Downtown Memories

Renewing the Old

A trim, sixtyish man in a suit walks in circles, pauses in profile for long moments, removes his jacket, shirt, and pants— freezing now and then in mid act— and hangs the garments on hooks taped to his body. Steve Paxton recreates his 1964 solo Flat at St. Mark's Church, and 1999 spectators love it. It's an elegantly constructed work, and to see Paxton perform it now gives the solo's early obstreperousness a different weight. Watch him standing still, and you see a life being lived.

Such re-envisionings of the past have brought folks flocking to the events in Danspace's 25th-anniversary Silver Series (the last ones happen June 18 through 20). Paxton lets us in on his past, his current passion (dancing to Glenn Gould playing Bach), and an atypical autobiographical journey, the 1997 Ash.

Paxton, father of Contact Improvisation, is an amazing mover, one of the most profound dancers around. Tauter than he once was, not as reckless or as buttery, he always makes me think differently about the human being in motion. He angles his body reflectively, hikes a shoulder, twists until his feet point one way and his gaze another. Sometimes I imagine he's trying to fit his way smoothly into complicated, confined spaces. Bach's English Suites are old friends of his; he shifted to them after years spent improvising to The Goldberg Variations. He may echo Gould's rhythms, tease them, or wander, knowing the trail well enough to bushwhack away from it for a few moments.

During Ash, his taped voice anchors his passage along gradually elongating diagonals of light that Carol Mullins lays on the floor. Now his gestures appear smaller, softer, brushing things away, wavering: signals awakened by memory. Words spoken without sentiment, of a childhood spent with a workaholic cop father and that father's dying, hold a wry tenderness. At the end, as he describes a dyslexic minister and the mordantly funny attempts to drop his dad's ashes out of a plane, his gestures shade into pantomime: the son takes on the shape of the plane, the recalcitrant remains, and their final freedom.

Like Paxton, Douglas Dunn danced in Merce Cunningham's company and toured with the brilliantly unruly Grand Union in the early '70s. His 1976­77 Lazy Madge took a stand against choreographic tyranny. He tailored solos, duets, trios, and so forth to whatever dancers could show up at any given rehearsal, then gave them the job of deciding in performance what to use and where to situate it at any moment. Rules were minimal.

The 1999 Lazy Madge begins, and St. Mark's instantly becomes a terrain for such bewitching events that I often don't know where to look first. As in a city plaza, clusters form and thin out. There's no music, just occasional talk. Twelve people (original cast members Dunn and David Woodberry, younger New York performers, and dancers from Stockholm, where Dunn revived the work in 1997) build an hour of dancing that reflects Lazy Madge's decision-making apparatus. A person sidles up to another with a "wanna dance?" look, and, presto, a duet.

Dunn has built indecision and testing into both process and choreography. Beth Simons lies on the floor, and Richard Gonzalez moves his hands above her as if sensing vibrations. Dunn and Anna Källblad have a dialogue in movement (If I put my arm here, where will you put your leg?). Michelle Olson's a mischief maker, Dunn a Quixote tilting at windmills— so thoughtful you can see him change his mind about a phrase in the middle of it.

Forget easy flow; grace stems from the image of people striving, coping— whether the steps are brisk and foot-busy, or expansive (there's no dearth of kicks or jumps). "Dancing" also includes intriguing gestures, like one I shorthanded as "aerobic air kisses." There's more richness onstage than I've seen in a long time. Remembering her experiences in the first Lazy Madge, Jennifer Mascall wrote that, struggling with a difficult step, she learned "it was the effort that was interesting, not the perfection of it." Yes.

In the 1930s, before it became unwise to admit any German influence, the Bennington Summer Festival gave its star choreographers an opportunity to make "mass dances" inspired by German movement choirs. Martha Graham's Panorama was one result, Hanya Holm's Trend another. These days, only conservatories and college dance departments can offer modern choreographers opportunities to work with an expanded company.

At NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, the Second Avenue Dance Company and its alumni put together as Town: Three Dances for Large Ensembles pieces Doug Varone has made over three years. Since the performers were all my students, I can't comment on their dancing, but the process has yielded an impressive work— far more profound than any of its parts seen alone.

Like Doris Humphrey in her 1935­36 New Dance, Varone envisioned different societies, beginning with one whose denizens are almost incoherent. Stiff, awkward, wobbling, they seem puzzled by their own inability to make connections. What unanimity they achieve is a response to chaos: splatting falls, incompleted signals. When the curtain closes on Arsenal of Democracy, and Julia Wolfe's driving string music halts, Faye Driscoll tries to head up the aisle, struggling to speak, her hands groping, her bafflement terrible to see.

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