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.