Steve Paxton (1939-2024): Contact Improvisation for Generations

Hilde Rustad*

Steve Paxton’s name will be forever connected with contact improvisation (CI). Today there are CI classes, workshops, jams, and festivals in most countries and continents, where CI dancers and teachers can learn, jam, share and practice the form of CI together, and where Paxton’s name will always be spoken. 

In dance history Paxton’s position is outstanding as he is not only the initiator and founder of CI, but also because he, together with others, was a central figure in the development of postmodern dance. He was a founding member of the Judson Dance Theatre in 1962, as well as the renowned performance group the Grand Union in 1970. Paxton was a dancer in Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1961-64, before and parallel to working as choreographer and dancer within the framework of the Judson Dance Theater.   

Steve Paxton. Photo: Web/Wikipedia/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Paxton acknowledged the influence of Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) on his development as a dance artist: 

Most of them [modern dance choreographers] were quite dramatically emotional, or (had) a romantic style. (…) except for Cunningham, who really developed the most important abstract style, and that was what I was drawn to. He wasn’t dealing with the emotions. He was looking more at a kind of physics of dance, and to get to that point in the most pristine way possible, the work couldn’t be dramatized. (Paxton 1997/1989, 179)

Paxton thus shows his preference for the non-emotional, abstract and analytic, all of which are thought of today as characteristics of the early period (1962-64) of postmodern dance. Much of what became postmodern dance values was already there with Cunningham. Paradoxically Cunningham can be understood as a catalyst for postmodern dance in that his partner, composer and musician John Cage (1912-1992) asked Robert Ellis Dunn (1928–1996) to teach a composition workshop for dancers in Cunningham’s studio in 1960. 

The workshop became the starting point of postmodern dance. Through working with composition together the dancers began to think of themselves more as dance artists who could choreograph as well as perform in choreographers’ works.  Thus, they initiated a new tradition as a viable rival and alternative to modern dance (Rustad). Rather than merely dancing in modern dance companies, they now started to create their own choreographies; they had the opportunity to showcase their work in the Judson Memorial Church and called themselves the Judson Dance Theater. 

The Judson Memorial Church where  Paxton and the Judson Dance Theater showcased their work. Photo: Web/Wikimedia/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

In Judson Church, Paxton and the other workshop participants said a definite “no” to the hierarchies existing within modern dance; they suspended existing traditions and started a more democratic approach. They worked with choreography and danced in each other’s pieces, and their very first collaborative performance, which lasted more than three hours, was described by Wendy Perron as a “mixed-media marathon of twenty-three pieces by fourteen artists.”  According to Cynthia Novack, “Anyone who wished to show a piece could come to a meeting at which time the program was collectively decided upon” (43).

 Sally Banes (1987,10) claims that Cunningham was both an inspiration as well as an authority whom postmodern dance artists could oppose, and this influences how we presently understand Judson Dance Theater, the Grand Union and CI as non-hierarchical compared to the hierarchical tradition of modern dance. The development of postmodern dance must further be understood in the context of the general sociopolitical developments in the U.S. and New York in the 1960’s, such as the civil rights, anti-war and hippie movements. 

Paxton’s choreographies are described by Banes as “fusions of nature and culture, his framing of mundane actions like eating and walking as noteworthy of attention and perception, his flattening of time” (1995, xviii). He created choreographies from ordinary and physical objects, often based on basic pedestrian movements, and claimed to have spent “decades working on walking, standing, sitting, getting up” (Paxton 2014), which he found to be miraculous. Banes states that Paxton’s dances “have at times served extraordinary functions; they have assaulted theatrical conventions, commented on the history of dance and questioned its aims, examined social hierarchies and political acts” (1987, 57). 

Some of the Judson dancers, such as Trisha Brown (1936-2017) and Yvonne Rainer, had experience with improvisation from their work with Anna Halprin (1920-2021), and several of the Judson dance artists implemented improvisation as part of their performances. Ramsay Burt writes that with Halprin and Simone Forti’s approach improvisation changed from a practice within dance pedagogy to “a far more radical, avant-garde performance practice” (Burt 56). With the Grand Union, Paxton and his fellow dancers took improvisation further; Banes describes the Grand Union as a “collective of choreographers/performers who made group improvisations embracing dance, theater and theatrics in an ongoing investigation into the nature of dance and performance” (1987, 203). 

Contact Improvisation

The start of Contact improvisation as a dance genre is described by Nancy Stark Smith (1952-2020) and Lisa Nelson as follows: 

During a Grand Union residency at Oberlin College in January 1972, Steve Paxton made a work for 11 men in which they threw, caught, flung, collided and fell among one another continuously for 10 minutes. The dance was called «Magnesium».

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Novack describes «Magnesium» somewhat differently: “In January 1972 Paxton taught the structure for an improvisational solo he had made for himself to a class of male students at Oberlin College” (1990, 60). Paxton came to Oberlin college because he was a Grand Union dancer, and by working with students, he was able to put into practice something he was developing.  Paxton, a dancer with a background in gymnastics, became interested in and practiced martial arts such as Aikido and T’ai Chi. Thus, he was acquainted with means of partnering that were not typically applied in dance.  Such innovations led to experimentation with improvisation in physical contact duets, with giving and taking weight, rolling and falling, which later became central in CI. In other words, CI was deeply rooted in Paxton’s former work, and did not emerge out of a vacuum. 

One way to understand the structure of CI is that it builds directly on Paxton’s experiences from working with improvisation in the Grand Union collective, which had already existed for two years when he did “Magnesium”. As for his work the Grand Union, Novack writes that “Paxton pursued his interests in finding out how improvisation could facilitate physical interaction and response” and how it could allow people to «participate equally, without employing arbitrary social hierarchies in the group» (60). Novack further notes that Paxton wanted to establish a “formal structure for improvisation rather than an anarchic one like that of the Grand Union, a structure (or antistructure) which Paxton thought was wonderful for «opening up all the possibilities» but which «eventually led to isolation of its members» (60). Paxton (2014) says he began to explore improvisation and describes it as “a place where things can happen in a fantastical way.” 

As Paxton moved away from hierarchical structures in modern dance, via collaborative performance work with the Judson Dance Theater, he bordered on anarchy with The Grand Union; through his work, he continued to search for greater individual freedom. Based on his experiences, Paxton longed for CI to be different; he wanted to work with improvisation but with structure. 

In 2008, Paxton described «Magnesium» as being “essentially a lot of crashing around on a mat – followed by lifts of randomly chosen sacrifice… . And then there was a five-minute stand. Out of all that chaos came – it would not be called order – but quiet.” And as Magnesium, by a stroke of luck, was recorded by Steve Christiansen in the early days of video recording, we can still watch it and get a sense of what it was. Through watching Magnesium , we see clearly that today’s CI is a radically different approach. However, the stand, often referred to as “small dance,” has remained part of CI practitioners’ development of the form ever since.  

Nancy Stark Smith writes that she did “often think that contact improvisation could have just been a piece that Steve Paxton made in 1972, and that was the end of it” (321). In other words, Magnesium could have been one of Paxton’s many performance projects and nothing more. Fortunately, this did not happen, as in the summer of 1972 Paxton created a group to experiment with and develop further what he had begun.

It was a great group. A few of Steve`s colleagues were there and some other young dancers like me whom he had met as a guest artist at Oberlin College, The University of Rochester, and Bennington College over the years. The work was fascinating, fresh, absorbing. (Stark Smith 86)[1]

Because of the nature of CI, whereby dancers improvise in physical contact with one another, there was a growing need for more dancers to practice the form. As a result, CI grew rapidly; many dancers felt invested in CI as an approach. The practice started to develop its own life independent of the first generation of contact dancers who initiated it. Novack writes that when the original dancers dispersed and taught contact improvisation elsewhere, larger numbers of people began to participate in cities throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe (although until the mid-’80s, most of the teachers and leaders of contact improvisation were Americans) (10).

Much has changed since 1972, and there is now a wide variety in how CI is taught and performed.  However, physical contact and improvisation, as well as the basic organizing principles, remain unchanged. Touch is crucially important, and Paxton has noted that CI offers the possibility of researching the language of the skin. He claims that the body is full of curiosity, and that openness is required for communication among dancers to be full and rich. According to Paxton, in the early days it was “startling to explore the acrobatic flow between two people who are improvising together” (2014). Such explorations continue to be startling and to fascinate new and experienced contact dancers, as well as people who are watching. 

As for myself and other European contact dancers today, we have noticed how CI has grown during the last decades. In the Nordic countries jams and festivals are continuously popping up alongside jams and festivals in most European countries. The number of CI practitioners seems to be growing endlessly, and the future of CI remains to be seen. A large number of practitioners travel to festivals, such as the Freiburg festival in Germany, which this year will include about 250 participants.

Paxton’s ideas and philosophies are known to us through videos such as “Magnesium” and “Fall after Newton.” The latter was filmed in 1987, and shows Nancy Stark Smith primarily, as well as Steve Paxton and others dancing CI, with Paxton discussing, among other topics, CI, physics and mass in motion. Paxton has written and published numerous texts and has been interviewed on numerous occasions; the journal Contact Quarterly is an extensive archive of his writing.  

Although many definitions of CI exist today, it was characteristic for the first generation of CI-dancers to decide not to define contact improvisation, and not to set up a certification teacher training. Instead, they decided to publish a newsletter which later became the Contact Quarterly. This was reported by Nancy Stark Smith in a workshop, and reveals something significant about CI.  It also shows how the form today is still based on fundamental ideals of equality, non-hierarchy, and individual freedom. 

Steve Paxton was radical in his thinking about dance as a dance artist and innovator. His impact upon dancers and dance fields is immeasurable, and his work and ideas, including Material for the spine, will continue to inspire others. As a European contact dancer and dance researcher, I have much to thank him for. Although I did not know him personally, he has been and continues to be an important person to me.  He exerts a remarkable influence in my life, as I believe he has and will continue to influence innumerable people around the world. 

I had the pleasure of watching Steve Paxton dance The Goldberg Variations, a structured improvisation which uses Bach’s music with the same title, in Amsterdam in the late 1980s. The relaxed atmosphere he created, his style of moving in dance and his close relationship to the music made an everlasting impression on me. Burt writes that what he remembers of Paxton’s movement style in 1986, when the Goldberg variations premiered, is surprisingly similar to how Banes describes a solo improvisation by Paxton in the late I970s: 

There is a curious mixture of tension and relaxation in Paxton’s body when he dances. At times one sees analogues to Cunningham’s shapes, but more fluid, loosened: nimble, intricate footwork executed with floppy ankles and feet; circular shapes made with lax rather than held arms. (Banes 1987, 69-70)

Much has been written about Paxton through the years, and undoubtedly, there is a lot more to come as he is deeply woven into dance history through his more than 60 years of actively engaging with dance. On behalf of myself and what I believe to be thousands and thousands of contact dancers around the world, I take this opportunity to express our gratitude, and to thank Steve Paxton for initiating, developing, and for so generously sharing contact improvisation through dancing, teaching, thinking, talking, writing and more.


Endnote

[1] The group consisted of Laura Chapmen, Steve Christiansen (video), Barbara Dilly, Leon Felder, Mary Fulkerson, Danny Lepkoff, Nita Little, Alice Lusterman, Curt Siddall, Nancy Stark Smith, Nancy Topf og David Woodbery (Nelson & Stark Smith 1997/1979-80, 2).

Bibliography

Banes, Sally. Democracy’s Body; Judson Dance Theater, 1962-1964. Duke UP, 1993.

——-.  Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance. Wesleyan UP, 1987.

Burt, Ramsay. “Steve Paxton’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ and the Angel of History.” Drama Rreview, vol. 46, no. 4, 2002, pp. 46- 64. 

Novack, Cynthia J. Sharing the Dance. Contact Improvisation and American Culture. The U of Wisconsin P, 1990.

Paxton, Steve. “Teaching Contact Improvisation.” In Contact Quarterly`s Contact Improvisation Source Book, edited by Lisa Nelson & Nancy Stark Smith, Contact Editions, 1997/1989.

——–. Watch here. 

——-. 2014. See here.

Perron, Wendy. 2022. “What Was Judson Dance Theater, Who Was Against It, and Did It Ever End?” 2014.

Rustad, Hilde. Dans etter egen pipe? En analyse av kontaktimprovisasjon og danseimprovisasjon – som tradisjon, fortolkning og levd erfaring [Dance to Your Own Music; an Analysis of Contact Improvisation and Dance Improvisation as Tradition, Interpretation and Lived Experience]. PhD dissertation, The Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, 2013.   

Stark Smith, Nancy. A Subjective History of Contact Improvisation. Notes from the Editor of Contact Quarterly, 1972-1997.” Taken by Surprise. A Dance Improvisation Reader, edited by Ann Cooper Albright and David Ger, Wesleyan UP, 2003. 


*Hilde Rustad works as Dance Professor at Kristiania University College. She is a trained dancer and choreographer at the School for New Dance Development/Amsterdam School of the Arts. She completed her PhD Thesis, Dance to Your Own Music: An Analysis of Contact Improvisation and Dance Improvisation as Tradition, Interpretation and Lived Experience, at the Norwegian School for Sport Sciences. Her research is focused mainly on dance in physical education and teacher education, dance and age, improvisation, contact improvisation, and contemporary professional dance.  

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