The Deep Roots and Airborne Particulars of Judson Dance Theater
The Museum of Modern Art,
The Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium
Something in the air wafted into New York’s cultural scene as the 1950s became the 1960s with the dance world no exception. Fluxus artist Dick Higgins called the gray areas emerging between other art forms “intermedia.” In the case of Judson Dance Theater, those media were dance and “everyday” movements—with the stark boundaries between them disappearing. Running. Walking. Pulling. Carrying. Even combing. Standing! And talking—dancers making… sounds?—bordering on still other media? Add a reverence for collaboration and democracy and we sense impending transformation.
In 1962, “something in the air” in downtown Manhattan pushed from a vague possibility into a documentable hard beginning of what happened next; the boundary between these stages was not as firm as some histories suggest. Steve Paxton questions in a video how their spokeswoman, the Village Voice’s Jill Johnston, single handedly pronounced their relevance “over” by 1965. Does the era continue today? For evidence, search MoMA before the exhibition ends February 3. Better yet, get there before January 25 for the performance program in which contemporary dancers perform in older pieces or new works by established choreographers.
Much then “in the air” was attributable to avant-garde composer John Cage, revere-er of Erik Satie, student of Zen with D.T. Suzuki at Colombia, part of the post-war Black Mountain College community, and friendly with France’s Greenwich Village transplant, Marcel Duchamp. By ’59, Cage, with radical musical ideas regarding chance, seeped into the repertoires of downtown visual artists via his New School Composition class.
In fact, a focal point in the Judson dance story, Al Carmines, accomplished composer and pianist in his own right, entered as the church’s assistant minister, and started producing the Judson Poets Theater in a ground floor gallery where Higgins, Al Hansen, and Happenings artist Allan Kaprow first showed their intermedia work, directly influenced by that Cage class.
These developments circumscribe this MoMA extravaganza: while modern dance had become very institutionalized by this time through the work of aging matriarchs of that period, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Hanya Holm, who emerged in the ’30s and ’40s and still held the narrative-centric reins of dance education, trailblazers like the Living Theater’s James Waring and Ann Halprin in California joined Cage disciple, musician and composer Robert Dunn in exploring new movement ideas.
Merce Cunningham, Cage’s long time partner and Black Mountain collaborator, had been making work since the late ’40s but was still a pariah to those within the dance world’s inner circle. A decade later, he was finally being accepted. Yet, a strong feeling persisted among young dancers who took ballet and studied with him they were still outside the establishment.
Cunningham formed his company at the experimental Bauhaus spin-off, Black Mountain in North Carolina in 1953, where he explored the near limitless possibility for movement of the human body. Cunningham immediately began collaborating with non-dancers including visual artists, architects, designers, and musicians. With Cage, he focused on random or serendipitous operations—not the artist’s personal “genius”—that generated the material, leading directly to the abandonment of traditional form and narrative. Though non-representational dance had been seen before, it was not commonly used by Martha Graham or in ballet, Cunningham’s two main influences.
Starting in 1951, Cunningham used indeterminacy then chance operations, plotting space, time, and positions via coin toss. Cunningham and Cage’s most radical innovation was that dance and music need not be intentionally coordinated with one another. Sequences were often rehearsed so that they could be put in any order and done at any time and married to the music later. Cunningham’s choreography also changed the use of space. The entire stage was available for action and could be viewed from anywhere, forcing audience members to choose where to “see the dance.” He gave movement sequences to performers with the freedom to decide how many times, in what order and where to do them. He allowed costumes and sets to be determined randomly until just before each performance. Cunningham valued the process of creating a work over the product or results.
These ideas were being transmitted through a workshop in the Cunningham studio, conducted by Dunn and his wife Judith. Just as the Cage-influenced visual artists weren’t composers, the choreography leader Dunn was not a dancer. Nevertheless his workshop had gone on two years when, in Summer ’62, enough participants with enough work began looking for a place to show it.
So with that prancing elephant in the room, first rejection then acceptance changed everything. In early ’62, a few from the Cage-Dunn nexus in Cunningham’s studio auditioned for the annual Young Choreographer concert at the Upper East Side 92nd Street Y. When all three or four were refused, they knew creating their own “situation” was imperative.
They approached the progressive head minister, Howard Moody, of Judson Memorial Church, the socially engaged Protestant congregation in Greenwich Village that had dared to counsel Vietnam war conscientious objectors and pregnant women before abortion was legal. Moody and Carmines welcomed the dancers, with Carmines saying later he did not “understand” their audition but knew it was important enough for their Tuesday night workshops to commence. In a fascinating video interview, Carmines also explains how the group escorted worship in his congregation beyond the spoken word toward “religious truth.”
Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done, admirably combines video installations by artist Charles Atlas, with film (Stan VanDerBeek, Andy Warhol), photography (Peter Moore, Fred McDarrah, Al Giese), sculptural objects, musical scores, poetry, and archival treasures to tell the before, during, and after story of the 1962 – 65 period. Multiple-week segments over the past and coming months featuring choreography by six principles plucked from the various galleries: Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay, David Gordon, Lucinda Childs, and Trisha Brown breathe real live flesh and blood back into the framed ephemera and video projections.
Props, stills, and projections in black and white surround the viewer, highlighting relationships between soloist and ensemble, Judson’s influence and what influenced it. An anteroom of precursors including Cage, Cunningham, and the Dunns, as well as Waring and Halprin, sets the stage, establishing Judson’s deep roots. Then, upon entering the vast main exhibition space, Rainer’s humor permeates. Paxton emanates technical prowess then circumvents it. Baritone David Gordon’s comic scenarios in Random Breakfast, mirrored TV antics leading to Susan Sontag’s “camp.” Lucinda Childs’ movement explorations via colander, sponges, and hair rollers leave a mark.
Eye-opening contributions including Simone Forti, Robert Morris, Phillip Corner, Carolee Schneeman, and Freddie Herko are a tiny fraction of the 300-person supporting cast that propels viewers into the burgeoning group’s structures—based on everyday tasks, games, and social dances—that undressed dance’s theatrical conventions just as Cunningham and Cage had separated music from movement and exploded the Proscenium arch.
Whatever was then in the air still grounds us and transports us—from poetry, political rumblings, unorthodox exhibits, and new entertainment ideas to that all-important ingredient: random everyday life.
MARK BLOCH is a writer, public speaker and pan-media artist from Ohio living in Manhattan since 1982. His archive of Mail/Network/Communication Art is part of the Downtown Collection at the Fales Library of New York University.