Steve Paxton and The Current Vision of Movement

Martha Graham, one of last century’s most impressive and heart-stopping performers, famously said that “dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body”. No one but Graham, that raw and electric force of nature, was able to fully articulate an inspiring quote that still carries professional dancers’ efforts to this day. She knew well the limits, but most importantly, all the possibilities of the physical expression.

Steve Paxton, however, has taken elements of her extraordinary and experimental technique to another level. The Post-Modern level, that is. In the early seventies, Paxton (Phoenix, AZ, 1939) settled at the forefront of an art event that displayed the body’s natural ability to respond physically to the effects of its environment. Thus, the “Contact Improvisation” was born. And so was Steve’s legend.

A rainy day is the backdrop of this back-and-forth conversation with Paxton. His schedule is often defined by weather, but surely his contribution to the art of dancing resists any kind of rain, storm or drought. It’s part of us.

Describe Steve Paxton’s current ordinary day, please.

Up around 6 am. Coffee and emails. Bowel movement. Movement work, thought of as ‘awakening’. Going outside and doing chores and tasks. More email.  I have breakfast around 10am, lunch around 1pm, dinner around 8pm. Bed 9pm-10pm.

I sleep well, love dreaming.  Occasional trips to town, walks, social events.  My schedule is often determined by the weather. For instance today, while working on this, it is raining.

Would you like to tell us about your vision on the human body?

I guess it would be called ‘somatic’ these days. It has been formed by various studies and impressions of ‘dance’ and other movement studies which seem relevant to my primary research into improvisation. I list some of these influences at the end of this answer.

The research I did questioned perception and sensation, that is, what options we think we have for movement, how we think such things, and the options for feeling the immediate results of those choices.  

Underlying these questions was the thought that there seems to be a layer of mind which assesses what seems immediate in our situation; myriad physical sensations, where we are, what we intend, and how we align with elements of the situation in which we find ourselves. These questions seem to be relevant to anybody in the world as well as that particular body in a particular situation, the performing dancer (choreographed or improvising).

 I would say that set movement and spontaneous movement are the poles on a spectrum of  possibilities which define my inquiry. I think technical dance provides the background for thinking about improvisation.  Dance techniques provide the information that movement influences the structure of the body.  

Take ballet for instance. Only practice of the movement forms can yield a body capable of looking balletic and accomplishing the often precarious and/or virtuosic feats it produces.  Given practice during a stage of growth of the body, ballet techniques will influence physical structure and usage, resulting in a kind of super movement;  strong, durable, extra flexible, elongated limbs and spine.  

Given this evidence, what are we to make of normal, habitual, quotidian movements? Without the rigor of ballet practice, could we assume that what we see in anybody’s movement has been caused?  Would we casually hope for change, in terms of physical improvement or for aesthetic reasons?  

Ballet is not the only source of this observation, but it is basic to Western dance development, so its influence must be appreciated.  Modern Dance furthered the thesis. Each of the primary Modern techniques provided other movement qualities. Pre-existing and co-existing dance and movement forms, such as yoga, martial arts, folk dance, ritual movement, can be appreciated in light of the highly visible development of historic art dance. And vise-versa.  

Regarding the question of quotidian movement, it can be seen to arise quite differently than dance techniques. It develops from birth onward, each living being inventing or finding it as they grow until it becomes deeply ingrained and fundamental to all other movement developments. I think of this as an improvisational process, which as the being grows, becomes more and more crafted, becoming the default movement state.  

 Many factors influence this development, and it is the promise inherent in practice which allows us to consciously influence it further. Factors which are implicated in movement development are both physical and chemical. We are constantly coping with gravity. Our moods and insights are changeable. The state of the body as felt includes the condition of the organs, the work of the musculature, the state of the skeleton (alignment, habitual use of the limbs, fundamental strength) and the qualities of our desires.  

These seem to be quite durable but not necessarily permanent conditions.  They tend to adapt to prolonged situations, but may continue relatively unchanged throughout life, as the bodies of folk who perform habitual tasks, such as hand farming, illustrate. The physical state of people who sit a lot also provides evidence.  The operative word is ‘habitual’;  if you change the mental and/or physical habits, the body will respond. In this way the mind grows complicit with the body, which I think initially creates the mind.

I am trying to describe a complex vision with lots of moving parts.  It is difficult to pin it down in words, and of course new insights arise.  The reason I chose improvisation for exploration is its fundamental contribution to infant development, its operative nature as a quality of mind revealing to some degree the nature of non-conscious processes, and that it seems to underlay all technical approaches.  

I have found it to be a cranky, recalcitrant study, but it leads to thoughts of basic human potential. For instance, time and timing. Perception of time tends to be allied to clocks and metrical beats; timing in improvisation leads me to contemplate time in terms of milliseconds of sense operations and even briefer intervals of neuronal activities. My current vision of the human body starts, now, with that.

 [Ballet, Graham, Limon-Humphrey, Cunningham, Aikido, Tai Chi Chuan, Vipassiona Meditation, Mabel Todd, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, Feldencrais, Hatha Yoga, social dancing, various sports, various daily tasks, the insights gathered from working with various choreographers, the first group of Contact Improvisors and a number of collaborators. I regard myself as not an expert in any of the disciplines I mention, a partial list.]  

What do you think is the human body’s mission?

Survival of the self and the family, and the social surround was, I imagine the initial mission.  Now we have the body as an art medium. It was an early development.

Usually, we try not to rely on personal theories, but we’ve always been fascinated about the idea of controlling the body through the mind. With Pilates, for example, which is practiced through breathing and movement precision. How do you see the objective of controlling the body?

It seems to be a natural development. In some cases it is very sophisticated and can be healing, or change the nature of the body’s movement.

Do you think that’s the reason it took you 15 years to define what ‘Contact Improvisation’ is as a concept?

Contact Quarterly began publication in 1975, I believe, just two years after I first defined Contact Improvisation by producing a performance of it. CQ published many definitions of CI, not just mine, in the following years. It is a new form on the dance scene, and I believe it still requires updates of the definition.

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Kathy Landman; Steve Paxton Contact Improvisation Concert, 1975.

Let’s imagine then… to protect an idea’s integrity, we need to outline it or be willing to let it go… like love, right?

I think love is not an idea, basically.  It seems that an idea, once conceived, requires constant maintenance. Love may also need that.

 Your experience with Robert Dunn, Jose Limon and Merce Cunningham has been talked about in the past, but what can you tell us about your experience with Martha Graham?

I studied Graham technique taught by three of her students and/or ex-company members in my very first years of studying dance. I first saw her at the American Dance Festival in 1958. I admired the technique and some of the choreography.

In previous interviews you’ve mentioned that the premise is not a matter of “all or nothing”, but of “more or less.” How is this explained in the art of creating?

I’m not sure what the context for my original observations was, but I think I was speaking about the craft of producing an art. In dance, it means that every detail counts. Considered choices about the deportment of a body’s elements matter.

What’s innovation to you?

It is just a change, hopefully a positive change. In dance we have seen many innovations, not only arising from art dance, but substantial changes in social dance, many arising from African-American communities. In fact, the influences on our dance movement come from multiple sources mingling constantly.

Do you think there’s a certain rebel soul when someone innovates?

Often. On the other hand, Modern Dance proceeded on the basis that innovation was required.  Rebellious or ordained, innovation on some level is expected in most modern arts.

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Christina Zimpel, Steve Paxton’s portrait

You also created the ‘Material of The Spine’, which is a more rigorous process. Simple but analytic. Is it a sense of ramification to understand the process of both techniques?

Material for the Spine began as a study of Contact Improvisation’s use of the spine.  It includes movement derived from my prior study of walking. It also exhibits design elements from Aikido. I take it that later work tends to include earlier insights.

 Have you noticed a change in the dancers that employ these methods?

I noticed changes in my movement.

How could the Contact Improvisation and the Material of The Spine be adjusted to ordinary life?

If they are practiced, the adjustment of each to the other, and to ordinary movement in the rest of life, would naturally occur.

If body and mind are in a constant work, both functional and mobile, do you think you’d still be able to surprise the world with a technique that would make them change the choreography they do every day in front of their cellphone screens?

I’m unable to find any enthusiasm for this project.

With the work you’ve developed for nearly 50 years, have you elaborated your conclusion on the power of the connection between the human body and the mind?

It seems that the body informs the mind. After all, the mind has no sensing equipment of its own. I would hazard a guess that the main purpose of dance technique is to bring the body to mind. I have been interested in the full spectrum of that transmission, especially the long-term consequences of the narrow pursuit of a single technique vs. a broad spectrum study.  But conclusions are difficult. I only have one body, training is long, and life is short.

I can assert that there is a connection. In fact, it seems they are aspects of the same thing.

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