Conversations: “Chaos and Order: Improvisation Taken to the Limit” Steve Paxton in conversation with Aat Hougee
I guess I have a tendency to see things in complex ways. On the one hand I see things that sort of seem to happen together, all of a jumble, like shuffling cards and you come up with a particular decade or an artistic climate. Other times I see long cycles of different artistic schools of thought.
I seem to be in the doldrums right now, and that is happening on several different fronts.
I am in the doldrums with Contact Improvisation , although I am practicing it, teaching it. But I’m just not feeling I’m getting much movement material out of it. Except technically; technically, there is still a lot to investigate in it. Last year I taught a six-week workshop and I didn’t come to the end of my curriculum. At one point you said that Contact Improvisation was based on three-day workshops, so the teaching didn’t get much deeper than those three days would allow for, which I think was largely true, but there is a lot of material in there to teach from. If you start to investigate something like the spine you get into a certain amount of teaching to do. And there there is the actual training. Paradoxically, teaching deeply and thoroughly seems to put Contact Improvisation into an intellectual realm which seems to work against people’s reflexes. I think yet another course is needed–hot to get reflexes and the mind to cooperate, so both can survive. You can have an intellectual life with the dance and on the other hand not subvert the ambulatory spine.
Another level of why I am in the doldrums is my own work. I did eight years of this 45-minute solo to Bach and it really got into my nervous system; and then when I tried to leave it, there was nothing. I couldn’t find anything to do. The only music I have heard since I stopped doing the Goldberg Variations, and that I really liked, was a John Cage violin piece that Amos Hetz was already using, so I couldn’t use it.
I also considered no music. I did a couple of decades with no music: no music is not what I want at this moment, but somehow I can’t find the music I want and certainly I couldn’t write it myself. Obviously I need to construct on some other premise, but I haven’t yet found it. My feelings though are still very much connected to what I’ve been doing for the last eight years, so now I am using Bach’s English Suite, done again by Glenn Gould, so it’s all old friends, as it were. If only they knew who they had ended up collaborating with, I wonder if they… but anyway they aren’t allowed to have opinions anymore. In the English Suite I am trying to figure out a new physical principle, one I have not used before, to work with a mold. I think I am doing that because I really am getting interested in what will be probably just some plain choreography.
Plain choreography, being the operation of space and phrasing and dancers, set material, simple technical means, of whatever sort. SO anyway, basically I am not moving very quickly, I am not turning out thousands of dances a year, or anything like that. I guess I want to do some very simple little dances, with people running around the space who kick their legs up, twist and turn and fall down. I have been improvising for a long time. Essentially 90% of the work I’ve done since 1970 has been improvisation. That’s 24 years now, isn’t it? That’s a very long time to stick with one kind of basic idea. But once you step into these sort of large amorphous ideas, like indeterminacy or improvisation, it’s hard to get out again, because there is so much of it. You get as much chaos as you would ever want to have. You run out of ideas perhaps, but not chaos. Initially I came from a very ordered road of Cunningham technique and other techniques and martial arts and I wanted to challenge that orderliness. Everything seemed to be in such neat columns and rows, seemed to be so agricultural, basically, I wanted to get back to the hunting mind. What I mean by agricultural is that archetypal music hall or ballet forms have about them still the flavor of Versailles gardens, with pretty maids all in a row. I think our agricultural pursuit for the last 15,000 years most have had an incredible impact on our aesthetics. Just because there is an ordering that happens in agriculture. There is a pattering of planting, seeding and tending plants. The pattern tells you what plants that come up are the ones you want and then from there on all the tending and then the final harvesting, all of that is based on that simple pattering. i think a lot of dance has that kind of pattern-making conduct.
There certainly is an ordering in my improvisation as well: I have to trust my own improvisation, that I can improvise, that I will keep going, that I won’t suddenly run dry or get self-conscious. Those are the kinds of traps that you can fall into as am improviser. Get cute, that is something I had to learn to not do, to try to be funny. If the audience can trust what I am doing, trust what they see, I am very glad. My initial idea was that there was something innate in human beings that improvisation would express, but I didn’t know what that was. Nobody has written particularly about what’s innate in human beings, I don’t think anybody during this century dared utter there words. The idea that if I was able to improvise up to a standard that I could conceive of, that would be part of what one would see in a way that one could not see in a set dance or see in any other way. But having worked on this now for 24 years, I see that really my only way out is by technical means. That is, I cannot go on improvising without somehow remaining in the same relationship to myself. So I think I have to go toward discipline now, to get out of this relationship. I need to discover some movements that I believe in very strongly and figure out how to set them and figure out how to make them as visible as possible. That’s my task for myself. I don’t know what I’ll actually do, but what I seem to go on doing is to improvise to the English Suite, which is where I’m finding my material. I am improvising, but I want to go into an order, I think. An important part of improvisation is finding new solutions. Goldberg was a test of that. I maybe performed it about 200 times, maybe 150 times, and that was over eight years, but I found that it was possible to go on finding new solutions, or at least to think like I was finding new solutions. I hope it looked that I was, if anybody had followed me. There are so many solutions of the music, because the music is fast and complicated and has multiple tracks, so already the permutations get enormous. Even if you are doing the same dance time after time, but just relating it to different musical strands, you would discover that there are many solutions.
How improvisation relates to setting movement is, I think, an organic thing. What I found is that there were recurring motifs that would come to me. I could reject them or accept them in each performance, I might go to a second choice if I wanted to do something too much. But moving in that improvisation I often found myself realizing that there was the potential for setting a section, something that I sort of wanted to do each time I performed. I truly don’t seem to believe very much in the idea of set material, or set life, or set anything, I truly do feel a strong connection to the idea that things are always changing. So the idea of “set” is a kind of linguistic convenience, for these ways are more the same than they are different, each is just one of the possibilities. Last time I tried to make set material, I wanted to make it as completely set as possible. And I think that is a relevant human and animal condition, to get something where the mind is freed because the movement has become so habitual that you no longer pay conscious attention to it. The other thing about that I suppose is that conscious attention is a very slow and laborious way to work; more suitable for writing an essay than dancing a dance, perhaps. It takes much more time, maybe that’s why it can take six weeks to make a 15-min. dance. You can be conscious for the six weeks, but during the dance, I don’t think consciousness is what is wanted there. The dancer is meant to have gotten in some kind of habitual state, so the body is liberated from the command center. Although Goldberg was improvised, by working with it for so long that the music got into my nervous system, I got to know the music so well that I wasn’t consciously worried about how movement was going to related to it. There are so many strands, and Glenn Gould’s quality is so percussive, that there seems always to be a note any time that there is a step, it’s quite a full landscape that I was able to play on. So, improvising seems to create a problem, which is, how to keep changing. I think the way out of that can be, to make technical changes in every movement, so I would have a whole new palette to play with, but it seems to me that as long as I just improvise, the palette stays relatively the same. I may make different pictures, but relatively the palette stays the same.
When developing Contact Improvisation, it had a period of feeling very independent from technique. Back before Contact, I had the opposite problem. I had a technical background in several techniques, so when I improvised, I just sort of mixed them up. Fortunately they were wildly different, so that it didn’t create too limited a palette, but it was a technical palette that I was playing with when I started improvising before Contact. Then I saw Contact as a way out of the technical mode of thinking about my body. At the same time, in the beginning, I looked very closely at the technical side of Contact Improvisation, mainly because I was afraid it wasn’t safe, and I had no example of this approach to movement, except playfulness in general. But I recognized that many people are not playful, many people are afraid and they are afraid of various things; they can be afraid of space itself. They can be afraid of certain physical relationships to the space, like bending over backwards. They can get very easily lost when they turn, so there are problems that are innate in some people in dealing playfully with time and space and movement.
I don’t know whether I am aware of what impact my dancing has on people who watch, because being inside an improvisation you not only don’t know what you are about to do, which is sort of how the spontaneity of improvisation arises, but you’re also not able to remember very well what you did do, as improvisation and memory are sort of two different worlds in the brain. And so I have never known very well what Goldberg was. I know I have seen videotapes, but I have also seen videotapes of dances that I witnessed live, and noticed that the more charismatic the performer and the more intricate and beautiful the use of space and character or movement, the more the video seems to lose these important elements. I especially think that space has quite illogical, unthinkable characteristics that deeply strike us. Somebody who is a great manipulator of figures in space, event without particularly interesting movement, can be really strong.
I had a lovely experience recently watching Trisha Brown’s new solo. Trisha’s new solo is done with her back to the audience and it opens up the upstage space. The upstage, the space beyond the figure, instead of being background, becomes her foreground. And we become onlookers instead of just watchers. It was shown against a black curtain and lit in such a way that it was really black; there was no light striking that curtain. That blackness became not just a black wall, but really became a void where the space was quite ambiguous. As you watched this lit figure in front of it, paying attention in that direction, so you felt that attention, felt all that, sometimes your own awareness of the space got too big as if you had fallen into the darkness. In seeing beyond her and feeling the liveliness of the space (and it might have had to do with what she did), it seemed that her movement or her gestures extended beyond the literal stage space and somehow it made the space enlarge in a way that I haven’t seen on stage before. I mean, there are loads of things to do with just space, that I think strike deeply into us.
Maybe it’s like diet, that you want a little Mexican food now and then. You have to remember that I started dancing in a very avant-garde company with a lot of John Cage music, so it is not at all mysterious to me that at some point in my life I would turn to Bach. And after 24 years of improvisation it’s equally not surprising to me that I would feel an urge to change my diet, my relationship to this, my basic palette. It strikes me that the artistic climate that you grow up in has a very strong influence on the nature of the choices that you make. And I grew up in an artistic climate within which the paradigm had just changed. Cunningham had just completely switched everybody’s head around, away from a kind of simple model of modern dance.
In a certain way movement art forms are terribly conservative, out of need because without that conservatism there would be no continuity and no potential for growth over more than one person’s life. The wheel would be a terribly small wheel, about ten years of growth and the next ten years somebody else would come up and reinvent everything. However there is a possibility of paradigm change being as basic as previously a personal technique would have been.
Carolyn Brown once said that Merce opened many doors, but chose not to go through all of them, and one of the doors he opened was ordinary movement. He mentioned it often as a source for his work and I think this is one of the most profound dance anthropological statements. You might have to dig at it a little bit though, because Cunningham didn’t explain very much what he was about. If you start digging in ordinary movement, and look at it physically, you come up with walking as a basic movement form, and dancing is variations on that. On walking and running and skipping and hopping. But basically walking, because the others are variations on walking and dancing goes further in that direction, trying to dig out all the best of possible variations.
If you look at fourth position and you look at a step, you see fourth position as a basic of many, many forms in dance and martial arts. As a consequence of that I have lately been thinking that the way to change my attention, to produce a new physical palette, is actually the concept of step, the concept of changing weight, from one place to another, with the legs instead of just with the torso, which has been a staple of my improvisation. Instead of manipulating the weight with the spine, I should go back the to the step and find out what that is.
Once you’ve been in the improvisational mind, where it does seem that a a million choices are possible, and then you start using the word “set,” setting movement, you’re talking about “set” as immutable, unchanging, the decision made ahead of time and stuck to, rigorously stuck to, so that there is a routine. I am thinking that it would be possible to jump my own improvisational mindset, jump its habits of how far, how big a lead of thinking I take. Instead of making just a “right” choice, it will be beyond the right choice, into the next level of material. This is all wishful thinking though, hopeful thinking.
It seems that the impact of improvisational skill is sort of accepted now, even in very conservative circles. I think it was clear from the 60s that there was as problem with conservative training, that it turned out clones, it is actually very good at turning out clones, but it did not easily turn out people of performance genius. Now we run into the danger of creating improvisational clones.
The mind is largely trained by seeing and a lot of that is through reading, reading and other relatively simple signal forms. So the conscious mind doesn’t have very many good representations of movement. I think that’s why we’re not turning out choreographers by the thousands. It’s a very difficult way to think, considering how the culture has chosen to train us for its various uses, basically teaching us hot to pay taxes, maybe how to hold a job, so the culture is not very concerned about how we move and doesn’t seem to have a need for very many ideas in that direction. I feel that in choreography you should not only be able to think in movement, not just in positions, but in that space between positions. There is all that “in between” material and one should be able to think of the possible ways to move through all of it simultaneously. It sounds like chess, when you think about it, including the various permutations for all the parts of the body at any one time and what the better choices are, how to make these leaps. I have seen choreographers being just astonishing in the way they make choices. They set up some kind of world in the first 30 seconds or minute, where the expectations are established, and then it’s how they play those expectations and it seems to me like a very great game. Just a wonderful game.
i have thought of doing other things. I thought of hay-art and I thought of building mazes and I thought of snow-art, I thought of earth-art, I want to build a mound, with a building inside it, and store whatever the piece is about and once a year have the piece occur on this mound especially built for the piece. I thought of using this field down here, which has a lovely sloped place for people to sit and then kind of a more flat place at the bottom with big trees all around, a big square. So theatrical, so much like a theater. I’ve made many pieces that involved other ideas than dancing, in other places than theaters, but the more the world turns technoid and virtual fascinated with ideas like information super-highways and everybody being in touch with everybody, at the same time it’s losing any sense of what it is to be a family or a tribe or neighborhood. In other words, the more a divorce is taking place from the intimate and the more we are moving into this kind of big oblivious everything, the more I think that what is not only needed but what is still really interesting is the intimacy of live performance: the singular means of a soloist in particular and the research into this sort of basic unit that seems to be the Adam and Eve of dance performance.
It doesn’t make sense to isolate oneself from technological development, like information super-highways, computers, etc. I know people who make that choice and in some way I could see doing that myself. Part of me says it would be very satisfying to just say, well this civilization is not going in a way that I am interested in, so I just won’t go that way and I’ll withdraw myself. But I think it’s much more interesting to mix. I like the idea that I can sit in a hogan some place, with a telephone line and a computer and be cooking my meals over a wood fire on the floor and at the same time be hooked up to the Library of Congress and learning something. The idea of retreating from this particular line of advance doesn’t seem as interesting to me as the possibilities of an interplay with both the forward thinkingness as well as the backward, immemorial life that we know about. Such a mix would allow one to live with very simple means and at the same time have access to an incredible wealth of information. It seems to be crucial to maintain the human factor in all of this, and the human factor not only in relationship to the culture, because culture becomes all engulfing, especially if you live in the city; but also to maintain the human factor in relationship to itself. Keeping the human both in touch with itself and with culture. In my case, I live on a farm. I am interested in how these plants grow. I had long-standing battles with some of them, I had long-standing love affairs with others.
Reprinted courtesy of Mr. Hougee
Steve Paxton was born in Phoenix, Arizona. After 12 years in New York, he moved to a farm in Vermont. Since 1970, he has been investigating dance improvisation.
Aat Hougee is the director of the European Dance Development Center, based in Arnhem, the Netherlands.