Steve Paxton on Robert Ashley Opera-Novel Quicksand
Quicksand is Robert Ashley’s final work, “an opera-novel for music, dance, and light” with narrative drawn from a mystery novel written by the composer. The story is told in Ashley’s own voice, recorded before his passing in 2014. Steve Paxton, perhaps best known as a founding member of Judson Dance Theater and developer of contact improvisation (and recipient of the 2015 Bessie Award for Lifetime Achievement), choreographed Quicksand and David Moodey designed the light environments. Steve and I spoke on January 29th 2016, the day after the opening performance.
You knew Robert Ashley for decades and worked together in various ways, but how did this first major collaboration come about? What made you decide to take on this project?
We worked together on some films in the ’70’s and I had made some dances to his operas, but I didn’t know too much. I went to a lecture he gave and when we were saying hello afterwards he asked me to do it. It was as fast as that. This was about a year ago; he was working on the second version of this piece. Before that he was working with a choral version.
Can you talk about how you approached the opera and your source material for the dancing?
I was to make some kind of dance or physical manifestation but Ashley didn’t specify that it had to do with the opera. It’s a tale of a revolution in a southeast Asian country and it’s a first person narrator who is a writer of operas, so, obviously Ashley himself. What interested me was: what is it like to write about yourself in the first person? What is it like to write about yourself as a fictitious author? It’s quite bizarre. Especially the epilogue of the opera; it is a letter that purports to be from a woman who he has had a romantic attachment to, and she to him. They have a grandfather/grandchild kind of relationship but there was something happening, which they do not enact. Anyway, there’s a letter from a young woman in another country to Ashley in New York after the adventure is over, and it is so tender! Almost sentimental. It’s quite bizarre to see him as the author writing this tender letter to himself from a character that he has invented. I think this is what is interesting about this story; the politics isn’t anything particularly overt, there’s some violence and all of that but what is interesting is his relationship to his persona as the author. That was my image. One of my dancers spent a long time miming typing. He does it four times through the three-hour evening.
I am curious how you see the dance as related to this mystery novel narrative, this story of espionage, torture, oppressive government, revolution, a fully-formed story that you did not invent.
I see it as a potluck. There’s the Ashley text, the Paxton dance, the Moodey lighting. They come together and make a meal of some sort but they aren’t necessarily related. We have a female character and female dancer and a male character and a male dancer and it’s hard not to superimpose them on one another but that wasn’t how I worked it. I let it happen to some degree.
Can you talk about your collaboration with Maura [Gahan] and Jurij [Konja]? How did you develop material with them?
We started in September and worked through the first week of October. It was rote learning. I made material and they learned it. I made the cloth which was the backdrop of the whole thing, hung it in my studio, and we made dance around it. The score is actually very unkinetic; it doesn’t stimulate movement, particularly, so the dance doesn’t relate to the narrative the way dance normally does and it doesn’t relate to the opera most of the time. It can be seen as… Say you’re on a train and listening to something, you have your earbuds in, and you’re looking out the window at a field of cows. It’s that kind of relationship. It’s as though something is happening and there’s an alternate reality or an as yet unconnected reality going on. It will connect but it doesn’t all the time connect.
Your assignment was the same as David [Moodey]’s assignment: to make 16 scenes. Was your process aligned at all with David’s?
There was an email before Ashley died which was the only instruction we got; there was to be 16 sections to be combined and recombined and repeated. He wanted a kind of symmetry throughout the piece. Moodey and I were given the same assignment and we were told the parts should be separate. That is, of course, impossible, I don’t know what Ashley was thinking [laughter].
How did you decide to perform in it yourself?
I wanted to be backstage with the dancers. There’s business to be done backstage; changing the drop and working with it in various ways. I am present and I am seen by the audience but I am not doing anything. I am not performing. The dancers do all the action.
How did you and your collaborators approach carrying Quicksand to completion after Robert’s passing?
Well you know, I had the feeling before he died that he wasn’t going to be here. He seemed okay the last time I saw him and I didn’t get any real indication that he was unwell. I heard that he died and that left the project on hold for awhile and then Mimi Johnson said “let’s go ahead and do it.” It is a bit sad that we knew each other since the ’60s and we never really got to collaborate. I knew him in Ann Arbor, I knew him in California, I knew him in New York, we had known each other through our lives, and I just wanted to go ahead with it. The way he set everything up, he didn’t have to be here. He had finished recording, his voice was here, and that was the way he wanted it to be performed. A three-hour piece would be really difficult to do as a live reading. It would be impossible. This is the production he envisioned and I think we did it. I would love for him to see it, of course, but it is pretty much structurally what he was going to make anyway.
It’s like he left the completed score to be carried out.
Yes. And also the imponderables: how do you resolve the light and the dancing? These are completely married events onstage and yet his instruction was that they were to be independent, so how do you negotiate that paradox? That was a lot of fun to consider.
Do you think he would agree that that’s an impossibility?
I think he would in a mellow mood agree that it’s a weird thing to say. He would have some justification for it, he would not want the dance and the light slavishly dependent upon each other, which is a common way for dance and light to work together.
Is there other information that you think is important to share?
Ashley was at heart a Midwesterner. He has that very cool appreciation for absurdity. Last night, the first night audience, it was a great relief to hear them laughing, that they got his humor. If anybody comes, don’t think that that is unintended. He always had a sense of the absurd and of great fun.
It’s funny and it’s okay.
Yeah! Yeah, it is funny. It’s not your typical funny but it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Music and Libretto by Robert Ashley
Orchestra composed by Tom Hamilton
Choreographed by Steve Paxton
Light Design by David Moodey
Performed by Steve Paxton, Maura Gahan, and Jurij Konja
Sound design and live mix by Tom Hamilton