This weekend, Washington was a Judson festival. The "Judson Dance Theater, 1962-66" exhibit opened Friday at Washington Project for the Arts, the Smithsonian's last-ever American Dance Experience program Saturday consisted of a symposium and films on Judson, and David Appel's performances at WPA's Theater featured Judson-era choreography. And nearly all other dance groups appearing in town seemed indebted to Judson.
Seeds for Judson were sown before 1962. Focus on 1950: the trouble with the modern arts was that their battles had been fought already. The war was over; what remained to be done was not glorious, like the tasks that concern occupation forces. Works, of course, were being created. Yet many people were waiting for something really new to happen.
It came first in literature. Suddenly, in the mid-'50s, there were writers for whom the means were basic and even rough, the vocabulary unlimited by polite conversation or the dictionary. As is well known, "beat" was the group name given to the writing, the writers, and eventually to an entire generation of new romantics and their mores. Dance, however, still was untouched. Not until the early 1960s did a noticeable number of dance events begin to look radically different from ballet or "old modern." The focal point of this new activity was Judson Memorial Church in New York's Greenwich Village.
The Judson exhibit at WPA is documentation as well as art. The 112 pictures (there through April 16) prove that good dance photographers adapt to the particulars of a performance. Yet, as seen in the Al Giese and Peter Moore images, the fine craftsman is not styleless either. Both photographers took the same moment of a David Gordon dance performed by Valda Setterfield. Giese's snapshot view is distant, on the level. The dancer lies on her back, legs and an arm up in the air as if she were Icarus, just fallen to earth. A blazing spotlight looks like the sun. Moore, with attention to shading, aimed at Setterfield from above. She seems to move toward the camera from a curled position, like an embryonic nymph hatching from a magic egg. What the pictures and choreography do share is the representation of intense impact between a human body and a barrier.
At the symposium Saturday in Baird Hall, the five participants sat silently at first, for what seemed time enough to draw a portrait. As figures in thought, the group illustrated the sort of nondance tableau that Judson choreographers might have used. The first to speak was Sally Banes. Frizzle-haired, she was an Alice-in-Wonderland moderator, exploring historical terrain with reasonable questions. The others had direct experience of Judson. Mercurial Trisha Brown and noble Yvonne Rainer were Judson stars. Alice Denney (turbaned) was the magician who as impressario brought Judson dance to Washington in 1963. Maida Withers (in a '60-ish suit) was play-acting a little as an establishment modern dancer of the period who considered Judson experiments "not dance."
Reminiscences and reflections alternated, interspersed with the evidence of the films. Rainer judiciously touched on inner needs to break artistic rules, and on such key concepts as chance, simultaneity, nondance and nonemphasis. To Withers' question whether one could distinguish between good art and bad in the omnivorousness of Judson, Rainer's reply was "Yes!" Brown spoke of culture shock encountering New York in the 1960s. Now, she thinks, much in postmodern dance stems from specialized experiments that preceded Judson. Audience and panel seemed to agree that current work doesn't seem as "new." In fact, one learns what to expect from choreographers today, while Judson was ever surprising.