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In memoriam: Steve Paxton (1939-2024), unfettered


Left: Steve Paxton in "Trio A with Flags", by Yvonne Rainer, 1970.

Right: Steve Paxton photographed by Nadia Benzekri, in 2019.


Founder of Contact Improvisation, eternal explorer of the organicity of movement, but also a gardener in Vermont, anarchist at heart, the dancer and teacher Steve Paxton passed away at the age of 85. Tribute to a modest giant, who leaves a vivid mark in the history of dance, with, as a reminder, a photographic and video gallery, and a small anthology of tributes paid to the announcement of his death.


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"I like when bodies are free and the emotional state is open, accepting and sensitive. I like that psychology is not constrained, nor politicized, nor knotted. I like that people can do things that surprise them themselves. From my point of view, that's one of the things I love." - Steve Paxton, from the TV show " Beyond the Mainstream" , 1980.

Warning: this text, originally written and published in French, has not been proofread by a professional translator. We apologize for any inaccuracies in the translation.


A man who patiently takes the time to tie his shoes, and it’s already a dance. Well, maybe not always, but with Steve Paxton, yes. Already in the early 1960s, when he was part of Merce Cunningham's company, Robert Dunn, who led composition workshops, had asked the performers to create a one-minute dance  : Steve Paxton had chosen to eat a sandwich, sitting on a bench. That was his dance. Certainly, it will be said, it was a time of daring. I very much fear (at the risk of being wrong) that a young dancer who today dares to make this "jop" at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Danse de Paris will immediately be sent home. But maybe not : today, we would happily say : "great, it's a performance". And performance has become very fashionable.


Steve Paxton didn't care much about being fashionable, and at the time (I'm talking about the 1960s), in the New York avant-garde, we didn't necessarily talk about "performances" but rather of happenings .

It must be believed that for Steve Paxton (born in Phoenix, Arizona on January 21, 1939), it did not happen enough  when, having abandoned the gymnastics which stretched out his arms, he found himself at 18 years old in the dance company of José Limón, then a little later in that of Merce Cunningham. So, he deserted, and joined the experimental cauldron of Judson Dance Theater , then that of Grand Union, whose creative fever he shared with (among others) Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, Deborah Hay, Meredith Monk, Douglas Dunn, David Gordon, etc., or even Robert Rauschenberg. We recall this for the record, it is part of the history of dance in the 20th century, which no one should ignore. Of this artistic movement which pulsated, at its peak, for a good decade, before budding into many developments, much has been said and written that it was driven by a refusal of virtuosity, or even technique. This is not false, if we take as an emblem the famous No Manifesto  by Yvonne Rainer, in 1965, which begins thus : “No to show. / No to virtuosity. / No to transformations and magic and make-believe. »  (Read HERE ). Not wrong, but maybe not enough.


It has probably not been said enough to what extent this dynamic of refusal had, alongside its aesthetic significance, a political dimension, concomitant with the protest movements of the Vietnam War. Without being an activist in the strict sense of the term, Steve Paxton still participated, in 1970, in a piece by Yvonne Rainer, Trio A with Flags , where six dancers performed naked, with an American flag tied around their necks : it was a response to the prosecution of a New York gallery owner, Stephen Radich, who had exhibited works desecrating this same American flag (precisely in opposition to the Vietnam War). A year later, in 1971, Steven Paxton presented Collaboration with Winter Soldier , featuring Vietnam War veterans. Radically opposed to President Nixon, in 1973 he created Air , which took the Watergate scandal as its subject. Political, again, the juxtaposition of a video of Swan Lake by the Ballets Russes and a porn film in the show Beautiful Lecture  (1968), which concluded with this simple question: « Why in the West are we so obsessed with orgasm? »


Contact-Improvisation, an “art of cooperation”


This political awareness is curiously erased from most of the tributes today paid to Steve Paxton. In my eyes, it was also as a committed artist that he created Contact Improvisation in the early 1970s, which a Wikipedia article rather stupidly describes as "art-sport". I obviously prefer the presentation given in 1975 by Steve Paxton, speaking of “ a martial art, but without the martial… a art-cooperation.” He said again: “Just the pleasure of moving and the pleasure of using your body is, I think, perhaps the main point. And the pleasure of dancing with someone in an unplanned and spontaneous way, when you are free to invent and he is free to invent and you do not hinder either one - that's is a very pleasant social form." Or even : "this form resembles wrestling, jitterbug, fucking , rolling and juggling. However, none of these forms can describe the other ; and none allows us to describe this dance. [...] Which brings us to the non-physical aspect of this dance : a state of being or mind that supports both the dependence and independence of both dancers. [...] It is a state of abandonment: confidence in oneself and in others must be total. The ability to help one another or take care of oneself must constantly be available : through constant movement, we seek mutual ease within constant mutual change. The dancer only has weight to give it, never to possess it. " (1)


There is in this refusal to possess, in this ethic of mutual aid instead of competition, in this "social form" which ignores hierarchies, something profoundly anarchist, which was already at work within of the “artistic community” of Grand Union. Once, in Brussels where he was invited more often than in France, I asked Steve Paxton if he considered himself an anarchist. I don't remember his response anymore, I don't think he answered me, he looked at me (and Paxton's look was something) and smiled. Well yes, I think he answered with a question : “ What do you mean exactly ? » . I smiled in turn, I didn't answer, I didn't particularly want to mean  ; there are things that we don't need to explain for them to exist. On this point, for those who may be interested, I refer to a brilliant essay by Romain Bigé, “ Danser l'Anarchie: theories and anarchist practices in the Judson Dance Theater, Grand Union and Contact Improvisation ”, published in 2020 in the Revista Brasileira de Estudos da Presença  and which is based in particular on the writings of Steve Paxton (PDF below).


Romain Bigé_Danser l'Anarchie
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Political, too, and avant-garde in many ways, the decision taken in the early 1970s by Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson, his dance partner and life companion, to desert New York and put down roots in Vermont, in the very northeast of the United States, one of the smallest states in the country and one of the least densely populated, but which was the first to partially abolish slavery, or even more recently, in 2011, to validate a universal health insurance project, and which elected a certain Bernie Sanders as senator. In Vermont, Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson settled at Mad Brook Farm in East Charleston, a self-managed farm that has become a hotbed of pioneering ecology and a vibrant counterculture (see HERE ).


Speaking of the garden he cultivated there, Steve Paxton said (in a long series of conversations with Myriam Van Imschoot, in 2001. See HERE ) : “ I think the satisfaction I get from it is very similar to what I found in dancing, for the same reasons. It is a special place where we can study a natural phenomenon and modulate it. (…) When I started it was all about dancing, but now it's not and I don't care. I became interested in compost and how it works. Anyway, here are the roots. They are invisible. We don't know how they work. There are the worms, which are already there, which live there. What interests me is that they have a good life. What interests me is that the ground suits them. And I think composting helps the worms and the worms leave an incredible amount of manure, just at the right level as they go below the surface. So that it is available to the plants. It's a system, isn't it? (…) I could go back to dancing. Do I have to do it ? It's up to me to decide. In saying that, I think there is something about dance that is also a system and how you intervene in that system is a choice you make. Whether you expand it or intensify it, whether you instigate it or try to do it through instruction, how you intervene to make a choreography happen is a choice you make. . »


“the only thing a dancer has when he dances is sensations”


But then, what is the humus of dance, its organic matter  ? In the mid-1980s, Steve Paxton broke free from Contact Improvisation, the first seeds of which he had sown and which gradually branched out all over the world, like a wild weed. Not that he rejected its heritage : rather so as not to be considered its guru, so as not to be locked in a jar with a label, and also to focus his research on the fundamentals of the gesture, with two common threads : the spine and gravity. “ I support the theory that the only thing a dancer has when he dances is sensations. And that’s his palette ,” he said in an interview for the journal of the Contredanse association, in Brussels. « For the painter, the palette is the range of colors ; for the dancer, it is the set of sensations that have been programmed into his body. I was looking for new sensations, and the spine seemed like a good starting point: the spine, the pelvis, the head, the brain, the trunk, the spinal cord, but also for go further the weight, the center of gravity, and the idea of leverage. »  A research, called by Steve Paxton Material for the Spine , that he did not assign it to the sole use of dancers, but that he also conceived as potential “ therapeutic method ”. (Below, in PDF, full interview published by Contredanse)


Contredanse_Entretien avec Steve Paxton_Méditation autour de la colonne vertébrale
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A dancer of considered instincts and inflected moments


The entire time I was reading this article, one man kept tying his shoes.

This man stood, from October 28 to 31, 1998, on the stage of the Théâtre de la Bastille in Paris. I wasn't there for nothing. Then artistic advisor for the dance of the said Théâtre de la Bastille, we agreed with Marie Collin, for the Autumn Festival in Paris, to welcome Steve Paxton with dignity. It was only fair. While the Autumn Festival, under the leadership of Michel Guy and with the determined support of Bénédicte Pesle, had managed to give pride of place to contemporary American dance (Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Douglas Dunn, etc.) , Steve Paxton had curiously been left out. Paxton, but also Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, Anna Halprin, Deborah Hay : all those who had more or less established improvisation as a flow line. It must be said that Steve Paxton was hardly concerned with the "commodification" of his dance : to my knowledge, he never had an agent. By chance, that same year, 1998, Steve Paxton was doubly invited to France by Mark Tompkins (American, but based in France, one of the only French choreographers to have promoted improvisation in performance) to participate in an entire festival of improvisation, “On the edge” (in Paris, with an extension in Marseille thanks to Marseille-Objectif-Danse).


So. The shoes are now laced. The man gets up, Steve Paxton dances. A solo, Ash  (2). A slow diagonal of loss and grief, based on a text written by Steve Paxton upon the death of his father. Time to tie your shoes, because you have to keep walking. Time to inhabit this diagonal. The movement is collected, it is the very movement of meditation. This is enough to create a presence, and what a presence ! You close your eyes, you look, you see a body, you see a breathing space, it is both tenuous and dense, you see immensity. A form of gravity , indeed. And it's just a little dance. Small dance , said Steve Paxton of a practice he explored from the end of the 1960s, consisting of experiencing the simple fact of standing (standing on the earth, one might add) and feeling micro- movements.


A dance, and/or a poem. Accompanying one of these Small Dance  filmed in 2007 at his home in Vermont, at Mad Brook Farm (video below) :


“ Relax deeply into the cone of the orbit. Imagine a line running between the ears. This is where the skull rests. Make the movement, very small, for “Yes”. This causes the skull to tilt onto the upper vertebra, the atlas. You have to have bone intuition. Like a donut. The feeling around him defines him. Make the motion for “No.” Between these two movements you can determine the length of the vertebrae.

... Swelling of the lungs. Breathe from the bottom of the lung to the collarbone. Can you extend the ribs outwards, upwards and backwards easily? Definition of the diaphragm in terms of sensation. Bottom of the lung. Two domes of muscles. With each breath, you massage the intestine... The diaphragm sends a signal to the rest of the body. The sky above, the earth below...

In this work, the head is a limb. She has a mass. Mass is perhaps the most important sensation. The feeling of gravity. Continue to perceive mass and gravity while standing. Muscle tension masks the feeling of heaviness...

You have been swimming in gravity since birth. Every cell knows where the bottom is. We easily forget it. Your mass and that of the earth call each other... »



-   And what do you do in life ?

-   I'm swimming in gravity.

This is something that (in random order) Hideyuki Yano, Tadeusz Kantor, Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, Anna Halprin, Nancy Stark Smith, and others could have said.


It feels weird to say that, but I'll say it anyway. OK, Steve Paxton comes from a movement that refused the idea of a certain virtuosity in dance. And yet : what a virtuoso dancer he was. There are probably no words to say this. There are a few images left. Those, fortunately entrusted to eternity by the Belgian video artist Walter Verdin of the Goldberg Variations by JS Bach played by Glenn Gould, that Steve Paxton danced-improvised from 1986 to 1991, like a source that he never tired of revisiting.



This source remains alive, beyond the disappearance of Steve Paxton, who died at the age of 85 at his home in Vermont on February 20, 2024. The Catalan choreographer María Muñoz (whose magnificent Solo Bach was undoubtedly strongly influenced by the meeting with Steve Paxton, whom she had, with her friend Pep Ramis, invited to reside in their refuge-studio at l'Animal in l'Esquena), wrote in a book published in 2000: “Dance is the urgency of a nascent dream, felt in the body; it is the movement which emerges with vivacity, it is the images which rush in search of the context which will come to animate them. The movement is nourished by the poetry of the body which is inevitably inhabited by time, at every moment. »  As an epitaph, I dedicate these words to Steve Paxton.

 

Jean-Marc Adolphe


NOTES

(1) Solo Dancing  », Contact Quarterly , vol. 2, n°3, Spring 1977, p. 24 ( www.contactquarterly.com ), text translated into French and published by la  revue Recherches en danse , June 2017.

(2)    During this same series of performances, Steve Paxton had presented two other solos, Flat and English Suites .


Photographic gallery


At the Judson Church. Double page taken from the exhibition catalog

“Judson Dance Theater The Work Is Never Done”, MoMA, 2018-2019


Carolyn Brown, Steve Paxton and Merce Cunningham in costumes designed by Robert Rauschenberg for Aeon (1961)

by Merce Cunningham. Photo: Richard Rutledge. © Merce Cunningham Trust.


Steve Paxton and Trisha Brown. Photos Joanne Savio


Steve Paxton and Nancy Stark Smith, Climbing/riding , 1974. Photo DR


Steve Paxton and Simone Forti, Redcat , Los Angeles, 2016. Photo Jeff Slayton.


Steve Paxton in Ouvrée (artists in alpine pastures) , on a proposal from Boris Charmatz, 2000. Photo Jean-Luc Moulène


Steve Paxton in the Culturgest Grand Auditorium in Lisbon, speaking about dance at the opening of the retrospective exhibition "Steve Paxton: Drafting Interior Techniques", curated by Romain Bigé and Joao Fiadeiro, 2019. Photo DR


Steve Paxton in 2017. Photo Joshua Bright for The New York Times


Tributes (small anthology). Elegance, gravity and… levitity


When Steve Paxton passed away, the first tributes came from the Cunningham Foundation and the Trisha Brown company.

Merce Cunningham Foundation  : “ It is with great sadness that we learn of the death of Steve Paxton, whose generous and generative life as a dancer was took place over three years, in his early twenties, within Merce Cunningham's company. These photos from the era touch our hearts, minds and eyes. They are so clear, so close, so spiritual, so deep. And so beautiful, as he always was. »


In Belgium, the Kaaitheater, one of the first festivals (now theater) to have invited Steve Paxton in Europe : « We will continue to remember his meticulous practice and his always inspiring vision on dance: "I have found that cities are very interesting places, but when I return home, I am struck by the difference in what the senses demand. It is dreadful how we "undo" the body, dance reminds us. Dance explores some of the physical possibilities. Dance refocuses our mind on a very basic existence: time, space and gravity. »


In Belgium too, Contredanse , which has done so much to disseminate the work and writings of Steve Paxton : “ We had the chance to know you for many years , to work together to publish your research and your thoughts, to practice in the studio, to happily play Chinese checkers, to talk, to laugh...

Memories come flooding back, many of them. Memories of our good hugs, spines engaged towards each other.

In Brussels, years ago, memory of you, alone in space during a Tuning Score practice with Lisa Nelson. You danced the end of this session by calling “End” for each part of your body: “End hand”, “End arm”, “End leg”… “End universe”, with intelligence, humor and irony. You've reached the end of your body, Steve. End End.

A new shift in the experience of gravity.

Your presence will remain stored in our memories, our bodies imbued with everything you brought to the dance community on this planet. Thank you for all this!

We wish you, dear Steve, a good last nap. Love you. »

 

Founder of Contredanse and first publisher in Europe of Steve Paxton, Patricia Kuypers  :

« Ave Nue, Steve,

I salute you now that you have chosen levitation to take off from here, I send you all I can of love, energy, vibrations for this crossing into the total unknown. It's already wonderful to see that everything you sowed during your journey manifests itself when you leave. I see how your proposal creates a community, your person connects a very large group of dancers, of artists who sense the responsibility that you entrust to continue, with the rigor that is yours, to search, to question, to observe , to take nothing for granted. Thank you for this path of human exploration that you have traced, which has taken me in its wake and continues to nourish me, to support me even through the itchy eyes and the difficulty in accepting that you are leaving for somewhere else . So, perhaps from the Col des Supeyres I am getting a little closer to this 360° space or this non-space in which you are swimming today. “Steve is in the air” is the mantra that runs through my head whenever I try to catch a glimpse of you. But do the thoughts revolve in the head, you would perhaps tell me with your passion for questioning contradictions and paradoxes. I know that you probably don't read me today, but this fake address allows me to smile a little by sending out into the world a few bursts of friendship, a few bursts of your incredible dance, the ghost of which still inhabits me. »

 

Patricia Brouilly , founder of Canal Danse : “ Through your teaching you have made space our partner and Presence in the Moment our dynamic, gravity our verticality, and our fluidity...So happy and so honored to have met you in 1998, during the unforgettable "On the Edge" course that I had the joy of organizing, at the initiative of Mark Tompkins , as part of the educational program that I was directing at that time for the CND Prefiguration Center. (…) "On the Edge" was a real time of exploration, of experimentation with "composition in real time" as writing in its own right. For many, it was a revelation, which brought a real transformation and even a revolution in their professional dance career. (…) Thank you Steve for this precious sharing that we will continue to cultivate , Thank you for your work full of humanity, which you bequeath to us like soil to germinate.

Thank you for your sense of silence, of the simplicity of being there,

From your outlook on life,

Of your serious and attentive smile

From your depth of soul... ”.


Claire Filmon and Stéphane Els , "improvisers" in France : “ Steve has been a source of inspiration for so many of us. He will have made several generations dream and think, and will have had an influence on so many improvisers and choreographers (what choreographer, despite his reluctance to improvise, does not know contact improvisation?). His intuitions, his skill with words, his witticisms, his elegant humor, his rigor and his curiosity, his life choices. Steve was an improviser above all. With him, the need to let the body express itself freely ("democratize the body", he said), and at the same time to observe the mind and gravity playing with it, and constantly outwitting it, because everything was rich and unexpected. He made seemingly simple things interesting. His material for the spine was also material for the mind. Learning to fall became the most essential mission of life. In an internship, Steve could be very present, always caring, then suddenly disappear, we no longer knew he was there: he let everyone exist, and the space around them. The workshop seemed to start without him, and yet he was in the studio with you. Let things work out on their own. Let the momentum continue on its own... It was the humility and discretion of a man who nevertheless had a strong influence on the destiny of many others.

Steve is gone for good this time. Gravity got the better of him, and took him away, as it takes us all – he has made this clear to us enough all these long and precious years. Let gravity do its work. Well, she did it, again, as she knows too well, and took him underground – him who was so close to the earth. Many will continue to pound the ground with falls, rolls and spirals, and there will be many of them. He will hear them, that's for sure. His soul, for its part, was torn away from gravity forever. »


The choreographer Jérôme Bel  : “ Steve Paxton is undoubtedly one of the finest examples of the idea of experimentation in dance. An absolute model of the best that dance can produce: dance as a reflexive and political tool. Satisfyin Lover  (1967) was one of the richest experiences of my life as a spectator. This piece, in which 40 amateurs cross the stage, shows the irreducibility of each human body and how movement reveals the subjectivity of the individual. It seems to me that this piece sums up Steve Paxton's political and artistic project. (...) Eternal gratitude to Steve. »


And finally, Mathilde Cegarra , "body explorer" : " I read all the beautiful tributes to Steve Paxton, and I am so touched, what an incredible man. She is one of the people who inspired me the most on my path as a body explorer but also as a being, her reflections went beyond the body to touch the essential, and so humble, calm, so true. (…) Steve Paxton leaves an invaluable legacy... his legend lives on..."

Mathilde Cegarra publishes an extract from an interview she conducted during the presentation of "Phantom Exhibition" in Brussels in 2009 :

« (…) Do you think we need to be conscious at every moment, every movement and every thing we do ? As much as possible. This is the ritual aspect of life. But not everything has to be ritual. Sometimes you have to let the body do what it wants without thinking about it. The ideal is to combine the two, like an orchestration, that is to say, carefully select the sounds of each instrument while also leaving room for silence, the noise of the street, the sounds of the public… so that they also enter into the composition. Ultimately, everything is composition. (…) »


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