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Hail, Baryshnikov: White Oaks’s Judson Dances at BAM

Only the force and persistence of the greatest living dancer, Mikhail Baryshnikov, could have gathered the resources necessary for restaging a retrospective of the seminal Judson Dances. In a short clip presented at the beginning of the program, screened to lend historical background and perspective, he shows himself as a dancing teenager in Russia. Sure he knew about Fred Astaire and the United States, but what he did not know at the time was that the groundbreaking Judson Dance Theater’s performances in New York were in full bloom. Not until he broke free of Soviet rule did he hear about them, and then only in whispered, hushed, and reverent tones. Unfortunately, he was too late to glean any actual evidence of the performances, because nothing had been preserved. In the ensuing years in America, as he became exposed to the repertoire of modern dance, Baryshnikov became acquainted with the original Judson dancers and choreographers; Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Simone Forti, David Gordon, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, and Jennifer Tipton. But he still had never seen the dances. So it was only through a restaging of the original works that he would come to know them. And now the world owes Mr. Baryshnikov and his White Oak Dance Project an eternal thank you for tackling and succeeding in that endeavor.

Photo by Stephanie Berger.
Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Just what was Judson Dance Theater? Probably the most seminal and influential movement the modern dance world has ever known. It was housed in the Judson Memorial Church in Washington Square for two years, starting in 1962, and sponsored by its very own angel in the form of the Reverend Al Carmines. Dancers at that time who did not dance classical ballet had very little to work with. Only Martha Graham, Anna Halprin, Alvin Nikolai and Jimmy Warring were making local stabs at changing the form. But in the early 60s, Bob Dunn was teaching a class at Merce Cunningham’s studio. Merce had been in Graham’s company and was now breaching out on his own. The classes were held in a nondescript building on 14th Street and 6th Avenue. Dunn, a musician and a disciple of John Cage, was also the musical director of Merce’s company. The classes he taught were specifically based on Cage’s approach to musical composition, that included indeterminacy and chance—a freeing idea for all concerned. Dunn decided to break with form and instead concentrate on pedestrian movements. The very first class assignment would last only three minutes. It could be anything, about anything, but only for that allotted time. These experiments grew to a series of dances that needed a more public venue, so at 8:30 p.m. on July 6th, 1962, 16 artists danced 20 pieces in front of 300 people for three hours at Judson Church. Carmines, who hosted the event, at first feigned indifference and said the event bored him. But after three hours of non-stop, innovative presentations, he gave in and admitted that it actually terrified him. He had no context to categorize what he was seeing, and defensively tried to block it out—but couldn’t. Judson was so different. It was anti-costume, and anti-spectacle. With no make up and no effects, performances were staged up against the pervading notion of “dance as entertainment.” The idea of success for the dancers was not in the broad picture. No one expected it and no one believed it would ever happen. The dances, as Robert Rauschenberg says, were “activity acting.” What Judson did embrace wholeheartedly was minimalism, everyday movement, repetition and silence, now all such a part of dance’s vocabulary it is difficult to imagine they were ever not there.

Judson grew out of a time of enormous social upheaval and evolution, when Pop Art and Minimalism were at the fore. The movement was a logical outgrowth of “Happenings,” which were occurring through Allen Kaprow and others around the city. Everything everyone knew was open to question. The roots of this revolution were varied, but parts of it can be traced back to Merce Cunningham, to the composer John Cage, and to Cage’s most profound and lasting influence: the classes he sat in on at Columbia University from 1955-57, taught by the Zen Buddhist scholar Dr. D.T. Suzuki.

Baryshnikov and White Oak presented a wide array of dances ranging from Simone Forti’s 1961 piece “Huddle,” where the dancers, all drawn from the local community, climb on and support one another, to “Chair Intro—2000,” a restaging of a 1975 piece by David Gordon. ‘Huddle” was not originally part of Judson, but its choreographer, Simone Forti, had attended Robert Dunn’s classes. As was common at the time, she had shown her work to others who would sit in or view the class. Two of those “others” happened to be the musician La Monte Young and poet Jackson MacLow. They were so taken with her work they asked her to present it at Yoko Ono’s studio on Chambers Street in 1961. Some of the original dancers in Judson were part of that performance, so the cross-fertilization and fluid boundaries are evident.

In this more recent White Oak presentation, some of the dances recreated only short excerpts from the past. Others combined dances from the 60s and current times. Some of the dancers just said “Forget the past,” and others felt the past was the present anyhow, so it didn’t matter. In all, there were 14 works showcased. David Gordon was the writer and choreographer of the event and it was his piece, “Chairs,” that emphasized the utility and creativeness of ordinary objects. What can you do with a chair? You can stand on it, sit down, roll on or over or under it, lift it, balance it and slide into it, creating an innovative and original piece.

Steve Paxton’s “Satisfying Lover” begins with a paean to the ordinary, in which he claims that it is because love is indeed so “ordinary,” that some of its subtle beauty is rendered invisible and a different perspective is required in order to see it anew and fresh. He invited 39 neighborhood people onstage, whose faces were projected onto large screens as they slowly walked from one end of the platform to the other. He used all types of people: young, old, black, Asian, white, Latino, fat, skinny. They represented everyday people in the street, on the subway, and forced the questions: What is their story? What is the destiny of each one of them? Paxton refers to this as “pedestrian choreography.” Notably, when this piece was first presented at Judson, it was heartily booed.

“Flat,” Paxton’s next piece, was danced by Baryshnikov himself. Its inspiration came from Paxton pondering what it was like to walk before he became a dancer. At first Baryshnikov ambled like he was practicing a simple walking meditation focusing on gait, cadence, rhythm, and style. He stopped, started, leaned over, thought, looked refreshed, reminisced, tiptoed, focused, and squinted. He then began a humorous and thoroughly elegant removal of his clothes, hanging them onto plastic hooks taped on his skin all the while continuing to dance. Finally, stripped all the way down to his boxer shorts, the audience questions, what is man, this man, this human species? What is left when all trappings are stripped, the jaunty suit, the well-coiffed poses?

This piece bears resemblance to Yoko Ono’s “Cut” performance, that took place roughly during the same time period and is memorialized in a film shown at the recent Ono retrospective at the Japan Society. In that performance, Ono remained motionless as she invited audience members onstage to snip away at her clothes with a pair of pinking shears, until she was left semi-nude. The themes are disturbingly similar. After disrobing, Baryshnikov put back on all his clothes, only afterwards they are slightly askew and rumpled. So what’s been altered by this stripping away, and what’s truthfully been reassembled?

Yvonne Rainer’s “Talking Solo,” also from 1963, concerns itself with transformation and metamorphosis. Three dancers talk and dance simultaneously, a bold move at the time since speech was not considered a valid part of dance repertoire. The metamorphosis of a butterfly is carefully examined. Rainer was actually beginning to touch upon transgender issues by saying in her piece, “The caterpillar is a “he,” the pupa is an “it,” and the butterfly is a “she,” yet they are all the same creature.

Deborah Hay’s “Whiz,” with special music by Alvin Lucier, is concerned with a Zen Buddhist-like focus on moment-to-moment experiences of performance. The idea is that the audience, in witnessing the dancers’ focus, can attain similar states of awareness themselves. Hay said her goal in the piece was to “remove any image that might accumulate in the performance of dancing…that anyone could hold onto and say that is what she (the dancer) is doing…to remove the unfolding of appearances.” Done to the tick tock of a clock, the piece works off the moment-to-moment modulations of point, counterpoint and resemblances, in its spatial arrangements of bodies—what we have come to know as modern dance.

Lucinda Childs’s “Carnation,” from 1964, worked with the “oblivion of non-dance vocabulary, everyday objects in a non-dance setting.” Using a colander, sponges, and foam curlers, Childs’s piece has overt references to the beginning of the women’s movement. She puts the colander upside down on her head, and places rubber curlers on the perimeter. She places sponges in her mouth and interlaces them with bubble gum pink curlers. Her foot is in a trash bag. She is covered over completely by clean white sheets. IT is the interpretation and suggestive power of gesture at work here, the stripped down bareness of a moment suggesting the collective unconscious of an era when women were being suffocated by the outer trappings of beauty and housework.

Trisha Brown’s “Homemade,” first introduced in 1965, featured Baryshnikov strapped into a harness with an actual working reel-to-reel film projector on his back. While he danced, the projector threw its image onto a screen of the exact same dance he was dancing, but it had been pre-recorded. The image, dark and jerky, felt like a memory of the dance going on in real time. Brown says the piece is about “The purity of the first time you start something.” The projected image was dark and shaky, with Baryshnikov executing a series of intricate movements. Occasionally he would turn his back around and project the moving image, the glaring beam of light direction onto the audience, where it would disperse. At that moment, the projected image was lost, but what was retained was the experience of Baryshnikov dancing with a projector his back. And so it is with memory, where events past present and future blur and overlap through snippets of recollection and memory.

The most gorgeous performance was the final one, Lucinda Childs’s “Concerto,” from 1993. There, seven dancers, including Baryshnikov, stepped, hopped, whirled, twirled, and stopped with mathematical precision, part of Child’s signature style. As Lucinda says, “The phrases you see are music to me. I like to think of it that way, as just counts.” It was in this piece that Baryshnikov’s spirit flew and where he was able to meld his early style (ballet) with his later interests (modern). As he soared across the stage, I felt that I was witnessing one of the greatest moments and synthesis of dance in America. To see this later piece of Child’s how the early investigations of Judson spawned a host of full fledged dances and styles, how they entered into the mainstream with an entirely new vocabulary, and how that vocabulary ripened, is the gift White Oak will leave behind for eternity.


Ellen Pearlman


The Brooklyn Rail


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