RUSHING FROM BROOKLYN, the subways are slow and I don’t catch the right train up to Beacon to see Steve Paxton’s not-a-retrospective. The work of the virtuoso Cunningham dancer, Judson pioneer, Grand Union collaborator, and Contact Improvisation creator is precisely about awareness of one’s body and so as a distraction I try to pay attention to mine. Pacing on the platform is a kind of magical thinking, I realize, an impotent attempt to speed up trains or slow down time, as if my internal velocity could exert some force outside its own envelope. It is impossible not to make metaphors of this. I am late and I miss the first piece.
Writing on Paxton in 1968, Jill Johnston cites the opening line to a taped lecture he gave that year: “Like the famous tree which is uncertain if it will be heard should it fall in a forest without people there is a way of looking at things which render them performance.” Trees need an audience to make a sound, and so too goes the party line about performance and presence, the idea that dance disappears. I have always been more interested in how performance can be fugitive even when it’s right in front of you, how much escapes even in close proximity. You can’t ever claim to master it; you can’t have it all, and certainly not all at once.
Nonetheless, I go to Beacon again the next weekend, and when the first piece, Flat, 1964, begins, the audience is oriented toward a false promise. In this staging, the performers enter from behind, the first indication of their presence is through the echoing clomp of shoes on the old Nabisco factory floor, sounds rattling around in the cavernous gallery. K. J. Holmes comes into view in an unflattering navy suit. From behind and now ahead, she keeps walking, clomping, looking forward, getting smaller into the distance. Chamberlains glare menacingly on all sides. Jurij Konjar and Polly Motley join—in ill-fitting suits all three—each new entrance indistinguishable from squirmy children and shifty latecomers.
Disappearing behind and beyond the hulking metal masses, they sit, stand, pose, and take off their clothes. Operating at different paces and in the deep space of the gallery they look like refractions of one another, in and out of sync. The piece is structured around the shadow of a striptease, and yet, unlike so much contemporary performance, Flat is blissfully uninterested in titillation. For a maker so associated with “ordinary dance,” it gleans instead mutant images. Once shed, articles of clothing sprout like fantastical appendages from the sternum and the back, hooked to the skin by invisible means.
The body is so often a kind of equipment in Paxton’s work: dogged and reliable. A 2010 solo performed by Paxton himself, The Beast, figures these mechanics into a foreign other, its minutely articulated gestures in each moment a surprise. The spine, pelvis, and core all form a central axis, but from where and how the movements originate is impossible to locate precisely. Arms stretch outward in a pose of supplication; in other moments his chin tucks, seeming to recoil from his extremities. I wonder if I could ever look so beautiful or assured; probably not.
Later, the Slovenian-born Konjar dances Bound, 1982, a fitful fifty-minute solo wrapped in camouflage. Disguise and segmentation are the games here, as sleights of body mutate and are revealed, showing their seams of construction. Lurching, at one moment Konjar is suddenly flat on his back. So many pieces from the early Judson days are structured around falling. The 1964 Cunningham piece Winterbranch (done in the dark, illuminated mostly by flashlight, and which Cunningham built around Paxton) takes falling as its premise; the “first” contact improvisation dance—Paxton’s Magnesium, performed at a Grand Union workshop at Oberlin College in 1972—uses the same devices: gravity, inertia, the shifting and transfer of weight.
Between Bound and the final work, the audience is herded across the temporary dance floor—wood squares pieced together that echo the Carl Andre sculptures in the other room. Later I will stand on Andre’s 46 Roaring Forties, 1988, and quietly perform a work that Paxton calls the Small Dance: “Standing still and feeling your body. Doing absolutely nothing but letting your skeletal muscles hold you upright.” I think about the immense effort it takes to stay vertical and I think of Ana Mendieta, whose presence here is everywhere felt, but whose work is in fact about absence—or, in other words, how much even immediacy can leave wanting.
“Presentness is Grace.” That old modernist dream of a vision so fast it evaporates the body entirely, leaving behind only rods and cones in its wake. For Frank Stella—as relayed by Michael Fried to Rosalind Krauss—this promise was realized in the figure of baseball player Ted Williams (he could see the stitches on a ninety mph fastball). Krauss recounts the story in her book The Optical Unconscious (1994), the title a riff on Walter Benjamin’s famous observation that what escapes human perception is captured by the camera. Into all this, Krauss reinserts the strangeness of desire.
Of course, the poses interrupting all that walking in Flat are themselves derived from sports photographs, baseball to be exact. Wily (Yvonne Rainer’s term), and smarter than the rest of us, fifty years ago Paxton was already tangling the logics of performance first, then documentation. Try to keep up.
Smiling, 1967, the last dance, is almost imperceptible. Two performers stand and smile at one another—unassumingly—for a loose duration of about five minutes. It’s just long enough for restless audience members to get a clue that the piece is now, it’s happening, it’s here right in front of you. You are missing it.