All Falls Down

Sam Dolbear on “Steve Paxton: Drafting Interior Techniques” at Culturgest, Lisbon

João Fiadeiro, Romain Bigé, and Rui Xavier, Waiting, Walking, Standing and Sitting, 2019, after Steve Paxton's Satisfyin Lover (1967). 4K video installation, color, sound, 14:16.

YVONNE RAINER ONCE QUIPPED that, if she invented running, then Steve Paxton invented walking. At the opening of this major retrospective, “Drafting Interior Techniques” at Culturgest in Lisbon, Paxton walked through the exhibition space clutching a hand-held camera. We followed, watching him walk around, watching him watch and film himself on projected documents around us. The observance of others and the performance of the everyday are governing principles of much of Paxton’s work, evident in the very first room of the exhibition, which is dominated by an elongated projection of Waiting, Walking, Standing and Sitting, 2019, a video made by the show’s curators, Romain Bigé and João Fiadeiro, with artist Rui Xavier after Paxton’s Satisfyin Lover, 1967. On the wall, forty-two randomly selected Lisbon residents cross a stage according to a set of simple guidelines. Bigé, Fiadeiro, and Xavier have slightly slowed the footage to accentuate the uncanniness of this quotidian movement, where the unconscious is rendered starkly self-conscious by being watched. Movements continue to be invented, if not noticed for the first time.

Satisfyin Lover was enacted live the following night in the main auditorium at Culturgest, prior to the Goldberg Variations, 1986, performed by the Slovenian choreographer and dancer Jurij Konjar. Variation and repetition were played out on a stage through multifaceted layers of inheritance: Bach’s 1741 score, recorded late by Glenn Gould for a second time in 1981, accompanied Paxton’s 1986 dance as it was interpreted through Konjar’s study of all its subsequent iterations. These numerous spirits gripped Konjar’s body while audible, unconscious groans from Gould filled the auditorium. The performance was a gift: to the audience, to Paxton, and to all future dancers in this packed theater. Beyond this being simply exhibition of a canonical dance, it felt necessary: a demand made upon the present to a new generation of dancers.

Steve Paxton, The Stand or The Small Dance, 1972–present, audio recordings, 5 to 7 minutes.

The second room of the exhibition concentrates on what it calls “studies in anarchy,” Land of Hope and Glory, a patriotic English anthem, can be heard in the background of one film, echoing through the space, mixing with other sounds. Bodies fall as empires should. Here opens a long-held concern of Paxton’s and the subject of a small book with a big presence in the exhibition: Gravity (Editions Contredanse, 2018). Copies of Paxton’s essay anthology are scattered in the darkness of the fifth room, as are headphones, pointedly hung from the ceiling and in which one can hear Paxton’s pensive crackling voice reading from the text. Here visitors are encouraged to nap, regain energy, sit in silence, and consider how gravity feels. What happens when bodies are thrown into the air? What happens to the body when it is kept still? What tiny movements constitute dance or performance? What happens when movement is left undetermined?

A particular rendering of anarchism is glimpsed through improvisation itself in the room prior; a method through which choreographers deny themselves binding sovereignty over others. In this spirit, dance mats are laid out in two of the exhibition rooms, surrounded by dangling back-issues of the seminal journal Contact Quarterly, to be taken off the wall, flicked through, even (as Bigé suggested at the opening) stolen. The whole gallery space becomes a workshop, a studio, a place for people to meet, improvise, and to work against authority’s teachings, not for the sake of novelty, but, as Paxton put it in his opening lecture, to “grow a new body.”

The perpetual problem of exhibiting dance, not only against its vanishing points (as described by Marcia Siegel) but against its petrification into tradition, is overcome by the incomplete work of this exhibition: its mission to galvanize a community of dancers in Lisbon. Mounted almost a decade after the crisis that unleashed unprecedented austerity in Portugal, with rocketing house prices, cuts to art institutions (including to Culturgest), this retrospective does something more than simply exhibit. It works and reworks Paxton’s legacy in a place outside his immediate reach, presenting his oeuvre not within the Bubble Wrap of the canon, but as a legacy worth reworking, issuing a vulnerable invitation for further improvisation (with heterogeneous participants, from professional dancers to local school kids) that is being taken up in droves. The show ends with Paxton’s withdrawal from town to country in Lennart Laberenz’s Mad Brook Farm, 2019, a projection of flowers and grasses found at the eponymous retreat in northern Vermont where the choreographer has lived since 1970. Paxton, at the opening, stood close to the images, immersed in the glow of the farm. Though Paxton long left the city, through this retrospective, Lisbon found him.