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Flash News, 9-18: Bon Voyage, Jilly

By The Dance Insider
Copyright 2010 The Dance Insider & Paul Ben-Itzak

HARTFORD, CT -- Jill Johnston, a giant in American Letters who ushered in a new age in dance before going on to help usher in a new age in journalism, and a columnist and chroniclist for the Dance Insider since 2005, died Saturday at Hartford Hospital at the age of 81, her spouse and companion of 30 years, Ingrid Nyeboe, announced, after suffering a stroke September 9, nine days after undergoing minimally invasive open heart surgery to treat atrial fibrillation.

"As Jill was a pioneer not just in dance criticism but in 20th century journalism and literature, dance analogies might be too limiting," said Dance Insider publisher Paul Ben-Itzak. "That said, as a dance critic she was our Merce Cunningham. Just as dance lost the last of its pioneering giants when Cunningham passed away last year, dance criticism has now lost the last of its giants."

Jill Johnston began her writing career as the first dance critic of the fledgling Village Voice more than five decades ago, also becoming the first to chronicle the post-modern dance movement being born at Judson Church in New York in the early '60s; if Judson artists like Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, and Trisha Brown gave post-modern form to dance, Johnston gave their movement literary form and thus ensured its entry into the canon. But if she made the Judson movement read large, as a journalist and writer Johnston soon took on a larger canvas with bigger tools, at first personalizing her Voice dance column and then personalizing journalism as one of a handful of writers including Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and others, who applied the techniques of fiction to reporting (for what became known as the New Journalism), eventually chronicling her own adventures and misadventures and often radically iconoclastic inner and outer observations in a series of books: "Marmalade Me," "Gullibles Travels," "Lesbian Nation," "Paper Daughter," "Marmalade Me 2" and, most recently, "England's Child: The Carillon and the Casting of Big Bells," in which she traced the work and life of her father, Cyril F. Johnston, a foremost English bellfounder in the first half of the 20th century.

Jill Johnston also published art criticism in a variety of journals, notably Art in America. Johnston returned to dance in 2005, when she did the Dance Insider the great honor of allowing it to syndicate her column The Johnston Letter, published on her new website, www.jilljohnston.com. Once again Johnston had crossed several thresholds by creating a personalized cultural and political commentary -- or perhaps culturized personally political chronicle on.... whatever Johnston found interesting and engaging, from King Arthur to King George (Bush II), from Obama to the ludicrousness of campaigns against gay marriage, from her recent chronic problems with her foot to Carl Jung's newly published "The Red Book," the putative topic of her last column published in these pages August 14, in which she wrote, "Will Obama survive the Tea party people, or his own presidency, and bipartisan aspirations? Does anyone really believe that two warring political parties are enough for 300 million people? Does it matter, when we are dying anyway? Do we hope for utopia before we go? Can we create our own, even as we know we're on a sinking ship called America? Can't we get off this thing? It's going down with a ton of money, never shared with us, but taking us with it. Atlantis here we come, with tons of useless money."

In her biography on www.jilljohnston.com, Johnston recalled: "One starts somewhere. My career as a writer began in the minimal and marginalized field of dance criticism. Despite, or perhaps because of, its low place on the cultural totem pole, I had a compelling ambition to excel at it and make it my own. I was twenty-something, and the time was the late fifties, just when a great sea change in the American modern dance tradition was underway. My aspirations as a critic were academic and literary from the start. Certain analytic interpretive writings of a prominent German dance critic were a model -- best applied no doubt to history rather than to work of the moment. And it became the moment -- so eventful and attractively shocking heading into the '60s -- that would arrest me."

Of her contribution to the Dance Insider, DI publisher Ben-Itzak said, "When Jill agreed to let us syndicate The Johnston Letter in 2005, she singularly made us bigger. Just as she had gone on from dance to expand her subject, she helped us expand ours and expanded our readers' world. She also directly tied us in to dance history. On a personal note, as an editor, I sometimes had to pinch myself when I realized I had the copy of Jill Johnston in front of me. Before I ever got involved in dance, she had made what I attempt to do as a journalist possible by making it not just okay but potentially interesting to write about oneself universally."

Essential to Johnston's collaboration with the Dance Insider was her spouse in life and partner in work Ingrid Nyeboe. In a letter to friends and family shared today, Nyeboe wrote:

"Our most adored and beloved Jilly, mother of Richard and Winnie, grandmother of Amanda and Ben, Lori and Marissa, my own darling love and best friend of 30 years, died today, September 18, 2010 at 1:40 p.m.

"She left us peacefully and with dignity; let's honor her immense legacy of love, kindness and amazing intelligence by celebrating her life each and every moment in our own daily activities.

"May her liberated spirit guide us on our paths."

To read more by Jill Johnston on the Dance Insider, visit her DI archives.

Read more tributes to Jill Johnston on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here.

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