Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done
Eds. Ana Janevski and Thomas J. Lax
Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done
From 1962 to 1964, Judson Memorial Church hosted a series of performances that challenged the conventions of dance. These “Concerts of Dance,” performed by a group of artists collectively known as Judson Dance Theater, centered on choreography that involved quotidian movements and simple prompts. Incorporating everyday objects and music, these interdisciplinary performances were imbued with a spirit of experimentation and collaboration. Curators Ana Janevski and Thomas J. Lax take on the difficult task of bringing this period in the early 1960s and the ephemerality of performance art to life in “Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done” at MoMA. Flipping through the accompanying catalogue is like paging through the contents of an archive. In spite of the small size of most of its illustrations, the two-hundred-page volume immerses readers in documentary photographs and archival material like posters, musical scores, drawings, and Village Voice clippings. Rich with illustrations and thoughtful scholarship, it proves to be an integral part of telling the Judson story.
Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done opens with six reproductions of programs that each fill an entire page—simulating the experience of holding a program in one’s hands moments before a performance, transporting readers to Judson Memorial Church at 55 Washington Square South. The mimeographed pages feature a litany of prominent performers including Ruth Emerson, Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer, and other well-known visual artists like Carolee Schneemann and Robert Rauschenberg. Using primary source reproductions as front matter prepares readers for the catalogue’s heavily archival contents, but above all points to how such material is paramount to piecing together Judson’s history.
What follows is a series of short essays by the curators and other scholars that elaborate on specific aspects of Judson Dance Theater: from its beginnings in Anna Halprin’s August 1960 workshop on her dance deck in California and Robert Ellis Dunn’s fall class in Merce Cunningham’s New York studio, to the influence of Simone Forti and her Dance Constructions. The essays by performance scholar Danielle Goldman and art historian Kristin Poor are particularly compelling. Goldman points out that many dancers were actually trained under Cunningham’s tutelage—thereby highlighting that Judson was not a total repudiation of style and technique. This is evident in the catalogue’s photographs showing lithe dancers clearly exhibiting form and holding recognizable ballet poses. Poor’s essay focuses on the incorporation of objects, or “sculptural props,” into performances. The catalogue’s images show performers engaging with a variety of commonplace objects. A photo of Lucinda Childs’s Carnation (1964) shows her holding sponges with a colander on her head. Readers see performers hauling and stacking mattresses in images of Rainer’s Parts of Some Sextets (1965). Poor describes how artists activate such objects during a performance, and compares the practices of Robert Morris and Rainer to illustrate the relationship between performer and object. For Morris, an object enabled a dancer’s movement; hence the performer took precedence over the object. For Rainer, this hierarchy is inverted in which the object or objects (like a pile of mattresses) can supersede the performer.
The book’s profusion of images and interpretative texts allow readers to mentally reconstruct Judson performances. Research fellow Vivian A. Crockett introduces two of the most documented performances at Judson, Concerts of Dance #3 (January 29, 1963) and #13 (November 19–20, 1963), with an account of each concert’s dances and musical accompaniments. A succession of several photographs by Newsweek photographer Al Giese of #3 and by Judson documentarian Peter Moore of #13 are presented in chronological sequence. They provide a visual account, almost like a film, of what transpired during those evenings. Giese’s portfolio shows John Worden and Rudy Perez lifting Elaine Summers in her ruffled tent dress in Summer’s Suite, William Davis and Barbara Dilley performing a duet in Field, and dancers splayed out across crumpled newspaper in Newspaper Event. Moore’s images, many of which were taken from an aerial perspective, capture the kinetic energy of the performers as they climb, dangle, and swing from Charles Ross’s trapezoidal structure. The integration of everyday and art objects into Judson performances is especially underscored in a photo of Childs tying a rope to a cardboard box in Egg Deal and other images from Room Service and Intermission that show rubber tires, a ladder, and a pile of wooden and metal chairs in Judson Memorial church’s sanctuary. Descriptive accounts by curatorial researchers accompanied by snapshots of oft-mentioned performances like Rainer’s We Shall Run (1963) and Morris’s Site (1964), and others like Fred Herko’s Binghamton Birdie (1963) or David Gordon’s Mannequin Dance (1962) continue in the catalogue’s selection of annotated works. The entries not only describe the actions in a performance, but also offer insightful biographical information on Judson artists.
But a collection of photographs, ephemera, and texts can only do so much. As multimedia artist Sharon Hayes writes in the catalogue: “photographs of performance never perfectly represent the performance. They may resemble it, but they crop out as much as they make visible and render some aspects central while excluding whole realms of sensory experience.” As much as the photographs and printed ephemera necessarily record an invaluable history, it cannot replace the audiovisual material and performance program in MoMA’s galleries and atrium; with the catalogue, they work in tandem to enable audiences to revisit and experience this brief, but nonetheless electric, period of time.
Nicole Meily is a writer based in New York City. She worked on the Andy Warhol Film Project as a curatorial assistant at the Whitney Museum of American Art.