If Greenwich Village's Judson Dance Theater had never existed, dance would be radically different today. The wildly inventive '60s group broke away from the conventions of modern dance and produced a number of talented choreographers in the process, including Trisha Brown and David Gordon. Steve Paxton, generally considered the godfather of the rough-and-tumble dance style known as contact improvisation, is another alum, and he is still deep into the experimental process.

This week, Paxton joins dancemaker Lisa Nelson and a collection of performers, including Portland's Linda Austin, for The Tuning Score, an invention of Nelson's in which dancers use activities and verbal cues that alter the performance as it unfolds live, injecting it with a welcome spontaneity. Performance Works NorthWest is devoting 10 days to Tuning Score dance research, performance and workshops featuring Nelson and Paxton. The dancers "tune" the work as it happens and deconstruct it later.

Paxton, who's collaborated with Nelson since 1978, began doing The Tuning Score in 2000. And it seems fitting, since, like contact improv and the chance dance of Merce Cunningham (with whom Paxton also danced in the '60s), it's never the same twice. Whereas Cunningham changed the order of steps based on a coin toss, here performers generate movement terms they all agree to use. Then they improvise movement, which can rapidly change shape depending on which terms they call out during live performances. "Repeat, reverse, replace, dancers added or subtracted" are among the terms audiences might hear during a show, Paxton said via email, "meaning that the performers are orchestrating the event.… It has a game element, and can be comedic, and the unpredictable is always close."

The chance to do something fresh continues to motivate Paxton, who has been performing in Spain, Belgium and England recently, and who still participates in contact improv jams. He has found greater freedom—and funding—to experiment in Europe. "A lot of work is going into presenting the same materials, which means less opportunity for, or focus on, invention," he said of the American dance scene. "The Tuning Score is an exception to this rule."

The Tuning Score

(along with

10 Tiny Dances

) will also appear at the Woolly Mammoth Benefit at Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., 239-7639. Sunday, March 2. $10-$20 sliding scale.