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The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 7
Baryshnikov Dancing Judson

This article originally appeared in the December 2001 issue of Art in America. Reprinted by permission of Art in America and the author.

By Jill Johnston
Copyright Jill Johnston

I went to see Mikhail Baryshnikov and his White Oak Dance Project at the Brooklyn Academy of Music the week of June 4 because the work of seven so-called Judson choreographers was featured. The program was called "Past Forward," meaning that post-Judson work by the choreographers, up in fact to the present, was included. I often put myself out to see the work of my time, or work by those of my time as it keeps evolving (or not), generally seeing little else. As a true old-timer, I tend to believe that all that came after is crap. In the case of the Judson revolution in dance-making, I may actually be right. Oh, I know there are individually brilliant works around, and of course there have been for years. But it takes a group to make a revolution. And revolutions happen probably only once or twice a century. And for those of us leavened on the art of revolutionary times, there can never be anything like it again. Not unless it comes again. And the 1960s will never come again.

Judson revisited under the auspices of Mikhail Baryshnikov is a sort of archival display, a retrospective exhibition, with differences so noteworthy as to make the subject new or unrecognizable. A fabulous displacement in context changes everything. The original performance space of the funky, cavernous, high-ceilinged, peaked-roof sanctuary room of Judson Church on Washington Square, with its woolly downtown in-crowd audience whose wild enthusiasm and educated interest were not least of what composed the revolution, was a setting integral to the work itself. Likewise, the grandly formal, corporate-sponsored proscenium stage at BAM, with its throngs attracted chiefly by the fame of a great ex-ballet dancer, is an arena that completely defines what we see there. This is Judson gone Hollywood, theatricalized in ways that fully contradict the tenets of Judson's origins and early performances in its heydays, 1962-64.

Anti-spectacle, anti-entertainment, anti-star image, anti-proscenium frontality, anti-expression or narrative, anti-dance movement itself as traditionally understood -- here was a dissenting canon as insurrectional as the revolution in dance ushered in by the barefoot, ballet-hating Isadora Duncan in the late 19th century. Her pioneering work would be refined by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, then Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham (both schooled as Denishawn dancers), and in their wake by the Humphrey disciple Jose Limon. At last Merce Cunningham, formerly a Graham dancer, introduced in the 1950s a dance esthetic that was entirely new. It was off Cunningham's back that the Judson choreographers leapfrogged. Among them were the seven represented by Baryshnikov at BAM: David Gordon, Steve Paxton, Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs and Deborah Hay. Cunningham's studio at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue was actually a launching pad. There Robert Dunn, a composer and follower of Cunningham's partner, John Cage, and the husband of one of Cunningham's dancers, Judith Dunn, taught the class in choreography that led to the first evening of performances at Judson Church, on July 6, 1962. Much as Cunningham was admired and his aleatory method of composition a class expedient, his maintenance of the old bedrock of dance in technical training, whether ballet or modern, was ditched entirely in the Judson experiment.

The new and unprecedented Judson look was movement lifted from everyday actions of ordinary people, including dancers when they are not dancing. "Pedestrian" was the word, and still is, for the new "dance." A pedestrian is a walker and there was plenty of plain walking in early Judson work. Steve Paxton, a Cunningham company member (1961-64) all the while he was rebelling with the Judson group, particularly loved walking. And sitting and walking. In his 1964 solo "Flat" he sat and walked around and studiously removed his "costume" of shoes, jacket, shirt and pants, hanging them on hooks taped to his body; then put his clothes back on, ever continuing sitting and walking. Sometimes he sat or stood still. It was very boring. Boring was tremendously exciting in the revolution. "Flat" is one of only three pieces transplanted intact from the Judson of 1962-64 in Baryshnikov's Judson archive evening. And as its updated soloist, Baryshnikov makes it far from boring. Not because he doesn't follow its instructions to the letter, performing it in the required pedestrian "boring" manner. But because... well, because he is Baryshnikov. Just the question why he is doing this at all makes it pretty interesting.

Anyway, boring has long ceased to be exciting. A precise replica of an old Judson concert in its original or similar setting would make any old-timer sigh. We like simply the memory, and a belief that being there was a sacred privilege. The new thing is what Baryshnikov is doing with it all. He's the real creator here. With techno-resources, financial backing, much experience as an artistic director (for nine years at the American Ballet Theatre) and a cultivated passion for dancing in the works of postmodern choreographers, he has forged an entertaining, commercially viable program out of an unlikely piece of history. For himself and his White Oak company of professionally trained younger dancers, he has dusted off several old, prosaic, Minimalist treasures, intact and/or adapted by the intrepid survivors, and integrated them superbly with examples of their work from the 1970s till now.

A downstage screen, dropped at intervals during the evening, is almost an "extra" performer, a "choral" auxiliary, helping to glue the parts together. The names of the Judson seven appear in succession on the screen while Baryshnikov in voice-over describes how he assembled the choreographers for his evening. A prologue video by Charles Atlas shows clips of them talking among themselves and includes fragments of work from that time. A fleeting image of artists Robert Morris and Carolee Schneemann in Morris's "Site" of 1965, one of Judson's most extraordinary pieces, reminds us that creators in mediums besides dance were participating, and that there were many more contributors than seven to that indelible scene. (More than six, actually, since Simone Forti was not a Judson performer; she was included in the Baryshnikov evening for her pre-Judson seminality in game- and task-driven "ordinary" action.)

Some of those who were left out, and who helped make it all happen, might at least have been listed by name on that all-purpose dropped screen. Not even the critics, essential scribes in any revolution, are noted, except by Rainer (speaking to a confrere on the Atlas video), who says guilefully, "And all the critics were outraged." Forgetting obviously that Allen Hughes, filling in as dance critic at the New York Times, did a most commendable and charitable job of covering the group then.

Concerts continued at Judson Church until 1968, but by then they also abounded in art galleries, lofts, other churches and different non-proscenium spaces. Such opportunities led inevitably to major independent careers. Sally Banes has described all this in her fine 1980 compendium of the era, "Terpsichore in Sneakers."

The meeting of Baryshnikov and Judson was, it seems, a fortuity waiting to happen. He says that long before he formed White Oak (in 1990), while still a dancer at the Kirov in Russia, he was drawn to the work of the Judson post-modernists. He must have meant what he had heard or read about them, since he did not arrive in America until 1974, the year of his defection. He was an enthusiastic defector. Before long, and even as he was taking Westerners by storm -- the most breathtaking ballet virtuoso since Nijinsky and Nureyev -- he was dancing as a guest in works of modern choreographers, including Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, and even Limon and Graham. As director of the American Ballet Theatre during the 1980s, Baryshnikov upset and challenged the ABT trustees by commissioning difficult postmodern work. David Gordon, of the golden Judson age, was one of his choices. On the White Oak program at BAM, Gordon is listed as "director and writer" -- in effect Baryshnikov's deputy organizer -- and represented by three dance works. The earliest is dated 1975; the most recent, titled "Chair Intro 2000," is a showboat solo opener made for Baryshnikov and a chair, set to the music of John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Striped Forever." It was quite thrilling indeed, designed no doubt to let us know that nothing we were going to see here would be "anti-spectacle" or "anti-entertainment." Even Lucinda Childs's uncompromising, soundless 1964 solo "Carnation," danced at BAM by White Oak company member Emily Coates, is divertingly updated with a live video enlarging the performer's projected image on screen behind her several times her size on stage. But this makes sense for such a big auditorium, where the small detailed gestures of "Carnation" -- once so visible from, say, 20 feet at floor level in Judson Church -- could be hard to make out.

Yvonne Rainer's signature solo work of the early period, "Trio A" of 1966, has undergone a number of transpositions since then, but surely none as concessional as its most recent manifestation in Baryshnikov's Judson evening. Here called "Trio A Pressured #3," danced by the seven White Oak company members, its original soundlessness and famously uninflected movement -- a long, deceptively simple, un-punctuated phrase -- have been seriously compromised. With seven dancers facing every which way and performing the phrase contrapuntally to music of the Chambers Brothers ("In the Midnight Hour"), this once purist icon has been cast in a confusing Cunninghamesque space, and trounced additionally, sold out you could say, to rock-&-roll entertainment. But so what? It's new, it's different. And it helps to keep the program jumping. Still, why not have bypassed "Trio A" altogether to bring back a much less boring Rainer artifact from the even deeper past? "Three Seascapes" (1962), for instance, is a solo that would need no special gussying up to qualify for the Baryshnikov show (except perhaps to be enhanced with live video like Childs's "Carnation," or David Gordon's durable chair fun for three dancers, "Chair/two times," 1975).

Who would not love to see "Three Seascapes" again, or for the first time? The trouble is, who would perform it? It's got a lot of character, with weirdly restrained, as well as wildly expressed, emotion. Rainer's screaming fit, which constituted the third of her "Three Seascapes," was no doubt a cliched commentary -- shorn after all of narrative context -- on the expressiveness that Judson, and Cunningham before Judson, banned. But it couldn't help functioning also as catharsis and release for all that repression -- Rainer's and the group's -- in their coded tyrannies. Her "Seascapes" tantrum reverberates down through the Judson years and right into this page, decades later. Her stage presence altogether remains memorable. Even the bland constancy of "Trio A" as originally executed by Rainer was a commanding performance. Her controlled impassivity harbored an emotional intensity, a quality of pent-up fire and feeling, a volcanic reservoir of desire and ambition. We could see all that again, along with its reprieve, in "Three Seascapes," if the right stand-in were enlisted. It's very much a girl's piece. But I could envision Baryshnikov doing it. He can do anything. (Except for the strenuousities of ballet; at 52 and with old occupational injuries, that's over for him.) He was beautiful in a blue velvet gown at BAM in 2000, doing a slow vampy solo made originally by Rainer for David Gordon's wife, Valda Setterfield, in 1972. This appeared in a 35-minute collection of episodes strung, beadlike, or positioned for simultaneous performance, that Rainer culled for Baryshnikov's company from her pre-1975 choreography, titling the ensemble "After Many a Summer Dies the Swan."

Rainer, alone among Baryshnikov's seven chosen Judson relics, abandoned the field (in 1975) to pursue another career, in filmmaking. For "Past Forward," therefore, she left the Forward part of it to her old Judson cronies, who have evolved as dance/choreographers in variegated ways. Some of the results have helped Baryshnikov enormously in concocting his audience-pleaser evening. Two artists, Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs, needed no special introduction by Baryshnikov to dance-goers at large. Their reputations in fact exceed the limits of the dance world; they have companies, managers, publicists, and access to a slew of state-of-the-art designers and composers. Today, their roots in Judson seem truly archaic. By the early 1970s they had stopped sitting and walking (running was popular, too) or pushing objects around to begin dancing again -- as dancing is commonly understood.

While Paxton and Hay also began dancing, they both fled New York in 1970 to live in a community in northernmost Vermont, never forming permanent companies to undertake tours or engage theaters for weeklong appearances or the like. In '76 Hay removed herself even further, to Austin, Tex., where she has led large group workshops that have ended up in local performances. Both Hay and Paxton, as well as Simone Forti, insomuch as she has continued performing, have relied heavily on improvisation as a style or premise of their appearances. For Paxton, improvisation has been practically a science. That was clear on June 7 at BAM, the third night (there were five nights altogether) of the "Past Forward" performances, when five of the seven choreographers, including Paxton, took advantage of a dispensation by Baryshnikov to appear on stage and dance.

For Brown and Childs, who did solos, this was no novelty; they dance in the BAM kind of arena, here and abroad, all the time. Their works are completely set or determined, as is generally expected for large houses. Paxton's long solo improvisation, "O (for Simone)" frankly made me hold my breath. It was very nervy and intellectual. High puzzlement was his gambit, best befitting no doubt the incongruity of such a piece in front of the unwashed. A sort of lecture/dance questioning the nature of performance or performing at all, or presenting fixed choreography, it had several preset elements. First, just deciding to appear onstage; also, knowing that he intended to talk (however unscripted) about space; and having four bottles at hand to outline a performing space inside the proscenium space, within which he ultimately performed a dancerly improvisation. Paxton remains a fine dancer, in whatever context he devises. His message, in this instance, was not unfathomable. What do we really see or expect to see when we structure the frame that we find in the theater? Why do we have these barriers or borders? Why go to the theater?

These questions may be worth asking, and one has to admire Paxton's courage in taking his challenge straight into the theater's jaws, i.e., its proscenium space. I personally regard the jaws, am ready to walk into them, with no question at all. Public improvisation makes me nervous. I become very conservative. Why can't they leave all that to therapy or the studio, and bring composed work to the proscenium, or any other type of performing space? Deborah Hay wisely chose to do a duet with Baryshnikov that evening. So whatever was improvised about it -- a program footnote says the dance, "Single Duet," has a score that is interpreted differently in each performance -- was absorbed utterly by the fascination of Baryshnikov, his every step or gesture a jewel of congruity and perfection. And Hay herself, at 60, in a duet with a romantic trend, looked concordant with her celebrated partner, humbly seductive in her more alluring gender-specific part.

I'm an old-timer gone reactionary and rheumy. That's what happens. I loved the Baryshnikov show. (I take it that his elderly Judson captives did too.) And far from expecting anything so "democratic" as the '60s revolutionary inclusiveness to happen again, I look forward to the enthronement of the next woman in the great line of Duncan, St. Denis, Graham and Humphrey. This is a heritage that Americans can be proud of. It carries the only creative medium in the world invented, evolved and heroized by the weaker sex. My present superannuation has its roots back in the 1950s while I was seated at the feet of Doris Humphrey, a choreographic genius who no longer danced due to an arthritic hip. By then the modernist movement was having its last hurrah. She and Graham were the inevitable combatants of their era. Now it looks like Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs are the heirs to that earlier rivalry. Not that their work, and dancing personae, bear the least resemblance to those of Graham and Humphrey. Actually, Brown is physically not unlike Humphrey in her long litheness and open, airy dance style. However she is not the architect or disciplinarian of space that Humphrey was. Her work can sprawl incontinently, and it depends on some brilliant assists of music, set designs, lighting and costumes. More critically, Brown dances too much, tends to be carried away by her dancing. There's a lot of "hooptedoodle" in the work, like prose that's too wordy. As if to make up for a lack of composition -- a skill that Childs, by comparison, has turned into her signature.

So you've guessed it. My candidate for enthronement is Lucinda Childs. Perhaps Baryshnikov thinks so too, since he crowned his Judson evenings with her 1993 "Concerto," a stunning example of her obsessive group compositional style, one piece different from the next only by variation on a singular method of organizing her space. "Concerto" is accompanied by a score -- Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki's "Concerto for Hapsichord and Strings" -- as driving and exciting as the relentless pulverizing consumption of space by White Oak's seven dancers. At BAM and elsewhere, the dance has brought the house down with thunderous ovations.

Childs's space matches Cunningham's in its compendious nature. Every dance summarizes the whole oeuvre. The oeuvre is, so to speak, all one work. If placed end to end, the individual pieces would resemble something like the sameness of, say, Pollock's high drip-period paintings, or Rothko's or Kelly's color transmutations. Once a method or formula is established, there can be wonderful variations, but in a sense nothing new is going to happen. What is most wonderful really is having a formula. It takes care of the problem of invention every time a new work must be made. The invention was the formula, an a priori event, and "new work" is made to fit into it, thereby expanding it. Cunningham established his aleatory principium, coupled with dancing independently of his commissioned sound scores, by the late 1940s.

Childs's approach, developed by the late '70s, is entirely mathematical and geometric. Her dancers are stick figures in schemes for moving them around the space in complex patterns. They are animated by very simple kinds of movement: walking running skipping, stopping and turning, whatever gets them from one place to another, with some but not much arm action. Torsos remain mostly upright. The legs never shoot out or up or do anything "dancerly" that might distract from their main purpose of moving the body from here to there. It's an art of locomotion, and repetition. A permutational reordering of minimalist phrases creates a dense overlay of movement that keeps accreting, cumulating, into something much grander -- and more stirring, finally -- than you might expect from such slight units of composition.

Not unsurprisingly, Childs has frequently chosen accompanying sound scores by such minimalist composers as Philip Glass, John Adams, Terry Riley and Gyorgy Ligeti that best analogize, therefore advance and promote, the additive building effect of her dance geometries. Equally important in the work, and in keeping with its thorough abstraction, is the omission of gender distinctions -- by size or role or traditional sort of coupling -- and gender bending, such as David Gordon and Mark Morris have explored. But Childs's dancers are, after all, mere pawns in systems that absorb their individuality.

Baryshnikov's presence as one of the seven performers in "Concerto" is a challenge to that concept. He integrates himself perfectly, but you look for him nonetheless. Interesting questions form themselves around his appearance in this kind of work, and even in the solos that have either been made for him, or exhumed by him from the past. How much of his attractiveness is due to his investiture? Would he look special in the street in a crowd, or by himself? Is this a former god of the ballet descended to earth to grace our lowly modern dance tradition? To this I say resoundingly yes. He came from Russia with love -- for America. Not with instrumentality, like Balanchine, imported by Lincoln Kristein in 1933 to help establish the European court tradition here, which at length obscured our own indigenous high dance art form. But hey, without Balanchine, it's unlikely that Baryshnikov would have found a job in the U.S. in 1974. Anyway, by then the ballet and modern dance/choreographers had been infiltrating each other's mediums for some time. A vibrant crossover culture existed. Yet the ballet has persisted in America as the form de resistance, the premier money-maker and dance trade of high visibility.

The eclipse of America's homegrown dance art by a form that flowered in Europe for the pleasure of royalty -- a supreme irony as regards our constitutional origins as a nation -- is under redress by a man who had grown up unhappy in a repressive regime at the Kirov. Bad things were going on there by the time Baryshnikov joined the company in the late '60s. The repertory was moribund. Good choreographers were lacking, and the Soviet authorities refused, on patriotic grounds, to invite Western choreographers to the Kirov. In 1974, Baryshnikov told Anna Kisselgoff of the New York Times that he had had no freedom to choose his own repertory and almost no opportunity to dance in new ballets, especially those created for him. "Roles that are created for you open up new reserves in you that you didn't know about.... It is very exciting." Under the Kirov's imperious rule, and at a time of worldwide restlessness, a crisis existed. With the desertion of Nureyev (1961) and several others, leading dancers were under surveillance for fear of more defections. On tour in London, Baryshnikov was wildly acclaimed; he made friends with the defector Nureyev, saw the ABT perform, and went to modern dance classes. According to Joan Acocella, writing in the New Yorker in 1998, his watershed moment occurred in Leningrad, after the London trip, when he staged what was called a Creative Evening. Here, apparently, is the precedent for Baryshnikov's Judson evening. By Kirov custom, a dancer would commission a program of short works, often from young choreographers, assemble sets and costumes and star in the production. The ballets thus contrived would normally be shelved by the Kirov administration. Baryshnikov met a worse fate when he was told how bad they thought his show was. It was allowed a few performances anyway. Then at a cast banquet, while he was trying to make a speech thanking his dancers, Baryshnikov burst into tears. A few months later, on tour in Canada with the Bolshoi Ballet, he defected.

Will his personal vindication, coming full circle in the smashing success of the Judson evening, and his embrace generally of the American-type dance, have any far-reaching consequences? Why not? Dancing with his White Oak company, Baryshnikov has created the most interesting thing to happen terpsichoreally in America since the very Judson revolution he has so imaginatively exploited. Possibly America will catch on and realize that right under its nose an indigenous tradition of great choreography bloomed and died out and is being born again under the sponsorship of a man who once starred in the medium that triumphed over it. A new expressionism may even be afoot. Baryshnikov is himself a touching performer, even in deadpan work. His ballet history, after all, includes narrative partnering and character roles. He has done Limon and Graham, the two masters of late modern thematic hyperbole. In the future he may choose postmodern work emphasizing affect or emotive context. Which is not to say that we want any storytelling again. I hardly loved it back when. What I find missing in work of any nature is inner depth, and maturity -- the latent meaningfulness of lurking subtleties wrought, say, by that great soloist Katherine Litz.

A standout at BAM was Lucinda Childs's brush with ecstasy in her 2001 solo, "Largo," to Arcangelo Corelli's "Concerti Grossi Op. 6," performed the third evening, when the choreographers were invited to appear on stage and dance. In a contracted grammar of the structures that hold her group work, with the same precision and incisiveness, yet with a new-looking give in the torso, a greater generosity with the arms, she patrolled her space along that rarest of lines embracing the romantic and classical at once. Carried onward by the elegance of the composition, the systolic breath and exhalation of its perfect phrasing, the lushness of the Corelli, she generated a strange, unearthly, attenuated passion. A frontal moment near the end, when Childs's arms are outstretched, palms upward, was a vapor from a past age -- Isadora as she appeared in all her glory, at the barricades in the tragic ardor of "La Marseillaise." We're not ready yet for an unleashed Isadora. But in "Largo" we're looking at a pulsing resonance, possibly the figment of a new revolution. At the very least, we're looking at mature work, infused with a depth of feeling that simply a mastery of composition can inspire.

Baryshnikov himself may not have an ambition for the American dance such as I am gibbering on about. Asked by Acocella in her 1998 interview if he had got what he wanted in the West, he replied, "Oh, more than that -- I never dreamt that I would work with so many extraordinary people." Acocella's comment: "That was all he wanted, just to work with interesting people."


Editor's Note: White Oak's "Past Forward" programs were previously written about on the Dance Insider by Paul Ben-Itzak, Asimina Chremos, and Susan Yung.


©Jill Johnston. Also previously published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here. To read more of Jill Johnston on the Dance Insider, click here.

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