By the early 1960s, New York’s downtown dance scene had embraced the avant-garde—from John Cage’s indeterminacy and Merce Cunningham’s chance operations, to James Waring’s collage aesthetics. In 1962, a loose collective of dancers, visual artists, and composers banded together to form Judson Dance Theater in Greenwich Village. Revered for their steadfast pursuit of the everyday, Judson boldly challenged dance’s theatrical conventions through the use of task-oriented movement, games, and spontaneity. Over the last decade, Judson has gained significant institutional recognition; its pinnacle came in 2018 when the Museum of Modern Art debuted the exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done. Yet, historians have largely overlooked the similarly radical, but much lesser-known improvisation ensemble composed primarily of Judson choreographers the following decade: Grand Union.
Erupting through SoHo from with the strategy of no strategy were a group of friends and longtime collaborators: Trisha Brown, Barbara Dilley, Douglas Dunn, David Gordon, Nancy Lewis, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer. Together, they subverted authorship beyond the efforts of Judson and transformed dance through an anarchistic utilization of non-hierarchical collaboration. The late dance critic and historian Sally Banes included Grand Union in her first and now fundamental 1980 book Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance, which included a chapter dedicated to the group’s history and conceptual underpinnings, as well as a collective interview.
In what is held to be Banes’s definitive text on postmodern dance, Grand Union serves as almost a coda to a story in which Judson is the protagonist. However, in Wendy Perron’s new book The Grand Union: Accidental Anarchists of Downtown Dance, 1970-1976, the group gets their moment after nearly 50 years. With little written about this influential ensemble, Perron—who danced in Brown’s company in the 1970s and has worked with many members since—endeavored to establish their integral role in shaping postmodern dance. Through a combination of personal reflections, interviews, and archival research, Perron offers an intimate and insightful perspective to the history and legacy of Grand Union.
Grand Union slowly took shape in 1969 when Yvonne Rainer asked her dancers to incorporate their own movement material in her new piece Continuous Project-Altered Daily (CP-AD). Rainer, already an established choreographer, wanted to push the boundaries of dance by exposing its processes and incorporating aspects of play and spontaneity. She encouraged the dancers—who included members Dilley, Dunn, Gordon, and Paxton—to contribute ideas to provide them with a sense of creative agency. Eventually, as Rainer yearned for more collective work, she asked the dancers to perform one chance action she termed “spontaneous behavior” during each performance. By 1970, Rainer hesitantly decided to withdraw as leader, declaring that the hierarchy of choreographer/dancer could not support the goals of CP-AD and required a more cooperative approach. Dilley, reflecting on CP-AD’s turning point during a 1969 performance in Kansas City, said, “There’s no going back. We are about to become the anarchist ensemble the Grand Union, where we make up everything in front of audiences.”1
Anarchism pervaded the cultural and political fabric of downtown Manhattan and served as the theoretical underpinning of Grand Union’s collective experimentation. The daughter of an Italian anarchist, Rainer enjoyed attending meetings at the local Workmen’s Circle and reading the work of political theorist Emma Goldman as a teenager in San Francisco. Meanwhile, Paxton also showed interest in anarchist thought, looking to the principles of Russian theorist Peter Kropokin for innovative and communal approaches to movement. Kropokin advocated for mutually-beneficial cooperation and reciprocity as a pragmatic societal framework. In 1972, while on tour with Grand Union, Paxton developed a duet form of improvisation based on balance and touch in which each dancer moved in relation to one another, allowing for an organic give and take. The goal of each performer, as Paxton notes, was to find the “easiest pathways to mutually moving masses.”2 Later that same year, this would develop into Contact Improvisation.
Grand Union embodied this non-hierarchical stance both on and off-stage. Improvisation proved to be the most effective method for disrupting the social hierarchies of the choreographic process, allowing members to participate equally and simultaneously explore movement material. Performances typically began with a few members occupying the space—either stretching, practicing their own choreography, or dancing to the playing record. One member would eventually perform an action, whether it be verbal or movement-based; next, another member might imitate the first’s movement, or possibly set the scene with the use of props and narrative. As any remaining members entered, they would continue to respond and react to one another, moving en masse with the material as it fractured into duets and solos and reformed into a single activity. “Following or allowing oneself to lead,” Paxton wrote, “is each member’s continual responsibility.”3 Perron highlights the group’s 1976 performance at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club as a moment of leaderless delight when Dilley, Gordon, and Lewis squabble about who is in fact the leader during the performance. Gordon declared, “She was the leader. I made her my leader, and I couldn’t keep up with my leader.”4
Perron reminds us that the group was not always a perfect union. The adoption of cooperative work was not born just out of idealism but of practicality. No one wanted to perform the other’s choreography, but, as Gordon noted in 1976 to critic John Rockwell, they “were comfortable working together.”5 As the group took shape, Dilley recalled: “it was out of that kind of irritation and frustration” that improvisation became the clear method of working.6 Gordon reflected on their illusion of community and mutual support in an interview with Banes, acknowledging that most members were “continually uncomfortable with the work choices of each other…and the fact that we all seemed to stand for everything that each of us did.”7 These underlying tensions speak to a more complicated, complex adventure—one in which a collective of friends and long-term collaborators struggled with disparate personalities and ideas yet, through all of this, worked together to achieve something phenomenal.
Unlike Judson, Grand Union’s wholly improvised collaboration left little choreographic trace. As a result, the group has historically been viewed as a transitory moment for its participants—merely a laboratory for individual choreographic concerns. However, Perron thoroughly records Grand Union’s watershed experimentation that revolutionized the downtown dance world, laying the groundwork for future critical interrogation and contextualization. The handful of incomplete, hazy videos remaining illustrate just how Grand Union broke open the possibilities of collaboration and spontaneity, even if only for a short moment. Perron suggests perhaps Grand Union was destined for impermanence, writing: “Anarchy doesn’t last forever.”8
- Barbara Dilley quoted in Wendy Perron, “How Continuous Project—Altered Daily Broke Open and Made Space for a Grand Union,” in The Grand Union: Accidental Anarchists of Downtown Dance, 1970-76 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2020), 51.
- Steve Paxton quoted in Sally Banes, “Steve Paxton: Physical Things,” in Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance (Hanover, NH: University of New England Press, 1987), 65.
- Steve Paxton quoted in Wendy Perron, “Interlude: Leaderless? Really?,” in The Grand Union: Accidental Anarchists of Downtown Dance, 1970-76 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2020), 254.
- David Gordon quoted in Wendy Perron, “Interlude: Leaderless? Really?,” in The Grand Union: Accidental Anarchists of Downtown Dance, 1970-76 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2020), 255.
- David Gordon quoted in Wendy Perron, “How Continuous Project—Altered Daily Broke Open and Made Space for a Grand Union,” in The Grand Union: Accidental Anarchists of Downtown Dance, 1970-76 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2020), 62.
- Barbara Dilley quoted in Wendy Perron, “How Continuous Project—Altered Daily Broke Open and Made Space for a Grand Union,” in The Grand Union: Accidental Anarchists of Downtown Dance, 1970-76 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2020), 62.
- David Gordon quoted in Wendy Perron, “First Walker Art Center Residency, May 1971,” in The Grand Union: Accidental Anarchists of Downtown Dance, 1970-76 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2020), 136.
- Wendy Perron, “The Unraveling, or, As the Top Wobbles,” in The Grand Union: Accidental Anarchists of Downtown Dance, 1970-76 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2020), 294.