Possibly some people, like leaves, turn pretty colors when they begin to look old. Unlike leaves, the changing colors of people, depend on states of the mind.
Jill Johnston, Fall Colors, October 31, 1963.
Imagine a jumbled pile of minidiscs. Their pretty color combination - purple, green, yellow, red, grey - gives the display of technological vintage a joyful look. They seem more like toys than the relicts of research once conducted. Every particular medium shapes its particular relationship, be they letters, text messages, a secret language, or pictures, as is prime nowadays. In this case, the minidiscs are the sign of a relation too: a relation in sound, oral, and recorded. Hours and hours of conversation between Steve Paxton and Myriam Van Imschoot got canned into those tiny square objects.
Steve Paxton has been called a great many things. A Buddha of American Dance, A Grand Old Man of Post-Modern Dance or the inventor of walking. Such statements reveal that Paxton is an indisputable benchmark in the development of dance since the early '60s. He was a founding member of the Judson Dance Theatre and The Grand Union, the inventor of Contact Improvisation which proliferated across the globe in and beyond dance communities, the mastermind behind a set of techniques and practices called Material for the Spine, and he had impressed in solos and collaborations many audiences as an iconic improvisational dancer. Paxton compresses and embodies a large chunk of history of the 20th century in one unique lifetime.
No wonder that Myriam Van Imschoot, who at the time was doing doctoral research on improvisation, found in Steve Paxton one of her main interlocutors. Her project got its impetus when the Western European dance scene throughout the '90s manifested a renewed interest in practices of improvisation as a performance art. She had met Paxton several times in Europe and had interviewed him once in 1996, but it's in 2001 during three visits spread over a year - one in Brussels and two in Vermont - that a more encompassing interview project took shape with momentum. That's the scope of this publication.
In search of American precursors, Van Imschoot looks into the New York avant-garde of the '50s and '60s. Improvisation allies with wider compositional experimentation across disciplines. On the slippery slope of new structures, games, task-dances, indeterminacy, process-oriented art, one may say that improvisational performance further loosened up the structures towards a distributed creative responsibility within non-hierarchical collaboration. It's a critical heritage worth considering, because a lot of its potential would after the 1970s become instrumentalized as a “tool” in the choreographer's kitchen (to generate movement and then reproduce it) or a set of movement and awareness qualities to create an all-round dancers' subjectivity and capacity - flexible, creative but ultimately operating with a different and mitigated contract in service of the choreographer.
The work of Van Imschoot unravels a complex entanglement of ideas, cultural information, historical data, mental images, stories told and untold. She looks for another understanding of the period than the account she got from the established dance studies in the field then. But ultimately, one starts suspecting that more than historical inquiry, there may have been another drive that pulsates these encounters to a nearly excessive output: a love for thought in action more than for the crystalized thought, for the expanded terrain of meandering speculation more than fact.
Can historiography be an alibi for a dance? More often than not, the interview sessions transform in verbal improvisation where the intrinsic dance leads the way, not a questionnaire or a list of need-to-know. The mode and tone of speaking oscillate between a myriad of genres. They embrace in an almost unorthodox manner the sharing of aesthetic affinities, the gathering of historical data and events, the mapping of biography, the expression of past and current desires, the trivial and the wit of the moment, all at once. There was no such thing as “on” or “off the record.”
The publication involves a double leap in time. The first leap was a “grand écart” performed in 2001, when Paxton and Van Imschoot go back to the life events and artistic practices of Paxton, dating as early as the late '50s, a bridge of more than 40 years. The second leap is, more recently, when Van Imschoot invited Tom Engels to work in collaboration on the publication, and they returned to the interviews that were never published, 19 years after their conception. They bundled them into three clusters and a section of keywords. While doing so, this material was posing many questions: how should it be made accessible, which form should it take, which degree of completion should be strived for? Tom Engels brought another filter in the editorial process, with his interests and research. In the summer of 2019, they traveled together to Mad Brook Farm to visit Paxton to do more research, to clarify unresolvable issues, to conduct a new interview, and live at the farm for a week.
Revisiting documents that one recorded many years ago often means reconciliation with incompleteness or the omission of the incomprehensible. It's a fine line. More than anything, it was vital to make the tracks as accessible as possible to a listener, as they require many hours of attentive time. Steve shows himself a master of attention, creating long journeys of time-travel, yet being there in the moment, so utterly aware of his oral composition. The editorial ethos was to leave the “tensegrity” behind this composition intact (as Van Imschoot calls it in an introduction with a hoodwink to the dome structures of Buckminster Fuller). Some excursions or unclear passages were omitted, but it was clear that the files shouldn’t and couldn’t be made “complete.” Ad verbatim transcription was favored over more edited interview options to strengthen the nature of the oral material, keeping the flow and ellipses, false starts, and retractions. Clarifying sidenotes and illustrations where needed. One listens to two people having a conversation, each with their idiosyncrasies playing ping pong with shared and unknown references, unfinished sentences and hesitations. It is speech. When reading and listening at the same time one will discover this wonderful tension between the oral and the written, between the rubato of speech and the approximative attempt to put it on a page.
To witness a dance, or to perform it, always relies on a conglomeration of perception, vision, hearing, and, most importantly, on the passing of time. Here, in the length of the material, the passing of time is brought to an extreme. The interviews reflect on dances as much as they reiterate word-dances, and sometimes they relive specific dances most minutely, like Proxy (1961), Flat (1964), or a piece no one heard of before, which got to be called The Tape Piece (1967). This step by step reconstruction of a dance from memory brought to life a genre that could be considered a sort of “memory theatre.” The Italian Renaissance polymath Giulio Camillo Delminio presented his Theatre of Memory as an ideal representation of the mind as a striated and orderly space, but this interview collection reveals a more whimsical take of a memory play. The pieces have a script that is constructed in the act of playing them with visible effort. It relieves the play of historical stringency and makes space for a sometimes hallucinatory quality. It reveals that one can’t be entirely sure of one’s own past. Or in Steve Paxtons' words: “What I know about my own work, I have to accept as a partial answer. I can just know the part of it that I have become aware of, so pronouncements are a little suspect, including my own pronouncements. Including what I just said.”
- Robert Rauschenberg, Documentary photo of Steve Paxton, undated. Courtesy of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.
Images starting from top right:
- Fred Kihn, Ouvrée (artistes en alpage), Col du Semnoz, 2000. Courtesy of Terrain/Boris Charmatz.
- Unattributed, Steve Paxton washing hands, probably during Cunningham Dance Company World Tour (1964). Courtesy of Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.
- Simone Forti, See Saw from Dance Constructions, 1960. Performance with plywood seesaw. Duration variable. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Media and Performance Art Funds. © 2020 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Performed by Simone Forti and Steve Paxton at Galleria L'Attico, Rome, 1969. Image: © 2020 Claudio Abate. Courtesy of Simone Forti and The Box, LA.
- Unattributed, Aerial View of Tucson (Arizona, USA), undated. Courtesy of Arizona Daily Star.
- Newspaper clipping from The Iowan Daily, March 7, 1974. Courtesy of The University of Iowa.
- Moritz Schreber, Ein Kinnband zur Vermeidung eines Fehlbisses, 1858. Wikimedia Commons.