Steve Paxton

Judson at 50: Steve Paxton

Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton, Word Words, 1963. Performance view, Judson Church, New York, January 29, 1963. Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton. Photo: Henry Genn.

Steve Paxton was born in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1939 and moved to New York in 1958. There, he danced with the Merce Cunningham Company from 1961 to 1964 and was a central player in a number of profound shifts in modern dance, helping found the Judson Dance Theater in 1962 and the group Grand Union in 1970.

Yvonne Rainer likes to joke that she invented running and Paxton invented walking, and indeed many of Paxton’s early works—including Proxy, 1961, Transit, 1962, English, 1963, and Satisfyin Lover, 1967—made salient the act of walking. Paxton is also known as a founder of the movement technique known as contact improvisation. Here, as part of’s series celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the first dance concerts at Judson Church, Paxton discusses his ongoing investigations of form and movement.

YOU COULD SAY that it all comes from walking. What I’m doing is rolling around on the floor, and getting people to do these bizarre movements, coordinating things that they haven’t before. But it starts with walking.

I was raised in Arizona until I was nineteen. Tucson in the 1950s was a teen-world, a sexual-crowded-intense environment. My high school had seven thousand people in it. It was the biggest in the United States. You’ve seen photos of that era, I’m sure: teenage jalopy drivers at roller-skating carhop restaurants having burgers and Cokes and driving around the strip. It was a period of trying to keep calm in the wake of veterans returning and looking for jobs—a vast resettlement of people. We moved around a lot as my dad tried to find himself. As did everyone. That kind of settling down—which was, at least on TV, the typical housewife and the two kids—could incite a riot in a young person’s mind. It was well intended but it was awfully fake, and it did make you question.

I dropped out of university after my freshman year and decided the most interesting thing to me was dance. So I came east the summer of 1958, got a scholarship to the American Dance Festival in Connecticut, and began. I didn’t have any ambition. But I knew I wanted to study. The choreographer José Limón offered me a scholarship. I also met and studied with Merce Cunningham at ADF, and I kept going back to him for various courses. Limón eventually heard about the fact that I was working with Cunningham, and he was royally pissed off.

The Cunningham world was a hermetically sealed compartment of rehearsals and classes and tours. Judson was the opposite, a big barbecue, with all the neighbors dropping in. It’s interesting that Judson Dance Theater started at Cunningham’s studio; Cunningham and John Cage were so innovative, and there wasn’t much else happening in terms of innovation in dance. Outside of Cunningham, everybody else was hitting their mature stage; all the modern dancers had become famous. Once you become famous it’s hard to reframe that fame.

Judson for me was an exploration in form. If you look at modern dance history, the figures we hold up were rebels. Now we’re in a period where we have to conserve modern dance if we want to know what it was, but in the early days, it still had a mutational edge. Cunningham had that edge, as did Cage, as did of course many other artists of that period: De Kooning and Kline are favorites of mine, later Rauschenberg and Johns and Frank Stella and Brice Marden. You get this parade of formal explorations that were mind-boggling. Judson was that for me.

It was an idea about questioning what the elements of dance were. So in my question, I started removing choreographic ploys. I wanted to work with an element of human beings that was not constructed, technical movement, and I began to look at walking. In 1967, I was in a residency at the University of Utah, and I had forty-two friends whom I realized I might ask to be in this work, Satisfyin Lover. That piece was a statement of intent about the direction I was going, about looking at what the body does without trying to trot it up into dance or art or whatever. What were these . . . they didn’t seem to have names. We call it “quotidian movement,” but they are ancient forms, and they’re very complex. So what are they? What did we inherit?

After Judson there was a group of us who began to make work under the name of Grand Union. We improvised throughout that five-year period, so we rarely did things twice. We went through many forms in one fell swoop. Contact improvisation was just one of the modes that got employed. And I thought, “This just can’t get left behind in that weird trail of forms that we once explored in dance. It’s got something else going for it.” So I tried to figure out what it was.

In 1986 I talked to this young man who introduced himself as a recreational contacter. And I thought “Recreational contacter! Oh no, that’s what it’s becoming.” In just fifteen years it had gone from an art exploration and a performance thing to a recreation, a dating game—a sport of some sort. And I realized that I was being quite unreasonable, and that if I wanted it to be anything more than that—or if I wanted strongly for it to be something other than that—it was up to me to define what that might be.

I started something called Material for the Spine, which was a rigorous, meditative exploration of the spine and the shoulder blades and the hips and the head, the central body. And I’ve been doing that ever since. But then that leads me right back to walking. What is walking but these bizarre manipulations of the spine? I mean, not odd—they’re normal—but when you look at them there’s more there than you’d expect. There’s undulations in the spine, and the triaxial manipulation of the pelvis, and the opposition of the shoulders, and the fixity of the head, all part of the same structure. What I’m teaching is just to get people to look at what’s happening. Modern dance got off looking at what’s happening in culture or history, or at relationships between men and women. It was a good art form. But if I were to be true to that idea of evolving, then I would have to ask some new questions. So my question was walking, and my answer is . . . walking.