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  • Robert Ellis Dunn: In Memoriam

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Robert Ellis Dunn. Photo: Courtesy Gretchen Dunn.

When Robert Ellis Dunn died on Friday, July 5, 1996, there was a sense of closure to one of the most important chapters in the American arts since World War II. Although Dunn’s legacy as one of the master teachers of dance composition is secure, his academic legacy has been less established. During his lifetime, Dunn had an aversion to codifying his teaching into anything resembling a method, and would only present his ideas with the provision that whatever statements he made were in process. From his pioneering work as the spearhead of the Judson Dance Theater to Danceflndings, the posthumous celebration of Dunn’s work which occurred at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Haggerty Museum of Art in the winter of 1997, Dunn was insistent on the evolving nature of his work.

In order to remain true to his spirit, the pieces presented here are only provisional: Two brief statements delivered at conferences, another a draft of an essay “Evaluating Choreography,” and the last his proposal for the videodance installation which was created in collaboration with Matthew Chernov, and premiered posthumously at the Haggerty Museum of Art in Milwaukee on January 30, 1997. Dunn’s enthusiasm for videodance can be attributed to its nature as a continually fluid and ever-changing medium; as Yvonne Rainer said to Dunn in a conversation printed in Artforum in December, 1972, “I don’t remember that your teaching ever insisted on any one thing.” These pieces are presented as a memorial to the multifarious and expansive spirit of one of the master teachers in contemporary dance. We would like to thank Gretchen Dunn for her permission to publish these notes by Robert Ellis Dunn.

—Daryl Chin

[End Page 11]

Robert Ellis Dunn Remembered: Four Pieces By The Artist/teacher

Statement at Cage-Fest

(3 very full days of events, musical and other, surrounding the presence of John Cage; Strathmore Museum; Rockville, Maryland)

For several years now, I have felt that the two greatest learning occasions of my life were provided by John Cage, my teacher of experimental music, in the late 50s and early 60s, and Irmgard Bartenieff, my teacher of movement analysis, in the early 70s. In each case the influence was so deep and pervasive that it is impossible to lift it out for objective examination. But this has the advantage that it eludes the necessity for self-examination as to possible “heresy” from the “doctrines” of my teachers.

In the case of John Cage (my John Cage, there are many others), to attempt to locate and grasp leading qualities, I would list three:

  1. 1. his sense of human relations and social occasions as they arise in the interface of art and life;

  2. 2. his sense of divine influences present in music, poetry, and theatre;

  3. 3. his sense of emotional sobriety (Hölderlin’s “heilige Nuchternheit”?) pursued through such strategies as acceptance through close attention to detail and an all-saving frame of humor.

Art, in any acceptation of the term (including that of Marcel Duchamp), is precisely that which can be shared. This is in all reality a moment-by-moment and person-by-person negotiation, and the source of all the magic art still retains for us.

—May 5, 1989

[End Page 13]

Evaluating Choreography

Those who have written about the four “semesters” of workshops given at the Merce Cunningham Studio (1960-62), which led directly to the founding of the Judson Dance Theater, have often mentioned the “interminable, rambling discussion” around works in progress shown there. Somehow they sensed that the nature of this discussion was an essential key to the unprecedented dance activity stemming from these workshops. During the many years I taught in the Graduate Program in Dance Education at Columbia Teachers College, I felt the need to “academicize” the underlying principles that I intuited behind these discussions, and as far as possible to provide brief statements which would be passed on to others, and consciously used to give structure to the evaluation of choreography in such a way that the analyses...

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