Editor’s note: The following previously unpublished text was written in 1974.
The Judson Dance Theater (originally titled Concert of Dance) developed in New York during the 1960s. Its uniqueness in contrast to other modern dance groups is characterized by a cooperative and somewhat communal effort sustained by a group of choreographers, who collaborated in certain aspects of their work, particularly in the area of putting on dance concerts. They also distinguished themselves from other Modern Dance groups by a rather obvious departure from tradition. The Judson Dance Theater no longer exists, but individual choreographers from the group have continued to choreograph pieces and perform them elsewhere.
Two of the major influences on the Judson Dance Theater were the composer John Cage and the choreographer Merce Cunningham. Cage met Cunningham in Seattle in the 1930s and again in New York, when Cunningham was a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company. At that time Cunningham became very interested in the kind of music that Cage was composing, and they gave their first joint recital in New York in the spring of 1944.
While Cunningham used Cage’s music more or less intuitively, the theories inherent in the music articulated what Cunningham was already involved in with his dancing. About his Root of an Unfocus, a dance created in collaboration with Cage, Cunningham stated: “The main thing about it and the thing that everybody missed was that its structure was based on time, in the same sense that a radio show is. It was divided into time units, and the dance and the music would come together at the beginning and the end of each unit, but in between they would be independent of each other. This was the beginning of the idea that music and dance could be dissociated, and from this point on the dissociation in our work just got wider and wider.” Since then, Cunningham who began to form his company around 1949, has collaborated with many other composers (Morton Feldman, David Tudor, and Christian Wolff among them). Cage, however, is the musical director of the company.
Between 1960 and 1962 the composer Robert Dunn, who had been a student of Cage’s at the New School, and who had worked with Cunningham and Cage, offered a series of classes at the Cunningham studio (then on 14th and 6th Avenue). He presented the theories inherent in Cage’s music in a way which was of particular interest to dance students in relation to the isolated problem of making dances. It was Cage’s idea that Dunn teach the class and he agreed. So it happened that Cage’s musical theories were considered with reference to movement time and space in relation to dance. The Cunningham studio was then approximately 20 feet by 40 feet. Dunn said: “Whatever you do don’t mock up a stage in class. You are in this room, we are sitting on the floor by the wall here. Do it in those terms.”
Dunn was encouraging students to immerse themselves in a new frame of reference, rather than pick and choose, arriving at a decision influenced by what students were already familiar with. Dunn proposed involvement in investigation and analysis of process which produced situations that necessitated execution without editing. What happened in many cases was very disorienting to traditionally trained dancers. For some it might be a shock to end a dance facing some way other than the audience.
Two of the dancers who attended Dunn’s class were Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer. Paxton was a member of Cunningham’s company and Rainer was a dancer who had studied with Anna Halprin in California, who therefore became indirectly a major influence to the Judson Dance Theater. Simone Forti was another of Halprin’s students who came to New York and gave a concert in 1961. In view of the literature available on this period it is unfortunate that very little has been written about her concert.
Simone Forti attended Robert Dunn’s classes from time to time. He spoke of her later on: “She was extremely important. She did improvisations of a very simple and repetitive nature. She did very simple bodily actions which could only be done extremely slowly or repeated many times, or she would do sheer outright improvisations with some sort of prop, which were marvelous… Simone was the first person I ever heard say, ‘I’ve brought a dance and I will read it to you….’ It was a situation and that was her dance.”
Simone developed in her dancing during the time that she worked in Halprin’s workshop in California. The situation there was important because of the kind of exploration that went on. One was permitted to go to any length to get outside of preconceived ideas and censorship brought on by one’s own conditioning from past traditions. Dancers could explore their particular area of interest and share it by presenting it to the group and having it realized in movement, or find some other way to integrate what they were interested in with the group that was present. One evening while he was improvising there with Terry Riley, the composer La Monte Young recalled: “It took one of the dancers who was hanging from a wall at least a half hour to work his way around the room.” Young shared with Halprin a distaste for the tendency among composers as well as dancers to make sounds and movements do what they want them to do, rather than allow the sounds and movements to be just what they are.
Cage’s main emphasis in his work and teaching was to get people in touch with the unfamiliar rather than the familiar. He attempted to spell out a basis for finding ways to observe and act which do not throw us back on our own value judgments and personal taste in the very instance in which we are confronted with the need to make a decision. He proposed ways to explore possibilities in the area of intention, which might contradict one’s habitual manner of doing things. It could become as complex as everyday life to the extent that it is like everyday life, or that one is willing to look at it that way.
If one were to look out of a window and record what could be seen and heard within 20 second intervals, in one interval one might notice only wind blowing the leaves of trees, in another a car honking, a child crying, someone shouting, etc. There are infinite solutions given the 20 second interval. Cage and Dunn would maintain that there is no way outside of personal taste, and in some instances necessity, to determine why one interval would be more desirable than another. In fact, Dunn did not want to stand in judgment or rate any of the work that was done. If worst came to worst he could always say: “But I’m not a choreographer.”
This kind of thinking in music and dance has jarred the thinking of tradition-oriented audiences. Around 1952 at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Cage put on an evening in collaboration with Merce Cunningham, the painter Robert Rauschenberg—who had his “white painting” slung from the ceiling of the auditorium during the performance—the poets Charles Olsen and M.C. Richards, and the pianist composer David Tudor. “The point of entry and duration of the various performance elements were fixed by chance techniques derived from the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes.” (The book was given to Cage by the composer Christian Wolff.) Some of the people in the audience were confused by what they were seeing and hearing. There was no focused point of activity. Different activities were occurring simultaneously. Cage had specifically arranged the seating so that the audience as a mass did not face one spot, and he had to explain to some woman who had arrived early that there was no best seat. Cage emphasizes: “One should search constantly to see if something could take place in the theater that has escaped one’s attention…” Years later Cage was amused to find that the specific seating arrangement he had set up at Black Mountain College was identical to one that he stumbled on in a synagogue somewhere in New England years later.
Having disorganized his audience in the area of expectation in relation to a theatrical or concert-orientated experience, Cage demanded a kind of attentiveness in perceiving things which involves retraining or untraining of our senses. Cage maintains that our manner of looking at things has been locked into the Renaissance tradition: “Current developments in theater are changing architecture from the Renaissance notion to something else that relates to our lives.” Our way of perceiving, naturally, has to change along with this. From the point of view of the composer, Cage states: “The structure we should think about is each person in the audience. In other words his consciousness is structuring the experience differently from anyone else’s in the audience. If we have done nothing, then he will have everything to do.”
The act on the part of a painter, choreographer, or composer of engaging the mental faculties of the audience in an unpredicted manner (i.e. outside the Renaissance tradition) has been labeled avant-garde. According to Clement Greenberg the term identified groups of artists during the latter half of the 19th century in Europe. While these artists were “demonstratively” apolitical, and admittedly contemptuous of politics, they attempted to disentangle themselves from the revolutionary ideology floating around among the working class at that time. Whether the intention of the so-called avant-garde artist was to attack society or to extend the range of artistic expression, one goal which is seemingly shared by these artists was to change the traditions associated with their individual fields of expression. A first production of this nature was the presentation in Paris, in 1898, of Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu Roi.”
The formal introduction of the avant-garde in the United States was the Armory show of 1913. This exhibit included works of painters associated with the Dada Movement, among them Marcel Duchamp. Specific content was less important than the process the observer was put through while directing his attention at a piece of work. Through drawing attention to the decision-making process of the artist, Duchamp challenged the viewer’s perception of what an artist is. The Readymade of 1914, a galvanized iron rack for drying bottles, is a good example. John Cage had been very impressed with Duchamp, as well as the writer Gertrude Stein, and the composer Erik Satie.
The Judson Dance Theater grew out of this tradition in music and dance through Cage, Cunningham, Halprin, and Dunn. However, there were approximately 17 choreographers involved, some of whom had studied with the former, others who had not. I joined the group in 1962 having studied with Cunningham and later with Dunn. What fascinated me in particular about the Judson Dance Theater was the ability on the part of some choreographers to delineate and manipulate action and focus attention on activity in a new way.