Redefining Innovation

The Avant-Garde Takes Center Stage

Merce Cunningham, it's agreed, is still moving into new territory via computer-generated images, having tampered with Western expectations of time, space, and causality for about 50 years. Brown: "He's our hero." Paxton: "He just insisted that everybody come along with him. And you couldn't ignore him. He was too good. It was too brilliant. It was too well-put. It would raise the hair on the back of your neck even if you didn't have the vaguest ideas of what was happening. . . . And, yes, he made us see things in a different way. And I think he still does that."

Paxton makes the point that increased travel opportunities have changed our mind-sets. How can plotted unfamiliarity "compete against an all-night Zuni ceremony or an all-night Balinese temple performance? . . . I think we're beginning to understand that the idea of taking off your clothes and dancing doesn't cut it anymore. The stakes have been raised enormously by our information." I'm reminded of spectators at an enthralling hours-long Javanese shadow-puppet play at Jacob's Pillow some summers ago. They came prepared—eager—for the unfamiliarity, the occasional tedium, the discomfort, "which," Paxton interjects deadpan, "the avant-garde used to provide."

Onetime hell-raisers Brown and Paxton continue to evolve, while Baryshnikov dances Paxton's 1964 Flat, or maybe Brown's 1965 Homemade, from Anchorage to Chicago to Paris—asserting the lineage of today's postmodern choreography. The strategies that Brown brings to directing opera (Monteverdi's Orfeo) and to choreographing with David Douglas's jazz score (Rapture for Leon James) are dazzling offspring of the structural and philosophical complexities that guided her early work, even though the nature of the quest changes. "I know the stage. I know my mind reach," says Brown. "I know the people that I'm working with, and know how to—not be avant-garde—but how to create havoc and straighten it out and undermine and reconstruct and all that. . . . One could go on into the sunset, and then that question comes up: 'Well, why are you doing this if you know how to do it very well? If it's not for the money, why are you doing it?' And it's really to communicate, it's really the wish to express ineffable subjects."

Steve Paxton with chickens, live and fried, in Robert Rauschenberg’s Linoleum (1968)
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
Steve Paxton with chickens, live and fried, in Robert Rauschenberg’s Linoleum (1968)

Paxton says he never needed to think of himself as avant-garde; he slipped into a time, place, and bunch of empathetic colleagues. "I don't think I've ever changed whatever it was that happened to me in that first five years, [although] I've had a lot of other kinds of changes." His love for Bach's music endures, "but the connection is well-established. It is now an old marriage and I have the seven-year itch and am feeling a little promiscuous these days, listening to anything, kind of looking for a new mate.

"Maybe the avant-garde is the people who are not naturally self-imprisoning," muses Paxton, "and who are inviting the rest of us out from our own confinement." If vanguardists are scouts, he wonders, what intelligence are they bringing back? "Maybe it depends on what the society needs, where its perimeters have been drawn. And people would bring back information from beyond that."

At the beginning of the millennium, iconoclasm and perilous missions are not in the air. Reviving '60s vanguard work for a general public transforms it into a theatrical event. Communication is a priority, and, right now, alienating audiences—a side effect an avant-garde often endures—just doesn't seem to make sense.

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