Bound to time

INTERVIEW. Choreographer and performer Steve Paxton discusses contact improvisation, "old" versus "modern" dance, and his vibrant 1982 solo piece Bound, coming to Berlin as part of Tanz in August.

Image for Bound to time
Photo by Nada Žgank

Influential American dancer and choreographer Steven Paxton presents his work as part of the 25th anniversary of Tanz im August.

One of the pivotal figures in the American dance world, dancer and choreographer Steven Paxton began his career with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company before moving on to become one of the founding members of the Judson Dance Theater. His interest in pedestrian, everyday movement – think: walking, eating, sitting – challenged popular expectations of what dance on stage could and should be. At the beginning of the 1970s he also began developing a form of movement called contact improvisation – dynamic, partner-based improvised dance that’s now practiced worldwide.

Paxton’s 1982 solo work Bound is a combination of improvised dance and theatrical sequences and comes to Berlin as part of the 25th anniversary of Tanz im August — where it will be danced by another performer for the first time.

What is it like to have your solo danced by another performer?

The process was fascinating for me because I began to discover the work. So much of making a solo like that is instinctive, I hadn’t assessed it in the same way that I did as Uri was learning it. He found new aspects of it, questioned elements of it. I began to see that it was a good deal more cohesive than I had thought. Several motifs appear and those motifs are all aiming at one thing: time. The main character is introduced as a kind of military figure, but he’s a clown. He evolves gradually, and by the end he has gone through a considerable transformation. And I’m just kind of amazed that it all hangs together. I’m not sure it will for a one-time viewer, it might just seem like various images to them, but to me it is very clearly a kind of suite of images that are indicative of his journey.

Even though time has passed since Bound’s première, do you think that the images still convey the same meaning?

The images say the same thing, even the militaristic figure, clown, seems to say the same thing. We’re in the same fix, here we are, at the end of a war, and the guys are coming back – and it’s hard to get your veteran’s benefits in this country, it takes years. The same craziness goes on.

What’s the process of re-staging it with Jurij Konjar been like?

He’s a Slovenian-dancer born 40 years after I was, with completely different references, so it’s really been interesting to see what can be transmitted, and how it can work. We do have this handy video that (New York performance venue) The Kitchen made in 1983 and that let us have a scaffolding for making the piece, but he still has to improvise. We’re trying to sort of nudge him to the dynamics of the video, without nudging him into actually learning the movement that I actually did, which would be possible, but who’s interested in that? I’m more interested in the fact that if I was improvising that the dancer who does it has to improvise as well.

Since modern and contemporary dance aren’t really contemporary anymore, these pieces are now museum pieces, they’re historical…

It has indeed become historical. Isn’t it curious? Maybe if the first modern dancers hadn’t been so involved in positioning their dance as opposed to ballet: the ballet establishment has a very conservative nature, but they didn’t call themselves old dance. They found a word that didn’t involve time. But with modern dance there was always this problem of the name: experimental dance, or modern dance or contemporary dance. Of course, they were trying not only to differentiate themselves from ballet but also from each other, so that the audience wouldn’t come expecting someone else’s work and so they would know that there had been a development of some sort. But contact improvisation kind of skipped past all that.

Could you have imagined that this international contact improv movement could have started out of one performance series?

Well, one of my ideas in the whole thing in setting it up was to give those original 17 performers something to teach, so that they would have a way to make a living. So they did start teaching and within a few years their students were teaching and it became clear that the whole thing was going very much like over the internet…

It went viral?

Exactly. And, it has been up and down ever since. Sometimes it seems like the population is dwindling and then there’ll be a resurgence. So it just seems to keep on growing.

Is there a moment in the development of contact improv that sticks out for you?

I would say the very earliest months and maybe year of setting it up were very potent because I realized that I was in an incredibly sensitive position, that everything I said and did was going to be furthered. We realized that the element of touch was very unusual in our culture, that shifting dance focus from vision to kinetic and touch was a pretty big shift. Then I ran into the psychologist Daniel N. Stern, who was doing research on communication between mothers and babies in the early 1970s at Columbia, and his work suggested that contact improvisation is playing with that mechanism, the media of that relationship between parent and child. In our culture we hadn’t really found a way to continue to have this contact as communication after infancy.

Have you noticed any changes in the contact improv movement over the decades since?

No it’s maintained the same sort of movement, the same sort of relationships between people, the same sort of atmospheres and jams. There are jams that are trying to take it in other directions, but I think the basic structure will stay around for a while. I was looking at a Czechoslovakian jam that I just happened to see on the internet at some point and I looked at them and thought: “Gee I could step right in there.” I sometimes wish it would grow smarter. But the basic thing seems solid.

What do you mean by smarter?

In some ways, it is growing smarter in the sense that people who are involved in neuro-research are becoming interested. Improvisation in general is a subject of research and they are very curious about how the brain does it, or what it’s doing when it does it. And they now have some idea, at least in music, because people can play keyboards while they’re in a scanning machine. But for dance they don’t have a way – we stay slightly out of reach just by the fact that we move and bend and sway. I mean it’s just not possible to watch a brain doing all of that movement – yet.

Bound, Aug 16-18 19:00 | HAU2, Hallesches Ufer 32, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Hallesches Tor