New York

Steve Paxton and Lucinda Childs

The Kitchen/Danspace

Choreographers Steve Paxton and Lucinda Childs, noted alumni of the Judson Dance Theater, have been known for their tightly structured studies of unusual movement events. Beginning in the early ’60s both of them choreographically scored ordinary and bizarre activity to create a radical performance mode: by just doing carefully arranged, singular physical tasks, they generated a novel, antitheatrical brand of dance drama. Recently Paxton and Childs presented solo works, on separate programs, which showed how they have altered that influential performance esthetic. Now both artists more openly and fully perform these kind of pieces, pushing persona within the process/task format, which has become common rhetoric in current dance.

Paxton’s newest solo, Bound, juxtaposed two styles, intercutting his usual awkward/smooth, vigorous/soft dance movement with equally typical conceptual performance shticks. Several “performance Paxtons” periodically emerged in sections framing “pure dance Paxton,” to give Bound the anecdotal tone of a dramatized diary; further, the sequences were ordered to shape a classic dramatic curve which welded together Bound’s disparate material.

The piece began as a deadpan comedy when Paxton entered and put on a cardboard Chiquita Banana box hung from suspenders, a bright green bathing cap, and gogglelike sunglasses. He began to walk slowly back and forth before a slide projection of an out-of-focus camouflagelike pattern, accompanied by a recorded tape of street noises and CB broadcasts. An energetic, lurching solo followed, all twisted cross-stepping and flailing arms; then he knelt between a rocking chair and a cradle, alternately rocking them and watching the motion stop, as if considering both the simple movement and the arc of life from infancy to old age at the same time. After changing into white clothing, which enabled him to “disappear” against the now-focused slide projection (an Italianate baroque painting), Paxton performed a softer, more meditative solo to liturgical Bulgarian folk music. Later, for a finale, he put on another green cap through which a rope ran the length of the space, its ends tied to opposite walls; fixing his face in a glazed, demonic stare, he slowly walked the length of the space in darkness, with one sharp spotlight on his face, until he reached the far wall and vanished into black.

Technically Bound was a process performance—Paxton brought on and took off all his own props, changed costumes in the space, and operated his own equipment—and it was conceptual in its simple structure of alternated dance movement and prop/media performance action. Dramatically Paxton’s clearly sketched hints of personae created definite psychological states, if not an explicit character. By offering his face, by making eye contact with the audience, and by using kinetic qualities (energy, posture, timing) for metaphoric purposes, he allowed a wide range of emotional expressiveness in his very personal collection of quirky material.

For the program of the Judson Dance Theater Reconstructions Childs recreated her Carnation, 1964, a short proto-Diary of a Mad Housewife performance piece. Wearing a leotard and jeans, Childs began seated at a table and with one leg extended to the side, the foot wrapped in a plastic bag. She then deliberately worked her way through a series of precisely executed “wacky” actions—pulling off the bag to peel off a knee sock, carefully placing kitchen sponges and hair curlers in her mouth and then on a colander worn on her head, lying upside down against a wallboard panel to remove the other soak, and, finally, repeatedly running across the space to jump and stand on a plastic garbage bag.

To judge from report, the original Judson Carnation was a methodical exhibit that simply counterpointed formal structuring and ludicrous activity in a neutral, self-effacing performing style. In this “reconstruction” Childs layered on performance attitudes, using her patrician hauteur to punch up the comedy as if she were Grace Kelly playing Alice Cramden in an avant-garde “Honeymooners.” Occasionally Childs even “acted,” as when she cocked her head and pulled a stubborn face before her quixotic run-and-jump routine. Such performing hinted at several equally possible roles for the Carnation “character”—angry woman, witty feminist, playful child, dancer preparing to perform—to turn this task essay into a comic mood study without violating its original premises. Purists may have flinched, but this updated version seemed perfectly in keeping with the provocative Judson spirit of performance surprises.

John Howell