THE Judson Dance Theater emerged in 1962 as a vehicle for the work of young artists who sought to challenge conventional ideas about the ways in which the body can move in a dance--as well as how materials are put together to make a coherent and communicative artistic statement. The vitality of the activity at the Judson (so-called because of its home in New York's Judson Memorial Church) was magnified not only by the participation of dancers, but by musicians (John Herbert McDowell, Philip Corner), visual artists (Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Morris) and other performers. The issues raised by this experimentation and interplay during the early and mid-1960s opened new realms of creative possibility and perception for artists and audiences alike, and laid the groundwork for much of the artistic investigation going on now.
In my studies and performances, my direct encounters with some of the artists who participated in the Judson Dance Theater--Judith Dunn, Steve Paxton and Simone Forti--have profoundly influenced the course of my explorations into the theory and practice of dancing. Add to this the reading, viewing of films and videotapes and concert-going that has further acquainted me with the ideas and work of other Judson-era choreographers, and you get the makings of a serious case of unbridled awe. So when the opportunity presented itself for me to coordinate a series of reconstructions of Judson-era works--in conjunction with the Washington opening of the world-traveling exhibit "Judson Dance Theater: 1962-1966"--I seized the chance to step both back from and into that rich bit of history, which continually nudges me to reapproach the hows and whys of my teaching, performing and dance-making.
Those participating in the Judson never have advocated a uniform style of work or way of performing, and in fact stand clearly for a great diversity--which makes the already difficult reconstruction process even more so. The key question has seemed from the start to be how to find that balance between adherence to choreographic structure and the re-creation of the spirit of the pieces. This is perhaps always a problem in the restaging of any previously choreographed dance, but in this instance the difficulty is compounded by the degree to which these pieces, in their very essence, reflect the intense energy and challenge of the social and cultural change beginning to be felt in our society in the early '60s.
Several of the dances we're doing are somewhat open-ended: Either there is enough leeway in the score for a particular work to allow us a certain freedom of interpretation or there is a set of instructions that clearly indicates that the nature of a described activity defines its own parameters. Other works require a greater specificity in execution, a situation not helped by the existence of poor videotapes and foggy photographs.
However, in the course of our preparations, some encouraging factors have emerged. In the same manner that many of the Judson artists performed in and assisted with each other's dances, we have discovered the need to function in a truly cooperative fashion, to be able to be clear in our re-creative process. Because of the actual physical challenges inherent in some of the works, and because of the need for individual and collective responsibility mandated by the kinds of decision-making we've had to do, I've noticed a certain healthy willingness to take risks that seems to be causing all of us to grow a little--specifically as dancers, and more generally as people.
A great deal has been written and said about the Judson, and the act of reconstructing these pieces at this time is fraught with the possibility that what was once raw and rough around the edges will reappear as slick, smooth and neatly packaged. To find some sort of through line that will make the Judson's real significance both clearer and more personal, I have attempted--and encouraged others to attempt--to allow ourselves to reconnect with whatever core feelings that the individual works (and what we know about them) bring forth in us. And further, to use this information intuitively, to guide us in letting the pieces speak for themselves, to be empty and yet full at the same moment.
The choreographers of the Judson Dance Theater reminded us that the ordinary, the everyday, the real-life can be both material for and substance of artistic expression. Their questioning of the essential components of dance still reverberates in studios, classrooms and concert halls. If only by implication, they seem to have wondered aloud about how we live in our bodies, and the ways in which we conduct our day-to-day interactions--artistically, personally and politically. Twenty years ago Washington audiences witnessed the first performances of a number of important pieces by artists of the Judson. With these current reconstructions, we have the opportunity to experience anew some of what emerged as these artists pushed at the boundaries of social and artistic convention. We are left to reflect on the limitless alternatives their work suggested.