Elaine Summers

Judson at 50: Elaine Summers

Left: Elaine Summers, Fantastic Gardens, 1964. Performance view: Judson Memorial Church, February 17, 1964. Sally Gross, Carla Blanc, Ruth Emerson, Tony Holder, Sandra Neals. Right: Elaine Summers rehearsing in her studio at 50 Third Street, New York, 1966. Photo: Dan Budnik.

Elaine Summers was born in 1925 in Perth and was raised in Boston. In 1952 she moved to New York and attended workshops led by Robert Ellis Dunn, a musician for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The workshop group later formed the Judson Dance Theater. A choreographer, filmmaker, and pioneer of intermedia performance, Summers is also known for developing the Kinetic Awareness movement practice. On September 6th and 7th her 1976 work Windows in the Kitchen will be presented as part of the American Dance Guild Performance Festival at the Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater.

As part of’s ongoing interview series celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the first concerts at Judson, Summers here recounts her experiences with the group and the “friendships that were based on finding out how to work.”

BEFORE JUDSON, I was in the very first Robert Ellis Dunn choreography class in 1960, which was based on John Cage’s teaching. Of course, at that time we were all working with Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown, who was lovely. I met most everybody at Juilliard, which gave me a good way to choose where to go and try to dance. One of the things that convinced me that I really wanted to be a choreographer happened during the first class. I was working on my first film with Eugene Friedman and I made a dance for it based on the legend of Ondine. Steve Paxton said very kindly—not unkindly—to me, “Well, I didn’t like that much,” which was very unusual. It was my first dance. I got puzzled, so I went home and thought about how I could change it. I thought: I like it, and I like what I’m thinking about in this piece. So, I did it again—fixing a little but not much. When I finished, Steve said, “Well, I don’t like the dance any better, but you sure danced the hell out of it.” Wasn’t that a lovely thing to say?

In that class there was a space for all the strange structures we were making. Trisha Brown did a dance where the sounds from the street cause you to cross your legs or raise your arm. That whole class—it wasn’t like people came and all we did was Cage—they were all people who had ballet training. We were highly trained dancers choosing not to use a certain formula for being creative—that made a big difference at Judson. There were just these fresh minds and the works of people exploring things. That’s what the Cage thing gives you: It’s a way to break through all that you’ve been taught.

They were all very sophisticated, really. And they were in their twenties. (I was in my thirties and didn’t know that was too old then.) At that age in your life, you and your friends push one another in new directions and open doors. I used to feel that way about Merce’s concerts: You go there and it’s like he opens this garden door, but he doesn’t go very far—you have to look in—and then next dance he’s over here. That was his way of living, because he had so many things that he was curious about. He was a very curious man.

I was working over a stretch of time with everybody at Judson. That was one of the great things—the friendships. Friendships that were based on finding out how to work, and the important thing about work was the ideas. Judson was like this wild field of things, of people, and they’re all weeping and jumping and thinking and reading and going to the movies and everybody’s concerts. It would be very funny when a whole busload of very serious Baptists would come through the main part of the church and we were all rolling on the floor. It was so accepting and non-interfering. Now of course there’s a lot of difficulty because of the fire laws.

Someone once asked me to write my bio, and I said that my biography is my choreography. They didn’t like that at all. I think everybody’s got amazing paths: All of the beautifulness of all those scattered people. One day, I was walking down Cornelia Street where I was living and along came Meredith Monk—oh, Meredith!—and she said, “How are you doing?” And I said, “Oh! It’s just wonderful—I’m not working, I’m just making a concert.” And she said, “What do you mean you’re not working?” I said, “Well, I’m not. I’m taking the year off, and it’s costing $3,000.” She said, “Oh, Elaine! That’s working!”