After flirting with the subject for several years, New York’s Museum of Modern Art has organised an exhibition that justifies its rather exclusive fascination with a handful of early 1960s young choreographers who took the radical breaks of the preceding generation to their logical extremes — and then beyond.
Curated by MoMA’s Ana Janevski and Thomas Lax, the thoughtful, imaginative Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done includes live reconstructions of the pieces that Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay, David Gordon, Lucinda Childs and Steve Paxton premiered in and around the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village.
But the three galleries of secondary sources (posters, films and a plenitude of gorgeous black-and-white photographs) suffice to capture if not the most exciting thing to come along in dance for decades — as the Village Voice’s Jill Johnston claimed — then at least the most excited. The Work Is Never Done transmits “the high one feels being in on a beginning”, as Beat poet Diane di Prima wrote of A Concert of Dance #1 in 1962.
That severely generic titling, which persisted for Judson’s duration, pokes gentle fun at the plain-spoken high-mindedness of an earlier generation from whose shadow these twentysomethings hadn’t entirely emerged. In half of the exhibition’s documentary photographs, performers sport the traditional modern dance uniform of black leotard and footless tights. In the other half they have taken the bold step of donning street clothes (formal and elegant from this vantage). An atmosphere of liberating chaos pervades the scene, the players so intent on their eccentric tasks that the audience (largely men in ties) lean forward expectantly in their uncomfortable wooden chairs.
Projected directly on to the walls and dividers, the outsized films lose the choreography in arty effects. But there are glorious snatches: Robert Rauschenberg ardently embracing a small woman as they swing dance in a dark room, or artist Robert Morris clad in painter’s overalls manipulating a white board that eventually falls away to reveal feminist performance artist Carolee Schneemann posed as Manet’s Olympia.
But the black maid didn’t make the cut. For anyone inclined toward nostalgia, the films and photographs serve as a stark reminder of how white the dance avant-garde once was. Alvin Ailey had recently premiered Revelations and Martin Luther King was on the march, but at Judson Memorial Church there apparently wasn’t a black dancer or choreographer in sight.
Thankfully, Rainer’s Early Dances, 1961-69 (until today in the museum atrium) makes amends with a multiracial, multi-generational cast. The eight reconstructions couldn’t possibly have “annihilated all preconceived notions of dance”, as Village Voice critic Johnston proclaimed, but, as with the best of the collective’s work, they did stretch to the point of unrecognisability the revolutionary procedures of their antecedents — specifically Merce Cunningham.
For his use of chance — a toss of the dice — to order steps, the Judsonites deployed “scores” that tasked performers with making all sorts of choices on the spot. In Rainer’s Diagonal, individual dancers called out the next sequence like waiters to a short-order cook.
For Cunningham’s unchaining of dance from music, Rainer set choreography to thoroughly unrelated text. At MoMA, David Thomson read Nabokov on a pupa’s transformation into a “damp and bedraggled” butterfly while executing steps that did not evolve but rather arrived one after another in Rainer’s “inimitable way, lyrical and wooden”, as di Prima observed. No choreographer has been so adept at resisting evocation and metaphor.
Finally, for Cunningham’s rejection of drama for a more subdued, lifelike scheme, the Judsonites simply offered life. Rainer’s We Shall Run began with the performers standing in a row for whole minutes of Berlioz’s gothic Requiem before taking off in a ragtag pack, crowding and jostling each other as they jogged round the atrium, switched course and broke into small clusters. Eventually the patter of sneakered feet joined the grandiose Berlioz, directing our gaze to the runners’ exposed calves in a tragicomic spectacle of weary, dogged humanity.
In expanding on Cunningham, Judson Dance Theater arrived at the unprecedented. Such once-novel notions as choreographing in collaboration with the dancers or having a dance comment on itself have been thoroughly absorbed into contemporary dance. Less ubiquitous is the priority Judson gave to the conceptual over the perceptual. These New Yorkers were the first generation in dance to do like Duchamp’s urinal.
With Cunningham, nothing you could say about a piece would be as powerful as watching it. Judson made dances inseparable from the theories about them. They made thinking about dance feel less futile. For better and worse, they made university dance studies departments and dance in modern art museums possible. Not all of Rainer’s pieces at MoMA were engaging, but they didn’t need to be.
To February 3, moma.org
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