Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Beautiful Beast

Photo: Jordi Bover, used by permission

Steve Paxton is a dancer I've been watching over the course of nearly forty years. When I told him that my children are grown enough that they now go up to Vermont on their own (that’s where he lives and where we met as teacher and student) he said that time just telescoped, decades down to a moment. Watching Paxton perform his new solo The Beast at Baryshnikov Arts Center, time telescopes too. I visualize the kinetic lusciousness of earlier Paxton incarnations, but here he shows us the dancing’s skeleton. Rather than nostalgia there’s joy in this fruition of his dancing life. The distillation of his focus and the stripping away of connective actions makes for the sparest presentation of one human body’s range of motion and properties of balance. Paxton presents his own body as a locus for inquiry, as he always has. His investigation has become increasingly detailed, exquisite. Without the spongy bounce and space-eating flow of his earlier incarnations, he is pure facet, pure torque, pure stacked bones and stretched sinew.

Merce taught us to look at movement without asking for its implied narrative. And the Raineresque performative straightforwardness of the Judson era finds its apogee in Steve whose weathered face is that of a deadpan everyman. Why then do we have the sense that there’s a scenario here, teasing us by laying just beyond our comprehension? The Beast has a sound score that’s hard to place – is it electronic, made to sound like birds? Water droplets? There’s a percussive rushing quality to it and it rises and ebbs, just as the light, a shifting pool now oblong, now a rough round, moves without provocation. Paxton seems to be lodged in this place, a dark nowhere. Atmospheric, mysterious, this visual and aural setting make a habitat for The Beast. And just who is that?

Paxton’s bio states right off that he lives on a farm. Watching him dance is not unlike watching someone scythe a field, or build a wall. Action is in service of something, and delivered without flourish or emphasis. He seems engaged with questions: ‘What is this? What happens if I shift balance by curving the spine laterally? What happens if I cross one foot over the other, standing? Or tip my head back as far as it goes?’ The action produced by that last inquiry, looking upward, is often associated with a kind of aspiration. Here it’s not that, or anything you could nail. And although that action recurs frequently, as does a full torqueing twist of head against pelvis, or a thrust through the hands, they never reveal any further reason for being. They just are. ‘Testing the Apparatus’ is the shorthand that comes to mind.

In 1986 Paxton began performing his Goldberg Variations to both of Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach’s masterwork, the first made at the promising outset of Gould’s career, the second after a life in music, more settled and measured, and just months before his early death. The metaphor of the maturation of the artist over time was deeply moving. Paxton’s face in the second half of Goldberg was smeared with wet clay which, over the course of the work, dried and contracted, creating a crinkly premonition of older age. Today his face looks like the one he projected twenty some years ago. And I believe that the dancer he is now is the one he was imagining in Goldberg. And how essentialized and brilliant that dancer has become, like a diamond.