Gordon, Lucinda Childs, Deborah Hay and Yvonne Rainer).
Yet while Paxton may be relatively unknown to a broader audience he is very much a “guru” within the dance world, said Bither, and “people from all over the country are coming for the classes.”
Kristin Van Loon, co-founder of local choreographic duo HIJACK with Arwen Wilder, cleared her schedule for Paxton’s visit. She has attended four of his two-week intensives, likening the experience to a “martial arts dojo” in which the participants dance, eat and even take naps together while learning to delve deeper into their movement potential. Paxton also lectures and recounts stories from Cunningham tours. “It’s exactly how I want to study dance,” she said. Van Loon will be performing Paxton’s 1967 work “Smiling” with his longtime collaborator Lisa Nelson on Thursday, November 13 during the Walker’s “Talking Dance” program (7 p.m.).
Aside from teaching and lecturing Paxton will also take the stage while in Minneapolis, a rare treat. He and Nelson will dance their 2004 duet “Night Stand” on November 21-22 at 8 p.m., which also features lighting design from Carol Mullins. “We have been performing together since the 1970s,” Paxton said of Nelson, referring to their ongoing partnership as a “dance adventure.” The residency also includes a performance of Paxton’s 1982 solo “Bound,” performed by Slovenian dancer Jurij Konjar on November 14 at 8 p.m. “He is a really incredible technician with great physical energy,” said Paxton.
“Night Stand” and “Bound” are unique choices in that they are not contact improvisation works, although they are built on elements of improvisation intertwined with specific set events. The Walker’s intent is to show different facets of Paxton’s artistry – from improvisation to choreography – during “Composing Forward.” But contact improvisation is still a big part of the conversation. “It is a global phenomenon,” said Bither. “It opened up the idea of movement as a form of participation.”
Contact improvisation transformed the act of partnering. Dancers support one another, exchanging weight, melting into the curves of bodies. Paxton explained that he drew upon research by Dr. Daniel Stern at Columbia University during the early 1970’s that focused on the movement interactions between mothers and babies built upon intimacy, emotional nourishment and reliance on intuition. This movement foundation draws upon innate and common human experiences, which may explain why contact improvisation concepts are so readily embraced by dancers from different cultures.
An egalitarian form, contact improvisation is available to movers of any ability, and adherents hail from a variety of backgrounds, including ballet (local dancer Sally Rousse has been known to do it while wearing a toe shoes and tutu). Asked whether he anticipated contact improvisation’s popularity, Paxton, who witnessed other the blossoming of other movements like Pop Art, said, “I did have a sort of inkling that it was probably going to grow. It grew very quickly by word of mouth. I’ve always conducted my career by word of mouth.”
Paxton, however, is not possessive of his creation. “As long as I’m alive I maintain a position that lets contact just be in the hands of the people doing it. I’m not overseeing it. I feel like that’s a moral position. If you are interested find it and explore it.”
Contact improvisation can be either virtuosic or contemplative but it is always individualistic. According to Paxton, “We’re trained to see dance validated as dance and to see physical exploits. We demand precision and in performance we want to see something spectacular. We want to see the training potential of the body exposed.”
But ironically, he added, this desire can limit movement opportunity. What contact improvisation does is provide an outlet for interaction that can range from the exquisite to the mundane – but is still altogether different from the norm. “We behave in certain ways in public with people,” he said. “We don’t roll around, we aren’t upside down, we aren’t supporting each other[‘s bodies] while we’re having a cocktail or a chat over coffee.”
For a full schedule of Paxton-related events visit www.walkerart.org.
In what may seem like an odd pairing, James Sewell of the Minneapolis-based Sewell Ballet is working with veteran documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman on a new ballet based on an old Wiseman movie.
Wiseman's 1967 "Titicut Follies" documented the residents and inmates at Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Mass.
This early Wiseman documentary ignited controversy when state authorities sought to prevent its release, saying it violated inmates' privacy. The legal case rolled through various jurisdictions, but the film was withheld from distribution for years. Wiseman went on to wide fame for his fly-on-the-wall documentaries on a variety of subjects, including high-school life, meat, public housing, boxing and, in two movies, the world of dance.
Fast forward to 2014, when a new Center for Ballet and the Arts is set to open at New York University. Wiseman is among the center's first group of fellows. He announced this week that as part of that fellowship he is planning a ballet based on the film, to be created by choreographer Sewell.
Sewell said Wednesday that he and Wiseman have been talking by phone about the project this summer, and that Wiseman is due in Minneapolis later in September for meetings and in-studio improvisation. Wiseman is a "visionary," Sewell said, "and it extends beyond his medium. We've synthesized how our worlds can connect."
Sewell said the ballet, which may retain the movie's title, is likely to require 10 male dancers, as well as other characters to potray the state hospital's doctors and nurses. Likely to premiere in Minneapolis about two years from now, the ballet will include music and possibly video from the original film, Sewell said.
"When I first saw the film -- so intense, so strange -- I thought, 'how could you make a ballet of this?' But the elements are all there -- humorous, poetic, horrifying, sad," Sewell said.
The movie's title comes from an annual variety show that Bridgewater officials and inmates staged at the hospital. "These violent criminals and mentally ill inmates would put on a show, singing Gershwin with pom-poms in their hands," Sewell said.
While funding and other details remain to be worked out, Sewell said he "could not be happier" about this collaboration, which "dropped in my lap." He hopes to find a way, in dance, to portray "the inner landscape" of the often abused, catatonic or disruptive Bridgewater population.
Wiseman, 84, just won the Golden Lion Career Award at the Venice Film Festival.
Lea Thompson/photo by Los Angeles Times
Part-time Minnesota resident Kristi Yamaguchi represented our state well in 2008 when she crushed the competition on "Dancing With the Stars."
Now it's Lea Thompson's turn.
The Rochester native will be among the cast members when the show returns Sept. 15. Others in the mix include soap star Antonio Sabato Jr., Janel Parrish ("Pretty Little Liars"), "Duck Dynasty" diva Sadie Robertson and NASCAR driver Michael Waltrip. ABC on Thursday announced the 13 contestants for its fall round of the dancing competition. They also include talk-show host Tavis Smiley, Olympic athlete Lolo Jones and fashion designer Betsey Johnson. Other amateur hoofers include comedy veteran Tommy Chong, YouTube star Bethany Mota, Ultimate Fighting champ Randy Couture, "Mean Girls" star Jonathan Bennett and actor-dancer Alfonso Ribeiro.
The new lineup was unveiled on "Good Morning America."
At 53, Thompson may be among the oldest participants, but don't count her out. She started dancing professionally at the age of 14 and clocked in 45 performances with the American Ballet Theatre. She later focused on acting, landing high-profile roles in "Back to the Future" and "All the Right Moves."
As much as we'll be rooting for Thompson, our early money is on Ribeiro, who danced in Michael Jackson videos as a kid and starred as Carlton Banks on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." Remember his "Carlton Dance" everytime Tom Jones' "It's Not Unusual" was played? If he can incorporate those moves into his routines, he's got our vote.
As reported earlier, Thompson may soon be revisiting her Minnesota roots. Her husband, Howard Deutch, is developing a possible series for HBO set in Stillwater.
Includes material from the Associated Press.
Aparna Ramaswamy rehearsed "Song of the Jasmine" in Minneapolis in May, 2014. Star Tribune photo by Elizabeth Flores.
The work, incorporaing Ragamala's south Indian dance vocabulary with music by jazz saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa, was premiered in Minneapolis in May. It was a commission of Walker Art Center.
Showtime Thursday is 7:30 p.m., at the Damrosch Park bandshell. Admission is free. Ragmala Dance co-founders Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy give a free talk at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Asia Society.
Ranee Ramaswamy, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Aparna Ramaswamy. Star Tribune photo by Elizabeth Flores.
Twin Cities artists and arts leaders were on hand Monday at the White House to cheer on Bill T. Jones, who was presented with the National Medal for the Arts by President Obama.
A multiple Tony-winning choreographer, dancer, director and company founder, Jones has a decades-long association with artists and arts institutions in the Twin Cities, especially Walker Art Center, under whose aegis he has developed, premiered and performed many works. He also directed "Dream on Monkey Mountain" at the Guthrie Theater.
On Monday, Walker director Olga Viso (left) posed with honoree Jones alongside Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy, who are, respectively, founder and principal dancer of Ragamala Dance Theater.
President Obama appointed both Viso and Ranee Ramaswamy (who supplied the image), to the National Council on the Arts. The Senate confirmed them in 2013.
Jones was one of 11 luminary winners of the arts medal, among the nation's highest honors for artists. The winner's roster included writers Julia Alvarez and Maxine Hong Kingston, musical theater composer John Kander, musician Linda Ronstadt and pioneering documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles.
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