Democracy's Body: Judson Dance Theatre, 1962-1964

Democracy's Body: Judson Dance Theatre, 1962-1964

by Sally Banes

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Democracy's Body offers a lively, detailed account of the beginnings of the Judson Dance Theater--a popular center of dance experimentation in New York's Greenwich Village--and its place in the larger history of the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s. JDT started when Robert Dunn, a student of John Cage, offered a dance composition class in Merce Cunningham's studio. The performers--many of whom included some of the most prominent figures in the arts in the early sisties--found a welcome performance home in the Judson Memorial Church in the Village. Sally Banes's account draws on interviews, letters, diaries, films, and reconstructions of dances to paint a portrait of the rich culture of Judson, which was the seedbed for postmodern dance and the first avant-garde movement in dance theater since the modern dance of the 1930s and 1940s. Originally published in 1983, this edition brings back into print a highly regarded work of dance history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822396567
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/19/1993
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Lexile: 1360L (what's this?)
File size: 4 MB

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Democracy's Body

Judson Dance Theater, 1962-1964

By Sally Banes

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Sally Rachel Banes
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9656-7


Robert Dunn's Workshop

John Cage asked Robert Dunn to teach a class in choreography at the Merce Cunningham studio in the fall of 1960. Dunn had taken Cage's class in "Composition of Experimental Music," taught at the New School for Social Research from 1956 to 1960, as had the writers Jackson MacLow and Dick Higgins, the composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, and Al Hansen, George Brecht, and Allan Kaprow, all of whom were later associated with Happenings and Events. The classes Cage gave were small and participatory. Cage later wrote of his teaching method:

I began each series of classes by meeting the students, attempting to find out what they had done in the field of music, and letting them know what I myself was doing at the time. The catalogue had promised a survey of contemporary music, but this was given only incidentally and in reference to the work of the students themselves or to my own work. For, after the first two classes, generally, the sessions were given over to the performance and discussion of student works.

Dick Higgins remembers that Cage spoke about notation, prepared a piano, gave the class problems to solve, and when the students demonstrated their solutions, discussed the philosophy of each piece. "The technique of the piece was seldom mentioned, except that inconsistencies and incongruities would be noted." Higgins, who credited the class with contributing to the development of Happenings, writes that "the best thing that happened to us in Cage's class was the sense he gave us that 'anything goes,' at least potentially." Al Hansen came to Cage's class interested chiefly in film; he had read in writings by Sergei Eisenstein that "all the art forms meet in the film frame." Hansen also traces Happenings back to Cage's course and his own realization, by the end of it, that "all art forms ... meet ... in the eyeball. In the head of the observer." He remembers that the class members often brought their friends to class, and it was there that Hansen met artists such as George Segal, Jim Dine, Larry Poons, filmmaker Harvey Gross, and regular class members Florence Tarlow and Scott Hyde. "To a great extent, and probably to John Cage's disgust, the class became a little version of Black Mountain College."

According to Remy Charlip, then a member of Merce Cunningham's company, the dancers in the company asked John Cage to give a modern dance composition class — as an antidote to Louis Horst's class — in 1957 or 1958. Cage consented, and in the class, which lasted for about six months, taught in a way that was "very free." "Everyone did a piece and then we talked about it, I think in a similar way to how Bob [Dunn] later did it," explains Charlip. Charlip made a dance, called Crosswords for the Cunningham Company, in which he took a crossword puzzle and colored in the squares in an arbitrary order with four different colored pencils. "Each dancer had a square, and each person had a color, and when you came to a color, you went to that other person to get a movement." Jo Anne Melsher did a dance to music with a line of people. Charlip says that on the first day of Robert Dunn's class, Dunn showed the Crosswords score to his students. James Waring had also taught an "experimental" composition class, at the Living Theater, in 1959 and 1960.

Dunn was not a dancer or choreographer. He was the accompanist at the Cunningham and other modern dance studios at the time. Dunn thinks that Cage asked him to teach choreography because Dunn had a knowledge of contemporary dance and other art forms, and because Cunningham was not inclined to teach composition. Dunn, married then to Cunningham dancer Judith Dunn, was born in Oklahoma in 1928. He studied music composition and theory at New England Conservatory, where he earned a bachelor's degree. He worked in opera as a vocal repertoire coach and accompanist. From 1955 to 1958 he studied dance at Boston Conservatory of Music, chiefly with Jan Veen, a student of Mary Wigman and Harold Kreutzberg; Dunn also taught percussion for dancers at the Boston Conservatory. In 1958, when Cunningham performed in Boston, Dunn accompanied him and was asked to work at the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College that summer. In the fall of that year, Dunn moved to New York, where he worked for Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham as a pianist for rehearsals, classes, and performances. During his years as an accompanist he also worked for José Limón, Helen Tamiris, Pearl Lang, Jane Dudley, Paul Taylor, and James Waring. He no longer danced, but he studied Tai Chi Chuan and Yoga.

Cunningham donated the use of his studio at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue free of charge for Dunn's classes, which ran about two and a half hours, for ten to twelve sessions per course. Dunn charged a fee of twelve to fifteen dollars for the entire course "for each solvent student," except returning students, who were allowed to take subsequent courses without further payment. During some of the classes, Cunningham sat in his dressing room behind the studio where, Dunn claims, he was listening to the discussion.

Robert Dunn had seen the composition classes given by Louis Horst, Martha Graham's music director, who demanded rigid adherence to musical forms; he had seen those given by Doris Humphrey, who assessed dances according to their theatrical tensions and resolutions. Dunn found the atmosphere in those classes, in which young dancers studied every summer at the American Dance Festival sessions, "so oppressive that it was incredible. If indeed I helped liberate people from Louis [Horst] and Doris [Humphrey] (who was a great woman, but still) — ... that was well worth doing."

Unlike Horst, who used preclassic forms, and modern music by composers such as Béla Bartók, Zoltan Kodaly, Alexander Scriabin, Arnold Schönberg, and Aaron Copland, Dunn taught his students the musical structures of later composers, like Cage and the European avant-gardists Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. These chance and indeterminate structures were given to the students not as musical forms, but as time-structures "derived from and applicable to all the arts or future arts which might take place in time." John Cage's use of noise and silence in music and his move toward theatrics in musical performance were two influences on Dunn's thinking in this regard.

Dunn's classes, both in their heritage from Cage and in their eclectic assimilation of various cultural preoccupations of the 1960s — including Zen Buddhism, Taoism, existentialism, and scientism — were a microcosm of New York's avant-garde art world. It was an art world small enough for poets, painters, dancers, actors, and musicians to know each other and each other's work. So, many of the ideas circulating in the various artistic and social networks around Greenwich Village found their way into the dances and discussions in Dunn's courses. To Dunn, the classes were a generalized "clearinghouse for structures derived from various sources of contemporary action: dance, music, painting, sculpture, Happenings, literature."

But literature was the area least plumbed because, according to Dunn, "we were feeling that dance had been so super-literary in a very destructive way. Burroughs had just come on the scene, making a break in texture with the New American Poetry. Even before he did the cut-ups, his work was collage, hard-edged, perceptually obsessive. A lot of people had read Naked Lunch. And all of us had some attachment to the Dadaists."

The concrete approach Dunn used in the class was modeled after Cage's class. But Dunn had felt an unsatisfying lag in productivity as Cage's classes progressed, and so he added assignments for the choreography students, "materials and ideas put forth for their possible suggestiveness to further work. This was a bit of stategic 'irrigation' of the garden plot, it being very clear to me at the time that the all-necessary seeds were provided by each member of the class." These materials included Cage's graphic production of the chance score for Fontana Mix and the number structure of Erik Satie's Trois Gymnopédies. Other assignments dealt with an abstract time constraint, e.g., "Make a five-minute dance in half an hour." Others involved collaborations in which autonomous personal control had to be relinquished within a "semi-independent" working situation. Still others had to do with the subject matter, though this was rarer: "Make a dance about nothing special."

Louis Horst had also used Satie's music in teaching modern forms of musical structures for dance composition. But Horst's approach to teaching was more prescriptive and rigid than Dunn's. For example, Horst used one of the Gnossiennes as a study in "archaism," in which two-dimensional design of the body is achieved by distortion, tension, formality. The archaic composition was to emphasize "planal design," arresting life "in attitudes that breathe at the same time a potential of movement." Horst prescribed performing the Gnossienne study so slowly that the dance would imitate slow-motion cinematography. He also suggested Satie's Danse de la Brouette as an accompaniment to an exercise in asymmetrical rhythm. He wrote that the "uneven, oblique, unstable" movement done to a 5/4 rhythm was especially appropriate to express the scattered, frantic feeling of a Madison Avenue executive or a housewife. But, he warned, the "feeling of unbalance [should] not [be] destroyed by gestures which create a too symmetrical design in space." In other words, the quality of expression in the movements in a Horst composition assignment was to resemble the emotion suggested by the musical accompaniment.

In his book Modern Dance Forms, Horst gave young choreographers a checklist for evaluating their compositions:

1. Is the work sufficiently beautiful and is its movement delineation striking and ingenious?

2. Is the formal design rational and clear?

3. Is its rhythmic structure distinct and effective?

4. Does it contain sufficient fullness?

5. Is the demand of contrast adequately respected, and the bane of monotony avoided?

In a world where concepts of beauty had long since been challenged, where art works that embraced monotony and eschewed rational design had been made at least since Duchamp and the Dadaists, Horst's rules seemed old-fashioned, even though he was still applying them through the early 1960s. (The book, a record of his teaching methods, was published in 1961.) Comments Horst made in his classes, also recorded in Modern Dance Forms, strikingly reveal the difference between his method and Dunn's:

You always have to know where you're going — how things look to the audience. You must do the impossible. A dancer is an aesthetic acrobat — must be — so you can do anything you want to do.... A quarter of an inch makes a difference — that sort of exactitude that makes it professional. Nothing casual should happen on stage anyway.... I know it hurts. You didn't think it was going to be fun, did you? Dance and be happy?

When Dunn used Satie, his approach was entirely different: "I played the piece and gave them a number structure and they composed a dance, separate from the music but structured with the music in a sort of dovetailing way without any mickey-mousing." The separateness of the dancing from the musical structure was typical of Cunningham's collaborations with Cage and other composers.

In fulfilling their assignments in Dunn's class, students were allowed wide latitude in terms of methods, materials, and structures; as in the Cage class, the discussion focused on how these choices were arrived at and how well the choreographer had succeeded in carrying out his or her intention. The analytic method used in the discussions was also inspired by Cage's ideas about musical form:

Structure in music is its divisibility into successive parts from phrases to long sections. Form is content, the continuity. Method is the means of controlling the continuity from note to note. The material of music is sound and silence. Integrating these is composing.

Cage was a rich font of principles and methods, but, as noted above, he was not Dunn's only influence. At the time Dunn did not want to be only a musician, preferring the "model of a sort of errant philosopher-poet adventuring in various media, including that of the social occasions surrounding the work." He later wrote of his ideas about teaching as originating in quite disparate sources:

I was impressed by what I had come to know about Bauhaus education in the arts, particularly from the writings of Moholy-Nagy, in its emphasis on the nature of materials and on basic structural elements. Association with John Cage had led to the project of constantly extending perceptive boundaries and contexts. From Heidegger, Sartre, Far Eastern Buddhism, and Taoism, in some personal amalgam, I had the notion in teaching of making a "clearing," a sort of "space of nothing," in which things could appear and grow in their own nature. Before each class I made the attempt to attain this state of mind, of course with varying success.

Heidegger's writings about the human "world" in which we exist and act but which is not of our making, and about "things-in-the-world" which constitute our everyday existence, together with Sartre's stress on consciousness, find analogues in the interest, among the artists of the late 1950s and early 1960s, in using ordinary objects and amplifying perception of their thingness in relation to the beingness of humanity. For Heidegger, the social world consists of a set of relations between humans, tools, and natural things. This "world," where people manipulate things and use up materials, is in constant strife with the "earth," or natural realm, which remains impenetrable and secluded. The artwork functions as the bridge between these two realms, paradoxically bringing the earth into the world without violating it. The truth that is present in nature takes on a social — i.e., historical — existence. In the artwork, a framework that sets off the thingly nature of an object fashioned by humans is created.

The rock comes to bear and rest and so first becomes rock; metals come to glitter and shimmer, colors to glow, tones to sing, the word to speak. All this comes forth as the work sets itself back into the massiveness and heaviness of stone, into the firmness and pliancy of wood, into the hardness and luster of metal, into the lighting and darkening of color, into the clang of tone, and into the naming power of the word.

The artwork shows us that, "at bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extraordinary, uncanny."

Heidegger's thoughts on art and its mystical relation to the natural realm, as well as the Western interpretation of Zen Buddhism as an anti-intellectual discipline, valuing spontaneity and meditation on the simplicity of everyday things, must have been attractive to a generation that had lived through the politically and socially anxious 1950s. After the "conspicuous consumption" of postwar American life, to live simply and naturally seemed an antidote; after an age of conformism and social pressure, especially for women, people thirsted for the "liberation" and sense of personal autonomy spontaneous behavior connotes, which often seems everywhere present in the natural world.

The use of chance methods and indeterminacy by composers such as Cage, Stockhausen, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, and other avant-garde composers in the United States and Europe in the 1950s had brought about a new form of musical notation, both as a means of generating a fixed score (but able to express different qualities than those conveyed by traditional notation) and as a way of indicating parameters for a performer who might take an actively creative role in interpreting from the score. Labanotation and other, more personal, movement notation systems were available but not widely known to dancers and choreographers at the time of Dunn's classes. The writing of dances — the "-graphy" in choreography — was crucial to the composition process Dunn outlined for his students, not necessarily in the sense of permanently recording what the dance was, but in order to objectify the composition process, both by creating nonintuitive choices and by viewing the total range of possibilities for the dance.

Whether we use any other writing material in between, we certainly do inscribe dances on the bodies of the dancers, as a group. We inscribe dances on the body of the theater. When I say choreography, I am always talking about choreography/improvisation.... By planning the dance in a written or drawn manner, you have a very clear view of the dance and its possibilities. Laban's idea was very secondarily to make a Tanzschrift, a dance-writing, a way to record. Laban's idea was to make a Schrifttanz, to use graphic — written — inscriptions and then to generate activities. Graphic notation is a way of inventing the dance. It is part of the conception of the dance. What the choreographer has to do is to choose a world of movement ... to invent or choose the graphic side and invent or choose the correlations.


Excerpted from Democracy's Body by Sally Banes. Copyright © 1993 Sally Rachel Banes. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction xi

1. Robert Dunn's Workshop 1

2. "A Concert of Dance" at Judson Church 35

3. The Judson Workshop 71

4. The Plot Thickens 107

5. Dance in the Sanctuary and in the Theater 131

6. From Great Collective to Bus Stop 165

Notes 215

Illustrations 247

Bibliography 257

Index 263

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