It’s been nearly 35 years since Steve Paxton, whom the New York Times once dubbed “a titan of the 1960s and 70s avant-garde,” created and performed his solo work, “Bound.” But who’s counting?
Not Steve Paxton. Well, maybe he is … just a little bit.
Still slight of frame and possessed with a boyish grin, the 76-year old co-founder of Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s, who would then go on to create Contact Improvisation in 1972, spoke from his northern Vermont farmhouse by Skype. The conversation included remembrances from his illustrious past as well an upcoming run of “Bound,” which will be performed by 38-year old Jurij Konjar at REDCAT, in association with Show Box L.A., May 11-13.
The 50-minute solo that relies on props, projections, sound scores and music (the Canadian Brass performing “Napoli,” as well as the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir), was created in 1982 for Spaziozero in Rome. Performances followed in Great Britain, Belgium, and at the Kitchen in NYC in 1983, which made a videotape of the concert that was used to help make the reconstruction.
Paxton, in contemplative mode, recalled the genesis of “Bound:” “It seems to me that what I was dealing with was PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] in the dance. I was trying to make a situation that alluded to a war. Now this was ’82 and we were post-Vietnam war, but not post-Vietnam vets, and I was very sympathetic to them. I think I did a couple of pieces that were based on thoughts on the war, and this was one.”
Paxton’s memories of the original performance, which was held in a theater in an old circus tent in Rome, are vivid. “I asked them to get me 20 children on roller skates [and] I enclosed the children in a reed mat, which while the audience was coming in, they were in it. There was no offstage in this place. I wanted them not to be visible. The thing vibrated and the whole time the audience was being seated, the confined children were pushing against it.
“It was taken away,” continued Paxton, “and the children were unveiled and I made my entrance in what I thought was a pretty clear statement of poverty and street character—looking around at the children and which, obviously, to my mind, was culture shock. I can imagine being a veteran and coming back and being on a school ground—the noise, the shrillness and the activity, and just the children, beautiful children, being in a kind of alienated place. So that was how it started.
“Now,” he noted, “it starts against a camouflage screen and it’s all about camouflage at that point.”
Paxton, who was born in Arizona in 1939, has always been an innovative mover. The winner of a Guggenheim, two Bessies and other notable fellowships, Paxton trained as a gymnast as well as studying modern dance techniques, ballet, Aikido, Tai Chi Chuan and Vipassana meditation. In addition, he performed with José Limón in 1959 and with Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1961-64.
“I loved [dancing with] Merce. It was a great discipline for me and was just what I needed. My only regret,” he said with a touch of irony, “was that once I got in the dances—once I was performing—I couldn’t see them anymore. That was difficult until I left the company. Then I saw some stuff that knocked me out.”
As for dancing with Limón, Paxton explained that it was the first troupe he performed with and that he was “very much in the chorus, the background. Cunningham was small when I became a member and we were in that infamous VW bus.
“It was a lot more intimate and personal than Limón ever was for me,” he continued. “I liked that, and I was sorry when I left. When we went on the world tour and got managed by people who were dealing with the whole company and visas, we lost a kind of physical closeness that we had had prior to that time.”
Indeed, Carolyn Brown, who danced with Cunningham for 20 years, writes frequently of Paxton in her 2007 memoir, Chance and Circumstance, including the VW bus tours where either John Cage or Cunningham was driving, and during which time dancers napped or, yes, were knitting. Brown was also present at the very first Judson Church concert on July 6, 1962, where she praised Paxton for his “stolid, egalitarian/pedestrian works.”
Co-founded by Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, Deborah Hay and others, the iconoclastic Judson defined boundary-breaking “downtown” artistic tastes, and was ground zero of what would come to be called performance art. When asked how Judson shaped his aesthetic sensibilities, Paxton replied glibly: “If I had any sensibilities it allowed them to be practiced.”
On a more serious note, Paxton said Judson was a small congregation at that time, one aiming to be socially responsible. “Of all the Baptist churches in America,” he added, “it might have been the most liberal, with very active pastors—people who were anti-war, anti-nukes, pro-black—all of that. It was an interesting place to find a foothold and they were very much into supporting the neighborhood, which in that neighborhood, Greenwich Village, was artistic.”
When asked if Paxton were still in touch with any of his Judson colleagues, he replied, “Well, nobody’s in touch with Lucinda. She’s been elevated to a status somewhere on Nantucket, taking lonely walks and looking very beautiful. I see Yvonne,” he added, “and Simone [Forti, who will have a pre-show discussion with Paxton on May 11], and Deborah, I see occasionally.”
But someone Paxton has seen a lot more of lately, is the Slovenian-born dancer Konjar, who has been performing “Bound,” since premiering it in Germany in 2013 and, more recently, at American Dance Institute in Maryland last month. Konjar first met Paxton in 2000 when the elder statesman of dance was one of his teachers at P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels, a school begun by Belgian choreographer/dancer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
Explained Konjar in his pleasantly accented English: “Steve was more than a teacher, he was certainly a name, somebody that we knew as a reference, a knowledge source. He also taught us his Material for the Spine [an exploration of the physical center of the self: head, spine and pelvis, begun in 1986], but that was too calm for me.”
Konjar had begun working on Paxton’s “Goldberg Variations,” an improvised dance performed between 1986 and 1992 to pianist Glenn Gould’s celebrated recordings of Bach’s music, finally collaborating with the master in 2010 on that work.
As Paxton tells it, “Jurij came to the studio a couple of times and we had a working relationship. I found this old tape [of “Bound”], that the Kitchen had made and I asked if he wanted to do that—to change the conversation. I enjoyed working with him on improvisation, but it’s impossible.”
Paxton paused before continuing: “It all slips through your fingers. Improv is improv, it’s not meant to be captured. Jurij learned that video, then he unlearned what he learned so he could improvise it.”
Hmm. If the above description sounds Churchillian—a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma—it decidedly is. But hearing from the source about improvisation and contact improvisation, the dance technique whereby points of physical contact provide the starting place for exploration through movement improvisation, proved fascinating, with Paxton advocating that CI “not only can, but should be taught.
“I think,” he added, “it’s become a social event, but it still has a bit of a dance exploration quality.”
Paxton also recalled dubbing the genre: “I named it because it’s such an improbable name. It seems to convey the idea well enough, and that’s all I wanted it to do. I didn’t want it to be glamorous or catchy. The whole Judson period was a kind of dance exploration and dance composition exploration.
“I came to the ’70s working in the Grand Union [an improvisational collective evolved from Yvonne Rainer] and had come upon contact. I realized there was something that needed to be researched and that’s what made me embark on that. It lets us look at structures in time and space. It lets us have a conversation.”
That conversation has also been a big part of working with Konjar. “We’re practically the only people who each of us can talk to about what this is. As for how much of it is me, for “Bound,” Jurij and I formed a convention that it’s my work he’s doing.
“For the “Goldberg Variations,” it’s not my work. That gives us both extremes of the problematic relationship between choreography and working in improvisation.”
Konjar, who calls home wherever he wakes up and who has lately been camping out under the stars at Paxton’s farm, explained that his first experience improvising on stage was the “Goldberg,” adding, “all you have is the “Goldberg,” with a lot of notes and zero structure. In “Bound” there is structure, there is lights, the soundscape is changing a lot.
“Somewhat the piece is broken down into scenes,” explained Konjar, “and even the character has a particular dynamic through the piece. Those [things] are set. They repeat from one version of the piece to another. Then the challenge is how to reinvent it and how to make it alive every time. That’s been changing through discussions with Steve.”
Konjar maintained, “I’m inventing it onstage every time—from zero. Zero being everything I’ve done onstage before. Then shortening it—this act of going onstage again every time, feeds the discussion. The piece changes somehow, the reflection of that discussion and what was been changing in my life and in my dancing, as I get more familiar with the discipline. Every day, having improvised for the last 7 years—consciously and intentionally in the studio—that’s a lot of mileage.”
With such heady stuff coming from a free, but disciplined spirit, it’s no wonder that this duo—apart in age by nearly four decades—are of similar minds. Which isn’t to say that Paxton does not give Konjar notes—he does!
“I’m trying to pump up the stuff I like,” Paxton exclaimed, “trying to talk about structure. In improv there is no set structure, but at the same time, structures are always arising, appearing. I’m trying to get him to think in those terms. We were talking about this this morning.
“When I give notes, I’m trying to reach the mind that’s actually doing the performance, when he’s actively dancing. It’s not something I can do while he’s onstage. He has to remember and translate from a quiet conversation at the table into the next time he’s in the heat, trying both to construct the dance steps and the space, and be in the light. His relationship to the props—he has to remember at that time what I said maybe a week before, in trying to give him a note.
“It’s as though I’m trying to reach through the different dimensions of his mind,” said Paxton, “to arrive at that mind which arrives at the actual construction of the dance, in the heat of the moment.”
Paxton, who received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in Dance at the Venice Biennale in 2014, is still invited to teach, lecture, choreograph and occasionally perform around the world. His most recent choreographic triumph was earlier this year in “Quicksand,” a world premiere “opera-novel” by the late Robert Ashley that was performed at the Kitchen and which featured two dancers, including Konjar.
“It’s a three-hour long opera and it has an hour’s worth of dance sprinkled through it. It’s not full-out dancing, and it’s an unlikely piece—a detective story,” Paxton explained.”
Gia Kourlas, writing in the New York Times, hailed “Quicksand,” Paxton’s first foray into the art form, as “a choreographic feat, driven by the rhythm of words, light and bodies.”
With the rich life he’s had, Paxton, who doesn’t own a television set and who practices a daily regimen he calls, “The Beast” (“it’s something that a silverback gorilla might do in the morning—all shoulder blades and arms, growling and arching the back”), would seem a natural to pen his autobiography.
“I thought about not writing it,” he quipped. Paxton also said he doesn’t think about the state of dance today. “There’s not so much I see that interests me. I don’t like to travel so I don’t get around much. When I’m invited to a city, I’m usually working. But I try to keep my ears open.
“There was a period when I was discouraged about the state of dance,” said Paxton with a glint in his eyes, “but lately I’m thinking it’s as it should be—and it’s doing fine.”