Review: At MoMA, Dances by Steve Paxton, an Original Too Rarely Seen

By December 20, 2018News

Photographs by Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Review: At MoMA, Dances by Steve Paxton, an Original Too Rarely Seen

 

Originally posted Dec. 10, 2018 by Alastair Macaulay for the New York Times.

For more than 50 years, some spark of divine fire has kept touching the dancer-choreographer Steve Paxton. In the 1960s, he performed with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and Judson Dance Theater. He created roles in epoch-making dances in both; his collaborations with the artist Robert Rauschenberg were among the bold experiments of the decade.

In the 1970s, when Mr. Paxton was a founder of the improvisational group Grand Union, he developed contact improvisation, which became an international genre. Mr. Paxton’s contact improv showed the drama that could emerge from the ways one person’s weight could be taken by others in continually changing negotiations. In the 1980s, he began solo improvisations to Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, moving to classical music in often unorthodox ways, and with disarming freshness.

In 2010, he danced the world premiere of his solo “The Beast” in a program shared with the still-phenomenal Mikhail Baryshnikov. Mr. Paxton’s uncompromising and unpretty toughness, his stark objectivity about showing basic qualities and facts of movement in new lights, were fully as momentous as — and more haunting than — anything Mr. Baryshnikov showed that evening.

Yet Mr. Paxton has spent much of his career far from the madding crowd; a great many dancegoers have never seen his work. We’re fortunate that the choreographer Stephen Petronio, who was his student in the early 1980s, has, with several first-rate dancers, reconstructed a 45-minute program of Paxton choreography from the years 1964-92 for the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done.” Mr. Paxton is one of his field’s great originals; Mr. Petronio and his dancers do him honor in this program.

These dances evolve like studies in suspense. Non sequiturs and unforeseen twists abound. They cleanse the palate, inventively taking us into the detail both of basic movement and of aspects of non-virtuoso dance technique. In view of Mr. Paxton’s reputation for intensity and seriousness, it’s surprising to find how often they’re playful and witty.

On Sunday, I was struck by a single gamboling jump taken by Ernesto Breton, throwing one forearm in the air, then the other, while skipping from foot to foot. And by the way two men in a duet propped each other up while both leaning off-balance in straight lines — like the mainstays of a steep roof — then, while keeping this position, started to turn and turn. And by how Bria Bacon, lying on her back, sternly propelled herself along the floor by using her heels as hooks that pulled the rest of her body toward them.