at Link’s Hall

July 10, 17, and 18

The poet Gary Snyder has said that one of the pleasures of reading poetry is learning the shape of another person’s mind. In Snyder’s poetry, and much modern American poetry, the poet’s drive to eliminate all emotional excess and manipulation can result in a kind of stillness–like the emptiness that the Japanese haiku poets and Chinese nature poets tried to communicate. Only in this stillness and dispassion, Snyder suggests, can we take the true measure of others.

The dancer Steve Paxton reminds me of Snyder in many ways. Paxton shares Snyder’s drive to eliminate frills and emotional manipulation. Both Paxton and Snyder helped start an artistic movement: Paxton is one of the founding members of the postmodern dance movement, and Snyder was one of the original beat poets. Both live quiet, isolated lives: Snyder with his family in the California mountains, and Paxton on a New England farm. But while Snyder has been awarded a Pulitzer, Paxton’s accomplishments are unknown to most people.

In his drive to eliminate frills, Paxton has focused on stripping dance of its theatricality: he uses simple clothing instead of costumes, uses no lighting effects, does not have a story or moral in his dances, and does not present a prepared dance but prefers to improvise on the spot. Not surprisingly, Paxton does not appeal to a typical dance audience, which likes dance illusions as much as or more than it likes the dancing itself. But for the small audience that has tired of theatrical tricks, Paxton’s dances are deeply satisfying.

Paxton–a slender, bearded man in his 50s–danced alone to sections of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and English Suites in his performance at Link’s Hall. Rambling through the performing space, at first he did movements so simple that they seemed terribly boring: he twitched his head to the right twice, then shrugged his shoulders and dropped the right shoulder, which led him into a turn and three turned-out steps–a ballet pas de basque. Paxton mixes movements that anyone could perform with recognizable dance steps, though they’re stripped of the flourishes that make them steps in a vocabulary. It was not a stimulating mix–until Paxton did a relaxed triple pirouette with his weight on the heel of his foot. He dances very precisely, never throwing his weight off balance even when doing awkward things, always seeming in control. After the initial strangeness of his performance wears off, the details of Paxton’s dance crowd in: he started one sequence by raising his eyebrows, which caused his head to tilt back, which in turn led into a series of spins. Particularly in the Goldberg Variations dances, Paxton’s movements were like nothing I’ve seen before. I was convinced that the Paxton way of moving is a new thing in the world.

The method behind Paxton’s madness becomes clearer in the workshops and master classes he teaches. He’s concerned almost exclusively with body mechanics: with how the body makes shapes and movements. Paxton talks about the spiral in the body that permits a ballet arabesque attitude as well as many modern dance movements. He teaches a series of simple rolls across the floor that demonstrate the mechanics of the spiral, and quickly identifies a spinal condition in one dancer that makes the rolls and other spiral-based movements difficult to perform.

Paxton’s search for the simplest basis for movement is part of the postmodern dance movement’s effort to bring dance to the widest possible audience–in Sally Banes’s phrase, to be “democracy’s body.” Paxton initiated the most successful popular outgrowth of postmodern dance: contact improvisation. An improvised form in which two people stay in almost continuous physical contact, it’s also egalitarian: men and women lift and dance with both men and women. It’s possible to see a 175-pound man balanced on the shoulder of a 110-pound woman. Contact improv embodies many of the ideals of the counterculture: equality between the sexes, spontaneity, a relaxed attitude toward physical contact and sexuality, and respect for non-Western cultures–it incorporates the sense of weight and quiet of t’ai chi and aikido. Contact improvisation groups have sprung up throughout the world and, not surprisingly, have been reported to occur spontaneously at Grateful Dead concerts. Contact improvisation has had a wide influence in modern dance, in particular yielding new ways of partnering.

If Gary Snyder were to write about Paxton, he might compare him to a figure from medieval China: a sage. Sages lived simply in the wilderness, but their influence was pervasive. The empire was governed by the emperor, aided by his many counselors and thousands of officials. But when the emperor was perplexed by a problem, he was told to go to the wilderness and find the sage. Few people go to see the sage, and most don’t understand his words, but those who do are enriched.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.