Justifying Judson

Out of a Corner of the Sixties: One day colloquium with Deborah Hay and Yvonne Rainer (Founder members of the Judson Church Group)

by Katie Phillips

Greenwich Dance Agency - 26/07/03


The Judson Memorial Church, New York, was home to a series of creative movement workshops in the 1960s-70s. The loose collective of choreographers that made up this group defined post-modern dance as we know it in an artistic movement that echoed/paralleled the philosophies of John Cage and Andy Warhol. The result was a radical rejection of traditional classical ballet restraints as well as the stringent poignancy of Grahamesque American Modern Dance.

Yvonne Rainer’s opening lecture suggests that the focus for the Judsonites was on the intellectual process of creating a dance – exploring collaboration, minimalism, pedestrian gesture, the dissolution of boundaries between art forms and the concept of ‘process rather than product’. Art and life became intertwined and musicians, dancers, visual artists, architects, film makers – trained and untrained, all joined together to create. The prevalent lack of sexual, political and social democracy in the ’60 and ‘70s was also seen in the non- democratising of art, which led to a kind of artistic anarchy. It was a time when painters made dances, dancers made music, or ‘sound’ and musicians sat in silence (Cage’s 4’32”). Dancers began to walk and run, or simply do nothing – a specific relationship with the space was all that mattered.

Rainer’s slide show opens on ‘Man walking down side of building’ (1967) and we are given a humorous account of the history/creation of the picture. We are told about the progression towards movement as activity, the force and natural intention of gravity, and that movement in collaboration with place constitutes choreography. The slide show moves on so that ‘dance’ becomes ‘movement in a space’, and a performance becomes ‘An evening of dance constructions’ – simply that and nothing else. ‘People walking on wall’ is a display of people harnessed, walking on the wall, bodies parallel with the floor. Stillness is set to grandiose orchestral/choral scores. We are informed that the audience hissed, booed, read their papers and generally went, as Rainer comically puts it, “bananas”. The Judson clique on the other hand, found this minimal pedestrianism full of “austerity and rigour”.

Colloquium attendees (even the old school) laugh at the wry commentary detailing the ridiculousness of the movement. Yet, the theory is a highly intellectual process, complex and justified, which certainly stands tall in the history books. However, my question is how all this relates to present reality. Although at the time this artistic anarchy captured a lot of free thinking creative pioneers yearning for something more in the spirit of the age, did it really work? Rainer tells us of the people that walked out of the performances, as people walk out of the lecture. She describes the artistic epoch of the 70’s as an ‘historical curiosity’. She says herself that she finds it hard to defend – “You had to be there I guess”.

In the ‘After Judson’ section of the day, Deborah Hay gives us a reading from her score for ‘Beauty’. It consists of a series of elaborately detailed and embellished analytical questions for dancers. Rainer then gives a commentary of Hay’s elucidations, and issues relating to performance with no audience, the mysteriousness of presence, dancers’ exactitude and an awareness of boundaries/limitations are raised.

The fact that an analysis is analysed and later, that we can talk for two hours about a five minute dance sums up the Judson ethos: The Judsonites are artistic philosophers as opposed to practitioners. The predominant focus is on choreographic justification and movement context rather than the movement itself; less about aesthetic movement concepts than the artistic politics of the time. They’ve been walking the walk, and talking the talk (literally) ever since. And that was 40 years ago. Rainer states bluntly that she doesn’t follow dance these days, and the only reason she’s still lecturing about and teaching ‘Trio A’ (1978), is that she’s invited to and people pay her – she doesn’t seem to know (or care) what people get out of it these days.

Rainer seems tired of having to answer questions from the not so elite – perhaps it’s the jet lag, perhaps it’s shock at having to justify herself to a modern audience. She rebuffs dance practice incorporating performers, spectators, audience, embellishment, eccentricity and virtuosity – in the process, the Judson justification seems to become more and more arbitrary. Lots of unanswered questions are left hanging in her “But yeah…’s”. She gives such simple answers to some questions and yet seems utterly horrified by other choices that seem just as random, perhaps reflecting the Judson paradox that (in her words) “nothing is important” and “everything is neutral” at the same time that “anything goes” and “result is boring”.

A retro version of the Judson era can be seen in choreography today, especially in the current trend for minimalism, humour, chaos and eclecticism. Only now this is not so much analysed as criticised. Today the trend is to shock, provoke and disturb – to activate the brain in a different, more extrovert way, as opposed to the introvert, albeit thoroughly intellectual navel gazing of the Judsonites. “Experiments with weight, flow and continuity” would not stand without motivation. To the Judsonites, this may seem an utterly Grahamesque statement. Perhaps it suggests that today’s choreographic justification is the result of a combination of the rebel and the establishment; the intolerable and the acceptable.

Edited by Stuart Sweeney

Please join the discussion in our forum.


Submit press releases to press@criticaldance.com

For information, corrections and questions, please contact admin@criticaldance.com