This year on their world tour Mikhail Baryshnikov and his White Oak Dance Project have clearly decided to go Back to the Future (see "Misha's New Passion" Dance Magazine, November 2000, page 54). I caught their current program some months ago at the Howard Gilman Opera House of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, consisting of works from Judson Dance Theater and later works by Judson artists. But, to my mind, when we got back, the future just wasn't there. Baryshnikov, sometime classicist supreme and today America's most popular modern dancer, had obviously decided to dig for his roots in postmodernist dance and was exploring the work of the Judson Dance Theater, which started in July 1962 and flourished for two to four years.
Personally, as someone who came to live in New York in the fall of 1965, only toward the tail end of the Judson experiments, I too was rather eager to see this program, all new to me, that Baryshnikov called "PASTForward." Unfortunately, for me it turned out to be a horrid disappointment, about as interesting as burnt toast and as tedious as tapioca. It's been reviewed in this magazine, and I don't intend to re-review it here, but merely set up what I saw of the scene.
The lecture commentary and film clips were historically interesting, but the choreographic reconstructions of works by the likes of Simone Forti, Steve Paxton (whom I recall as a wonderful dancer with Merce Cunningham), Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, and David Gordon seemed like the pointless laundering of the emperor's now-old clothes. Most of these non-dance efforts at dance--for instance, Lucinda Childs's solo Carnation, which largely consisted of the talented Emily Coates stuffing sponges into her mouth--endorse and even embrace boredom and embarrassment as valid theatrical emotions. They are not.
The program brightened up a little at the end with Gordon's 1972 stately procession of "performers from the community" (lured from the street, I presume), in the overture to The Matter, marching in stately time to the Minkus music opening the Kingdom of the Shades scene from La Bayadere, with their faces fascinatingly caught in huge close-ups on a double screen, and finally with an actual, simple dance, Concerto, choreographed by Childs to Gorecki music. The brightening was, for me personally, too little and too late. But the capacity audience at BAM cheered Baryshnikov to the proverbial echo--perhaps for valor, perhaps for chutzpah. Who knows?
Yet the Judson experiment was unquestionably significant in its day and place: It positioned on the dance map what came to be known as postmodern dance; it involved in the dance process a whole seething of artists from non-dance disciplines; and it appeared to move dance, at least temporally, into the very forefront of the arts avant-garde. It could be compared in effect, although perhaps not in importance, with the abstract expressionist movement in painting. Suddenly intellectuals, poets, musicians, painters were brought as either participants or observers into the dance world. It was a heady time, a time mad and antic with the invention of the new. And dance was not only new, it was news. It was chic and fashionable.
The first Judson concert took place on July 6, 1962, and dances were presented by Steve Paxton, Fred Herko, David Gordon, Alex and Deborah Hay, Yvonne Rainer, Elaine Summers, William Davis, and Ruth Emerson. Performances at Judson continued throughout the early '70s, yet I think it's fair to say that the sixteen concerts that took place between July 1962 and April 1964 were the heart of the Judson Dance Theater.
A lot of the White Oak "PASTForward" program was not premiered at Judson, but all the choreographers, apart from Simone Forti, were closely associated with it, and looking back on the late '60s, I think the program, not least in its documentation, gave a fair view of the Judson ethos. Of course, Judson was an idea as much as a place, and already in the late '60s other more formally organized venues, such as Jeff Duncan's Dance Theater Workshop, had come into being. Nor does Judson itself embrace all of the experimentation of that time--it doesn't include, just for example, Merce Cunningham or Anna Halprin.
But just what was it that disappointed me so much in this nevertheless valuable window into Judson-style dance? It was rebellious--that was good. At times (especially in Gordon's work, which has perhaps survived the best), it had a certain humor, and that was another plus. But to me the whole program had two things about it that were absolutely fatal. First, it was trivial. Trisha Brown's 1965 solo, Homemade, of a performer wandering around with a film projector strapped to his or her back may have seemed, in its time, technically original, but Baryshnikov's version is also essentially silly. But worse than any triviality (which after all is in the eye of the beholder) was the apparent absence of any strong dance motivation.
Much of this appeared to be more theater than dance. So what? Dance and theatre frequently intercut. That I can see--yet this seemed extraordinarily bad theater, which, in the manner of cute camp, actually reveled in its badness while exploiting it as pseudo-art. After all, at this very same time the theater itself was also undergoing a period of experimentation and self-examination. These Judson days were also the heyday of Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski, and Tadeuz Kantor in the legitimate theater. Look on the Judson picture and on that, and Judson's dance avant-garde, with its backward glances at '20s Dada, looks awfully deja vu!
Senior consulting editor Clive Barnes was recently honored by the Dance Critics' Association at its annual conference in New York City.
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|Title Annotation:||Judson Dance Theater works|
|Article Type:||Brief Article|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2001|
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