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Judson Dance Theater: The Rebels Who Redefined Modern Dance

(clockwise from top left) Douglas Dunn, Steve Paxton, David Gordon, Becky Arnold, Yvonne Rainer and Barbara Lloyd Dilley. Photo courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

“When they entered, they were hidden by huge winglike constructions made from parachutes. Carolyn Brown moved down the center line of the rink on pointe, while the men rolled down the edges of the rink and, having reached the opposite end, spiraled around, switched paths, and rolling back to their starting points, swooped around to pick Brown up as she returned along the center line. They partnered her, lifting her and carrying her as they skated in circles and figure eights..."


This excerpt by dance historian Sally Banes in her book Democracy's Body: Judson Dance Theater, 1962–1964 (1993) describes Pelican, a dance choreographed by artist Robert Rauschenberg for a 1963 Judson Dance Theater concert held in a Washington, DC, skating rink. An avant-garde modern dance collective, the Judson Dance Theater created nearly 200 works between July 1962 and October 1964. (The group named itself after New York City's Judson Memorial Church, where most of the work was presented.) From employing unconventional methods for composition to stripping concert dance of its drama and theatricality, Judson Dance Theater challenged what audiences knew and accepted as dance. The group played a large role in heralding dance's postmodern era, and its legacy continues today through the extensive oeuvre of many of the artists involved—including Trisha Brown, David Gordon and Yvonne Rainer—as well as the next generation like Susan Marshall, Bill T. Jones and Elizabeth Streb.

Judson's origins stemmed from composition classes on two coasts, led by San Francisco Bay Area–based dance experimentalist Anna Halprin and New York composer Robert Dunn. In the summer of 1959, Simone Forti, Brown and Rainer gathered at Halprin's studio for a three-week summer workshop that focused on structured improvisation, a chief choreographic tool used by the Judson group. “We always had a very specific intention of what we were exploring," recalls Forti. In the morning, students would focus on improvisations derived from experiential anatomy, observing how it feels to let a particular area of the body lead the movement before engaging the whole body. Their afternoons were spent observing the environment surrounding them, abstracting movement qualities from nature: “the crinkliness of bark or how a leaf fell," Forti offers as an example.

Soon after, Forti and Rainer joined Dunn's movement composition workshop at Merce Cunningham's studio, along with Paulus Berenson, Marni Mahaffay and Steve Paxton. (Thirteen more joined the second year; among them were Brown, Judith Dunn, Deborah Hay and Elaine Summers.)

Robert Dunn's instruction was based on what he had learned from composer John Cage in an experimental music class. He proposed new ways of composing movement, shunning the conventional methods taught by modern-dance institutions, Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham. One of Dunn's approaches involved using time structures: For instance, he'd ask students to make a five-minute dance in half an hour. Dunn also introduced chance techniques and using movement scores as structures to improvise within. Like Cage's idea that all sounds could be music, the choreographers espoused that every movement could be dance.

By the end of the workshop's second year, the participants felt they had enough material to present a public concert. They secured the Judson Memorial Church, which had already been the site of Happenings and other avant-garde art, as the venue. At “A Concert of Dance," the audience witnessed an altogether new genre of dance. The dances looked different, less theatrical. The artists incorporated pedestrian “every day" into the work, in terms of props and movement: childhood games, simple tasks and social dances. Though most of the artists were trained dancers (some were members of Cunningham's company), the group's dances were truly interdisciplinary—painters, poets and musicians participated as performers and choreographers.

Over the next two years, Judson Dance Theater generated many unorthodox works, such as Judith Dunn's Speedlimit (inspired by wrestling), Rainer's Terrain (the group's first evening-length work that incorporated games and text) and Brown's Trillium. Inspired by the wildflower of the same name, Trillium is one of Brown's earliest works; it was begun during Robert Dunn's workshop. It's a solo improvisation structured around the actions of sitting, standing and lying down, and her performance included a handstand, which Steve Paxton noted was unusual for the time. “It was odd to see people off their feet doing anything but a very controlled fall," he said.

Audiences received the Judson concerts with delight or puzzlement, and while some critics were dismissive of the group's experimentalism, Jill Johnston of the Village Voice became a fierce supporter of their work. She foresaw the collective's impact on the dance world, and shortly after the first concert in 1962, she wrote: “…this was an important program in bringing together a number of young talents who stand apart from the past and who could make the present of modern dance more exciting than it's been for 20 years."

Though the group disbanded in late 1964, many of its members pursued individual careers. Brown, Gordon, Paxton and Rainer were founding members of Grand Union, the legendary performance group of six dancers in the early 1970s that developed a precursor to contact improvisation.

In 2000, Mikhail Baryshnikov enlisted Gordon's help to mount a program for the White Oak Dance Project, called PASTForward. The program highlighted the role that Judson Dance Theater played and featured both recent and '60s-era works by Judson choreographers. Drawn to the fact that the performers were playing themselves—not characters—Baryshnikov explained his affinity for the collective in the foreword of Reinventing Dance in the 1960s: Everything Was Possible, published shortly thereafter. “With the Judson dancers…what you saw was not a metaphor. It was them, and when it worked, it was you, too. Watching them, I was carried across the orchestra pit, so to speak, and deposited at their feet. I was inside their story."

Through December this year, audiences will get another chance to see some of the legendary work, when New York City's Danspace Project commemorates the collective's 50th anniversary. PLATFORM 2012: Judson Now is showcasing new work (and old favorites) by Forti, Gordon, Rainer and Lucinda Childs, among others—that reflects their current artistic interests.

DID YOU KNOW?

  • Judson Dance Theater members did not distinguish between choreographers and performers. Instead, all involved were called “participants" in order not to create a hierarchy and in keeping with the democratic nature of the group.
  • The first concert was over three hours long, with 23 dances by 14 choreographers. Poking fun at its length, Jill Johnston of the Village Voice wrote, “There should have been something for everyone, including a nap, if desired…"
  • Another important outgrowth of Judson was the use of multimedia, especially film. In fact, before the first concert at Judson Memorial Church, a film by Elaine Summers was shown that had been edited using chance techniques.
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