sarma Conversations in Vermont oralsite
Steve Paxton
Of Routes and Routines, Vermont, 2001

1: 1957-1961

A freshman00:00

Steve Paxton I didn't know what was going to happen. All I knew, was that dance was the only subject which seemed interesting. I think I've explained to you that I had attended the University of Arizona for a little while. I think I managed to do one half of a year.

Myriam Van Imschoot A semester.

Steve Paxton Yeah, and [Steve tries to hit a fly] in that year, I was really disappointed at the level of teaching and the quality of the classes, and I also scheduled myself rather badly. So, I had a huge load of classes to attend and thinking that…I mean, I was really expecting it… [Steve tries to hit a fly, but misses it again]

Steve Paxton Oh, damn.

Myriam Van Imschoot You’re really bad today.

Steve Paxton I know. I'm distracted by talking. I was really expecting the work to be stimulating, and, you know, I was…

Myriam Van Imschoot Ready.

Steve Paxton Ready. So, I signed up for too many classes. I had a huge workload. It included having to put on a uniform and march every Saturday morning at eight o'clock for something to do with training young people to become military officers. It's called ROTC. I don't remember what the initials mean, but it was mandatory that you take that, so…

Myriam Van Imschoot As a boy?

Steve Paxton As a boy, yeah…and gymnastics I continued at university. I also studied Spanish, Philosophy, English, Microbiology. That's all I can remember.

Myriam Van Imschoot They don’t, or, you don't need to have a major saying, like, this is what you’re going to?

Steve Paxton Not when you're a freshman.

Myriam Van Imschoot Okay. It's like an exploration, and you can…

Steve Paxton It's even worse than an exploration. It’s, I mean, from the student’s point, it’s supposed to be an exploration. From the university’s point, it’s just like…or, for that university’s point, it was like, just holding, you know, just getting these students, finding out what they're like, you know, and all that, kind of assessing the students. But I was given no advice from my parents, friends, or from the school. I wasn't, it wasn't explained to me how I should manage my school career, and so, at the end of that time, you know, really tired and discouraged, I withdrew and decided that the only thing that had really interested me was dance, which is true. The other things were interesting, but I wasn't deeply committed to them. So, I thought I should give dance a try, and the only way to do that was to — as far as I understood it, from the advice from my teachers in Tucson — was to go to the American Dance Festival. So, I wrote to them for financial help. Didn't get any answer. When I got the ride, the chance to drive across the country, I jumped in the car and drove across the country, which put me a boat ride away from New London. I went to New London. I appeared in their offices and said, “Are you going to answer my letter?” They were, of course, just at the stage of answering those letters, you know, a woman sitting in a room typing those very letters, and she said that she took my new address, and she said she would send confirmation, but she thought that it was pretty good chance, that I hadn't come across country for no reason. And so then, I did get this financial help, and so then that meant attending as many classes — again, I overloaded — I took as many classes as I could. I think I was in a choreography of a woman named Connie Keys, who was a choreographer in residence there. And did all the tech and performances as a stagehand, as well. So I was busy from morning to night. [another attempt to kill a fly]

Myriam Van Imschoot Just one thing I came across…in the Horst class, you…I don’t know what it means…you choreographed a piece called Power, a pavane in Horst’s class in pre-classic form…

Steve Paxton Forms. Yeah.

Myriam Van Imschoot But that's like an assignment, and you…

Steve Paxton Yes, you had to work with musical forms. Pre-classic, classic, and modern forms were his [another attempt to kill a fly], the way he divided formal study. All to do with musical forms, that then were applied to dance. So in other words, we were just talking about time structures. Which is an important study and is the main thing that can be taught about dance construction. I mean, it’s certainly one of the first things that should be taught, but it doesn't deal with movement. It doesn't deal with analysis of technique in any way.

Myriam Van Imschoot Was that the first time you were aware of…because you had been performing. You had been dancing…

Steve Paxton Yes.

Myriam Van Imschoot Was that the first time you became more aware of the construction of dances and the making of dances?

Steve Paxton I suppose it was the beginning of that.

Myriam Van Imschoot Because prior to that, the dances you’d been dancing in, had you been witnessing how those dances came into existence and how they were created. Can you tell something about that maybe? Because this is the first…

Tucson dance teachers06:19

Steve Paxton I was working in Tucson with two choreographers, both of whom were Graham-based. One was the nun. The other was a woman who, named Francis Cohen, who's still there in Arizona making dances.

Myriam Van Imschoot Wow. She must be 90 right now.

Steve Paxton No, she wasn't that much older than we were. I mean, we were in our teens, and she was a college graduate and young mother. So, she was probably in her late 20s. So, she'd be 70-something now…but they both made dances very intuitively. Cohen made dances…well, I wasn't privy to any theory that she might have had.

Myriam Van Imschoot What is “privy”?

Steve Paxton Privy, I mean, she didn't tell me what her theory was. I don't think she had a theory is essentially what I'm saying. I don't think there was any clear way of working. I think she just instinctually chose movements, worked out movements, put them on us, saw whether they were okay or not, and proceeded to construct the dance as kind of blocks of movement that you put together. And they were usually dramatic dances, some sort of, they had some kind of drama. Like I can remember one of them, I played the part of a motorcycle.

Myriam Van Imschoot Wow! Motorcycle.

Steve Paxton It was kind of a Brando role in The Wild One or something like that, but done as a modern dance, so we had to…we had to look untrustworthy and rough and make motorcycle movements around the stage. In another one I was her partner.

Myriam Van Imschoot Sounds like a beat ballet [laughing].

Steve Paxton Well, yeah. In another one, I was her partner, and it was about two people having an emotional disagreement. It was called Contention, which means argument, really. And it took her nine months to make this duet. And, yeah, it was a typical duet about difficulties in a relationship, I suppose. And, yeah, so I had, the nun whose name was Sister Jean, Sister Jean Thompson, I think her name was, made dances on religious themes. That was sort of her agreement with the convent. That she could work in dance because she had been a dancer, but it had to have something to do with the Bible, or religion or faith or something like that.

Myriam Van Imschoot That’s a fair deal.

Steve Paxton Yeah, I mean, you know, stick to the subject. You're a nun. What's the point? But I mean, in fact, there are lots of interesting themes in the Bible, but she had a pretty, it's pretty freehand. I mean, she could easily have done David and Bathsheba, for instance, and done as much sex as she wanted to, or she could have done the Philistines against the Israelites, and have war stuff and spy stuff.

Myriam Van Imschoot And did she?

Steve Paxton I remember one work called Idols, and it was about all the different graven images that people worship. So, there was “greed” and “sloth” and, you know, we got to be really disgusting. [laughing]

Myriam Van Imschoot But did the…these two teachers both were teaching. These are private teachers. They’re both teaching in Tucson?

Steve Paxton Yes.

Myriam Van Imschoot Were they teaching in the same organization?

Steve Paxton No

Myriam Van Imschoot So, it means that you went…you were…

Steve Paxton Yes, I was going from one to the other. I mean, Sister Jean’s classes were in the afternoon out at The Tuller School, it was called, out in their school compound. And Francis Smith Cohen taught at the Jewish Community Center in the evening, so there wasn't a real conflict. It was…I enjoyed doing it. I enjoyed the classes.

Myriam Van Imschoot Did it make you already aware of different approaches or different…

Steve Paxton To some degree, to some degree, but in fact, they were both Graham-based, so it was…they were in agreement about the technique.

Myriam Van Imschoot So you went on tour, because you had been touring…?

Steve Paxton Mhmm. [Yes.] During my senior year in high school, I got permission to go on tour with Sister Jean. We went to Texas and back, did several performances. I think we…I don't remember…I think it was with Cohen…I went to San Diego for a performance as well. So a little bit of touring around the Southwest.

American Dance Festival11:52

Myriam Van Imschoot So, it really means that when you arrived in Connecticut, you are a dancer.

Steve Paxton No, it means I had had a reasonable initiation into what the field was, but I was not a polished technician. I was not a strong technician. I wasn't very informed about dance. And that's why I…

Myriam Van Imschoot Thought you might…

Steve Paxton …thought I needed to come East, to get informed about dance. I was committed to modern dance. I wasn't a ballet dancer, I knew that. And that's all I knew. I knew I was young and rough. Yeah.

Myriam Van Imschoot That’s already a lot of self…

Steve Paxton Doubt. [laughing]

Myriam Van Imschoot If you prefer to call it that way.

Steve Paxton Yeah, well…

Myriam Van Imschoot Aesthetically speaking, or artistically speaking, it must have been still within the same lineage. I just wonder whether it struck you as something like “This is different,” or “What is this?”, “What are they doing?”

Steve Paxton There was a chance to see the dance artists in person, you know, to see Martha Graham, to see Doris Humphrey, Louis Horst, José Limón, Tamiris, Nagrin, Pearl Lang in person, to see how they taught, to see how they rehearsed, to see how they performed.

Myriam Van Imschoot You attended all of those classes?

Steve Paxton No, but you saw them. I didn't attend Graham because I had studied Graham already, and I didn’t…I didn’t feel like it was great for my body, but at any rate, I wanted to study Limón, and I was told by my two women teachers in Tucson that it would be a good idea if I studied with men, see what men were like, you know, as teachers and all that, so I studied with Limón and Cunningham.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, in 1958. Cunningham…

Steve Paxton Mmm. He was…the Cunningham Company’s first invitation to the dance establishment as it was represented at the American Dance Festival. He had been, sort of, put into a bad position by having left the Graham Company. There is always this problem with…

Myriam Van Imschoot It was a disappointment, yeah, of one side.

Steve Paxton …and so, when he left the Graham Company, which I think was around ’45 or something like that, until ’58, he had been held in this reserve by the press and by the dancers.

He had left the, you know, great priestess and started working with John Cage, which slowly but surely turned his work into work that was not remotely like the aesthetic — the point of view — of the establishment at that time. The idea of making work in those days had to do with political or social statement. And so it was quite narrative, and it was quite…it was full of characters and roles and things like that, and Cunningham’s work evolved in a different direction. So, they didn't know what to do with him. They didn't know, they knew he was a great dancer, and they didn't know…they were afraid of what he was doing, in fact, by leaving all this culture behind, that modern dance had been acquiring. And at that time, we're talking 1958, modern dance was only 58 years old, you know, if you think that it sort of began at the beginning of the century. So, it was a very new idea and still relatively untried. Much heralded, you know, I mean, there were books and great photographs and stuff like that, but…very small world.

Myriam Van Imschoot What did you think of his classes?

Steve Paxton Well, they were far more difficult than the classes that I had had in Tucson, full of new coordinations and new technical approaches for me, and I enjoyed them very much. I especially enjoyed seeing some of the brilliant dancers that were in the companies who took the classes, you know, just being around them, watching them move was a major part of the education. That they were there, that these weren't classes just for beginners, but they were classes that professionals were taking as well. It was an important step for me to be in that crowd.

Myriam Van Imschoot You could also see his dances in that summer because he also presented a couple of choreographies. Did you see them?

Steve Paxton Whose?

Myriam Van Imschoot Merce Cunningham.

Steve Paxton Yes, I did. I certainly did because I was backstage working.

MV: Oh, yeah.

Steve Paxton So, I saw everything. I saw all the rehearsals and the disagreements and the dancers coming and going.

Myriam Van Imschoot So, it means that for performances — if you think of what you might have seen — you’ve always seen it from the wings.

Steve Paxton No, I also saw it from the front.

Myriam Van Imschoot Okay. Because that’s really…

Steve Paxton Yeah, no, I didn't have to work every performance. No, no. No wonder I'm still writing about space. That was my first impression.

Steve Paxton So, the dances I saw, I think were Antic Meet, Rune, and Summerspace. So three brilliant, brilliant works by Cunningham.

Myriam Van Imschoot And you thought of them as brilliant at that time, too?

Steve Paxton There was no question about it. I didn't understand what they were conceptually, you know, aesthetically, but I understood that they were brilliant, that they were danced by beautiful dancers, and they looked great, and they made me laugh, and I was amazed, and all of that.

Myriam Van Imschoot Because according to other reports of other students at Connecticut, many of them just sort, of didn't like his work at all, but just, thought his technique classes were great, and there was this…

Steve Paxton Even Limón dancers took his technique classes, you know, and that was very good, in terms of the weight, but the students were incredibly chauvinistic, and whatever technique they were studying, that was the Holy Grail. So, yeah, so the students regularly praised their hero and dissed everybody else, you know, and Cunningham was, as I said, not popular with the dance establishment because of his stance, his aesthetic stance. So, he was, of course, considered…but I mean, the Graham students said that José Limón made reader’s digest dance, for instance, so Graham is the true choreographer. And this, this man is just making…

Myriam Van Imschoot …reader’s digest.

Steve Paxton …dance for the masses that is simplified, and you know, expurgated and censored in some way, for easy reading. Cunningham was just off the map, just nowhere near Graham and Humphrey, who were sort of the most famous at that time.

Myriam Van Imschoot Does the contact of a student with a teacher at that point enable to ask questions like, “Can I come to New York?” And “How does it work?”, “Can I study with you?”, or…?

Steve Paxton These were not questions that I felt I could ask. These people were teachers and artists, and it never occurred to me to ask for advice from them about these kinds of things. I'm sure I was barely able to talk to them, you know, say, “Hello,” or “Thank you.”

José Limón20:54

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah. But probably during that summer, you must’ve felt assured in your decision to go to New York?

Steve Paxton Not until near the end when José Limón offered me a scholarship at his studio.

Myriam Van Imschoot That made the move.

Steve Paxton That made it. I was very grateful for that, and I studied with him for that year.

Myriam Van Imschoot Did it start right away? Just after summer, like in fall?

Steve Paxton It started in the fall, and he hadn't told me where the studio was. So, I looked it up in an old dance magazine.

Myriam Van Imschoot That’s amazing.

Steve Paxton I know. It's all so much by chance, you know, like anything could have happened. And also I managed to live, you know, which was another amazing thing. I managed to get a bad job and make enough money to eat and finally found a place to live. But anyway, so I went to the studio, and there was no studio there. It had all changed and moved. It was an old dance magazine, I assume. I had no idea that they had moved. And you know, I didn't know New York. So, there was a couple of weeks when I couldn't find out where my scholarship was to take place, and then I found out somehow where classes were being held, and I showed up and I was asked where I had been, you know, like I said, I just didn't have any idea where the classes were. I must have been such a funny kid because I really didn’t know where to find help. I didn't know what to ask, and I didn't know even what I wanted. All I knew was, in some very general way, I wanted to study dance. So, I was pursuing that, and, you know.

Myriam Van Imschoot What does a scholarship entail?

Steve Paxton There it didn't entail anything. I didn't have any work to do with Limón. I just had to show up for classes regularly. Well, it turned out the studio was very close to where I had a job. I was working in the Rockefeller Center. So, after work, I would stay in the office and type letters home or, you know, do whatever. I think work ended at five, and classes started at six or six-thirty, and I would go over to class. So it was relatively convenient.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, so, your days were filled.

Steve Paxton They were filled.

Myriam Van Imschoot And it wasn't filled entirely with dance. The dance was in the evenings.

Steve Paxton Yeah, exactly, for that first year.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah. So that would have meant that you could have had like, a very monochrome way of living…going to work, do the classes…

Steve Paxton I suppose, yeah. It didn’t feel that way, of course. Everything was technicolor for me. I mean, I had never been East before. I had never been to New York.

Myriam Van Imschoot What was the closest you had ever got to New York before? Like Connecticut?

Steve Paxton The closest I’d ever got to New York before…I don't think I had been east of the Mississippi River. I don't think I'd been east of New Mexico, so I hadn't been very close. I had never lived in a major city.

Myriam Van Imschoot So, what did that do, living in a major city?

Steve Paxton Not much. It wasn't difficult. I mean, if I have to say, if I could do it at that time, probably anybody could have done it because I was the least prepared and the least supported kind of person, and not terribly smart about anything.

A community of young dancers25:11

Myriam Van Imschoot Did you find a community?

Steve Paxton Yes.

Myriam Van Imschoot In that first year. Can you say something about the community there?

Steve Paxton Well, it was mainly made up of young dancers studying with Limón. I found a girlfriend. Her friends became people I saw regularly.

Myriam Van Imschoot So nice.

Steve Paxton Yeah, they kind of took me in and helped and all that. Nothing material, but made me feel accepted and made it, you know, we had a lot of fun and went to…my girlfriend took me to performances and introduced me to the YMHA, for instance, which…you have a question about the YMHA, some place in here. It was an institution. Young Men and Women's Hebrew Association, which had a long history of supporting dance, so most of the dance of anyone but the stars of modern dance, happened there. Regular programs where you saw all the rising choreographers, performers, there.

Myriam Van Imschoot And there needed to be a Jewish ascendancy?

Steve Paxton No.

Myriam Van Imschoot No.

Steve Paxton No, I mean, Jews are interested in culture. They're not possessive of it to that degree, but they're very interested in it, so I think it was just…also, there would tend to be around New York Jews, a kind of socialist mentality, a kind of real urge to help the culture.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah.

Steve Paxton So, I think that was what that program represented.

Myriam Van Imschoot Interesting. I know something about the New Left but also the…how was it called? The New Workers’ Coalition and that, in early modern dance, really produced or generated different stances artistically, aesthetically, politically…so Martha Graham and some other, more…what they, at that time, called more abstract modern dance, versus politically engaged modern dancers. Probably Anna Sokolow would be in that field, and other people, too. So, I…my guess is that this Jewish or Hebrew center may have been really part of a larger tradition of modern dance. I mean, it’s just a guess, but it seems…

Steve Paxton If you look at their records, I'm sure you’ll be amazed at…

Myriam Van Imschoot I’d love to.

Steve Paxton …how generous and complex their support was. I mean, one of the things that I very much liked about dance, being young and idealistic, was that it was a place where minorities of all kinds could be represented. There were black choreographers and teachers and dancers, of course. Women and men all seemed to be Orientals, all seemed to be represented. It seemed to be a kind of United Nations of a form, of an art form. And in that way, it seemed very modern and optimistic and idealistic, which I think it is and always has been. And I didn't see that reflected in lots of other places that I looked.

Myriam Van Imschoot Like what other places?

Steve Paxton Well, my mother was a kind of bookkeeper secretary: typically a woman's job. My father was in law enforcement: typically a man's job. He had been a farmer: typically a man's job. Yeah, I saw, I saw housewives, men working outside the home, kind of a strict categorization of jobs certainly by gender, and also by a kind of ethnic affiliation. In Arizona, we had Mexicans and Indians.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah.

Steve Paxton And they tended to be manual workers. I saw a few Mexicans who were executives, saw a few Mexican women who were secretaries, for instance. They couldn't aspire to the…so, in other words, a really structured and segregated — I guess, is the word I’m looking for — social picture emerged in Arizona and also in New York, to some degree, although it was more mixed.

Myriam Van Imschoot How had your parents felt about your career moves?

Steve Paxton They didn't say a word about it.

Myriam Van Imschoot It just sort of…

[phone rings]

Steve Paxton I think they hoped it would blow away.

[phone rings]

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, were other people at school thinking, it’s effeminate?

[phone rings]

Steve Paxton Probably. But they didn't say much. They were impressed that I was touring. So, whatever.

[beep for voicemail recording]

[The minidisk is paused and then restarted]

Myriam Van Imschoot Your girlfriend. What kind of frame of mind and taste and interest did she have? What sort of…? was she…? How…? Because she introduced you to things that you didn't know in New York, or…

Steve Paxton I don’t know. It's hard for me to remember, you know, because I wasn't in any position to judge or to really appreciate her taste. She told me about the YMHA. She told me that there were…that you could get a cheap season ticket, which I got, and she got one, too. So, then it was sort of set that we were going to spend the year going to these performances together.

Myriam Van Imschoot Go and see all of them in the season together?

Steve Paxton Yeah, and so we saw what the season provided. I mean, I don't know that she…she also took me to the Museum of Modern Art. She took me…she was very important. She was a good guide. She took me to, kind of introduced me to the cultural institutions, or we went together, I mean…

Myriam Van Imschoot She was a New Yorker?

Steve Paxton Yeah.

Myriam Van Imschoot She knew what, you know, she could navigate very smoothly through the city.

Myriam Van Imschoot That’s a perfect introduction, I would say.

Steve Paxton I would say so. Yeah. But I mean, the other thing was my job, which was doing, carrying messages from Rockefeller Center down to Wall Street.

Myriam Van Imschoot Rockefeller Center, that’s sort of…

Steve Paxton …Midtown.

Myriam Van Imschoot And that’s an organization?

Steve Paxton It's not organization. It's that collection of buildings, you know, where Radio City is. It’s a big capitalist center built by the Rockefellers.

Myriam Van Imschoot So, you were a messenger.

Steve Paxton I was a messenger. So, that meant that I had to quickly learn the subway systems and the bus systems and, you know, how to get around quickly, around town.

Myriam Van Imschoot Great.

Steve Paxton So, my job also introduced me a lot to New York and its possibilities.

Dancing with Limón & Cunningham classes33:58

I also…later on, when I started doing small parts in Limón’s dances, had to rehearse at Juilliard. So, I was introduced to Juilliard.

Myriam Van Imschoot Because that’s where he also had his rehearsals.

Steve Paxton Well, he…yeah…

Myriam Van Imschoot He staged a piece there.

Tenebrae - 1914 (1959) is a lesser-known work by José Limón, which staged the life of an English nurse, Edith Cavell, who got shot by the Germans during World War I. Although usually fond of male heroes, Limón did not perform himself in this work. 

Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor is a work made by Doris Humphrey and performed by the Limón Dance Company. It was set to music by J.S. Bach and was performed for the first time in 1938. Humphrey stated about the choreography: “A passacaglia, “a dance through the streets,” is of medieval Italian origin, and was a processional celebration. In the music, the minor melody, according to the traditional Passacaglia form, insistently repeating from beginning to end, seems to say “How can man be saved and be content in a world of infinite despair?” And in the magnificent fugue which concludes the dance the answer seems to mean “Be saved by love and courage.” [...] The dance was inspired by the need for love, tolerance and nobility in a world given more and more to the denial of these things.Doris Humphrey, program note Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, 1938. 

Steve Paxton …yeah, that kind of thing. Yeah, Tenebrae 1 might have been staged there. I think at the time, we were working on a Doris Humphrey work, Passacaglia and Fugue 2, and I think that's, I don’t…I wasn't in that. But I think I went up there to see rehearsals and watch the process and hang out with the students who were in it.

[Steve moves in the kitchen, further away from the microphone]

Steve Paxton I think Tenebrae was staged at Connecticut.

Missa Brevis (1958) by José Limón paid tribute to the Polish people and their suffering during World War II. John Martin wrote about Missa Brevis: “His use of the group as a group is a natural outgrowth of the subject and the material; when the individual emerges he is nonetheless an individual, and when he takes his personal flashes of emotional realization back into the group he is no less a part of the group. There is a remarkable awareness of the solitude of the individual, and yet also of the group as something more than a mere aggregation of solitudes.Norton Owen, “The Dance Heroes of José Limón”, in June Dunbar, José Limón: an artist re-viewed, The Tayler & Francis Publishing Group, 2000, 23. 

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, true. [looks at her notes on the computer] In…so fall, in the fall, you were studying with Limón, and in ’59, in ’59, José Limón and his Company were touring, also. Missa Brevis 3 had performances in May in New York at Juilliard. When…you were a substitute for one of the roles in Missa Brevis, like you were in the chorus of Missa Brevis?

Steve Paxton I was in the chorus of Missa Brevis.

Myriam Van Imschoot How soon…

Steve Paxton As I recall…

Myriam Van Imschoot …how soon did you move from studying to…

Steve Paxton …to doing a small role? As soon as they saw that I…

Myriam Van Imschoot …could?

Steve Paxton …could. Yeah, definitely, as soon as they saw that I could. The dancing was not difficult. Being in the chorus was really a matter of being there on time, and…

Myriam Van Imschoot I’ve seen a video.

Steve Paxton Yeah, it’s…

Myriam Van Imschoot So, that meant that probably you would have also been already performing when Missa Brevis was performed in New York in May ’59.

Steve Paxton I can't confirm. I can't deny. [laughing]

Myriam Van Imschoot No. I can't either. But the way José Limón’s Company was working is that he was…and that was special because Martha Graham wouldn't do that. He was also…there were other choreographers next to him, making pieces for the Company, wasn’t there?

Steve Paxton Not exactly. It was his Company. Doris Humphrey was his teacher. The repertory…and Humphrey was, at that point, becoming disabled or had become disabled, so he was presenting some of her repertory along with his. He was…

Myriam Van Imschoot So, he took the repertory?

Steve Paxton Yeah.

Myriam Van Imschoot And was performing it?

Steve Paxton Yeah.

Myriam Van Imschoot Doris Humphrey probably would have been there to help.

Steve Paxton Yes. They were still very warm. They were very close.

Myriam Van Imschoot Any other other choreographers, or other repertoire of other people, that the Company performed?

Steve Paxton No, no, no.

Myriam Van Imschoot Maybe that was later on that that started?

Steve Paxton I think so.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, Tenebrae is, indeed, premiered at American Dance Festival in August ’59. You were in that piece.

Steve Paxton I don't think so. Oh, I might have been a soldier. I might have been a soldier in it. That's right. I have a vague memory.

Myriam Van Imschoot On the program sheet, you were mentioned in the cast.

Steve Paxton Okay. That's good. [laughing] Thank you.

Myriam Van Imschoot Under the name Stephen Paxton. You weren't called that way?

Steve Paxton No, I was always called Steve. But it is my legal name.

Myriam Van Imschoot So, if you were in that piece, you would also have witnessed the creation of that piece, you would have been part of the whole process of…

Steve Paxton Yes.

Myriam Van Imschoot I think that's always very interesting if, as a dancer, you see how someone makes something.

Steve Paxton Critical.

Myriam Van Imschoot You did a lot of dancing, actually, at that festival. You were dancing also in Tides by Pauline Coner.

Steve Paxton Yes.

Myriam Van Imschoot And in Memoir by Helen Tamiris.

Steve Paxton Yes.

Myriam Van Imschoot How did that come about?

Steve Paxton You could audition to be in pieces. Well, Pauline asked me to be in her piece.

Myriam Van Imschoot She asked you during that summer?

Steve Paxton Before that summer.

Myriam Van Imschoot So, how can that happen? You were in New York?

Steve Paxton I’m in New York. Well, Pauline Coner was a guest artist for the Limón Company. She had this special status and also was very prominent in the Humphrey repertory. She had worked with Doris, as well.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, well, that’s what I was hinting at.

Steve Paxton Yeah, so yeah, connections were made. Definitely. Connections were made. And she had in mind a piece about the coming of age of a young dancer, a young female dancer, and I was the boyfriend.

Myriam Van Imschoot That’s nice.

Steve Paxton So, she needed a boyfriend.

Myriam Van Imschoot [laughing] That's more than a soldier.

Steve Paxton It was more than a soldier. No, it was a role.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah.

Steve Paxton It was definitely a role in a dance. All I remember about it, is that for the whole first part of the dance, I was laying face down on stage, and then, I got up and danced with the beautiful redheaded dancer that was my girlfriend.

Myriam Van Imschoot Wow. You sure had a career going. [laughing] If you can consider that…

Steve Paxton Well, it was my second year at the American Dance Festival, and I was working with real choreographers, you know.

Myriam Van Imschoot In Memoir, of Helen Tamiris, Daniel Nagrin was also in the cast. Did you have time to attend courses if you were dancing in at least, as far as I know, three pieces?

Steve Paxton Yes. Because the choreographers were also busy teaching courses, so…

Myriam Van Imschoot Were there more? Because I have these three references of pieces you were in at that time.

Steve Paxton I think that's all I was in, in the second year.

Myriam Van Imschoot So from fall 1958 until summer 1959, I think we can cover it, I mean, in a way, we covered it. There was no…you didn't attend classes of Merce Cunningham at that time, in New York, so far.

Steve Paxton Well, the second summer I again attended his classes, and then, I began to attend his classes in New York that next year. ’59 it would have been.

Myriam Van Imschoot ’59. [types on her computer]

Steve Paxton And this…I think I took the Easter course.

Myriam Van Imschoot The Easter course? Oh, from Easter.

Steve Paxton All the big, you know, academic vacations resulted in the dancers holding intensive courses, you know, two or three week courses to fill that space and get as many students as they could, since they were available, so that was…

Myriam Van Imschoot So, the Easter course of…?

Steve Paxton Merce Cunningham

Myriam Van Imschoot In?

Steve Paxton In ’59.

Myriam Van Imschoot ’59, that’s prior to the Connecticut festival.

Steve Paxton Yeah.

Myriam Van Imschoot So, there was already, again, you had already been in touch with his classes before taking a second course, so that's actually already, like, a map of, of choices.

Steve Paxton Yes.

Myriam Van Imschoot Cunningham didn't perform that much in New York at that time, actually. Did you see performances?

Steve Paxton I think it was in ’59 that he was presented.

[phone rings]

…at the Phoenix Theater in downtown New York.

[phone rings]

[beep for voicemail recording]

Steve Paxton [Steve picks up the phone] Hello…

[skip to new track on minidisk]

Zeitgeist in The Village42:53

[In the break, Steve and Myriam start to speak about The Village Voice and how it gives a certain idea of the Zeitgeist then. This still resonates in the way the interview continues. Steve says he moved to live on Broome Street]

Steve Paxton Broome Street at that point, so I was below the Village. So, I was nowhere.

Myriam Van Imschoot You were nowhere?

Steve Paxton It was not designated at that point as anything. It wasn't Soho yet.

Myriam Van Imschoot No, but would you have read it [The Village Voice]? Is that like a newspaper you…?

Steve Paxton I would read it, yeah. I don’t, I wasn't too into local anything, you know, politics or, you know, you saw what kind of newspaper it was. It was, it was very political and socialistic.

Myriam Van Imschoot And at that time, there were like these huge projects threatening the Village. There were like, urbanistic changes that they were writing against.

Steve Paxton Yeah.

Myriam Van Imschoot So, there were a lot of things about the city and the reshaping of it.

Steve Paxton Yeah, and the politics of various people in power.

Myriam Van Imschoot There was a lot about jazz, like…

[phone rings]

Steve Paxton I’m so sorry. I didn't tune into that, because it was a great era for jazz.

[phone rings]

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, and you didn’t?

Steve Paxton I didn’t, no. I wasn't introduced. Nobody I knew was into it. I didn't know a lot of musicians. That’s…

[beep for voicemail recording]

Steve Paxton I don't need to answer this.

Myriam Van Imschoot I was really struck by its visibility in that newspaper. Apart from that, there wasn't a lot of mentioning of art or dance, even. There was no dance column at that time, but it seemed like jazz was meeting a need for something to happen, or like…

Steve Paxton This was the Beatnik era. So, that new philosophical stance, coffee shops, bars and jazz, all went together very much as a package in my mind, anyway.

Myriam Van Imschoot Beatnik era. Yeah, there were a lot of discussions on ‘Beat’ in the Village Voice, too. Kind of funny ones about the drug use or, and, indeed, reviews of Kerouac, Ginsberg.

Steve Paxton Yeah, poets and writers and jazz, much maligned, made fun of…

Myriam Van Imschoot It was made fun of, too?

Steve Paxton Well, in the more popular press, you know, it was championed, I suppose, by The Village Voice, but elsewhere, it was discredited.

Myriam Van Imschoot What was your stance?

Steve Paxton Relative to the Beats?

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah.

Steve Paxton Sympathetic, but I didn't understand it, and I was vaguely interested in its Eastern origins. You know, there were a lot of, I guess the big hook of the Eastern philosophies is always Nirvana. This, and so I suppose at that time, I thought that Nirvana was ultimate happiness and completion and maturity and all of that. Anyway. But it was very mysterious and charismatic in that way.

Myriam Van Imschoot Sorry, Steve, to interrupt you, but I don’t think I get electricity for my computer. I use the upper socket.

Steve Paxton It should work next to the radio.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, now it works. Am I talking? Electricity is always kind of a pain in the ass. [laughing] Yeah, the part of the Eastern influence on Beat, you were aware of that? That was something…

Steve Paxton Yeah, charismatic.

Myriam Van Imschoot Charismatic. Alan Watts had published his book on Zen in probably ’57 already, and Suzuki was coming to New York at that time. Were you aware of those things happening?

Steve Paxton No, no.

Myriam Van Imschoot What was, what was your knowledge of Eastern information?

Steve Paxton Almost nothing.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, but it was like something in the air.

Steve Paxton I had, it was something in there. It was even something in Tucson. I can remember telling my best friend in one of our late night philosophical discussions when we were about 17 that I thought I was a Buddhist. And that had come from studying the Stoics a little bit, the Greek stoics, and feeling sympathy with that philosophy, and then seeing that Stoicism and Buddhism were aligned in many ways.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, interesting. To maybe try to move on, probably, your closer alignment with Cunningham and his Company must have introduced a lot of new things in that world?

Steve Paxton Not so many as you might imagine because although it was clear that John Cage was interested in that material, it wasn’t a teacher of it in any way that I was aware of. So, yeah, I knew he was interested in it. He was also interested in mushrooms, which I knew nothing about. I mean, there were lots of things about him that I…that fascinated me, and I felt sympathetic toward, but I didn't know anything about. I guess it's just something to be in a society that approves of these things though, as opposed to a society that knows nothing about them and discredits them. So, that's a change.

The second year in New York49:14

Myriam Van Imschoot Did you go back to Arizona? Like after a year, or?

Steve Paxton Yes.

Myriam Van Imschoot Did people make an effort to keep you in Arizona and say like, “Oh, come on.”

Steve Paxton No, no. [laughing]

Myriam Van Imschoot They didn’t try.

Steve Paxton No, I didn't feel like leaving home was either very traumatic or emotional, or that there was anything holding me in Arizona. My family is a rather — I mean — it was loving, but it was rather cold at the same time, and when I told them I was leaving home, they said, “Okay”, but there was no support at all, you know. If I was going to leave home, I had to do it. And…

Myriam Van Imschoot You are the only son?

Steve Paxton No, there were two sons and one daughter. And the daughter was very much younger, she was a baby when I left. So they were very concerned with her, you know, they're bringing up essentially a second family. So, yeah, I just felt like the best thing I could do for this family is to not be a burden, and so I left, and I think they felt the same way, you know.

Myriam Van Imschoot Good for all parties.

Steve Paxton Yeah, yeah. But I kept very warm relations with them and wrote many letters home, and got many letters back and all of that, but it was always, you know…that was our new relationship, and that was cool with everybody apparently.

Myriam Van Imschoot How did you develop as a dancer?

Steve Paxton I don't really know. I don't know if one can answer that question properly. I took ballet classes, I took many kinds of modern classes. I worked with different choreographers, so all of that was developmental. I can't recall anything startlingly useful happening to my body, you know. I still had a lot of trouble feeling like I was a dancer, and it wasn't until I was in the Cunningham Company for a year or two that I accepted the fact that I guess I had become a dancer. I did have an intuition that the only way to be seen as a dancer was to not do anything else, so I didn't want to be a dancer slash office worker or anything like that because dancing is in general such a discredited arena, you know, such an unknown and, you know, discredited by the general population that I knew I would be seen as an office worker who danced, not a dancer who supported himself. So, after that first year, I didn't try to get another job during the winter. I tried to do it by dancing and, you know, lived very meagerly, took odd jobs.

Myriam Van Imschoot You had more time to…

Steve Paxton I had much more time to dance.

Myriam Van Imschoot So, that’s like…

"The Merry-Go-Rounders were established in November 1952 as a non-profit children’s dance and theater group to perform educational dance performances. From the beginning they were multicultural, which was reflected in the performances and the audiences. The Merry-Go-Rounders were founded by a number of faculty and teachers at the Children’s Dance Department of the 92nd Street Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA), which sponsored the Merry-Go-Rounders from 1952 - 1961. Doris Humphrey was the artistic director for The Merry-Go-Rounders from the beginning." Archive description, The New York Public Library, Merry-Go-Rounders records. 

Steve Paxton I think the second year, I got this position in a group that performed for children called The Merry-Go-Rounders4, and that took my time because that was every morning rehearsing, and classes into the afternoon.

Myriam Van Imschoot Can you tell something about this company?

Steve Paxton Yes, it was based at the YMHA. It was run by a variety of active dancers with the Limón Company and people who had performed with Graham and things like that, who had banded together to train young dancers what it was like to be in a company, what the responsibilities were, and essentially, it was a tryout company, I suppose.

Myriam Van Imschoot A tryout?

Steve Paxton Yes, that is, if you could do that work, and showed promise and developed during their year, then you would be considered potentially eligible for, you know, you would’ve proved yourself in terms of having a kind of semi-professional debut.

Myriam Van Imschoot When did you get involved with this company?

Steve Paxton It would have been in ’59, I suppose. Is that right? No.

Myriam Van Imschoot Before the summer or after summer?

Steve Paxton It would have been ’59. ’58-’59 was the winter that I worked, so it would have been ’59-’60.

Myriam Van Imschoot So, probably after the winter.

Steve Paxton Yeah, no, after the summer.

Myriam Van Imschoot The summer, the summer of ’59.

Steve Paxton Yeah.

Myriam Van Imschoot And what was their frequency of making pieces or performing?

Steve Paxton They had a large repertory, which had to be learned by most of the dancers in the autumn. And then frequency of performances? Sometimes several a week.

Myriam Van Imschoot Really?

Steve Paxton Yeah.

Myriam Van Imschoot Really? In schools?

Steve Paxton In schools and at the YMHA.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, that there’s such a demand for that, actually, is amazing.

Steve Paxton It was…yeah, I don't see it as that amazing. There weren't that many companies in that position, and the arts were considered important, you know, educationally, and having something to do with, you know…1500 school children was, you know…taking them to a dance performance where they could learn, they could learn to be audience. That also was happening, of course. They were learning what it was like to come to a theater, what it was like to see a performance, what a performance was, what the protocol was there, you know, which of course, they didn't obey, but they were told what it was, you know. But they shouted and talked and laughed and were kids. But yeah, to introduce them to theatre culture in the same way that we, the performers, were being introduced to theater culture.

Myriam Van Imschoot Wow. What did your repertoire consist of?

Steve Paxton Oh, a number of dances by choreographers of reasonable standing. There was a Caribbean dance by a man named Geoffrey Holder. There was an Indian dance by a woman from New York who'd gone to India to study. Her name was La Mari. M-A-R-I. There were works by…I can't really remember all these names, but various performers for Graham and Limón had made works for this program.

Myriam Van Imschoot Was there a choreographer in residency?

Steve Paxton No, there were various choreographers brought in.

Myriam Van Imschoot Then again, it’s like getting in touch with very different people in different…

Steve Paxton Yeah, yeah.

Entering Merce Cunningham Company57:18

Myriam Van Imschoot But why, if becoming a dancer is also feeling you’re a dancer, and you say that happened maybe like after two years spending at Merce Cunningham’s Company…

Steve Paxton Yeah.

Myriam Van Imschoot At that time, you were…you had quit your job, and you were full-time dancing, so what was…

Steve Paxton In a commitment, is what we're talking about. How long did it take me to discover that this field really had a foundation that would interest me for very long? Was it superficial? You know, performing for children, or performing, you know, repertory of somebody, or did I sense that there was some real adventure happening? And I think that the reason that I went finally with Cunningham is that I felt that was where the biggest adventure was happening. Everything else by that time… Graham and Limón and Humphrey were all either mature or past mature, you know, and were settled in their aesthetic ways. Cunningham was younger and seemed to be having this extraordinary philosophical adventure with his work, and that's what interested me.

Myriam Van Imschoot How do you become a dancer or a member of a company? How does that happen?

Steve Paxton How do you become one? How did I become one? I don't know how anybody else does it.

Myriam Van Imschoot No, you.

Steve Paxton I had achieved working scholarship at the Cunningham studio.

Myriam Van Imschoot How did you achieve that? You apply for it?

Steve Paxton Yeah, you ask. You say, “Do you have a scholarship?” And they say, “Well, if you clean the studio,” and you know, so I did that. So, I cleaned the studio, which also was sort of like working backstage at Connecticut College, a great introduction to the reality of, you know…so I would be there cleaning the studio, and they would be having rehearsals, and I would see the dancers go into the studio. I wouldn't watch or, you know, peak or anything. But I would hear movement for an hour, and then, Merce would say something like, “Let's do it again,” or “You're 20 seconds too long here,” or something like that, because he did it all by stopwatch. There was no music. There was just the sound of dancing. And maybe there would be a question, but almost no talking, just moving for the whole rehearsal. And then, they would come out, and they would be chatting and laughter and all that, and I would watch that. And so, I saw that they were incredibly dedicated, and that rehearsal was not a matter of learning something with your head, but actually performing movement, you know. And these dancers were extraordinary. They were brilliant dancers in that company.

[phone rings]

Steve Paxton Oh, God.

Myriam Van Imschoot It’s morning. That’s what happens in the morning!

[phone rings]

Steve Paxton Yes, it’s morning.

[new track]

Steve Paxton Yeah, exactly how it happened was that the other man in Merce’s Company, Remy Charlip, told me that he was thinking of leaving, and he said, he told me this. He told me that if I was interested in being in Merce’s Company, I should make it very clear to Merce. So, at one point, I said, “Merce, if you ever need another man, I would be interested in being in your Company.” Meanwhile, I was there cleaning ashtrays. They had ashtrays in dance studios in those days, and sweeping the floor and stuff like that.

[phone rings]

Myriam Van Imschoot But he had noticed you in the classes. He knew that you were technically-able.

[phone rings]

Steve Paxton He knew all about me. But he had very restricted means. I mean, he had no money, and he was barely able to hold onto… Maybe I should pick it up. Maybe the tape is over or something upstairs…it sounds like the machine is not giving anybody a chance.

[new minidisk]

Steve Paxton Remy was balding and John Cage and Merce thought Remy should wear a toupée so he would look more normal.

Myriam Van Imschoot And Remy wanted to wear it or did’t want to wear it?

Steve Paxton He didn't want to wear it. It sounds a little bit stupid, really, doesn't it?

Myriam Van Imschoot It also…it sounds stupid, but it says that their ideas about any movement can be dance, and any body can be a dancing body, that those ideas weren’t in full force. That it did matter whether you had hair on your head or not.

Steve Paxton They were always criticized for that, Merce and John. That they had a public philosophy and a different…in private way…of actually operating, which I think is probably true of most people, so, yeah, they thought, why shouldn't you wear a toupee, so that the dance isn't distracted?

[phone rings]

Steve Paxton I will answer this one.

Myriam Van Imschoot Until then, was your scholarship still running? By the Limón Company, or was it a one year…?

Steve Paxton I think it ended when I took the Easter course with Cunningham.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, you mentioned that somewhere. It wasn't really appreciated.

Steve Paxton It was suspicious. I was studying in enemy territory.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, and that's how it ends. That ended.

Steve Paxton Then, they don't ever speak to you again.

Myriam Van Imschoot Were you aware that could have happened?

Steve Paxton I wasn't aware that I would be punished so severely when I did it, but after it was done, I felt like it was my right to do it, and if Limón was gonna act like that…

Myriam Van Imschoot Did it mean that by taking the Easter course, you wouldn't show up for his classes?

Steve Paxton That's right.

Myriam Van Imschoot So it just, yeah.

Steve Paxton I dropped out of his classes for three weeks, and then…

Myriam Van Imschoot I can understand that.

Steve Paxton I can’t.

Myriam Van Imschoot If you drop out…?

Steve Paxton I wasn't very formal. I have to say I wasn't very political or very formal. I just dropped out. I did just drop out. And they said, “Where have you been?” And I said, “I've just been at the Cunningham studio.” [laughing] “It was great. You should try it,” I would say.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company world tour, Cologne, 1964. Pictured in helicopter: Carolyn Brown, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Doris Stockhausen, David Tudor, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Pictured below: Steve Paxton, Michael von Biel, and Robert Rauschenberg. Photograph Collection. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives, New York. Photo: Unattributed, 1964.

  1. Tenebrae - 1914 (1959) is a lesser-known work by José Limón, which staged the life of an English nurse, Edith Cavell, who got shot by the Germans during World War I. Although usually fond of male heroes, Limón did not perform himself in this work. 

  2. Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor is a work made by Doris Humphrey and performed by the Limón Dance Company. It was set to music by J.S. Bach and was performed for the first time in 1938. Humphrey stated about the choreography: “A passacaglia, “a dance through the streets,” is of medieval Italian origin, and was a processional celebration. In the music, the minor melody, according to the traditional Passacaglia form, insistently repeating from beginning to end, seems to say “How can man be saved and be content in a world of infinite despair?” And in the magnificent fugue which concludes the dance the answer seems to mean “Be saved by love and courage.” [...] The dance was inspired by the need for love, tolerance and nobility in a world given more and more to the denial of these things.Doris Humphrey, program note Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, 1938. 

  3. Missa Brevis (1958) by José Limón paid tribute to the Polish people and their suffering during World War II. John Martin wrote about Missa Brevis: “His use of the group as a group is a natural outgrowth of the subject and the material; when the individual emerges he is nonetheless an individual, and when he takes his personal flashes of emotional realization back into the group he is no less a part of the group. There is a remarkable awareness of the solitude of the individual, and yet also of the group as something more than a mere aggregation of solitudes.Norton Owen, “The Dance Heroes of José Limón”, in June Dunbar, José Limón: an artist re-viewed, The Tayler & Francis Publishing Group, 2000, 23. 

  4. "The Merry-Go-Rounders were established in November 1952 as a non-profit children’s dance and theater group to perform educational dance performances. From the beginning they were multicultural, which was reflected in the performances and the audiences. The Merry-Go-Rounders were founded by a number of faculty and teachers at the Children’s Dance Department of the 92nd Street Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA), which sponsored the Merry-Go-Rounders from 1952 - 1961. Doris Humphrey was the artistic director for The Merry-Go-Rounders from the beginning." Archive description, The New York Public Library, Merry-Go-Rounders records.