- How We RememberJudson Dance Theater at MoMA
THAT TIME, THIS TIME
In her autobiography Feelings Are Facts, choreographer Yvonne Rainer recalls an early brush with notoriety. She received a call from Harper’s Bazaar hoping to include her in their list of “100 Women of Accomplishment.” Asked the question “What do you value most?” she responded, “Being a part of one’s time.” The magazine missed her point and, instead, credited her with caring deeply about “Using one’s time well.”1
From 1963–65, Greenwich Village’s most progressive ministry, Judson Memorial Church, hosted a group of young dancers—alongside poets, painters, community activists, and its parishioners—who did appear to be uniquely of their time. Much as across the United States people were bucking cultural mores and challenging systems of political and social organization, these dancers were upending the traditions they were handed, redefining what was understood as dance and the experience of the concert stage. As with artists before them, they linked their creative experimentation to larger cultural and political shifts. Different than other collective creative projects, they did not articulate their experimentation as a movement, they did not have a manifesto, and they did not set out to make revolution.2 Though utopic and rebelling against its history, their dances were experiments anchored in their present, in the moments of creating and performing.
The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done is centrally an invocation of the zeitgeist of that historical moment and the artists who helped shape it. Written into the show’s title as well as the curation as a whole, the exhibition’s implicit inquiry is: how do we look back from where we are; what does that time tell us about our times? And for those who accept the invitation: what might the creative action of that fertile and contentious era ask us of being and acting in our own? [End Page 58]
HOW WE REMEMBER
Judson Dance Theater’s three years of existence are perhaps the most historicized moment in twentieth-century American dance, and the MoMA retrospective is far from the first look back at that history. (There has, in fact, been some amount of Judson fatigue among downtown dancemakers, especially since 2013, Judson dance’s fiftieth anniversary year.) Until the MoMA show, these retrospective projects have been largely organized by dance institutions and artists. Each has its own focus and approach. However, they share an interest in the effects of Judson’s legacy on the practices of contemporary artists. They were dominated by performances and conversations, especially between generations of artists; archival materials were sparse. As the MoMA exhibition becomes one of the most prominent sources of Judson history, how do its retrospective strategies and interests differ from past efforts to consider the importance of that history to today’s artists and culture?
The Bennington College Judson Project is a prominent early retrospective project. Organized by three Bennington faculty members—Wendy Perron, Tony Carruthers, and Daniel J. Cameron—in the early 1980s, it included filmed interviews and led to an exhibition at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, with accompanying print publication and performances at St. Mark’s Church, Judson’s neighbor and the home of Danspace Project. The program included artists from the original Judson cohort restaging works from the sixties.3 The Bennington archive was often cited in the MoMA show, including video of assistant minister Al Carmines giving one of the most deeply felt testimonies to the importance of dance in community and spiritual life.4 Bennington College has no information this project on their website. Videos from the performance evenings are held by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, though there is no place to access an overview of the project as a whole.
Since 2010, on either side of Judson Dance Theater’s fiftieth anniversary, there has been a spate of programs revisiting Judson’s history and its effects on contemporary dance and art. In 2012, Danspace Project, headed by Judy Hussie-Taylor, presented a multi-week program entitled Judson Now. To look back, the program presented the...