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

4: Proxy and General Art


Rauschenberg and Lucinda Childs performing Proxy (1961) by Steve Paxton, unknown location. Photograph Collection. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives, New York. Photo: Unattributed, 1966.

Steve Paxton We're discussing Proxy and the number of times that people walk at the beginning of that dance. There's seven rotations.

Myriam Van Imschoot Can you show the pattern? [gives Steve a piece of paper and pencil to draw the pattern]

Steve Paxton Well, the pattern assumes that there is a passageway behind the curtain, which forms the visual back of the stage for the audience. And the people walk across in view of the audience, and then they exit, and then they walk around the back of the curtain, and then they enter again.

Myriam Van Imschoot Like this… [draws the pattern on the paper].

Steve Paxton Yeah, so it's a circular sort of pattern, and they just do it, you know, they just walk. They don’t…the distance that they walk behind the curtain is the same length of time as the distance they walk in front of the curtain, and they do it seven times. They come on seven times, and they exit seven times.

Myriam Van Imschoot There being three or four performers…?

Steve Paxton Three.

Myriam Van Imschoot Three. Does that mean that there's always someone in view of the audience?

Steve Paxton No.

Myriam Van Imschoot How was the…?

Steve Paxton Well, wait a minute. I can’t remember. Oh, God, I wish I still had the score. I can't remember. Is there one person doing it? I can't remember. I think there's one person doing it, you know. I think there's one person doing it, and that on the sixth time, they bring the plastic basin out and put it down…

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah! Apparently, according to…

Steve Paxton …according to the authorities!

Myriam Van Imschoot …Don McDonagh: “It began with a long walking section in which the first performer circles whatever forms the backdrop of the stage seven times in the same direction carrying a white basin.” So, you're already carrying the white base while walking?

Steve Paxton I think the white basin appears on the sixth walk or the fifth walk. It was put down on the sixth walk and then stepped into on the seventh walk…something like that. Maybe they carried the whole thing. I could ask the performers who have done it. I can't be sure.

Myriam Van Imschoot Were you the first performer?

Steve Paxton I was in the first performance, which was at the Cunningham studio, you know, the first showing, but afterwards, I found other performers because I really wanted to see this thing and what it was. I must have been in the first performance at Judson, too, because I have this feeling that thereafter, I needed to find somebody to perform it, so I could see it. The difference being very clear to me at that point. I mean, why was this work booed? You know, why was it rejected on the first performance, which was so full of stuff that could have been rejected, you know. It seemed to me…something about what I had done was rejected. So, I wanted to see why. I wanted to see if I agreed that it should be rejected, I guess. What I saw was an amusing dance. I found it quite wry in it’s…but, of course, I was filled with my own projections about it.

Myriam Van Imschoot Did you know when the boos came? Was it after the piece, or was it during the piece?

Steve Paxton It was after the piece.

Myriam Van Imschoot So, it was an expression of appreciation that didn't disrupt the performance.

Steve Paxton No, they didn't disrupt the performance, but they didn’t…it was cynics. It was an expression not of appreciation but of…

Myriam Van Imschoot [laughing] …negative appreciation.

Steve Paxton Yeah, negative appraisal.

Myriam Van Imschoot [laughing] Appreciation has a…now I see, also, what you mean with breaking down the pace, or changing the pace, restoring pace as pace.

Steve Paxton Well, and relating pace to space, so that the offstage space is not regarded as a…or is not used as a kind of repository of the unknown and miraculous, but is instead quite an ordinary…

Myriam Van Imschoot Because usually, dancers run…

Steve Paxton From place to place, yes.

Myriam Van Imschoot In the wings, they…

Steve Paxton Yeah.

Myriam Van Imschoot They run to make their next…

Steve Paxton …their next appointment. Yeah. Here, the appointments were much more casual. [laughing]

Myriam Van Imschoot So, here, you expand stage space to larger space.

Steve Paxton Well, I just acknowledge what it is.

Myriam Van Imschoot That’s interesting.

Steve Paxton But also, they were walking across the front, so once again, there was no accumulation of energy or dispersal of energy, or any of that kind of thing. It was the same energy all the way across, and all the way around, and all the way across.

Myriam Van Imschoot That does not necessarily mean that you were also investigating something sensorial within that walking.

Steve Paxton On the contrary.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah. Like, how in every, you know, like…

Steve Paxton Also, in the construct. I mean, the seven walks, and they’re…the fact that this woman keeps coming in from one side and keeps walking out the other, I think, is quite surreal. That's what I said, I may have, I found it an amusing dance. I felt like it accumulated sensorial material that was very strange, and that you would not…I don't know where you would see it in real life. We talk about “the pedestrian” as though it were real life. You know, all these words get confused…

Myriam Van Imschoot They very much do.

Steve Paxton But on the contrary, you know, the actual construct made it very unrealistic.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah. Because pedestrian movement has an efficiency. It…you…ordinary movement is usually kind of designed to be efficient. While, if you want to enter the space and you go off, but you want to enter it again, you would do it from that side. You wouldn't do it from the other side. That’s…

Steve Paxton You wouldn't show the mechanics of the same movement continuing invisibly for the same amount of time. You wouldn't include that.

Myriam Van Imschoot Did you hear the steps?

Steve Paxton No.

Myriam Van Imschoot Like, for example, when it’s invisible, would it still be audibly…?

Steve Paxton No, no, it wasn't particularly audible. You really had to do it in your mind, if you were going to bother with it at all.

Myriam Van Imschoot That must’ve been really funny, actually, if you start…

Steve Paxton Well, I liked it. [laughing] To my relief, I mean, I didn't know if I was going to like it or not, but then when this person who had done the seven entrances stood in the basin, and eight…

Myriam Van Imschoot And the basin was already in the rectangle?

Steve Paxton The basin was, at that point, in the rectangle. And so, there was this gradual accumulation of images. There was the yellow thing on the floor already. The yellow square was there as they walked. So, they were walking past the yellow square for six…

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, which causes anticipation or expectation.

Steve Paxton If you bothered…

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, yeah.

Steve Paxton Then it might, yeah. What is the relationship between these two things, the square and the performer walking? Then, when they put the basin down, that seemed to answer any anticipation. And then, on top of that, the performer stands in the basin.

Myriam Van Imschoot And eats.

Steve Paxton So, now we have an accumulation of the available material, you know, into one image, and then the eating, which…

Myriam Van Imschoot A pear? Was it a pear?

Steve Paxton It was a pear. It was something…a ripe pear, I have to say. It was something soft and easy to eat and easy to get down during performance. I thought an apple was maybe too difficult to eat in performance, you know. I mean, just having to choke it down, you know, if it was…and I think I also used a glass of water. I can't remember. I fiddled around with what would be the best thing for that moment.

Myriam Van Imschoot Where would the glass of water come from?

Steve Paxton And then…hmm?

Myriam Van Imschoot Where would the glass of water come from? Because a pear could be in your…

Steve Paxton Well, you see, they put the basin down, and then they had one more entrance. So, they could then pick up the pear and or the glass of water, and do it. Now, I don't remember what they did with the glass of water, you know, after it was drunk. What happened?

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah.

Steve Paxton Or with the core of the pear, what did they do with it?

Myriam Van Imschoot If you threw it away!

Steve Paxton I assumed that, because the next…

Myriam Van Imschoot They ate it all!

Steve Paxton The next thing that happened was that the contents of the basin were revealed by another performer coming on, in from the same place and holding out their arm like this, so that the first performer held on to this arm, and then they were turned around a couple of times.

Myriam Van Imschoot Not seven?

Steve Paxton As though they were…no, not seven…as though they were, yeah, as though there was no friction, as though, you know, the basin didn't turn underneath them. They…there wasn't any problem with them turning. So, the ball bearings, which were in the basin, which I think one heard when they walked, you know, there was something in the basin, and we didn't know what it was. So, it was revealed. So, there was a gradual accumulation and revelation of stuff in a very low-keyed way. So, you know, in that low-keyedness, I found a pleasant humor, but other people had found it difficult to accommodate to this lack of normal accumulation and release of energy that we think of as being choreographic material.

Less is more10:36

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah. That was a piece that Robert Morris thought of as minimal.

Steve Paxton See, it just wasn't my focus that minimal was a possibility. It was my focus that everything was evident, everything was obvious, that in looking at this dance, you had to bring with it all your dance history and look at it with all of that information. This was not something new. This was an aspect of all previous material.

Myriam Van Imschoot Why did you say yesterday…“I don't think minimalism in dance…that minimalism doesn’t apply to dance,” or something?

Steve Paxton [laughing]

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah.

Steve Paxton I'm not sure minimalism applies to minimalism either. You know, it's something to do with…using a term like that is trying to point out a difference in construct and relationships, but if Albers, for instance, was minimalistic, proto-minimalistic work, the actual richness of the phenomena that he's looking at, and its implications, are anything but minimal. I mean, it's all color is, and all experience of color is being critiqued, and when you're dealing with the human body, this is the proper study of mankind as somebody has said, and not just the human body, but the humanness, you know, all of the implications: the spiritual, the psychological, the physical, the past, the future, you know, all of that is implicit, and I guess I was trying to look at that generality, and so, it seemed that the less I did, the more I was implying connections and by less, I simply mean leaving out the traditional look and pace and texture and tension that has entertained us in dance for so long, you know…has become quite codified and rigidified in its way.

Myriam Van Imschoot Expenditure, energy, and…but a typical saying is 'less is more', so even minimalist art acknowledged that the reduction, kind of the…

Steve Paxton What does “less is more” actually mean?

Myriam Van Imschoot Less, like, if even when you reduce something to nearly nothingness, that it will reveal…it’s the white painting. That it will reveal not nothingness but…

Steve Paxton So, it’s a kind of holistic view perhaps, where everything is implied in any fragment of the image.

Myriam Van Imschoot And that…

Steve Paxton As in a hologram, I mean, holistic in that sense.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, but also that you needn’t give much to generate much. So, the ‘more’ is maybe more in the viewer’s eye, and again in the perceptual…

Steve Paxton Well, it would seem that these early works, which contain so little of traditional dance of…didn’t find an audience that was willing to look in that, through that particular lens…

Myriam Van Imschoot …in that way.

Steve Paxton …whereas, much as they were used to, was enough, and anything less was…

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, less.

Steve Paxton [laughing] Was less, not enough.

Myriam Van Imschoot Less was less.

Steve Paxton Was starvation rations. I've noticed in my own perception of my own body though, that very often, the greater the simplicity of what I'm understanding, is the more important understanding, and so, in some ways, less is more, for instance, all the movements of ballet that you get in class are done without any real acknowledgement of gravity. You know, your mind is not on gravity although you're working, of course, with gravity and friction and all that stuff all the time. And so, that was one reason that with contact improvisation, I started to focus on those words. They were really missing from the dance world. There was no physics in dance. There was aesthetics, and there was the unconscious use of all those materials, but unless you slipped and fell, and said, “Gee, the floor is slippery today,” you didn't have to acknowledge the fact that friction was a component.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah.

Steve Paxton You didn't have to acknowledge the quality of the friction. You didn't have to acknowledge the direction, or the feeling of the friction. You didn't have to acknowledge it consciously. And then, I came to feel that dance is a matter of, or “art dance” anyway, and choreographed dance relies a lot on bringing the unconsciousness to consciousness, and thereby, being able to direct what you're already unconsciously able to do, and maybe to, via exercise, increase the range of limbs and things like that too, you know, the consciousness has a use in dance.

And that therefore, it can be seen that most dance techniques are simplifications of normal movement possibilities. And something like ballet, for instance, you could reduce. It’s a reduction of movement possibilities to a few of those possibilities, and then, what happens if you concentrate on those few, like the projection of limbs into space, the longer leverage, the, you know…we achieve things with those kinds of simple thoughts that other forms have never achieved. The quality of the high leg extension, you know, “développé” is not a useful martial art, kind of strength, although you see that in China, they have this possibility, but they don’t…you know, you see it happen. You see that they can do it. But there was no concentration of it as an art form that was…it was an aspect of kicking that they developed to a very high level, but our concentration of these elements into a movement form, which has no other use other than to display the human body, and somehow make us feel an empathetic reaction in the audience, is quite an invention. It's quite an extraordinary invention. On the other hand, it has already been invented, so what is the avant garde supposed to do with it? You know, in a way, it says, “Oh, we're stuck with these inventions, and it is here that we have to create, but within these already invented constructs.” So, I was trying to step a little bit outside the invented constructs, and I found myself in Iceland, you know, as opposed to New York City. I found myself really quite a foreigner in the dance world.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, even though the dance world was, at that time, so into…

Steve Paxton Well, the dance world wasn’t. I mean, you’re focused on the…

Myriam Van Imschoot I mean, in general…

Steve Paxton …you’re focused on the Judson and the downtown and the Cunningham circle, you know.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, yeah, true.

Steve Paxton There, I wasn't such a foreigner, but I was still pretty much a foreigner, because if you look at Flat as opposed to what Yvonne or Trisha or David Gordon or even Simone…Simone was a bit of a foreigner, too, you know, with her dance constructions, or movement constructions, whatever she called them at that time. So, it was possible to be too far away from even that center to be in good communication with what was going on in overall movement of the form at that time…of the dance form at that time.

Myriam Van Imschoot Since Robert Morris, whether it’s legitimate or valid or not but, appreciated your work so much, and since he had this inclination towards theory, did he theorize about it? Did he talk to you about it?

Steve Paxton No, not much. What I got from him was what he gave to everybody in the [Village] Voice or something.

Myriam Van Imschoot In the Voice, yeah.

Steve Paxton In the newspaper.

Myriam Van Imschoot It's so funny that the Judson workshop, so not only when Robert Dunn’s classes were over, and you organized weekly showings, you would think it’s weekly showings for weekly feedback.

Steve Paxton We didn't have a strong tradition of feedback. And when we got into feedback, very often, it was on the level of “Oh, it made me feel…it made me remember this.” It made, you know, personal connections to imagery that was seen on stage. It didn't do much with what was happening on stage, and I think there's good reason for that. I think it's extremely difficult to render movement into language. So, to give feedback about…how do you give feedback about somebody standing still? I mean, normally what we do is evaluate things, “Oh, it was good standing.” “Terrible standing,” you know. It was…

Myriam Van Imschoot “It was a little bit not long enough.”

Steve Paxton “It was not long enough.” Yeah, that kind of thing, you know, like, or,“It was too long.” I mean, you could say, you could say you…that’s evaluation, again. That's evaluation, right? You would critique the length of it, but in terms of the actual, what's going actually going on, in something like standing, Where are the words? Where is the vocabulary? What in English helps us to cope with these kinds of events? It doesn't have an affect. It is simply standing. So, English let's us say that much.

Having said that, and the fact that we don't have much language to go further, means that it's a little bit difficult to think further, and that's what I was trying to do…was to think further than the language gave me easy access to assess these things. They obviously exist. You obviously can do them. It's very clear that there’s…it's not against the law. It's not obscene. It's not anything. You know, we don’t…it's like that. It’s…

Calling something dance22:14

Myriam Van Imschoot Did you insist at that time on calling them dances?

Steve Paxton Mmhmm. [Yes.] Well, I didn't really insist. I just was stuck with the obvious problem, you know. Is this dance or not? Well, I am a dancer. I mean, one of the things that I was…my reality was that at the same time that I was standing still, at Judson, I was leaping around the stage with Cunningham and in class, so, in my world, it was a spectrum. That was…I was trying to make maybe a little bit broader. But for somebody in the audience who is used to coming to a dance, they wouldn't have had my — at that point — fairly long term questions about what is my body doing when I'm not aware of it? And how does it get around the world? And, you know, these kinds of basic, again, simple, simplistic even, questions that lead to observations about what's going on in the pedestrian and in the habitual realm.

Myriam Van Imschoot I have two or three more issues. One issue is this calling; whether you call something a dance or not, or activating that question. Is it a dance? There seems to be various strategies. One is, to Simone Forti - we talked about it yesterday - taking one medium and then calling it a dance: reading a poem, calling it a dance, and so on. And in by doing that, you activate the question more, even, like, well, “What is it then if you can call it this?” and so on. But there's also another strategy, and that is saying like, “It doesn't matter.”

Steve Paxton I took the “It doesn't matter,” or else I don't know how to…

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah whether it’s dance or visual art or…

Steve Paxton I don't know how to understand what matters.

Myriam Van Imschoot Whether it’s dance, or theater or whether it's dance or…

Steve Paxton See, at this…at that point, I called it dance because it simply was the paradox of language. And the obvious, at that point in aesthetic circles, the breaking down of different clearly defined realms was happening. So, I couldn't quite see how to decide what the right language should be, and there didn't seem to be a handy word to describe it outside of the word “dance.” I mean, I was in the process of admitting that I was a dancer or taking on that role. I was dancing all day, and in several different modes, and so, it seemed that I could just assert that as a dancer, I was doing this and therefore it was dance, you know. That seemed like, it seemed even at that time, to me, very simple-minded, but I just couldn't cope with the memetic complications of what trope I was actually presenting. And since there wasn't a word, you see, since there wasn't language to describe what I was doing to myself, I was at a loss. Now, I would think that it would be better to not call them dances and to leave the word “dance” as an art to forms which are choreographed and have been technically worked on, so that we have a way to distinguish that kind of work from other kinds of work. I mean, that's the point of words, really, is this distinguishing between elements.

Myriam Van Imschoot But if we speak of Proxy or Flat, because we’ve been speaking about those pieces, they are choreographed.

Steve Paxton Mmhmm. [No.]

Myriam Van Imschoot They are…why wouldn't they be choreographed? There is a set of decisions…

Steve Paxton Once again, I had stepped beyond the limits, you see, that language usually distinguishes. When we talk about choreography, what we meant in those days and what is largely still meant, is the laborious building up of movement sequences and fixing them in time, so that we can see more or less the same dance one time after another. This is a major cultural invention. This is something that is critical to our ability to…excuse us if we ignore you.

Cathy Weiss: I don’t think you will.

Steve Paxton [laughing]. You showing us your best side that's why.

Cathy Weiss: Yes, I am.

Steve Paxton I can't help but look.

Cathy Weiss: Please continue.

Steve Paxton I can't remember what I was gonna say because you interrupted me…with that color.

Myriam Van Imschoot We can briefly have a break just to say hello.

Steve Paxton Let's just, actually, can we play back?

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah.

Steve Paxton Let's play back, and I can then get back on track, and we can erase Cathy's entrance.

Myriam Van Imschoot Oh, I can’t…

[tape cuts]

The idea of General Art27:38

Steve Paxton Where was I?

Myriam Van Imschoot We were…I was interested in whether it really mattered to you if it was considered a dance or anything else…the early works that you made. There were several options. You could think it is exciting to call it dance even if it resists assumptions or expectations, but insist on it being a dance because that’s what gives friction. Or maybe because you really think, you know, this is dance, and you know, we need to expand the whole notion of dance. The other option was more that it doesn't really matter because there's something as a general general art.

In visual arts, usually people were speaking about painting or sculpture, and they were very delineated disciplines and media, and I think that although the idea was older, that in the 60s, what became very important that there was something like general art, which wasn't necessarily painting or sculpture or anything else, but it was art, art, art.

Steve Paxton So, then we're making the word “art” carry all these different…

Myriam Van Imschoot And that's new.

Steve Paxton So, we've lost the ability to distinguish between painting and sculpture.

Myriam Van Imschoot And that’s new, historically speaking this is quite new. Conceptual art will even work from this notion and even develop it further. Kosuth will really resist everything that could still relate to a discipline or a medium. He really wants to reside in the general art. Art as art.

Steve Paxton So, what does this do for the poor critic who has to write about this material?

Myriam Van Imschoot Well, that's my understanding, but I think that the idea of general art has never really achieved, especially because the institutions aren’t general. You can say it's art, it doesn't matter what it is in terms of traditional disciplines or backgrounds. You could even make like a performance, and say, it doesn't matter if it's a dance, theater or maybe visual art. It’s art. That's what it is. Then, still, the institutions underneath it that support it or that will distribute it, or will commodify it are very disciplined. You know, it's like, if it's a gallery circuit, it will be pulled back into maybe visual arts. If it's a theater who…so, I think that the ‘general art’ idea was very unknowing. You need general institutions to have general arts.

Steve Paxton Is it useful to lose those distinctions? See, that's my question about my early stance, you know. I couldn't make a choice of a word, and so I chose the word “dance” as a generality, and so, in my terms, I lost the ability to distinguish between ballet and modern. I mean, modern has had a continual fight about whether to be contemporary dance, modern dance, new dance, experimental dance.

Myriam Van Imschoot Post-modern dance.

Steve Paxton I mean, we have gone through all the possible words, and now that we're reinventing them. Now, England has reinvented “new dance,” you know, new dance is different than modern dance, but modern dance was a reaction to new dance, which was, you know, prior to modern dance.

Myriam Van Imschoot Neue Tanz.

Steve Paxton And Martha Graham decided she was contemporary dance, and so…

Myriam Van Imschoot But they all thought of them as making dance, so that's still within the discipline, so within the discipline, you have categorization also.

Steve Paxton Yeah, categorization. And so, I came along, and I got outside the categories that existed at that point, and there were no words left. Plain dance, simple dance, basic dance, movement…the idea of just calling it a movement art or a something like that had, you know…

Myriam Van Imschoot Kinetic art.

Steve Paxton We had to work through these kind of semantics, and I wasn't capable of making a choice. I didn't know how to make a choice very early on.

Myriam Van Imschoot But would the idea of a general art have a…could that appeal to someone with that struggle? Say like, I just don't bother. It’s art.

Steve Paxton I think I respect language a little bit more than that. I think language and the way it structures the brain should be acknowledged. So, if you say “general art,” I think you're actually losing the ability to distinguish, or subsequent artists will not have the ability to make distinctions that we consider important nowadays. And I think that was the affront that I gave to people who had a very clear idea of what dance should be. And now, I'm willing to say, “Okay, have it, you know, have the word.” Now, I found some other ways to say it, or I don't even care that it be an art. I don't care what it is. It’s my work, you know. That's all it is, and it's really up to you to claim its…to distinguish it from other things if you want to write about it. Yeah, I gave the writers quite a problem. But anyway, I think it's important to be able to distinguish and to be able to transmit from one medium to another, remarks about other media because in that way, awareness is gained, you know. We go from…well, as the painters did with the happenings, to go from the ‘picture plane problem’ and take it into performance, you know, into both space and time, and yet still consider themselves artists. This is the “general art” kind of thing. That was very productive.

Myriam Van Imschoot But that produces, somehow, like a meeting ground, if from that side on, people are moving into performance, and from [the other side], performers are moving into stillness or into installation, like physical things. You could say, well, how will we rename that middle ground? Because somewhere, you find yourselves together in what, strictly speaking, wasn't a visual art.

Steve Paxton Well, in those days, it was fairly simple that the painters actually did come up with a number of words. Rauschenberg invented the word “combines” to clear up the problem, because before that, he was being attacked for neither being painter. He was neither one nor the other. He was neither a sculptor nor a painter. So, he decided to call them “combines,” and then everybody shut up, you know. Oh, okay, you know? It's almost as though we need a language, somebody in the cabinet who's in charge of language to take care of our current English pronoun problem, you know, because of the gender awareness that has arisen without language to cover groups of people who are maybe of either gender or, you know, both kind of thing, but we need bothies. We need, you know, or, a-lot-of-us kind of word. So, somebody should just say it, you know, have the right, have the responsibility to come up with new constructs as new ideas come up. And because I think a lot of the fighting is productive, but a lot of it is repetitive, too. I mean, who cares, essentially, whether something is theater or dance? If dance takes on the possibility of vocal sounds, you know, it's awfully close to opera and theater. And what's the difference between theatre and opera, you know? Is it really just melody? Or how much of speech contains melody, anyway, and are we making an artificial distinction in an effort to hold these two things apart when actually they're quite similar? But I mean, it would just be useful if somebody had the responsibility for coining words…

Myriam Van Imschoot According to…

Steve Paxton The same way that we coin coins, you know?

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah.

Steve Paxton As needed, you know?

Myriam Van Imschoot …according to Erica Abeel, a critic who wrote on the New York Theater, first New York Theater Rally, you and Alan Solomon coined the word “theater piece” for containing the work that was presented.

Steve Paxton I don't know that we did.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, she was also grasping…

Steve Paxton I think it was one of the terms that was around. I don't think we coined it though. I mean, we probably, in her experience, put it forth first or something, but I don't think it was…“theater piece.” What kind of word is that?

Myriam Van Imschoot It was like looking for a common denominator and…

Steve Paxton Yeah, to describe everything: the dance and the happenings and the swimming pool event and the…yeah.

Myriam Van Imschoot Well, anyway, some people really insist on a dance being called a dance, or it being…

Steve Paxton But then, they have to define what a dance is and where are they going to draw the line? What are they going to do with the things that are outside the line they draw? I like that. I mean, I like that theoretically, but it has practical…

Myriam Van Imschoot …problems.

Steve Paxton …problems. Especially in the modern arts, in which the point is to not do what the culture has already done. So, anything that's defined, that's why we need somebody to coin new terms. But, you know, Rauschenberg made combines. Painters called their work…

Myriam Van Imschoot …happening.

Steve Paxton …happenings. So, once that's done, you know, in a way, we can proceed although the word “happening” then starts to mean too many things, as well. So, we need to distinguish between what Red Grooms was doing at the beginning and what Arpege considers a happening by their ads in magazines, you know, as they reach tens of thousands more people than had ever heard of the artist Red Grooms.

Happenings and naming art movements38:28

Myriam Van Imschoot How did you relate to happenings?

Steve Paxton Well, I mean, you're talking about a period when everything was…all the barriers were down in New York. Downtown, anyway.

Myriam Van Imschoot And also, people were positioning themselves, still, whether the barriers were there or not.

Steve Paxton So, the happenings looked to me like sort of primitive theater, and I liked the primitive quality of it. I liked the fact that it wasn't all glamorous and slick and high-flying but yeah, it seemed quite positive, and positive in a way which didn't have to do with actually seeing a happening, but positive in feeling, like the culture was developing new materials, that new materials were rising, which they were in that arena all the time. So, it was really quite normal, you know? Felt both positive and normal that…and if I liked the person, I would be apt to like their work, and if I didn't like the person, I would be apt to think that their work was a bit suspect, you know? And some of the work was definitely suspect in the sense that we didn't trust that it was really art.

I can remember having conversation, with David Vaughan, as a matter of fact, about La Monte Young, where David and I…he may have rethought this in the interim, but he said La Monte Young is not the real thing, you know, but John Cage is the real thing was sort of implied there, you know? And so, what is the difference between John Cage and La Monte Young, in terms of being able to describe or define their realness, you know? I…what is? What were we talking about? I think David suspected La Monte, you know, of somehow being a…and this is very common in the general public to suspect the artist is being a poser.

Myriam Van Imschoot Poseur.

Steve Paxton As opposed to being the authentic, genuine artist, you know? But if you're in the position of making new art, you don’t actually know what you are. In a way, the question can't be asked: “Are you a real artist or just faking it?” You know, “Are you fooling the public?” It’s a very delicate question because the artist has made this stuff, and so and, you know, as in my [case]…I don't, I didn't know what it was. I didn't know if I was posing as an artist in presenting material, or if I was an original artist. I didn't, you know, I had no way of assessing myself, and maybe it's not an assessment that actually is very interesting. Self-assessment or public assessment, you know, of the work but rather, what is the experience of the work, becomes the next question. Does it provide an experience that you find useful in some way, and some of the experiences that we provided, I don't even know if they were useful. I mean, I can theorize that watching somebody stand still is useful in terms of understanding physiology and energy and things like that. I can make that theory, but I don't know whether that is what people get when they watch it, or whether there, you know, is boredom. Is boredom good to provoke? Do we need to get bored? You know, I mean, boredom is something we run from, we hate, we look for ways out of. At the same time, you know, back to the tea ceremony, anything that you look at closely enough provides an incredible amount of information about many things, not only about itself. So, what are we talking about? We're talking about habits or perception, you know, and staying within the norm of those habits, or are we talking about the values of going beyond the habits that we've arrived at, you know, and acknowledging that they’re just arrived at habits and that we can do other things.

So, the name of a thing, I don't know. I went on to name Contact Improvisation. And I think it was with the consciousness of this problem that I didn't want it to get stuck in whether it was dance or whether it was, you know, what it was. I decided well, give it a name, and then, they can struggle with the definition of what that name is.

Myriam Van Imschoot You've been very successful at that maybe for some people, too successful because the contact improvisation became nearly like an equivalent to improvisation as such in dance, but that’s their problem. It’s been a very successful…

Steve Paxton …it’s been a successful name. And quite a number of critics who have looked at my solo work and called it Contact Improvisation, I think, look a little bit foolish [laughing] in their assumption. So, in a way, it's exposed that to me that these people who write very often are not very thoughtful, you know? They have a job, and they're doing their writing, and that’s, in a way, a relief because I put a lot of credence in their intellectual power, and it turns out only to be, in fact, positional power, you know? They have a column that they write in such and such a newspaper, and that's the end of it, you know? They actually are taking not much responsibility for what they're doing or have much awareness of their power. That it’s good to say, “Okay, they're just people, too, and we're all struggling.” [laughing]

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah. I go back to the happenings. Billy Klüver, he sort of suggests that — and this is about Rauschenberg, actually — that Rauschenberg, first of all, wasn't aware of happenings, or wasn't interested, and that Billy really had to drag, you know, drag him to the Lower East like, You come, you know? You need to see this. You will see this. I drag you, you know, to those performances. Anyway, that happened, but it shows that there wasn't really a natural affiliation or a natural…he wasn’t a natural spectator of it. Someone dragged him over, you know,

Steve Paxton I don't think that's true.

Myriam Van Imschoot That's what Billy…

Steve Paxton That’s what Billy thinks is true. Yeah. Well, I remember Rauschenberg talking about seeing Red Grooms’ The Burning Building, and so that was probably the earliest example of a…

Myriam Van Imschoot That’s very early.

Steve Paxton …painter in New York. Yeah. The earliest one that I know of, anyway, and prior to that, of course, was the Black Mountain Event that Bob was a part of, with John Cage.

Myriam Van Imschoot True.

Steve Paxton So, maybe Bob felt like he already knew what they were, and Billy thought he was educating Bob, and Bob was agreeable to go, but, you know.

Myriam Van Imschoot I think Billy likes to give him that role, also, like with the Experiments in Art and Technology. It being quite special, because he brought people together who would otherwise never have been in the same program, like a happening family, versus the Judson family versus, you know, like…

Steve Paxton It's true. He did.

Myriam Van Imschoot He did?

Steve Paxton Yeah.

Myriam Van Imschoot So, I was wondering whether…

Steve Paxton But I mean, we were sort of in the same family, but we weren't working on the same program exactly. I mean, the dancers were well aware of the happenings and the happenings people were, to some degree, aware of the dance. We had a big painting and art gallery and museum following in the early days.

Myriam Van Imschoot Can you remember your first happening you saw?

Steve Paxton No, I can't. I didn't see very early ones. Maybe Oldenburg, Store happenings were the first ones I can remember. I was dragged there. [laughing]

Myriam Van Imschoot [laughing] And because you said like some of it, I liked because I liked the artist, and some of it, I didn’t like, because I didn’t like the…

SP; Well, by artist, I was being generalized as the artist, but what art was, or who was an artist, but yeah, in…yeah, I didn't understand Lucas Samaras very well, so anything he performed in, I felt had this untrustworthy edge. On the other hand, he was in Oldenburg happenings, so…or maybe the first one, just to correct myself, maybe the first one was a Robert Whitman happening.

Anyway, it depended on whether I liked the artist or not in that sense, you know, like Samaras didn't convince me as a performer. Other people did. It was sort of on the chemical level, whether it was art or not. It wasn't on the theoretical level whether it was art or not.

Myriam Van Imschoot Judson is so complex because there's so many styles and aesthetics operating within that group but if we focus on people like you, Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, Deborah Hay, those people, there's more an austere style or more well…

Steve Paxton And different amounts of austerity within each of those artists. Yeah.

Myriam Van Imschoot Did that make it like irreconcilable with the mess of happenings and, you know, the way they used material and images and…

Steve Paxton Not irreconcilable, no.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah. Would that like provide a map or…

Steve Paxton It didn't even occur to me. It didn't even occur to me to contrast the two. They were sort of all happening in the same milieu. And again, not so many people involved, you know? I mean, how many people could get to a happening? Maybe 30, 40 people maximum. Hundreds could get into the Judson to see a performance there, but that's a very small number compared to how many are seeing ballet or seeing a film or anything like that. So, we knew that we were a small enclave in a very big world.

Competition in the scene50:15

Myriam Van Imschoot Even in a small group, there must have been a sense of competition or a sense of, you know, rivalry…

Steve Paxton Well, it was minimized in our group because we tried to operate within the Quaker method, and so we didn't reject work although if we thought work was awful, you know, which, occasionally, something seemed awful, you know, [laughing] to a number of people, then we would advise or try to position it in such a way that it was less awful, or advise them not to show it or, you know, whatever…you know, personally. But as a group, we managed to minimize competition in the sense that we would let our performances be three hours long rather than cut people out and make a one hour performance, or one and a half hours.

Myriam Van Imschoot But isn't there then like a natural selection if this may work for the concerts, the Judson concerts, but the invitations to go to other festivals, or…

Steve Paxton Then, then there was selection, and I think that selection had to do with quality as we understood it. I mean, that was my choice, my choices when I invited people, which I did quite a bit of it turns out, you know, as I look back on the history of it. It had to do with the work that I thought was the best, and was reasonable to show outside of our own particular, more generous laboratory. But I mean, personal choice versus group choice, you know, or group lack of choosing.

[singing in the background]

Myriam Van Imschoot People like David Gordon, for example, they would always sort of point to the implicit and explicit aesthetic, you know, credo? Creed.

Steve Paxton Yeah, yeah, some kind of belief…

Myriam Van Imschoot …belief that affirms itself as it became more manifest towards the people themselves who made it, to an audience, that there was like a yeah, an aesthetical hierarchy, somehow. And also, if you look at the White Oak projects, it reaffirms the aesthetical hierarchy that was already becoming visible near the mid-60s. It’s like…

Steve Paxton Well, when you say hierarchy…

Myriam Van Imschoot Well, hierarchy, I mean…

Steve Paxton What are we actually saying there? I mean, because it sounds as though…

Myriam Van Imschoot Everything should be level. [laughing]

Here, Steve refers to a piece he made in the workshop of Robert Dunn in the fall of 1961. Dunn had set the task to invent chance procedures that would determine the use of body parts. According to Yvonne Rainer, Steve made use of a “[…] diagrammed ball which he spun and stopped with his index finger[.]” Yvonne Rainer, Work 1961-73, The Presses of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and New York University, 1974, 7. 

Steve Paxton Well, yeah, it sounds as though everything should be level, which I don't believe is possible. You know, I think it's, I think it's good to have ground, sometimes, as we did in the workshops and was reflected in many of the programs of the generality of what was happening at Judson. At the same time, we saw work develop, you know? We saw work several times, we heard the people talking about their ideas, and how things were made, and all of that. So, I would say like, within my own work, I can see an aesthetic hierarchy. I can see this piece I made where I used a ball for a chance1 mechanism, you know, as being of a low level, Cage-derived level of invention.

Whereas Proxy, which actually presented much less interesting movement in terms of interesting, quote, “interesting movement” was a much higher level of invention on my part, and I think we could see that in each other, as well. People like Trisha and Yvonne seemed always to work at a very high level. Simone seemed always, to me, to work at a very high level. Deborah…when the painters got involved, they worked at a high level of creation. Other people, some of them didn't, you know. The level of creation seemed very derivative, especially of Cage, you know, which was because Bob Dunn had used him as a compositional model, and the class became, yeah, was used and overused as a conceptual framework.

Scores and indeterminacy54:57

Myriam Van Imschoot Apart from the assignments, you never really made a chance dance, did you?

Steve Paxton's use of scores started as early as the beginning of the 1960s when he integrated elements that were picture-scored in the trio Proxy (1961) and the solo Flat (1964), both pieces created and presented in the frame of Judson Dance Theater. The photo sequences were to be interpreted by him or other performers and “took the choreographer out of designing a dance” and legitimized “something that dancers do all the time, which is to give the choreographer movement, suggestions really.” Photo scores were also used in Jag Vill Gärna Telefonera (1964), a duet with Robert Rauschenberg that premièred in Stockholm and later in the 1980s for the pieces Ave Nue (1985) and Audible Scenery (1986) with Extemporary Dance Theater, showing that the interest in photo-generated movement resurfaced as a compositional tool and interest throughout his work. 

Steve Paxton No, no although I felt like I was working from that premise to some degree with the scores2. But I was not interested in having an objective mechanism that would make decisions so much as I was interested in creating a situation where the performer themselves had - with whatever mechanism they had developed in themselves - had to make choices and to operate on the level of creation within a certain line through the dance. So, I was opening it up not to indeterminacy, which is the Cageian word for giving performers options in the structure, but…

Myriam Van Imschoot …can you say that again the last thing?

Steve Paxton Well, I haven't finished the sentence yet. I'm still struggling to find the next word…not “indeterminacy,” which is the Cageian term for giving performers options, but not giving options. That is, not pre-selected sounds or indications about what to do, and maybe leaving it open as to when it occurs, but to make them make choices about how to be within the structure that I provided. So, I provided photographic moments on a page for them to have to move through or hold, but at the same time, the choices about how to get from moment to moment were entirely up to them. So, I was really trying to see well, what does this this kind of structuring create? And if it’s…I think another word than “indeterminacy” should be found maybe.

Myriam Van Imschoot I understand it very basically, indeterminacy: something is left open for…

Steve Paxton Well, I mean, I think you have to…because Cage invented it. I think you have to look at it through his lens. Something is left open, and it has to do with the time structure, usually, and maybe the description of the sounds made. For instance, like he might describe a certain sound on an instrument in very general terms, like it rises or falls, or it's loud, or it’s soft. So, you could make any soft sound, and it could go someplace within these two minutes or this, someplace within these 30 seconds. So, something is left undetermined. And so, what was left undetermined in my scores was something to do with rationale, so it was…had determined moments and then unrationalized spaces between these determined moments. In order words, leaving to the rationale of the performer as to what occurred there. So, anything could have occurred. There could have been ten minutes between these two…you didn’t have to go directly from one moment to the next moment, in the most efficient and speediest way, but that was the choice that most people made. They made as few decisions possible in between, just try to get from one to the other. But I mean, they could have vocalized, stripped, they could have gone off stage and come back on, they could have decided that every moment between these photographs was an exit and an entrance for the next one. They could have done that.

Myriam Van Imschoot Have you ever?

Steve Paxton Have I ever what? Played with this in this way?

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah. You are talking about performers.

Steve Paxton Yes, I have. I’m talking from experience.

Myriam Van Imschoot Did you take those liberties?

Steve Paxton Not very much in performance, nor did I perform them very much. Most of the scores were given to other people to do, so I have not performed that much myself. The whole point was communication to another mind, and how to do that? In my case, my rationale was how to do it without dictating what is done. So, in other words, to not influence or contaminate the performer.

  1. Here, Steve refers to a piece he made in the workshop of Robert Dunn in the fall of 1961. Dunn had set the task to invent chance procedures that would determine the use of body parts. According to Yvonne Rainer, Steve made use of a “[…] diagrammed ball which he spun and stopped with his index finger[.]” Yvonne Rainer, Work 1961-73, The Presses of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and New York University, 1974, 7. 

  2. Steve Paxton's use of scores started as early as the beginning of the 1960s when he integrated elements that were picture-scored in the trio Proxy (1961) and the solo Flat (1964), both pieces created and presented in the frame of Judson Dance Theater. The photo sequences were to be interpreted by him or other performers and “took the choreographer out of designing a dance” and legitimized “something that dancers do all the time, which is to give the choreographer movement, suggestions really.” Photo scores were also used in Jag Vill Gärna Telefonera (1964), a duet with Robert Rauschenberg that premièred in Stockholm and later in the 1980s for the pieces Ave Nue (1985) and Audible Scenery (1986) with Extemporary Dance Theater, showing that the interest in photo-generated movement resurfaced as a compositional tool and interest throughout his work.