PRINT September 2018

Presence at the Creation

Anna Halprin, The Branch, 1957. Performance view, Halprin family dance deck, Kentfield, CA, 1957. From left: A. A. Leath, Anna Halprin, and Simone Forti. Photo: Warner Jepson.

THE GRAMMAR OF IT ALL is nearly impossible to parse, slippery in the mind and unwieldy in the mouth. Questions—though not always the right ones—abound. The first: What was Judson Dance Theater? Those inclined to diffidence might say it was some dancing that took place in a church, Judson Memorial, located in the Village. For others, what went on in that inner sanctum was no less than the most significant convulsion in the history of twentieth-century dance: not just movement, then, but revolution. July 6, 1962 was the first Judson performance, straightforwardly advertised as “A Concert of Dance.” In the clotted air of a New York summer night, anything can seem possible.

Invocations of permissiveness and fecundity stick to descriptions of Judson like sweat to skin; writing in the pages of this magazine in 1972, Don McDonagh called it “a hothouse of continuous experimentation.” For a time, the reigning sobriquet was the New Dance, a term that helpfully conveyed a break with tradition, but lost traction as it became, unavoidably, old. More than fifty years on, a sense of verdant innovation nonetheless clings to the choreographic approaches that are often cited as the earliest incarnations of “postmodern” dance.

Steve Paxton, poster for “A Concert of Dance #1” (detail), 1962.

Origin stories unravel quickly. Because, sure, the “first” concert at the church was in 1962, but the beginning of Judson is arguably rooted in another time and place. Dancing, after all, starts not onstage but in the studio. So perhaps it really all began in the composition course taught by Robert Dunn and Judith Dunn at Merce Cunningham’s space, where dancers learned Cagean strategies of chance and indeterminacy. Paulus Berensohn, Simone Forti (then Morris), Marni Mahaffay, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer took the first course in autumn of 1960. There was also the short-lived class taught by Cage himself. Also crucial, though less well known, were the experimental methods James Waring taught at the Living Theatre and the dances he, Aileen Passloff, and Fred Herko performed there. On the other coast, the locus of activity was Anna Halprin’s outdoor dance deck in Marin County. Beneath the leafy canopy, Forti, A. A. Leath, La Monte Young, and many others explored modes of improvisation and kinesthetic awareness under Halprin’s generous tutelage. To this list of arable soils, add the concerts held in Yoko Ono’s Chambers Street loft, the proximity of Happenings, the activities of the Judson Poets Theater, and all the many hours the progenitors of the New Dance spent learning the not-so-old ways from Martha Graham, Louis Horst, Doris Humphrey, José Limón, and, of course, Cunningham himself. Primal scenes engender mythologies. Judson has plenty of both.

To cut through the mists of “once upon a time,” it might be useful to pose a question that puts us squarely in the here and now: What is Judson? That is, what does it signify in the contemporary cultural imagination? Judson today retains the enticing aroma of radicality. Amid a desert of capitulation and cynicism, its unbridled experimentation and compositional strategies shimmer with potential to fulfill that primary dream of the avant-garde—the yoking of aesthetic form to political praxis.

Whether oasis or mirage, this coupling is, in the dominant interpretations of Judson, premised on a kind of egalitarianism—most clearly manifest in the group’s recuperation of allegedly “ordinary” movement and in its nonhierarchical organization. Performances often incorporated pirouettes en dehors or Cunningham-esque curves of the spine, cheek by jowl with “pedestrian” activities such as talking, walking, and running. Though most of those involved had extensive backgrounds studying dance, there were also performers without any formal training (including artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Morris). Moreover, in contrast with the typical dance company, at Judson there was no singular choreographer or director to whose creative vision the dancers were subordinated as mere instruments. The group also eschewed conventional rankings among soloists, principals, and the corps in favor of a more horizontal structure that was itself an extension of Cunningham’s compositional dispersal of attention across the stage. Nor was there an emphasis on the maintenance of codified technique or repertoire. Those who still believe naively in dance’s purported ephemerality have surely never encountered the stern gaze of the ballet master, a technology of reproduction in human form, responsible for ushering past movements into the present with unnerving exactitude.

Gorgeously heterogeneous, Judson, when given the opportunity, reveals exceptions to every rule

There’s likewise something political, it would seem, in Rainer’s “No Manifesto” of 1965, in which she sates one’s appetite for avant-garde refusal by screeching an emphatic no: to virtuosity, to spectacle, to glamour. Her hurled noncompliance matches the canards flung at so much art of the 1960s: that it’s boring, and that by spurning visual pleasure it takes a considered stance against pleasure as such. Of course, Rainer’s choreography contradicted or tested her published precepts as often as it cohered to them. Moreover, despite their dominance in the Judson literature, Rainer’s writings were never meant to speak for the work of others, which could be lush or eccentric as often as it was staid. Perhaps Trisha Brown put it best when she wryly referred to the group as “a pool of unlike-minded people, totally democratic with a lot of grumbling going on back in the dressing room.” Gorgeously heterogeneous, Judson, when given the opportunity, reveals exceptions to every rule: It was a concatenation of individual authors and distinct works, a restless assaying of ideas.

Yvonne Rainer, Terrain, 1963. Performance view, Judson Memorial Church, New York, April 28, 1963. Trisha Brown. Photo: Al Giese.

Alongside the participatory event scores of Fluxus and the antiprofessionalization of theater in Happenings, Judson’s nonhierarchical and collaborative methods of artmaking are often cast as attempts to realize the kind of utopian alternative community that would proliferate in the later part of the decade—in upstate communes as much as in the choreographic collective Grand Union (an outgrowth of Judson even more dedicated to eradicating sole authorship). The historiography of Judson rustles with such hopes, themselves bound up in the promise—and now the nostalgic dream—of the ’60s. Explicit in Sally Banes’s foundational 1993 account (the title of which, after all, is Democracy’s Body), such thinking also subtends Maurice Berger’s chronicle of Morris’s dancing, as well as Thomas Crow’s broader social art history of the era. Recent years have seen a profusion of monographic studies, including Janice Ross’s on Halprin, Meredith Morse’s on Forti, and Susan Rosenberg’s on Brown. The most influential has perhaps been Carrie Lambert-Beatty’s incisive study of Rainer, which knowingly swerves away from the rhetoric of direct action and participation, locating Rainer’s radicalism elsewhere. Rainer’s choreographic interventions operated most profoundly not on the body of the performer, Lambert-Beatty argues, but rather on the eye of the viewer, a timely act of resistance in the face of an increasingly spectacular and mediatized environment. Art-historical treatments of dance are sometimes unsatisfyingly discarnate, but they are hardly dispassionate.

You might say my consciousness was raised an inch. Early political awakenings are so often like this: selfish, reductive, inadequate—seismic nonetheless.

Passion abounds. Rightly so, as the stakes are high. I, too, have walked the imagined pathway from aesthetic form to actual liberation many times and have found the route compelling, even comforting. Even here, surfacing rightful ambivalence about the project of art’s political efficacy, I share gluttonously in the fantasy of it; my days are terrifyingly animated by it. Long aware of Judson, I only tumbled down the warren of its labyrinthine history at the exact moment, many years ago, when I wanted (or so I insisted, in the warble of the brokenhearted) absolutely nothing to do with dance. Felled by a tyranny called facility and wrecked by a desire for supremacy, no longer could I abide the soft pouch of my belly or my uncooperative feet, not the slight bend haunting the backs of my knees, nor my innumerable other deficiencies, technical and otherwise, which glared from the mirror daily; no longer could I stand the stench of resin, nor, above all, my own foul belief that pain was the bargain price to be good, suffering a necessary rent paid for the meager shelter of other people, a deranged Protestant work ethic of relentless betterment the ineluctable cost of living at all. It was like a miracle to read Forti recalling, “I could not hold my stomach in. I would not hold my stomach in,” in classes at the Martha Graham School, and to see in that not failure, but refusal. Her dissent, like a sucker punch, left me gasping. Could a body be good enough just as it was, however it came through the door? Could a person? I almost don’t believe it, still. You might say my consciousness was raised an inch. Early political awakenings are so often like this: selfish, reductive, inadequate—seismic nonetheless. One starts to see the enduring sense of her own unworthiness as not, perhaps, a banal facticity, however rude, but rather as the destructive outcome of an unjust logic that administers our shared catastrophe, by which I mean the world.

It’s not nothing; and, of course, it’s not enough.

Yvonne Rainer, Terrain, 1963. Performance view, Judson Memorial Church, New York, April 28, 1963. Yvonne Rainer. Photo: Al Giese.

THE ACTUAL DANCES, it should be said (with unveiled subjectivity), are more than enough, an embarrassment of riches. Voluptuous, effulgent, and idiosyncratic, equal parts cerebral and slapstick, they are alive to the pleasures of aleatory composition and to the specificity of bodies, celebrating their every wildness. One gleans much from contemporary performances, video documentation, and the extant reception history. Jill Johnston’s criticism is still the best this archive has to offer. Animated by an undomesticated spirit matching that of her subjects, her vital, often zany prose was supported by a deep knowledge of dance (she studied with Limón and turned to writing only after a foot injury). The valuable writings of Wendy Perron and Deborah Jowitt—as well as that of other dancers and choreographers, some in the Judson group and some from younger generations grappling with their legacy—offer further evidence that there is no contradiction between fluency in language and in movement. Dance’s history, of course, resides in the bodies and minds of dancers, its records housed somewhere between muscle and proprioception, ligament and memory. Yet dancers have just as often put their thoughts into printed word, lucky for us.

Judson offers much, and its contributions are vast enough that they are surely not diminished by probing the rhetoric that sometimes surrounds them. Perhaps the intimations of political import that attend Judson’s lore even demand it. For example, the celebration of “ordinary” movement necessitates questions about the normativity of ability; the suggestion that anybody can do it becomes a kind of violence when the referent is, say, running. How cruel it is to declare walking around “effortless,” when for many it is exhausting or impossible. (Within the group, Elaine Summers has arguably been the most politically efficacious, if by that one means improving the material conditions of bodies and lives, which the development of her therapeutic somatic system, Kinetic Awareness, has no doubt achieved—healing injuries and staving them off, often lengthening careers.)

De-skilling, besides being an unforgivably hideous word, also reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of political economy, insofar as it is used in the context of artistic production to mean a purposeful repudiation of skill (those who herald this gesture as emancipatory seem to forget that unskilled labor is the mainstay of capitalist production, in both its post-Fordist and Fordist guises). Yet the story goes that since artistic technique was long an elite, exclusive province, the rejection of it might be democratic. While committed to the critique of mastery, I nonetheless wonder if we ask too little about who is permitted to make such rebuffs. You can’t boycott a party you weren’t invited to in the first place, and, likewise, denunciations of aptitude only register when authored by those afforded the presumption of talent or technique. Not all are furnished with such generous expectations, as the troubling, persistent denigration of black forms of cultural production evidences. Skill is a relative concept. Its taxonomies arbitrate value to benefit power.

Peter Moore, view of Steve Paxton and Robert Rauschenberg in Rauschenberg’s studio, New York, July 8, 1966. Sculpture: Steve Paxton.

Another of Judson’s ostensible legacies is that of the “neutral doer,” in Rainer’s words—the dancer with a placid demeanor, doing much but suggesting nothing. Understood as the articulation of a committed antihumanism and championed as a critique of the rampant expressionism of both New York School painting and modernist dance, this performance style opposed the transcendental aims of these artistic antecedents (especially Graham, with her torqued contractions of suffering), which sought to externalize both inner emotions and universal truths. Reducing the Judson performer to a blank-faced executor of quotidian tasks elides many of the dances, including and especially those of the ever-fantastic Waring and Herko. At what point might the exigencies of challenging expressionism dissolve into a reinscription of all the tired ways that artifice and theatricality have been historically naturalized as qualities inherent to femininity and queerness? Put reductively, do we only want dance when it sheds all the things that are hated about dance, its girliness and its gayness; when it has so adamantly rejected the tenets of dance (or so the narrative goes) that it’s barely dance at all?

The issue was never whether dance belongs in the museum or gallery, but rather what we do with dance—and how we treat dancers—once it’s there.

And now another question, this one nagging: What do we want from Judson? Gravest of all errors is the assumption embedded in that coercive pronoun we, by which I suppose I mean the art world, into which I am implicated, and so are you. These horses are very dead, and yet I am still beating them: dance, in the museum! For a time, the thrill of it seemed to be that of interdisciplinarity, endless panel discussants reveling in the intermixing of forms, everyone patting themselves on the back for driving the final nail into the coffin of modernist orthodoxy. Then, when the inevitable backlash arrived—charges that dance was being reduced to just another attraction at the carnival that is the twenty-first-century museum, to mere entertainment at galas where donors half-watch while sipping champagne—symposium participants had an easy retort: Because dance and art were always intertwined, the logic went, the modish yen for dance programming was unequivocally justified. But of course, this was a misunderstanding. The issue was never whether dance belongs in the museum or gallery, but rather what we do with dance—and how we treat dancers—once it’s there. Just because things have enduring, plaited histories doesn’t mean that the power relations between them are balanced, as anyone with a father, an ex, or a boss could tell you.

This month, the Museum of Modern Art opens an ambitious undertaking, “Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done.” I think of Rainer writing in the introduction to Work, 1961–1973 (1974), that “it goes without saying that a dance is a dance and a book about dance is a book.” To extend her logic, a dance is a dance and an exhibition about dance is an exhibition.

Al Giese's contact sheet of, from left, Deborah Hay, Lucinda Childs, and Yvonne Rainer, New York, March 3, 1965.

Exhibitions, of course, do many valuable things. At their best, they make arguments spatially, allow materials to jostle against one another and coax out new ideas with each nudge. They can manifest years of research in ways distinct from that of a book or a performance, and in the case of Judson, there are many such archival gems to be discovered. For instance, there was, in fact, a second “dance theater” active in the winter of 1964. The names on its roster will be familiar from the Judson milieu: Lucinda Childs, Alex Hay, Deborah Hay, Dunn, Morris, Paxton, Rainer, and Rauschenberg. Despite the “downtown” figures headlining, the evenings took place at Stage 73 on the Upper East Side. Organized by Paxton, the performances were an attempt, in his words, to present more “commercial” programs. The concerts at the church had always been free. At Surplus Dance Theater, as Paxton named the endeavor, the audience had to pay.

What do we want from Judson? I find myself greedy—but then again, I have already gotten so much. Placed in the museum or gallery, dance might, the cynic suspects, have been herded there only to feed the ever-rapacious experience economy, to which arts institutions are now so maddeningly indentured; perhaps all this is nothing but the succumbing to the perverse pleasure of watching bodies at work and then calling it culture. I, however, choose to believe that curators and audiences are hungry for dance in (mostly) good faith, because they have tasted, like I have, all that it offers, everything it suggests about the possibilities—and the hazards—of making things with other people; how knowledge is transmitted over time; what it is to be in a room, watching, and the real responsibility in that.

So the real question is not what do we want, but what do we owe? The work that is truly never done is that circadian, grisly shuttling from desire to ethical obligation and back again. Defending at all costs the ungovernability of the former, while discouraging apathy toward the latter: These are our impossible, necessary—indeed, only—projects. I don’t know if art can accomplish them, but if it wants bodies and all their political connotations in its galleries (and it seems that it does), it will have to answer to their call. Modest demands might look something like this: Pay attention to dancers, to dancing itself, and to the specificities of dance history and forms.

Better yet, just follow Paxton’s lead and pay dancers.

Catherine Damman is Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Wesleyan University's Center for the Humanities.