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Steve Paxton

Physical Things (background)

Steve Paxton, Music for Word Words, 1963. 
Photo © Robert McElroy/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
Steve Paxton was one of the founding members of the Judson Dance Theater, and it was in this context that he met Billy Klüver who, in 1963, helped create one of his choreographic works, Afternoon (A Forest Concert).

Somewhat removed, apparently, from the use of technology in art practice, the choreographic works of Steve Paxton presented dancers with situations that altered their usual modes of perception, in the process attributing a major role to the body. Numerous strategies were employed, ranging from the repetition of everyday movements like walking (Transit, 1962) to the choice of a forest as a performance venue (Afternoon, A Forest Concert, 1963) and the dancer’s immersion in a plastic sheath that shrunk to become a second skin (Music for Word Words, 1963). In 9 Evenings, Paxton worked these strategies into a large-scale performance that enabled viewers to transform their perceptual apparatus by plunging them in the working of a participatory experiment. By this means he not only made common cause with two major currents of the 1960s, namely, those of the “happening” and “expanded cinema,” but found in technology a territory conducive to his own interests. How, he asked himself, does technology alter our perceptual habits, and what impact does it have on our bodies? Instead of using representations to answer these questions, he suggested that viewers try experimenting on their own bodies — hence the very explicit title, Physical Things — by taking the airplane, that quintessential symbol of technology, as their model: “With regards to air pressure and topography this piece is not an airplane, is pretty much the opposite of an airplane, but much of the rest is analogous.” (1)

Clarisse Bardiot © 2006 FDL

(1) 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, edited by Pontus Hultén and Frank Königsberg ([New York]: Experiments in Art and Technology: The Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, [1966]).