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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.
Nine local troupes are staging 11 nights of horror at the Southern Theatre in Minneapolis through Nov. 2.
The Twin Cities Horror Festival is like a scary mini-Fringe Festival at Halloween time, with dance, theater, film and music, multi-show passes and latenight showtimes.
"Frankenstein" is a "terrifying new adaptation" by RawRedMeatProductions. "Doll Collection," by Four Hmors, is an original work about the general creepiness of dolls. In "Panacea," a 7-piece musicians' ensemble known as the Poor Nobodys performs live to original film and found footage.
Also performing are physical-theater troupe Transatlantic Love Affair, Hardcover Theater (a dark comedy about amputation), Ghoulish Delights, Gorilla Sandwich (a parlor farce adaptation of the classic John Carpenter movie "The Thing"), The Importance of Being Jim Fotis, and Erin Shepperd Presents.
Most individual shows are $15, and there's a 4-show pass at $50 and a 6-show pass at $75. Many of the shows start late, and some are followed by even later-night scary movies, so check the schedule. Follow the fest on Twitter @tchorrorfest.
Helen Sadler and Francis Guinan in "The Night Alive" at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. Set design is by Todd Rosenthal. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Steppenwolf Theatre, the Chicago playhouse that has a knack for birthing hit plays, some of which have gone on to Broadway runs and Tony wins, just opened "The Night Alive," by Irish playwright Conor McPherson.
I saw the production in previews in September, and can't wait for the play to arrive in the Twin Cities. The Jungle Theater, which has produced such other McPherson plays as "The Seafarer" (2009) and "Shining City (2007), would be great home for this darkly amusing meditation on violence, mortality, charity, friendship, illusion and dreams deferred.
As directed at Steppenwolf by Henry Fishcamper (who is a resident artistic associate at Chicago's Goodman Theatre), "The Night Alive" takes place in the extremely messy, bare bones rented room of Tommy (Francis Guinan, marvelous), whose landlord Uncle Marice is played by veteran character actor M. Emmet Walsh.
One night, Tommy, one of the most lovable losers ever to have graced a stage, brings home Aimee (Helen Sadler), a young woman who has taken a beating. Their growing relationship plays out alongside Tommy's dim sidekick Doc (Tim Hopper), Maurice, and a malevolent Kenneth (Dan Waller).
While the action and plot are wonderfully grounded in quotidian detail -- dented cups of tea, piles of dirty laundry, a travel poster of Finland -- the script leaves open the possibility of multiple metaphoric interpretations. This became abundantly clear in the post-play discussion with Steppenwolf's Martha Lavey and Fishcamper, which raised more questions about the play than were conveniently answered.
"The Night Alive" continues at Steppenwolf through Nov. 16.
Francis Guinan, M. Emmet Walsh and Tim Hopper in Steppenwolf's "The Night Alive," by Conor McPherson. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Park Square Theatre's second stage -- long anticipated -- should be finished in mid-October. The theater announced Wednesday that the 204-seat thrust will open with "The House on Mango Street" (in previews) on Oct. 24. The production will run through Nov. 9, directed by Dipankar Mukherjee.
The thrust, named for benefactor Andy Boss, is projected to cost $3.5 million and is set up to be independent of the main stage, with its own ticket office, lobby, galleries, rehearsal hall and dressing rooms. Nine productions are scheduled for the 2014-15 season, including six by Park Square. Partner companies Sandbox, Theatre Pro Rata and Girl Friday will provide the other shows.
Park Square still needs to raise $285,000 for the project.
"This is an incredibly exciting time for us," said artistic director Richard Cook in a statement. "This is the fourth theater space I've had a hand in creating for Park Square since 1975."
Cook always has been a master of building his theater cautiously and carefully but then understanding when it's time to make a bold move. And adding a 204-seat stage is pretty bold. That's bigger than the Jungle and roughly the size of Mixed Blood and the Guthrie studio. Cook has programmed 18 productions in his two stages this season. Park Square's attendance goal is 90,000.
If you have 30 minutes to spare, check out “Theater People,” a web series created by Matthew Anderson. He wrote, directed and edited ten episodes about the drama behind drama. It’s all locally made – which is important these days, right? At least when it comes to garden produce.
Anderson had toiled for many years in the Twin Cities theater market and then took a stab at Los Angeles. He came back but has put his energy behind a camera. The concept here is just to lampoon the quirks and tics of theater life. But it all feels friendly and cheeky as it lands its punches – kind of like Kate Wetherhead’s “Submissions Only.”
Theaters, private homes and public streets provide cost-free locations and the actors in “Theater People” are doing it mostly for fun.
And it is fun. Stacia Rice and Steve Sweere play former spouses who still run Theatre Unhinged. Sweere is an aging lothario auditioning potential Juliets to his Romeo – but really just trying to make out with young women. Rice’s character watches with simmering but controlled rage. In another scenario, Mark Mattison does a florid and pompous director crafting an original production that he is says is based on the work of Aleister Crowley. Jane Froiland, Jen Rand, Matt Sciple, Katie Willer and Sara Marsh all contribute.
There are ten episodes on the web site, each about eight minutes long. Anderson would like to put together another season and is hoping for some real funding this time. It’s definitely worth having a look and supporting.
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