Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson: The Alchemy of Mundane Objects

posted by Wendy Perron on Tuesday, Oct 22, 2013
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Steve Paxton & Lisa Nelson in Night Stand. Photo © Paula Court. Courtesy Dia Art Fndn

The one-hour Night Stand has the crystalline economy of a haiku but also the feel of a ballad. The Ballad of Steve and Lisa, the ballad of man and woman, the ballad of present and past, the ballad of theater and nature. After working together for decades, Paxton (the father of Contact Improvisation and a founder of Judson Dance Theater) and Nelson (originator of Tuning Scores, which she is teaching this week at Movement Research) give off a whiff of something archetypal: two survivors, two aging lovers, the old man who’s also a prankster and the nurturing woman who gathers fruits and nuts. 

In Night Stand (2004), presented by Dia Art Foundation at Dia:Chelsea, objects are slowly revealed. Two door-size panels that they hide behind, a box of Kleenex donned as a hat; a long, curved stick; a bucket lit from within. A large, low, rollable platform eventually comes into view.

They enter each other’s “personal space” tentatively but with assurance, feeling out the climate a few inches away. They use distance as much as closeness. (I see why they need a 50 x 50 foot space: You want that depth to see them walk away. You want that width for them to co-exist in separate worlds.)

Just when he is at his most staunch, rooted, unswerving, she scurries upstage, hips swaying in a funny/sexy waddle. She still knows how to enjoy her own body. He seems trapped in his, until he finds a way to expand with a big piece of fabric that turns out to be a kimono. While he is making shapes inside the kimono stage left, she’s intently balancing that curved branch on her head stage right.

Sometimes they just face each other, arms out with stillness and readiness. What next? Sometimes she echoes his movements—ever so faintly.

Mostly they move at a slow, even pace, conscious of every shape they are making in the light. But sometimes her red-socked feet skitter along quickly, and once he turned his head toward her sharply as she was pushing the platform toward him.

Night Stand is improvised, different each night—and the few tender moments are different too. The first night I saw it, Lisa extended her arm somewhere vaguely into his territory. He took her hand and kissed it; she turned her head away. The second night he cupped his hands for her face to walk into, then he molded his hands to the sides of her body. She lifted her elbows.

There are times when Carol Mullins’ lights are so dim that all you see of Nelson are her red socks, or all you see of Paxton is the Kleenex box on his head. Other times the light is beautifully intense, like when Lisa picks up a Kleenex with her stick and waves it high like a banner in a patch of blue light. It’s so mesmerizing to look at that you feel the alchemy of a mundane object imbued with magical powers.

The sound compilation, which includes the wailing of seals, is often inscrutable. But for those of us who remember the previous Paxton/Nelson collaboration, PA RT. we hear little blips of Robert Ashley’s ringing voice, like a split-second ghost version of his luxurious chanting for that earlier collaboration.

Toward the end of the second night, Lisa, squatting on the platform, tilts over the edge as though about to dive into water. He pushes the platform while she, remaining precariously perched, is dead still. Then she slow-tumbles toward him until she is lying on her back next to him. He takes the puffed up plastic bag she has discarded and taps her with it on every part of her body. Funny…sweet. They are both still as the lights fade. But wait, in the near darkness, is he holding her hand??