PRINT December 1972

Notes on Recent Dance

BY SHIFTING ATTENTION FROM finished dance to the process of its achievement, choreographers produced the current radical shift in modern dance’s brief and intense history. The form, which had begun at the turn of the century as an exotic replication of natural phenomena, “Flame,” “The Moth,” mood “La Marseillaise,” or mythic personages “Radha,” developed a taste for dramatic confrontation and social commentary in the 1930s. The powerful personalities of Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Tamiris (Helen Becker), and Hanya Holm then dominated creative thinking and practice for the decade and formed the core of modern dance development. However, their insistence upon emotional expressiveness and linear development was increasingly less suited to sensibilities not annealed in the crucible of the 1930s ideological contention. The first significant departure from their strict dance constructionist philosophy came in the persons of Merce Cunningham and Sybil Shearer who began to place themselves and movement techniques in the forefront of their own creative concerns. The technique which dancers acquire to channel into narrative or mood pieces then started to exert an increasing demand for attention to itself during the decade of the 1940s.

Shearer had danced with Humphrey and Weidman, and Cunningham had been a featured soloist with Martha Graham but both felt the necessity of a dance form which would demonstrate the primacy of sheer movement over the domination of music or scenario development. Shearer took the more radical route, leaving the performing area of New York to form her company in a suburb of Chicago, and Cunningham opened his own studio in Manhattan to explore the possibilities of movement respecting its own internal imperatives. Shearer removed herself so thoroughly from the performing aspects of her art that her appearances became increasingly rare and her disciples rarer, while Cunningham attracted some of the most creative of the younger choreographers as he attempted to find a way back into the theater world on his own terms.

The stage conventions that he found increasingly restrictive had been created by dramatic necessities. He did not wish to create stage plays in motion nor did he see any reason to focus his use of the performing stage on just a small portion of its surface as dramatic confrontation demanded. He chose to occupy the whole of the stage and scatter his movement episodes over it without regard for the traditional ordering of important events to the front and supportive movements further away from the audience. He separated the elements of a production from one another by having his musical and scenic collaborators work for the most part independently. His musical collaborator would know the general climate of a work, whether it was light, intense, or ironic, and its precise length. His collaborator on costumes and scenic design would also know the climate of the work and the number of dancers involved. Each would, therefore, work within a broad frame that allowed considerable freedom and yet would produce a genuine collaboration. Cunningham in turn worked with his dancers in complete independence of any demands other than those of his choreographic design. What Cunningham achieved was the presentation of the dancer in terms of his own personal style of movement, not as a musical acrobat or as a character in a drama, but as a person moving through space in a regulated way during a set period of time. Where previously the dancer had an imitative or representational function he now had the burden of a performance placed upon himself as a person. In the short space of about 50 years modern dance moved from concern with the mythic “god” to the socio-dramatic person to finally the nonillusionistic person.

The emergence of the person seriously raised for some choreographers the question of the further need of technique, threw others into a minute examination of the elements of technique, eliminated emotion for others, and elevated personal emotional response to a saga level among another group. In each case, however, the focus of the work produced was on the person, either emphasizing the raw physicality of his presence or the mechanical emotionally cool intricacies of articulated movement bereft of casual relationships. One of the disciplinary devices used by Cunningham, and later by others, in creating dances was the regulating of dance movement and ordering by chance methods. The specific method employed was up to the individual involved. Cunningham himself spent months creating charts of possible movements and then tossed coins to select those that would form any given dance. Once the charts were devised there was no difficulty for other choreographers to use them to create their own dances. Cunningham even used the charts and coin tossing in his classes with students. Other choreographers constructed chance devices of their own, some as simple as a rubber ball with instructions to be followed depending on which came up when it was rolled, and others as elaborate as picture scripts prepared by cutting illustrations out of sports magazines and attempting to create a dance connecting such static images. Several choreographers asked for audience suggestions in parts of their dances. In each case the choreographer abandoned absolute and total control over the shape of dance in all its particulars. For the more creative, chance methods of composition offered the opportunity to take a certain distance from the form that they were in the process of making. It was an attempt to allow materials to exert some influence over the course of their ultimate deployment, not to force the ends from the means.

While Cunningham never abandoned the use of the proscenium arch or the standard concert stage, many choreographers were driven to reject the whole concept of the theatrical ambiance and to seek performing spaces that would not order space in so rigorous a manner. The stage, even though liberated by Cunningham’s free use of its entire surface and refusal to follow the order of priorities established by placing movements in relationship to their distance from the audience, had other properties which he found of immense usefulness. The framed or proscenium arch stage is a performing box surrounded by hidden stage machinery. There are innumerable possibilities for surprise and illusion and for the most part Cunningham made extensive use of theatrical magic. No one in the history of dance has made more exciting use of the wing space afforded by the usual theater. Cunningham would make his dancers appear for a moment far from the audience to perform a set of frantic combinations and then a moment later, thanks to the shielding of a backcloth and wings, allow them to reappear at another spot almost casually divorced from the frenzied action of a moment previously, as they leisurely paced off a small combination of movement. One of his most evocative and powerful pieces, Winterbranch, had a lighting design by Robert Rauschenberg which made imaginative use of the possibilities of the modern lighting board. Rauschenberg prepared a series of introductions on separate cards which the electrician controlling the board would execute regardless of what action was taking place on stage. The effect was to illuminate the dance fitfully and allow it to be glimpsed for a short or relatively long period of time without regard for the demands of choreography. Side lights, spot lights, full illumination, and at one time even a search light that flashed out into the audience were used. Because the design was variable no two performances were ever precisely the same. The climate of the work, however, did remain that of a stormy or nocturnal occurrence lit by flashes or glows but never seen in the sustained high lighting that could be associated with midday. Despite his widened focus Cunningham remains essentially a revolutionary within the theatrical frame.

Some of the first dancers who rejected almost everything to do with the “theatrical” movement and practice were Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti (Whitman), Trisha Brown, Deborah Hay, and Steve Paxton; the latter two had danced with the Cunningham company and most had studied at the Cunningham studio. The catalytic agent who brought creative dissatisfaction to produce sustained creative activity was Robert Dunn. His wife, choreographer Judith Dunn, was also with the Cunningham company and Dunn, a composer, was approached by John Cage to teach a course in composition at Cunningham’s studio. His teaching methods differed from previous dance composition courses in their nondirective manner and their serious consideration of all material that was presented as classroom exercises. Dunn did not have formulas; he had reactions and relied on gut feeling for effect rather than on correctness in his opinions about dance value. It was, in its essence, a course that used practicality for its chief standard. Whether a dance worked in audience terms or did not determined its strength and not the pedigree of its means. With such an inclusive view of dance, Dunn could accept in his courses such highly technically trained dancers as Hay and Paxton, and such lay movers as Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Morris, and Alex Hay. At the time of the courses, between 1960 and 1964, it would have been inconceivable for any other studio in the dance world to accept for serious study students who did not have previous dance training. The operative principle guiding Dunn’s classes was that if the student was serious then everything was permitted. For a generation that had been brought up to be docile in the face of established principles the freedom was disorienting. The expectation of rules and formulas caused many classes to dissolve into chaos but a working situation ultimately developed that eventuated in a public performance of the works that had been created. Since there was no financial backing for such an unorthodox collection of talents, an arrangement was made with Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square South to be the place for the first free public performances of the works.

While there had been concerts of extremely adventurous work in the late 1950s and early 1960s by individuals like Paul Taylor, James Waring, Rainer, and Brown, the July, 1962, debut performance of members of Dunn’s class marked the first concentrated burst of new directional activity that sustained itself for a sufficient time to achieve leverage in changing the course of dance development. Until the confirmation of Cunningham’s rejection of previously hallowed theatrical practice by a whole new generation of choreographers, the mainstream of modern dance still sought legitimacy in adaption of the work of Graham, Humphrey, Weidman, Holm, and Tamiris. Judson Church rapidly became the focus of attention for all those concerned with the changing emphasis of dance development.

Personalization of a dance expression was rapidly expressed in demonstrations of athletic activities such as running, climbing, crawling, or in powerfully unmoving pieces such as Alex Hay’s Colorado Plateau, in which the dancers became like counters in a game to be hauled from one spot to another by the choreographer and to stand or lie there immobile unless dragged elsewhere. Paxton eventually evolved the idea of performance by nonperformers and designed pieces which called for little rehearsal and simple adherence to a minimum of rules by a group assembled for the moment of performance. In one case, Satisfyin Lover, the performers were simply asked to walk across a stage area one by one in the most natural manner possible. In another, performers were allowed to move in place with the lights on but permitted to change places only during brief blackouts. Paxton became very interested in seeing how the individual reactions of nontrained performers would cumulate to produce a theatrical effect. He was not seeking the theatrical high fidelity gestures that any trained dancer can produce but rather the sum of the low voltage reactions of the nonprofessional. In ways he was one of the most radical of the choreographers who emerged in Cunningham’s wake, refusing to be bound by the illusionism of the older tradition and seeking to place fresh and untrained reactions into simple situations that could present them adequately.

If Paxton blithely ignored the traditions of the contemporary masters, Rainer fought against them with telling vigor. Where modern dance sought after stage excitement, she gave her audiences demonstrations of low key repetitive movement that actively bored not because she was unaware of what she was doing but because she deliberately sought to change the set of the mind anticipating titillation. If she chose traditional music it was not to use its cadences to order movement but to run against them and create a counter-order of movement developing according to its own rules. If choreography was used to create and emphasize male female differences then she would create dances that would be based on a unisex handling of the human body. To a great extent, much of the contemporary handling of movement for men and women has been to ignore the differences and to emphasize the similar motor and mechanical responses of both the male and the female body. To emphasize the differences would be to ask for dramatic confrontation, something that few of the younger choreographers wished to be trapped into. The mechanics of movement were the primary focus and little was to be gained by being drawn back into a situation in which the causative would replace the operative as a motivation for energy transfer. Trisha Brown would set men competing with men or women under exactly the same conditions in a series of encounters she called Rule Games. Paxton rarely set any quota on using either male or female dancers in any of his group works, nor did Simone Forti (Whitman).

Forti, before coming to New York, had experienced Ann Halprin’s experimental work in San Francisco and introduced some of Halprin’s original conceptions into the ferment of the pre-Judson days. She brought with her ideas of performance that were directed toward task fulfillment and simple repetitive activity. To one of Dunn’s classes she brought a dance and announced that she was going to read it. Word dance was as odd as word (Conceptual) art but in Dunn’s class it was given a hearing. Forti’s unorthodoxy was so striking that later other dancers traveled to the West Coast to experience Halprin’s workshops which centered around persons and interrelations in which they could envision dance as the climbing of a cargo net or the stripping off or donning of clothes. All activity within some form of related purposeful set could be thought of as dance. In the hothouse of continuous experimentation that centered around Judson ideas were tried, enlarged upon, turned around, accepted or rejected, found sturdy or wanting, given a retrial or abandoned with great rapidity. There were so many who were waiting for a hearing that the Judson Dance Theater could produce a series of six performances in a week without any repetition. By the time that Halprin herself arrived in New York to give a concert in the late 1960s, her ideas had been so thoroughly assimilated into the stream of activity that she appeared to be a retardataire experimenter who was going over ground that had been already tried and accepted.

Halprin like Cunningham and Shearer had been traditionally trained in her case under Margaret D’Houbler, head of the University of Wisconsin dance department. She had also studied at the Graham studio and danced with Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, although in later years she acknowledged that D’Houbler and a close observation of natural activity were her two main influences. Until the mid-1950s Halprin performed technically skilled dances of her own devising that were conventionally ordered thematically, such as The Prophetess which she presented in New York in 1955. She had been living with her husband, Lawrence Halprin, a landscape architect, in San Francisco since the mid-1940s but she still retained a creative handhold on the formal structuring of pieces as they had been designed by the previous generation. She had opened a studio in cooperation with Well and Lathrop, who had danced with Graham, and her most unorthodox gesture was to appear in a dance while she was obviously pregnant with her first child, Daria.

After her New York appearance she began to settle creatively into the life and countryside of Marin County, where she and her husband lived and where she had a studio and an outdoor stage, and slowly began to work toward a type of dance activity that would draw upon its environment. The challenge of space and objects as they actually were in terms of weight, texture, and shape indicated an area of creative manipulation that had open-ended possibilities. She designed Gardens Without Walls, subtitled Birds of America, in which she, her oldest daughter, John Graham, and A. A. Leath moved in a space with bamboo poles and a rubber ball without having planned out the entire dance completely. It was a form of improvisation in which the humanness of the person responding to objects directed the course of the dance. It was the start of a series of works in which she called upon composers like LaMonte Young and Terry Riley, poets like James Broughton, sculptor Charles Ross, and lighting designer Patric Hickey to collaborate with her in solving spatial problems.

The constructions of her dances were such that they would alter in relationship to the space in which they were performed and were made so that their length could also alter depending upon the conditions of performance. It was improvisation in which the resistance of materials or the demands of time dictated the activity that the dancers would devise; it presented the idea of indeterminate structure in a vital manner. The activity was not random in the sense of chance activity but was chosen activity with an immediacy of response. The individual was faced with making decisions on the spur of the moment, not having prearranged specific gesture to fall back upon. Halprin attempted to purge her dancers of any preconceived notions of what they were going to do, trying instead to keep them open and available for fresh reactions. She was extraordinarily receptive to all possibilities when the dominant impulse was to determine every dance down to its smallest particulars. Her performances were restricted to appearances on the West Coast and Europe until 1967 when she appeared in New York, at which time, as has been noted, her students had preceded her by seven years.

Like Paxton, Deborah Hay was intrigued by the possibilities of the nontechnically trained performer and eventually designed her choreography to be performed by people whose only skill was simple ambulating mobility. At first these pieces had extensive preparation and at times computerlike titles, such as 20 Permutations of 2 Sets of 3 Equal Parts In a Linear Order, and the performers moved through a given space with the precision and cohesiveness of a silent drill team. Most recently her use of people has extended more and more into the presentation of their rudimentary abilities in carefully thought out movement structures that require only the minimum rehearsal time. The pieces performed by Deborah Hay and ‘The Farm’ are a form of folk dance abjuring the technical and reveling in ordinary movements such as a simple step or a jump in place. What removes these pedestrian motions from the realm of commonplace is the intelligent ordering of the parts. By accelerating the time given to do a step she draws attention to its inherent possibilities for elaboration but resists pushing her performers to any type of technically polished display. It is a form of knowledgeable primitivism intent on examining the root of the continuum that can eventuate in the highly trained performer but which resists the demands of theatrical presentation. Choreographers like Batya Zamir and Judy Padow working in related ways find structurally sound material emerging from an examination of the demands that simple changes of direction and weight impose. For a whole school of choreographers the persistent examination of dance means at the elementary level is, in a nonsystematic but operative way, defining the area where random movement becomes transformed into dance.

At the opposite end of the new personalism are those who make extensive use of dance motion but severely modify it to reflect the changing demands for significant movement forms. Twyla Tharp, whose classicism emerges in the balance she strikes between technical dance training and the throwaway method of delivering movement, has worked with both the demands of the traditionally oriented stage and the freedom afforded by nonproscenium areas. In each, she finds that her work is best performed by the highly trained dancer who can both divorce the natural expressionism inherent in traditional training and retain the physical skill that it imparts. The Tharp dancer is unusually quick spattering out movements with the rapidity of a teletype machine, making units of sense out of rapid clatter, as well as being quietly strong. In her choreographic designs she tends to the extremes of allegro or adagio movement with little use made of the middle (human, emotional) range of movement dynamics. She controls her performing space with a torrent that overwhelms and covers it with showers of gesture, or conversely takes possession of it with slow, sustained movement of glacial assurance.

Her work is a sustained examination of new time that is either faster or slower than it is usually experienced in the normal movement rhythm. Her work alternates between the clinical fractional second activity of the computer and the imperceptible growth of vegetation. In both cases the individual finds himself performing on a heroic level either that of speed or slowness. The dancer is not asked to represent anything or anyone except himself to a heightened degree. It is a form of excess that accepts the legitimacy of the trained dancer’s body but asks suprahuman activity from it in the way that competitive athletics pushes normal strength, speed, and grace to the limits of their potential. Life in Tharp’s choreography is a shaping of vital force in its most complex or simplest expressions.

Because of the inner cohesion of her pieces Tharp finds it acceptable to perform them in varieties of locales from the intimacy of the standard theater to plein-air spaces in parks. The organic organization of her work is designed to exist at times in arms length proximity to the spectator or at vista length in the manner of activity in a landscape. The theater for her is simply another space in which to present her work and not an implacable arbiter regulating what is possible to present. In an extreme case, Group Activities, she closed the orchestra and balcony of her theater and provided space for spectators at the sides of the stage that she and her dancers worked on.

Tharp refuses to hide the ordering means that govern her dance. If she has designed movements to be performed in a set period of time she may equip her dancers with stop watches which they consult openly and regulate themselves by, or again will have one of them supply others with time checks called out periodically. Her use of sound is extraordinarily eclectic incorporating the unemotional ticking of a metronome at one time, the human voice at another, or selections from the classical musical repertory at another. During one dance, the spectators following it around the Wadsworth Atheneum found the steps repeated in a dance chart of painted footprints on the floor nearby laying out the movement in diagrammatic fashion. In a dance performed with popular music from the 1930s she repeated the same sequence of steps to the Haydn string quartet that they were originally set to; while the dancers were performing a narrator told exactly what had been done in the making of the piece and the reason for it. Beneath the seeming guilelessness of it all, however, lurks a choreographic intelligence and inventiveness of such protean energy that it has made Tharp the focus of the main stream of modern dance development.

As institutionalized revolutionaries in their tradition of serious theatrical dance, modern dancers have in each generation been faced with the problem of creating a vocabulary of movement that reflected their creative concerns. Modern dance is a body of choreographic concepts which varying techniques make visible. As a creative movement without a commonly agreed upon vocabulary of gesture it must in each of its manifestations create those bodily configurations which will speak unambiguously and represent the creative energy behind them. As a conceptually, and not predominantly a technique-oriented form, modern dance found little difficulty in encompassing the movement concerns of painters and sculptors, like Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Morris, Alex Hay, and Robert Huot among others. Moving into dance concerts without traditional orientation these artists easily added a creative nonconformity and freshness of dance materials to performance. Rauschenberg was able to collaborate with Cunningham in the simultaneous performance activity of Story in which the dancers’ setting was created by Rauschenberg and their movements by Cunningham. For one series of appearances the activity was the painter working on stage at a painting. With such a performing commitment, it was a logical step for Rauschenberg to design pieces for himself and other dancers examining motion and its presentation in various ways. In his case and others, it was a matter of using time as it existed, not as it could be stretched or shortened by musical or rhythmic dynamics. The time of their pieces was the time that it took to perform certain actions. The training that was demanded was only that which was sufficient to perform the tasks whether it would be walking on stilts or roller skating. The naturalistic styles that emerged from artists’ activities were analogous to those that could be found in their graphic work. None attempted to create a school or dance style of movement but contented themselves with presenting the person in his activity as a new type of performer.

In his dance pieces Robert Morris concentrated on situations in which the person moved in relation to a restraint imposed by time or the physical properties of material. While in San Francisco he had participated in theatrical events such as those devised by Halprin, but in his own work he opted for a cleansed and economical use of movement. He did not litter his stage area with objects strewn randomly but placed his props carefully and used them precisely. Often his pieces contained a self-monitoring sound, such as sawing or hammering, as he moved large plywood panels around the performing area, or Muybridge slides of a man throwing rocks and the sound of rocks splashing in water would be heard subsequently in the piece as Morris made throwing gestures. There was always an enormous respect for the “thingness” of objects and even though they were being handled in an overall design they were treated with consideration for their specific properties of mass or resistance.

Morris used time in a nontheatrical sense. He did not expand or contract it out of its literal and everyday duration. Sound was used for atmospheric coloration, not as a regulating element as regards movement. The dance lasted as long as it had to in order to accomplish task-oriented activity. His initial work was designed for himself or perhaps one other performer and he did not seek to utilize a large mass of people until he had been making pieces for several years at which point he dropped performance pieces entirely. His largest and last movement work Check was designed for 40 people divided into two teams. In order to change traditional audience focus he placed his spectators in the center of the performing space and had his performers infiltrated among them. At the sound of a whistle each of the team members would terminate whatever it was he or she was doing and assemble on opposite sides of the spectators who were sitting in a rectangular formation and follow the motions of each of the team leaders. Periodically the leader of each of the groups would perform a simple activity such as running or moving in place and Morris would change the look of the performer with lighting. In one case he divided up the motion with a slatted light and in another stroboscopic flashes “froze” the motion at intervals.

Throughout Morris’ work there was a resolute resistance to probe the “meaning” of the motion but only to present it in as clear a manner as was possible. These precise unemotional works with their odd but direct sequences of motion were some of the most striking achieved by any of the group who were testing the possibilities of unambiguous movement. The pieces did not refer to any order outside of their own. They had a self-contained and self-sustained momentum calmly pursuing their own trajectory in an unhurried manner. At times Morris used startling means such as the totally nude male and female body but the emphasis was always on the body as an operative mechanism placidly going about its tasks in the most direct and unadorned manner.

Among traditionally trained dancers, the person was elevated to a new degree of stylization. Rudy Perez took the ordinary, such as an advertising photograph and created a dance that detailed the probable or improbable events that led up to its final form. Narrowing his creative focus to commonplace events and rigorously pruning extraneous detail from them he steadily created a series of dances that assumed a mammoth simplicity. In each the starting point was the person whose gestures were isolated and magnified into an almost archetypal level of abstraction. The style of movement was strong, firm, and decidedly unlyrical. A blunt athleticism was stressed and stillness replaced the flow that normally was expected to carry the impetus of a dance from one point to another. Far from eschewing emotion Perez uses it as the motor energy that drives his dances to evolve, and applies it so as to enlarge the dimensions and force of his dancers’ actions but not to create baroque flourishes of movement. The logic of his pieces is like that of the dream, associative and not linear. Beneath their hard assertive surface lies an energetic intensity that finds simple direct action more expressive than florid gesture.

Like him in her interest in the person, Meredith Monk has elevated personality and its manifestation to the level of contemporary saga and revels in the use of the baroque gesture to illuminate the journey and transformations of sensibility into movement form. She has a natural sympathy for outsized means (a child’s hobbyhorse became a flesh and blood mare in one presentation) and finds herself extrapolating the ordinary into the extravagant to make clear the ripples and lurches of the individual personality. It is a form of theater which goes to extremes to illuminate the ordinary. In similar fashion choreographer fabulists like Kenneth King, Phoebe Neville, and William Dunas fashion the daily into bizarre rituals that document the twists and turns of sensibility as it reflects, distorts, and projects objects and states of being into allegory and fable. Exotic humor in à rebours creative talents like James Waring, David Gordon, Aileen Passloff, and John Herbert McDowell is turned on faded theatrical conventions that become epic caricatures of themselves in the light of current experience. Their elaborate pageants using the past serve as vessels for contemporary questing after stability and order more than a clumsy nostalgia for the styles themselves. They celebrate the composure of a time past in an effort to construct a similar order out of its fragments. The humor often has a bitter strain to it concealing the wound under a swaddling of sequins. There is no real attempt at deception that these recreations are anything but contemporary readings no more than other choreographers attempt to hide the person behind the illusion of a technique formed to express the concerns of another time and set of movement conventions.

As a creative form modern dance is extraordinarily sensitive to changing conceptions of reality, reflecting these both by a change in its subject matter and a change in the means used to frame it. It exists in an uneasy alliance with any formal technique, using it in order to develop certain physical skills but ordinarily reserving total commitment to the assumptions which underlie any organized system of body training. The course of modern dance is one of permanent revolution as new concerns demand new movement vocabularies to flesh them out. The current generation of choreographers has removed itself from the look of institutionalized emotional stress that the previous generation had evolved in favor of a more naturalistic appearance. At times the naturalism is quite pedestrian especially when flocks of nontrained performers create one of the movement designs shaped by Paxton or Hay. At other times the offhand naturalness exhibited by the Tharp dancer serves to camouflage the exceptional discipline required to produce such an effect. But no matter how they present their movement concerns, bluntly or in elaborate games, the contemporary creative generation has pushed the committed illusionist aside in favor of the individual. For better or worse the person with his muscles and gamesmanship showing has replaced the pantomime actor and the dancing “god.”

Don McDonagh