Beginning with an in-depth interview with Meredith Monk, an icon of New York’s experimental downtown scene, we’re highlighting pioneers of avant-garde performance this month. In our September–October 1971 issue, Bessie-Award-winning dance critic and choreographer Deborah Jowitt describes “the new dance,” a group of young dancers—including Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Monk—who adopted a Minimalist aesthetic, incorporating process, natural movements, and nontraditional spaces into their performances. Only a few years prior, in A.i.A.‘s September–October 1969 issue, art critic Dore Ashton had noted the emergence of a generation of artists working across disciplines, and the widespread collaboration between choreographers, painters, sculptors, composers, and filmmakers. This post-Judson period, as Jowitt calls it, “has been one of modification, development, rejection and new explorations. And, like those people who’ve already booked seats for the first commercial moon voyage, now there are dance audiences ready to look at almost anything—and perhaps even see it.” We present her article in full below. —Eds.
“Certain kinds of art may be necessary to clear the air or reorder our perceptions; they may not be delightful ten years from now, but they make us sit up. Even the rage may be cleansing.”
I’m not sure exactly when the original Judson Dance Theater ceased to exist. Perhaps it went out with a bang at the important but ill-reputed nine evenings of theater and engineering that took place in October 1966 at the Sixty-ninth Regiment Armory. Judson had represented an almost unprecedented kind of collaboration between choreographers, painters, sculptors, composers and filmmakers. The painters and sculptors created dances; the composers worked on theater pieces; the choreographers offered works without a single “dance” movement. And, in this atmosphere of affectionate respect and wild experimentation, they performed in each other’s pieces. It is now generally acknowledged to have been a glorious period. The Judson people helped complete the job begun by Merce Cunningham and John Cage, by Ann Halprin on the West Coast––the job of making a truly contemporary kind of dance (since the so-called “modern” dance was unaccountably foundering in an early attack of academicism).
When the Judson dancers went back to their studios––sometime during 1967––perhaps to mull over the discoveries they had made, they were already burdened with labels: avant-garde dance, new dance, objective dance. Accepted by many on the visual-arts scene, they were denounced by the bulk of the dance world as anti-dance or non-dance. However, since 1967, this whatever-you-want-to-call-it dance has attracted new choreographers and dancers, won greater understanding from the dance establishment, and influenced less radical choreographers. (Schönberg was dead long before Stravinsky began to make use of the twelve-tone scale).
One of the problems of dance as a spectator art (as opposed to its more participatory social and ritual forms) has been its multiplicity of borrowed esthetic criteria. Dance exists in both time and space, and traditionally its space has been that of the picture-box stage, which minimizes the spectator’s perception of depth and forces two-dimensional design into unnatural preeminence. Given this kind of performing area, choreographers have usually organized their work according to traditional concepts of painting, i.e., symmetry (or carefully planned asymmetry), a central focus. The central focus is achieved both in space (say, by relegating less important figures to the background) and in time (by giving them simpler movement so as not to detract attention from the soloists; the practice is similar to that of the pedal bass in Baroque music or chordal harmony supporting a melody.)
The time structure of dance was also borrowed from other disciplines. Pure movement pieces made use of the compositional devices of classical music: rondo, ABA, theme and variations, etc. Dramatic dances stuck to the ancient laws of conflict, rising action, climax and denouement. Surprisingly, despite the radical dance reforms of Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey in the twenties and thirties, neither woman tempered much with any of these convenient esthetics: they revolutionized dance’s movement vocabulary and subject matter, and that, I guess, was a life’s work in itself. Graham did experiment with ideas of flashback and simultaneous time zones hitherto explored principally in novels, poems and movies, but she directed the audience’s attention where she wanted it, and that was that.
When dancers finally began to experiment with new forms, they did not so much copy the experiments of the painters and musicians as make common cause with them. I can’t prove it, but believe that more artists and musicians liked Merce Cunningham right off the bat than did dancers or theater people. And it was the same with the Judson group.
It is easy to understand why the visual artists in particular could understand what was going on (except for those few who thought––and still think––of dance as a pretty minor art that has little to do with where anything is at): the concerns of the new dancers paralleled their own. Some of those ideas are so-called “open field” composition; a cool style of execution, as opposed to a more dramatically charged one (comparable, say to the difference between Abstract Expressionists and the Post-Painterly Abstractionists); use of natural movement and the incorporation of process into the finished work; assemblage as a compositional device; the reorganization of traditional space and the choosing of other kinds of space to perform in; Minimalism.
In the Winter 1965 issue of the Tulane Drama Review, Yvonne Rainer sputtered out a list of things that she did not wish to be a part of her work: “No to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformation and magic and make-believe no to the glamour and transcendency of the star image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved.” When I read this in 1965, I thought she was crazy and wondered how long she could dispense with all this and what she’d have left if she did. Plenty, it seems. (Anyway, she did modify her position.) By the late sixties, you could see that Rainer was developing a characteristic movement––an easy, loping, jogging kind of stuff, a celebration of everyday gaits and gestures, mixed with an uninflected flowing of poses (like her long, clever “Trio A” in The Mind Is a Muscle). Her dancers, dropouts from Cunningham virtuosity or Limon God-gazing, perform with just the necessary skill and control to do the movement. Everything else, they let hang out.
The business of “performance” and star image have intrigued Rainer more and more. Only recently did she really come to terms with her own indisputable authority and strong good looks as a performer, with her own charisma as a choreographer, and officially turn her company into a cooperative––the Grand Union. But she has incorporated professional entertainers into some of her works: a juggler did his tricks in The Mind is a Muscle; various actors and comedians described performing experiences in her Continuous Project––Altered Daily at the Whitney Museum. She’s also tried having her group perform “Trio A” accompanied by rock just after a group of young non-dancers had waded through it in silence. She’s seemingly turned on by showing simultaneous performances of movements by people who know them well and people who are being taught as they go along (incorporation of process, past and present coexisting).
The earliest negative reaction from virtuosity-conditioned audiences was “What are they doing that I couldn’t do?” The most recent negative reaction I’ve heard came from a woman who shrugged: “It’s innocuous; it’s . . . well, pleasant.” She claimed that this was not a disparaging comment, but she, like most of us, has been conditioned to believe that art must be sublime, that it must engender pity and terror, and engineer catharsis. If you don’t leave the theater a little better than when you came in . . . (Rainer would certainly say no to this, or more probably, bullshit.) I watch Rainer’s latest work with interest, with relaxed amusement, with excitement when the movement gets fast or dangerous. I leave feeling thoughtful––as if I had watched the uninhibited but structured play of some clever and brave adults.
Empathy still exists, and, despite Yvonne’s 1965 declaration, audiences will become involved in whatever is given them. I once watched a well-rehearsed group of non-dancers perform a series of structured games and tasks for Batya Zamir. The friendly audience responded with cheers, groans or laughter to, for example, the sight of a very small girl forced by the rules to carry a very large man, or of two people falling alarmingly close to each other and without a dancer’s calculated control.
People tend to lump all of the dance avant-garde together. Some have very different characteristics. Meredith Monk, for instance, is not afraid of loaded images and uses her own brand of role-playing: figures in period costume, girls in filmy dresses perched in trees, tubs of water slowly filling, films of flames destroying a doll. Her works, like Lucas Samaras’ boxes, are full of startling, often horrifying private images. Performers and events and objects are themselves, but transformed and raised to the level of illusion. Rainer may use clothes, objects, films in her dances, usually in order to limit or alter audience perception; they rarely have the strange air of dramatic significance of the objects Monk uses. In Juice, Monk’s four “star” figures were painted red, strung together at first like a group of Alpine hikers that might have been cast by George Segal; but they moved, climbed in their petrified formation up the ramp of the Guggenheim Museum. Later, they talked in stylized voices, but about themselves; they moved in unusual ways, but also performed characteristic activities out of context. (For instance, Daniel Sverdlik, who had been a chemist, tossed off an experiment.)
Recently, Monk has gotten into creating vast and complex mosaics. At the Connecticut College Dance Festival in the summer of 1970, she used woods and lakes as settings, later a lawn and a building. She had stationed people in the building’s lighted windows, thus creating a huge, real-illusory Ñ?ÐµÐµÑ? show; meanwhile families of people built campfires on the lawn. She’s very McLuhan-oriented, interested in how we perceive. The three-installment Juice became reduced in scale in inverse ratio to the amount of information it provided about the four red people. The event moved from a spectacle at the Guggenheim to a small-stage performance to a TV set in a relic-strewn loft.
Monk has a special loose-jointed movement style of her own which emphasizes a lot of those awkward little shifts of weight and transition movements that dance usually tries to minimize. By her summer 1970 piece, Needlebrain Lloyd and the Systems Kid, most of this had been submerged in the vast pageant of naturally moving people and things. Robert Wilson makes this kind of assemblage too (The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, Deafman Glance). He turns conventional stages into mysterious worlds––scattering sand and leaves on the floor, building structures, dropping objects from above. Frogs hold dinner parties; mammies play Beethoven; huge paws stalk across the stage; live goats are led past. Like a slowly, slowly changing parade in some vast daydream of a ritual.
The selection of materials for assemblage is a highly personal matter, whether choice or chance is involved. Canadian actor-dancer-choreographer James Cunningham makes sequential assemblages that have a nostalgic, autobiographical feeling. He strings together in surprising, sometimes hilarious order things that he likes: bits of poetry, songs, character monologues, highly individual acrobatic dancing punctuated with growls, snarls, films, music-hall routines, rituals with candles. His dances are more like happy incantations than anything else. In the work of Monk, Wilson and this Cunningham, the kind of magic that Rainer eschews plays an important part.
Once the dancers had thrown out the idea of structuring dance like a combined play-painting-concerto, they had to find new structural devices. Assemblage did prove workable for some choreographers (like those just mentioned), enabling them to combine dance and non-dance elements and build up their dances in layers of simultaneous activity. In assemblage, where anything may be used as material, the notion of art as something special or apart from real life is easily challenged. (Composer La Monte Young, deliberately provocative, wrote: ”Once I tried lots of mustard on a raw turnip. I liked it better than any Beethoven I had ever heard.”)
But assemblage is not the only formal principle of the new dance. Ann Halprin contributed the idea of creating sequences of “tasks” to be accomplished. Rainer was influenced by Halprin, and, through Rainer, so were other New York choreographers. Another group of choreographers begins simply with segments of time that have to be filled with movement. (Judith Dunn, an ex-Cunningham dancer, and Robert Dunn gave time-length assignments as part of their choreography course that sparked the Judson movement.) This approach can emphasize the production of interesting movement, but, because none of the old laws concerning repetition or development need apply, dances that are made this way have a different look from plotless ballets or earlier modern dances––no matter how stunning or difficult to perform. Also, as Merce Cunningham has said, the movement doesn’t convey a meaning, it is the meaning.
Twyla Tharp, dance’s answer to the Post-Painterly Abstractionists, is the ultimate purist. In her most recent works, she’ll have nothing to do with sound (except the shifting of the audience), decor, costumes, props, fancy lighting. Bodies moving in space––that’s what she’s all about. The effect is nonetheless complex, since Tharp’s movement, although cool, is energetic and demanding. Her dancers swing into things in a relaxed way, but pass through positions that are stretched and linear. Like Monk, she’s interested in the way the eye perceives and the ways in which space alters the modes of perception. Her Medley was performed in Central Park by an increasingly large group (over fifty). As the dance progressed, some dancers moved farther and farther away across the Great Lawn; helpfully, night began to fall. A few tiny figures may have ended up dancing in total darkness.
Tharp, along with many others, is committed to the so-called “open field’ organization of space. (Merce Cunningham started it, I guess.) Wishing their dances to be more lifelike––that is, to operate more in accord with the surprises, accidents and irregularities in nature––they had to devise new ways of dealing with space in order to avoid imposing a central focus on the audience, and with time in order to keep their movements from congealing into expected sequences and polite climaxes. (Jackson Pollock could avoid the central-focus trap by laying his canvases on the floor and working from all sides; Cunningham had to resort to chance methods of composition until he acquired a knack for illogical structure.)
The initial response to all this from conservative audiences was predictable. They complained that they didn’t know where to look when, that there was too much going on, that while they were watching a fascinating bit of group byplay, they were missing an important solo in the far corner. Like unwilling patrons of an all-you-can-eat restaurant, they felt there must be some hitch if they were being offered more than they could possibly take in. Now many have not only discovered that they can absorb more simultaneous data than they thought they could, but they have learned to relax that greedy kind of attentiveness. Originally, the unexpected sequences did them in too. I’ve heard people complain that Merce Cunningham keeps setting up something or building toward some climax and then deliberately cheating them out of it. But it is possibly their own conditioned response that demands a certain kind of fulfillment, much the way ears accustomed to classical music expect the tonic resolution to follow the penultimate subdominant chord. They’re getting over that syndrome also.
Performing styles have changed too. To maintain dance’s new cool, new opaqueness, many of today’s choreographers demand what Michael Kirby, esthetician of the avant-garde, calls “non-matrixed” performing. The dancer doesn’t––Broadway-fashion––attempt to “sell” the movement. Often he doesn’t assume a role or an emotion, doesn’t pretend that he is anywhere but where he is. His “role” is determined by his activity, whether that be dancing or sawing wood. He uses only the amount of tension necessary for the performance of the task. In works by Merce Cunningham or Tharp or Rainer, the dancers smile if something amuses them, laugh or grunt if they bump into each other. In certain of Cunningham’s dances like Place or Winter-branch, the dancers are grave, but they are still not role-playing; the atmosphere––that intangible byproduct––has gotten to them too.
Many of the new directions in dance are attempts to fulfill the Cagian aim of making art less hermetic. Dance has become literally more accessible too, and regained its third spatial dimension as it has overflowed the proscenium theater. The dances that are made for galleries, gymnasiums, parks, lofts, rooftops and streets are influenced by the space in which they happen in the same way that Frank Stella’s shaped canvases determined the painting on them, or vice versa. Merce Cunningham uses a proscenium stage, but he encourages his collaborators to alter the space (the islands and promontories of Andy Warhol’s silver pillows in Rainforest) or even partially block out the audience’s view of the stage (Bruce Nauman’s battery of ten standing fans—all operating—arranged along the front of the apron in Tread). Robert Wilson, for his three act dance-drama, The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, divided a conventional stage into horizontal corridors, each of which contained separate activities moving in discrete segments of time.
Minimalism, as it enters dance, takes different forms. Tharp’s works are extremely active, but they are also rigorous and plain-Jane. Rudy Perez’s brand of Minimalism involves using bodies as if they were primary structures, which he then arranges in a few striking poses or prods into slow gestures. His stillness is charged with the possibility of motion and emotion, and the slow, stylized movements increase, but never release that tension. Deborah Hay contrasts the informality of everyday people in everyday clothes, doing everyday walking, running, standing still, etc., with carefully controlled space patterns––circles, clumps and especially lines. In her 26 Variations of 8 Activities for 13 People, thirteen nicely dressed young women ran to the left, walked backward to the right, later ran up ramps and either backed down or jumped off. They were always in profile––an unremitting series of pleasant related images––while the slightly different timings of their horizontal paths created changing perspectives in the depth picture. Steve Paxton has, I guess, gone farthest with minimalizing everything. In his Satisfyin’ Lover, ordinary people simply walk across the stage, or sit on chairs placed in the area if they wish. As the ultimate software refinement, Gus Solomons, Jr., has placed two tape recorders to reel out, for the audience, simple instructions and meditations on do-it-yourself dance. He doesn’t even have to make the scene.
Audiences are still angry and baffled when they reach what they consider to be a reductio ad absurdum of art. I’ve heard them muttering, seen them shaking fists. “It’s not dance,” they say. Some define dance by the amount of technically difficult movement it contains. “It’s not art,” they say; “it’s something I could watch on the street.” The point is, perhaps, do they? Do they see the living movement that surrounds them? Or do you have to take it out of context for them? Will they notice the lichen pattern on a wall, frame it and hang it on another kind of wall? Certain kinds of art may be necessary to clear the air or reorder out perceptions; they may not be delightful ten years from now, but they make us sit up. Even the rage may be cleansing.
Dance happens in many guises––celebratory, ritual, self-expressive, as popular entertainment, as a many-styled art. The choreographers I have mentioned are not the only interesting ones around. What is exciting is the vitality of their ideas, the intelligence with which they probe into the new concepts of science and modes of living and apply them to dance, the dedication and ingenuity with which they pursue these ideas. The post-Judson period has been one of modification, development, rejection and new explorations. And, like those people who’ve already booked seats for the first commercial moon voyage, now there are dance audiences ready to look at almost anything––and perhaps even see it.