PRINT December 2012

The Year in Dance

David Velasco

Steve Paxton, Satisfyin Lover, 1967. Performance view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 17, 2012. From “Some sweet day.” Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 19. A conversation in the Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium at the Museum of Modern Art in New York during the first week of “Some sweet day,” a three-week-long performance series featuring six choreographers. The program is curated by Ralph Lemon, a choreographer himself, and Jenny Schlenzka, associate curator at MoMA PS1, along with MoMA producer Jill A. Samuels. The conversation features Jérôme Bel and Steve Paxton and is moderated by Lemon and Sabine Breitwieser, MoMA’s chief curator of media and performance.

Here, near the beginning, Breitwieser and Paxton are talking:

Breitwieser: Steve. Satisfyin Lover. From 1967. I couldn’t find out where you performed it first.

Paxton: Salt Lake City.

SB: So what was the scenery like? Was this a proscenium setting or was it a gallery setting?

SP: It was a ballroom.

SB: A ballroom! How nice. So you were on the same floor with the audience? There was no separation?

SP: Very much like here.

SB: Very much like this. That’s very interesting. Because this shows us this kind of assumption that dance and the visual arts—or dance institutions and the museum world—[are] kind of juxtaposed, [are] kind of separated, is kind of a stereotype which is actually not true. I even found a note that you first presented your Contact Improvisation at John Weber Gallery. Is this true?

SP: Yes.

SB: So how do you see your work situated and how do you think—or maybe it didn’t. How did this setting [the atrium] have an impact on how you presented your work?

SP: [pause] None.

SB: None . . . good. Okay . . . So you did it exactly the same as in ’67?

SP: Yeah.

SB: There was also the same big audience, excited audience? How was it?

SP: Yes.

It’s the first week of “Some sweet day,” and things are off to an interesting start. We’ve all just seen a version of Bel’s The Show Must Go On, 2001, edited to accommodate the fluid attention spans of the everyday atrium crowd. That piece, a sort of pastiche of the ordinary danced by a group of twenty pro and amateur performers, is made up of a series of simple vignettes scored both to and by pop music (the Beatles’ “Come Together” plays and the dancers come together; Lionel Richie’s “Ballerina Girl” plays and the “girls” mime ballet steps). The Show Must Go On was presented “alongside” (i.e., in the same week as) Paxton’s canonical Satisfyin Lover, 1967, and State, 1968. Satisfyin Lover is simply (and “simply” is its donnée) a few dozen ordinary people in everyday clothes walking across a stage; State features the same famous ordinary people coming together at the center of that stage to stand “still” for nine minutes.

Lemon tells us that Paxton thought that pairing Satisfyin Lover and The Show Must Go On was “living out a certain fantasy [Lemon] had about these two works.” But it’s a potent fantasy and thus a structuring one, and it was Lemon’s genius to bring together works frequently seen as cornerstones of “postmodern” dance and the de-skilling strategy that has chaperoned many art-critical engagements with performance. What emerged were two very different takes on the meaning of those strategies and two or three very different ideas about the role of dance in the museum. Paxton’s laconic answers above are less churlish stonewalling than examples of a differend, and the dissonance between those who aspire to the museum or think inside its terms and those for whom it’s simply another horizontal “space” to work in, between two (reluctant?) heroes of the antivirtuosic, was spectacularly dramatized at MoMA.

All this was against the backdrop of the fiftieth anniversary of that magic fiasco—that “parade of formal explorations,” as Paxton has put it—called Judson. And all this was in the wake of a still too quiet but resounding event in the dance landscape—the recent folding of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the historic sine qua non for Cunningham technique, whose dissolution marked the symbolic burial of “modern” dance. And all this was part of a more coherent integration of something called “dance” into the body of something called “the museum”: Sarah Michelson and Michael Clark at the Whitney Museum of American Art for the Whitney Biennial; Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Boris Charmatz, and Nina Beier at the new Tanks at Tate Modern in London; Xavier Le Roy at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona; Paxton, Bel, Michelson, Faustin Linyekula, Dean Moss, and Deborah Hay at MoMA for “Some sweet day.” Each venue offered a different model for how to do dance, and “Some sweet day” in particular—with its galvanic weekly conversations and eschatological title—took as its very subject a rethinking of how choreographers and dancers and art institutions and publics might (and do) commit to one another. Of how they might (and do) comprehend “dance.” And each artist in his or her own way worked against these overdetermined spaces and categories, reconsidering the logic of the museum and producing new hybrid audiences as they went.

“We’ve been, for better or worse, de-skilling since Judson,” says Lemon at a Performa-sponsored panel in September called “Why Dance in the Art World?” (Disclosure: I was on it, too.)

Schlenzka: Re-skilling, too.

Lemon: Maybe.

What is “re-skilling”? Is it the application of old competencies to a new field? The resurrection of the idea of “skill” in a milieu nostalgic for the propitious rhetoric of virtuosity? “Someone recently said to me that the attraction to dance in the museums now is that it’s bringing back beauty and skill,” Lemon continues. “And I think they were saying this in context to Sarah [Michelson]’s piece at the Whitney. And so that’s interesting, because I certainly wasn’t looking at beauty and skill in that work. I was seeing something else that was quite interesting and exciting to me, but not that.” Not that. Something else. What else is Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer (Michelson’s piece)?

What else is Satisfyin Lover? The Show Must Go On?

Breitwieser: Do you look at your work differently now?

Paxton: Because . . . because?

SB: Relating it more to visual arts, if you do it here? If you go up to see the Duchamp or the Pollock or . . . ?

SP: It was always related to visual arts.

Here was a man who was one of Cunningham’s great dancers and who lived with Robert Rauschenberg and cofounded the radically interdisciplinary artistic movements of the Judson Dance Theater and Grand Union and who did Satisfyin Lover the same way in a ballroom in 1967 as he did at the Whitney in 1971 as he did at MoMA in 2012. . . .

And yet: “My question about my work is—I’m sure what’s always been questionable about it—is, In what ways is this art?” Paxton asks. “You know, In what way is it possible to be an artist of this?” Certainly, Lemon’s pairing implied that an artist of “this” could be compared to Bel, a later artist who’s also gone against the grain of virtuosity (and “comparison” is the de facto model for aesthetic judgement in the museum). Bel himself affirms his Oedipal inheritance: “When I did [The Show Must Go On] I didn’t have Satisfyin Lover in my mind,” Bel says. “Probably unconsciously. But I remember when I saw it [in 1996] I thought, ‘No . . . it’s mine.’ I mean, it should be—I should’ve done it. I should’ve thought about it before.”

But if Bel saw himself in Satisfyin Lover and wanted to see performance as art (“next to a Monet or a Pollock,” he proffers), Paxton evinced no such ambition, which anyway would violate the cool, unambitious simplicity of a work such as Satisfyin Lover, which itself is about “ancient material” or, as he’s put it elsewhere, “about looking at what the body does without trying to trot it up into dance or art or whatever.”

Paxton: I don’t know quite what word to use to describe [Satisfyin Lover and State]. And I’m not sure anyone has successfully found a word. I mean, if they’re postmodern, well, then, we’ve made a mockery of that hallowed phrase postmodern. And if they’re premodern or pre-art or something like that—nobody’s quite come up with a phrase like that. So I don’t know what they are. I just know I made them and I feel them deeply. And they continue to be shown.

Bel: Well, they are masterpieces of the twentieth century.

SP: For the performer?

JB: For me. For me watching them.

SP: So it would be art for you. It would be a masterpiece, but the performers don’t need to do anything to produce it.

JB: Absolutely. I mean, they are not producing anything. They are in a state, they are just walking. And I see that this walk . . . That’s what I experienced in ’96 in Paris. I saw that it was the minimum of dance, and that the most naturalized movement for us, which is to walk, is irreducible. It is myself. Any of these performers are walking the same. That’s what I experience. I see people. There was no one like the other one. And this moved me, like . . . forever. . . . And that’s a vision—a representation of humanity which is . . . which was an experience for me which made me think about us. And that’s why it’s art. Because it makes me think differently. I learn things.

SP: That’s why it’s art? This is why it’s art?

David Velasco is editor of and a regular contributor to Artforum.