Beyond Judson Dance, Shows at MoMA and Danspace

December 23rd, 2012

JUDSON DANCE THEATER, a group of experimental artists who masterminded a series of performances from 1962 to 1964, altered the course of dance history. This wave of choreographers, inspired by composition workshops taught by Robert Ellis Dunn at Merce Cunningham’s studio, approached Judson Memorial Church as a space to show the pieces developed in the class after being turned down by the 92nd Street Y.

Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Trajal Harrell’s “Judson Church Is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure),” performed in October as part of Judson Now: from far left, Ondrej Vidlar, Thibault Lac and Mr. Harrell.

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In rejecting the traditional framework and overtly stylized expressiveness of modern dance, these artists cleared the air with works that showcased ordinary movement, nondancers and task-based choreography. Still, Judson was more than an exploration of the neutral body, and many of the diverse artists that emerged are now legends of postmodern dance: Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, David Gordon, Deborah Hay, Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton.

In honor of Judson’s 50th anniversary Danspace Project hosted Judson Now, a three-month tribute to the revolutionary artistic movement with many of the original artists participating. In October the Museum of Modern Art hosted “Some sweet day,” a series programmed in part by the visual artist and choreographer Ralph Lemon that paired newer and veteran choreographers, including Mr. Paxton and Ms. Hay.

The influence of Judson on current dance artists is as inspirational as it is oppressive. What is there left to rebel against? It’s often the kid with the cool parents who has the hardest time breaking free. For years Judson cast a shadow over the experimental dance world, but these two programs have lessened the burden. A tension will always remain — Judson was too wild and too productive to be written off — but some air has seeped in. Artists working today have breathing room.

Judson Now explored the past with a light touch, offering intimate snapshots of artists, typically in one-off evenings. Meredith Monk’s heaven-sent voice sounded as if it were dancing throughout the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Church in selections from “Shards.” Mr. Gordon remixed early Judson pieces and his own history to forge ahead with a shimmering new work. And the hypnotic Ms. Childs, performing an excerpt from her 1963 “Pastime,” cast a haunting gaze as she shifted slowly in a cocoon of blue fabric. The series proved that Judson was never just one idea or one concept but a world of art.

Though there were reservations about performing in MoMA’s atrium, the setting for “Some sweet day,” it turned out to be a glorious place for Mr. Paxton’s “Satisfyin Lover” (1967) and “State” (1968), both of which upend notions of virtuosity by focusing on everyday movements and the pedestrian body. “Satisfyin Lover” depicts people walking across the stage; in “State” they remain still.

Mr. Paxton explained at a museum talk that from 1962 to 1967 he worked on walking and standing; later he added sitting. “It took those five years to be able to say something that simple,” he said. “ ‘State’ is even more simple. So it took another year.”

Making a lasting dance is daunting. Here the purity of Mr. Paxton’s work was anchored by Mr. Lemon’s decision to program it the same week as “The Show Must Go On” (2001) by J?r?me Bel, created for a cast of trained and untrained performers. For me Mr. Bel’s work, which wavers between tender and abrasive, is about tapping into your imagination, noticing the way popular songs like “Ballerina Girl” or “Let’s Dance” have seeped into your memory. As with Mr. Paxton’s pieces, we see how people, under glass as performers, project themselves to the world. One of the rewards of this series was seeing the unspoken dialogue between generations of dance makers: how one chapter ends and another begins. Trajal Harrell, who appeared in Mr. Bel’s piece, was also part of Judson Now. In his enthralling series of dances, “Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church,” he questions the “rules” of Judson and offers an alternative: a return to expressiveness or to emotionality in dance.

“Twenty Looks” focuses on the theoretical union of voguing and early postmodern dance. In “Judson Church Is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure),” performed at Danspace Project in October, Mr. Harrell sat on a chair, quietly weeping: a maudlin figure as tragic as one of the mythic figures by whom Martha Graham was so inspired. As the work continued, the dancers moved wildly, as if their bodies had been overtaken by an outside force, and feverishly chanted phrases like “Don’t think,” or “Conceptual dance is over.”

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