PRINT September 2018

Steve Paxton

Peter Moore, performance view of Steve Paxton’s Deposit, 1965. Kutsher’s Country Club, Thompson, NY, August 25, 1965. Deborah Hay and Steve Paxton.

AT THE AMERICAN DANCE FESTIVAL in the summer of 1958, I studied with Merce Cunningham. I was on a scholarship, and worked as a stagehand for the many performances. Cunningham’s classes were stimulating, employing balletic principles of extension that spiraled into new shapes; it seemed expanded and precise. The appeal of the work for me was in the undeniable beauty of the dancing and the dances; but the confrontation of the composition methods employing chance and of the combination of music by John Cage and scenography by Robert Rauschenberg provoked an aesthetic crisis for me. This is probably inevitable when a barbarian arrives at a cultural center. The artistic security nurtured in the hinterlands—by books of glamorous dance photographs, by Hollywood films, by soap operas and sitcoms, by stacks of 78-rpm recordings of Beethoven symphonies—was swept aside, as if the journey from Maxfield Parrish to Jackson Pollock were accomplished in one brief summer.

By 1961, I was studying with Cunningham in New York, and musician Robert Dunn offered weekly dance composition at the studio. These two series of classes studied Cage, Erik Satie, and others, and Cunningham’s procedures of chance movement. In July 1962, the class showed work at Judson Memorial Church. I recall we sent out four hundred flyers, and there were more than four hundred in the audience; people had to be turned away. It proved a long and often tedious show, whose bright spots were probably Yvonne Rainer and David Gordon. None of the works imitated Cunningham—or anyone else. Cunningham’s archivist David Vaughan has written that Judson repudiated Cunningham. I assure you that no repudiation was intended. Cunningham had not imitated Martha Graham, Graham had not imitated Denishawn, Denishawn had not imitated Isadora Duncan, and Duncan had forged a new dance language. We were in that lineage.

Steve Paxton is a dancer based in East Charleston, VT