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Islands of Imagination: Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Blake Nellis shares his perspective on Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson’s performance of […]

Photo: Paula Court

Photo: Paula Court

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Blake Nellis shares his perspective on Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson’s performance of  Night Stand (2004), part of Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

SPOILER ALERT: This piece will never be the same.  If you saw it last night, you should go again. Keep in mind that what I am about to write happened last night between 7:50pm and 8:57pm (give or take an hour).  It was a time warp in a theatrical jungle filled with wise, old children, living props and movable obstructions for the imagination.  Oh, and they danced.

We line the staircase, buzzing with excitement.  The lobby seems full of people eager to witness something unknown.  What we do know is that we are here to watch Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson inhabit the McGuire Theater for an eight o’clock show.  And it’s almost eight.  What they will do and how it will look is a mystery to us all, including the veterans of improvisation already on stage.

And so it begins… We enter the theater together, some carrying coats, others still wrapped up tightly to fend off the wintry air they carried in from outside.  We hang our coats and head to our seats.  There is a beautiful lightscape happening on stage.  It’s very dark, but there appears to be a moving constellation spiraling towards us.  The piece has been happening, before we came through the doors and long before we arrived here tonight.  The last few audience members trickle in and a few brave souls wander to the stage to sit (with great alignment) on a few pillows that have been placed in front of the first row.  “Oh cooooool,” I hear a woman next to me say.  I look at her and see that she has just realized that Paxton and Nelson have been on stage the entire time.  The lights fade and the second scene begins (or was that the prelude?)

Nelson is wearing a black and white striped t-shirt, dark pants, dark stocking cap and bright red socks.  She is almost comical, but holding a stick she becomes a serious sort of wizard.  Paxton sports a dark top and bottom with his signature slippers.  He looks a man who has been dancing for more than fifty years and understands how he works (he’s the same age as the Walker Art Center, 75).  The two dancers take in the space and move carefully.  Nelson is nimble, articulate, and spritely.  We ask ourselves, almost audibly, “and how old is she?”  Maybe we have traveled time and space.  They move these carpeted flats around stage, creating new rooms and do-si-do-ing smoothly while we watch and listen. The sound is spacious, even sweet at times.  The invitation to observe is clear and generous.  We see them building something and watching each other, as we watch them. This is a gift.

In this beautiful museum we are watching a living exhibit.  It has an exquisite light design by Carol Mullins which was highlighted during my favorite moment in the piece.  It’s what Nelson calls “an event.”  This is one of the few things that Paxton and Nelson expect to happen during the course of the evening.  Even though it may be apparent from the outside as well, its beauty and play allows us to get lost deeper inside their world.  The sound collage morphs and warps through moments of French, whispering and moaning.  It’s nostalgic and ephemeral but sometimes strange and emotional.  Paxton and Nelson never seem in a hurry to show us any one thing.  (Will they get to that box of tissue and five-gallon pail? Who knows.) Their consciousness shifts like a group of children deciding to play a game.

Night Stand transcends narrative.  It allows us to look in from afar or join them on their islands of imagination.  The demeanor of these two performers inspires exploration and curiosity.  They design playfulness, attention, and friendship.  They infuse just enough weird with the beauty.  Images linger in my mind, during and now.  As they are ending, I feel confident and content.  But how do we know this is the end?  They have taught us how to see again.

AFTERWORD: Nelson and Paxton joined the community for: drinks, questions, compliments, laughter, the usual.  I approached and asked for an autograph.  (What else could I do?!)  But instead of handing over the pen I proposed we make a 60-second drawing together.  They obliged.  Each of us with one hand on the pen, waiting, listening, wondering “what the heck is happening?”  In the end, I have two drawings, one by Steve & me, the other by Lisa & me.  They look like memories of the night I saw Night Stand.

Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton continues tonight, November 22, 2014 with Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson’s second performance of  Night Stand in the McGuire Theater.

Potential Energy is the Best Kind: Blake Nellis on Bound by Steve Paxton

  To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Blake Nellis shares his perspective on Jurij Konjar’s performance of Steve Paxton’s Bound (1982), […]

 

Jurij Konjar in Bound. Photo: Nada Žgank

Jurij Konjar in Bound. Photo: Nada Žgank

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Blake Nellis shares his perspective on Jurij Konjar’s performance of Steve Paxton’s Bound (1982), part of Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

The piece begins with sound and darkness.  The lights take their time fading up.  And then we can better see the four 2×4’s strewn (or placed intentionally) about the edges of the black floor.  Against the upstage wall there appears to be a rectangular screen covered in camouflage material.  In walks Jurij Konjar, dressed in red tights, white t-shirt, and suspenders holding a cardboard box around his midsection.  He appears to be a tired a superhero from a lesser known comic book.  His face is expressionless, although intriguing and handsome, as he stands motionless for us to look at him.

Konjar begins to unfold his cardboard box revealing flaps covered with camouflage material.  He is careful in transforming his box, but not too careful.  To complete his persona he donnes a vintage pair of sunglasses and black swim cap.  Now, it appears, we are ready for take off.

I wonder “how would Steve dance this if the year was 1982?” as my eyes dart around the black stage finding wood, camo, and a projector being rolled to center stage.  The back wall becomes an optical illusion, almost.  Konjar places himself in front of the screen, virtually disappearing.  The movements here are accurate, specific, and spell-binding.  We know this is being made up.  We understand the power of improvisation.  We are waiting patiently as this dancer points, stretches, and carves the space without giving us too much to digest at once.  He faces away from us so we can see the projection on his white shirt and find his arms extending ever so slightly from those short sleeves.  It’s time for him to move the projector.  He gathers the chord, pushes it off to its resting place stage left and walks diagonally behind the curtain.  We will see the projector again.  And we will see this piece being composed in front of us.  Konjar takes his time, like Paxton always does, to let us guess what might come next.  The potential energy is palpable, even though in the back of our minds we know this could be the Bound climax.

The dancing flirts with gesture, repetition, and surprise.  The dancer searches the space for another place to almost do something.  It is a pleasure to watch him calculate and observe.  He finds a rocking chair and baby cradle, both wooden and slightly creaky.  This becomes a game of sound, rocking with a few swift pushes from his hand.  Audience members begin coughing, clearing throats, even melodious sneezes add to the sound score.  (My partner and I are distracted and shifting in our seats, hoping that the “coughers” will take a breath.) We see nothing fazes Konjar.  He rocks until his heart’s content.  We know he’s on to something.

My favorite part of the work felt like a dancing dream, complete with costume change (Konjar wears all white for the remainder of the show).  The “White Section” has what we hope every dance piece would have: a person on stage inspiring us, dancing in a way that we cannot, or at least we cannot fully predict.  We can follow the dance like we can follow jazz, best if we close our eyes.

Here I take the time to imagine the Paxton/Konjar journey:

shifting dynamics

energy ascending the spine

playing with gravity

being serious with gravity

listening for rests

[                       ]

looking for the end/beginning

Konjar navigates the stage like a firefly trapped in a man’s body.  He jerks and twists and slides across the floor.  I know these sensations.  His physical intelligence is gripping and still mostly filled with potential energy.  Like a young Steve Paxton, Jurij Konjar invites us to see each move for the first time.  His physical orientation is often mysterious and off-balance.  I enjoy watching as his head whips around to see what is behind him.  It seems to surprise him, too, and his body torques and recovers like a fish out of water for just a moment.  All the while, an expressionless face.  [Could his body possibly express even one more thing without his face finally breaking just a little to reveal some inner secret?]  But we keep watching as the sweat soaks through the white t-shirt.

The effort feels generous.  The spine and signature of Paxton, present just enough.  Konjar unravels a spool of twine as he walks backwards and then forwards.  With his swim cap he makes his way to the finish line.  It is beautiful and poetic.  We remember now the unfolding of the cardboard box as we realize we have seen the unfolding of a master’s piece.  A new piece has been made.  Bound (2014).

Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton continues with Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson’s performance of  Night Stand (2004), Friday–Saturday, November 21–22, 2014 in the McGuire Theater. Writer Blake Nellis is a Twin Cities based dancer, choreographer and educator. This year’s Choreographers’ Evening, curated by Kenna Cottman, will include an improvised work by Nellis and long-time collaborator Taja Will.

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