- Judson Dance Theatre: Performative Traces
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The photo on the cover of Ramsay Burt's Judson Dance Theatre: Performative Traces shows Mikhail Baryshnikov performing Flat, Steve Paxton's iconic 1964 solo. Baryshnikov sits on the stage floor, naked except for boxers, his jacket and trousers hanging off tiny hooks taped to his bare torso as if he were his own valet. It's a dramatic, arresting, historic...and wrong...image. This Kirov-trained danseur's gesture seems too theatrical for the raw minimalism of the Judson Dance Theatre ethos. Instead, it has the expansive emotional [End Page 161] reach of Albrecht swearing allegiance to Giselle-and Baryshnikov's fashionable eyeglasses suggest that his is a body with a consciousness of seduction, his dance driven by an intelligence and pleasure in the audience-pleasing aesthetic, and not just the functional aspects, of the movement he is performing. But as a signifier for European postmodern dance-this image just might work.
It is this tension between American postmodern dance as exemplified by the signature works of the Judson Dance Theatre-like Paxton's Flat-and the performative traces of this work in European modern dance that is the focus of Burt's newest book, Judson Dance Theatre: Performative Traces. Burt, a Professor of Dance History at De Montfort University and one of the leading dance studies scholars in the UK, has in recent years steadily chipped away at several canonical beliefs about 20th-century dance. Now his new book on Judson extends this focus into the 1960s and 1970s crisscrossing from the US to Western Europe and challenging the divides between artists on the two continents.
In his previous dance studies scholarship, Burt has championed a wide array of theorists and methodologies-some imported from cultural and film studies-as a means of understanding choreography. In this new book, Burt challenges existing scholarship on the dances produced by the Judson choreographers, weaving a theoretical matrix around Michael Fried's often-cited "Art and Objecthood" (1968) and its acknowledgement of the demands Minimalist work makes on the spectator to take time to see a work and recognize its presence. Burt offers a revisionist story of the influence of the Judson works and artists, arguing that German contemporary dance of the 1970s was as radical and experimental as that at Judson Dance Theatre in the 1960s, and that the privileging by American critics of Clement Greenberg's ideas about pure formal art created a barrier to their seeing this link between European and American dance of the past 40 years (7).
In his search for similarities between the loose band of choreographers performing at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village and European dance theatre artists, especially Pina Bausch, Burt turns to improvisation. Arguing that Bausch's infamous psychological probing of her dancers is another form of improvisation, he notes how it works on the spectator in ways similar to the affect of the Minimalist object on viewers, by making the spectator "actively read works" while being highly aware of the performer's "bodily intelligence" (14). In an effort to tidy up his insights, Burt at times streamlines the narrative possibilities of the dances and artists he considers. For example, while accurately asserting that improvisation was especially valuable for Simone Forti and Trisha Brown, he says that this is because they had less technical training to react against than most of their colleagues. Both women, in fact, had substantial movement training in modern dance technique, as well as improvisation, and they elected improvisation as an aesthetic rather than a pragmatic choice. While Burt notes that Bausch also began using improvisation in the 1970s, in fact her subsequent use of it played out very differently as she more consciously highlighted the autobiographical qualities of the movement material that emerged, stripping away social veneers while heightening theatricality (14).
Judson Dance Theatre: Performative Traces commences boldly with a promise to redress what Burt sees as essentially the American-centric scholarship on Judson, the de facto center...