A MAN EXPLODES a balloon by taking a flying backward somersault and landing on it, belly down. A woman moves through a mysterious, poetic trance, clutching a small, white, stuffed bird in her mouth. A man leans back on a bench and plays a piano with his toes, his heels, his soles. Performers scramble up a precipitously inclined board, pulling on ropes attached to its top to lever themselves this way and that across its face. In a frenetically jumpy black-and-white film, a lust-crazed werewolf armed with a blowtorch chases a young woman.
What these excerpted examples have in common is summarized in the magic name Judson--the Judson Dance Theater, a bit more specifically. What a glorious mess it was; a glorious, chaotic, hysterical, funny, daring and seditious mess. In retrospect, it seems to encapsulate all the turbulence, iconoclasm and ephemerality we associate with the decade of the '60s. And it's still making waves--the toppling of traditional modes and forms, the revolutionary mixture of the everyday, the fantastic and the austerely formal, the worship of the haphazard and accidental, the crossbreeding of media and so many other impulses that raged under the Judson banner remain the shibboleths of today's dance frontier, in the new guise and under the new rubric of Post-Modernism.
The Judson Dance Theater, though, was started 20 years ago and the core personnel dispersed after only a few boisterous years. Many contemporary dancers and dance enthusiasts have never seen a work from the Judson period. A growing awareness of threatening oblivion for the whole Judson phenomenon has recently spurred a number of people toward rescue efforts. At Bennington College--itself once a laboratory for modern dance experimentation--dancer-choreographer Wendy Perron and some colleagues organized a "Judson Project," from which came revivals by Judson choreographers, an archive of Judson materials, and eventually, a touring exhibit of Judson photographs, scores, tapes and other artifacts. More recently still, the Bennington Judson Project collaborated with New York's Danspace to present two programs of Judson reconstructions in the newly renovated St. Mark's Church, which was gutted by fire in 1978.
These programs, inaugurating St. Mark's rebuilt performance space last weekend, were a reminder to those who had been there originally and remembered, and a brilliant revelation to those many others (myself included) who had only read or heard about Judson. Even from this small sampling, filtered as it necessarily had to be through the sensibilities of a younger generation of performers (though many Judson alumni participated), it was clear that the Judson resurrection lived up to the mystique. It's all still there in the replicas--the excitement and the tedium; the adventure and the misadventure; the wit and the hard thought; the boldness, the camaraderie, the sense of mischief and ferment.
The Judson Dance Theater grew out of an experimental composition workshop conducted by composer-pianist Robert Dunn, who worked at Merce Cunningham's studio and had studied with John Cage. The workshop members were, many of them, Cunningham prote'ge's, and Dunn's methods were largely extrapolated from those of Cage. From the beginning, the group included musicians (composers such as John Herbert McDowell and Philip Corner) and plastic artists (such as Robert Rauschenburg and Robert Morris) as well as dancers. When Dunn's group sought a place to try out their ideas, they found a haven in the liberal Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square, where an innovative gallery and the Judson Poet's Theatre under Rev. Al Carmines already were in full swing. The first Judson Dance Theater concerts were given in July of 1962; the bulk of its activity as a more or less coherent group took place within the following two years.
Reconstructing Judson repertoire was dependent on the practical realities of what still remained in records or memory, and what actually could be recovered. For the St. Mark's programs, a number of key Judson choreographers were chosen after diligent research, and then given a free hand to revive what they wished. As it turned out, each item on both programs illustrated one or several crucial features of Judson esthetics.
The opening dance by Elaine Summers, for example, with its characteristic title, "Dance for Lots of People," moved masses of untrained performers across the St. Mark's sanctuary floor in swirls, clusters and eddies. The performers wore street clothes--jeans, T-shirts and so forth--and the only sound was their seemingly random chatter and cross-talk. The piece had the surge and bustle of a milling subway-station crowd, but also the theatrical dynamics of an action painting come to life. Some works bordered on sensational stunts--Edward Bhartonn's balloon-busting acrobatics and Philip Corner's foot pianism--but even these had their serious artistic implications: an assimilation of vaudevillian tactics in Bhartonn's case, and both visual and sonic novelty in Corner's.
A number of solo performances by Judsonites testified to the importance of individual vision within the Judson circle--among these were Remy Charlip's enchantingly grotesque and ambivalent charade to Massenet's "Meditation"; the eerily evocative imagery of Judith Dunn's "Dewhorse," as performed by Cheryl Lilienstein with trumpeter Bill Dixon; Yvonne Rainer's coolly unstressed sequence of quirky movement molecules in her "Trio A"; Lucinda Childs' devastatingly droll "Carnation," in which household sponges and a wire salad basket became props in a Dadaist monodrama; James Waring's eloquently fractured balletics in "Octandre," as sensitively rendered by Aileen Passloff; and the oddball charm of Passloff's own "Structures," composed according to chance procedures. Steve Paxton's duet, "Jag Ville Gorna Telefonera," sharply executed by Stephen Petronio and Randy Warshaw, displayed a startling anticipation of his later "contact improvisation" idiom, in its anatomical chain reactions. Carolee Schneeman's "Lateral Splay," Deborah Hay's "Ten," and Simone Forti's "Slant Board" illustrated the Judson interest in dance as gamesmanship, the carrying out of tasks or the solving of problems.
Two of the entries, in accord with the multiplicity of media common at Judson events, were films. Elaine Summers' "Judson Nights" proved to be an engagingly wacky collage of clips involving original Judsonites; one repeated sequence disclosed a man in a fur coat and cap (Fred Herko, looking surprisingly like Rudolf Nureyev) emerging from an apartment doorway, lifting garbage can lids and dousing the contents with a watering can. The other film, "Woton's Wake," with a gargoylish sex maniac as protagonist and sly references to horror movie classics from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" to "Nosferatu," was a youthfully erratic aberration by a director named Brian de Palma.
Judson challenged and broke with the past in innumerable ways, but it didn't exactly come out of nowhere--it had its antecedents and roots, not only in the Cage-Cunningham nexus that gave it birth, but in prior work by James Waring (himself a Judsonite), Paul Taylor, Anna Halprin and others. The Judson Dance Theater, moreover, was both a symbol and a product of an era of explosive social and cultural transformation--rock music, hippies, psychedelics, Camp, Pop, the Theater of the Absurd, off-off Broadway, the cinematic New Wave, video, and civil-rights activism and protest all were boiling up in the same pot (no pun intended).
Judson retains its uniqueness nonetheless--the most spectacular concatenation of vanguard arts and artists, with dance at its center, that this country has known, with an obvious parallel to the Diaghilev Ballet Russe. The differences, however, are more striking than the similarities--Judson Dance Theater wasn't a company or even a stable unit, but a loose alliance of powerfully contrasted individuals, and there was no Diaghilev, no single mastermind at its head. It was, instead, an unstructured commune of equals. It was, in other words, an indelibly American entity, wild and maverick, stressing independence and humor, and with a pervasively democratic disdain for hierarchies of any sort--social, political or artistic.
It wasn't in the anarchic nature of Judson to last for long or produce "masterpieces" for posterity. Nevertheless, it is thrilling to encounter it in living reconstruction, both for its own sake and for the light it sheds on current artistic norms and preoccupations. The Dance Theater didn't only operate at Judson Church; members of the circle, sometimes separately and sometimes en masse, performed in other cities and abroad. Alice Denney, founder of the Washington Project for the Arts, among other things, brought a large Judson contingent down here in 1966 for her "NOW" Festival, at which, for example, Yvonne Rainer's seminal "The Mind Is a Muscle" (which includes "Trio A") had its first performance. There are plans afoot now to attempt some form of Judson tribute in this city, perhaps next season. If it does happen, it will be a must for anyone interested in the wellsprings of artistic creativity.