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.