On ViewNew York Public Library For The Performing Arts – Vincent Astor Gallery
April 19 – September 16, 2017
“Photographs really are experience captured,” writes Susan Sontag in On Photography. The camera’s appropriation of living moments, freezing them as images, “feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.” When still images are extracted, they are dissociated from their context and, over time, distill the events they represent. Photographs of dance sometimes run the risk of obscuring the dynamism and physicality of the ephemeral art form. Indeed, the dance event is “captured,” because experiencing the flow and movement of dance is, for people like myself, a kind of treasure.
These thoughts linger as I walk through Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955-1972, on view at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ Vincent Astor Gallery. The exhibition comprises a dense collection of scores, letters, drawings, props, film footage, and, most prominently, photographs that trace the development of Postmodern dance from Anna Halprin’s experimental summer workshops in Northern California, to classes at Merce Cunningham’s dance studio and the inception of the Judson Dance Theater in Lower Manhattan.
Halprin is the nucleus of the exhibition, which begins by charting the choreographer’s path to her famous hillside dance deck, ninety-one steps from her home, just outside of San Francisco. While her husband, the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, studied architecture at Harvard with Walter Gropius in 1942, the couple was influenced by the Bauhaus ideas of interdisciplinary collaboration and the utility of ordinary objects, ideas that would become instrumental to the pedagogy of her summer workshops. The construction of the dance deck was, in essence, a collaboration between architect and choreographer, where the intermingling of public space and the body could be organic and tactile, making the venue accessible to a vast range of artists.
The photographs of the summer workshops taken during the 1960s show the dance deck littered with active bodies, which allow us to see what a site of pilgrimage Halprin’s deck was. It is where New York dancers, artists, and composers such as Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, La Monte Young, John Cage, Terry Riley, and Robert Morris flocked to study task-based improvisation and to experiment with collectivity in their individual practices. A vitrine in the gallery displays scores, working notes, and letters to Halprin from several participants, each revealing the impact of her teaching on the artist’s work. It is humbling to read this correspondence, to see images of these artists engaging in a shared practice among the redwood trees. The collaborations on the deck come alive. A particularly striking image is Warner Jepson’s photograph of Halprin, Forti, and A. A. Leath performing Halprin’s Branch Dance (1957). A substantial branch appears to sprout from the deck’s horizontal planks, each of its stems reaching both outward and into itself as it fills the image’s plane. One dancer, Forti, grasps the branch as she lays on her belly, her gaze fixed on the curve of its joint, while her leg is caught mid-lift in an attempt to join the branch’s limbs. Or perhaps she’s the one supporting the branch’s upright behavior, her elbows straining to keep it erect. The remaining dancers crouch from behind, where the branch bisects the dancer’s conjoined bodies as their limp wrists mimic the curve of the overlapping sticks. Each dancer’s body is charged with unequivocal purpose, and I wonder what sounds were made as their bodies labored through every movement. In a letter to Halprin in 1960, Forti writes, “It sounds like you guys went up there and really did something to these people. Changed their perceptions and their lives. It’s sad when art is just looked at and classified.”
As Radical Bodies moves chronologically from California to New York, we see Halprin’s methods appear in the work of Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer. After returning from California in 1960, they continued their work in a class taught by Robert Dunn, a protégée of John Cage, who encouraged Cage’s practice of indeterminate structures, minimalism, and perception of the environment in which art is made. Forti began utilizing built structures in her performances, creating a series of Dance Constructions, driven by tasks, where dance and sculpture merged. In one of these Constructions, Slant Board (1961), dancers make their way across a wooden ramp that is slanted at an angle against a wall, using knotted ropes to assist in their movement. The structure was built by the artist Robert Morris, who was married to Forti at the time, and it is the most substantial prop featured in the exhibition. The board animates the accompanying photographs of the performance, making it one of the strongest representations of a work in the exhibition. There is pleasure, too, in considering this structure against the geometric plywood sculptures Morris would make in 1963, seeing the threads of Halprin’s collaboration extend even further.
There are no props to navigate us through Rainer’s contribution to the legacy of Postmodern dance, only photographs. The vast array of dances she choreographed in the 1960s, before switching her focus to filmmaking in the following decade, are displayed as a wall of disparate images, which makes the work feel distant, somewhat illegible. These images show bodies caught in liminal movement among unsettled objects, time is upended, and the image itself feels dreamed. On the subject of the photography of Rainer’s Trio A (1966), Carrie Lambert Beatty argues that the dance’s enduring movement of quotidian and formal dance gestures produces a “continuous photogenic moment,” which altogether resists being captured coherently. “If conventional dance freezes the performer into mere images,” Beatty suggests, “Rainer’s was meant to offer contact with the facts of the body in motion, its physical effort.” It is as if Rainer’s work resists being exhibited by its own nature, as if refusing to become past tense. Viewing the works of Rainer, Forti, and Halprin is like stepping into an exhibition catalogue where all of the context is provided yet nothing moves. While the photographs keep us in a perpetual present, the gift of this exhibition is its presentation of a narrative of collaborative influences that feels alive and active. Among these images of still bodies suspended in motion, history can be seen, and it is moving.