Judson Dance Theater: Postmodern Dance Pioneers

Categories: Dance

Judson Dance Theater was an informal group of dancers who performed at the Judson Memorial Church, New York between 1962 and 1964. The group of artists that formed Judson Dance Theater is considered the founders of postmodern dance. Postmodern dance is a reaction to the compositional and presentation constraints of modern dance. It hailed the use of everyday movement as valid performance art and advocated novel methods of dance composition.

Claiming that any movement was dance, and any person was a dancer (with or without training) early postmodern dance was more closely aligned with ideology of modernism rather than the architectural, literary and design movements of postmodernism.

The theater grew out of a dance composition class taught by Robert Dunn, a musician who had studied with John Cage. The artists involved with Judson Dance Theater were avant garde experimentalists who rejected the confines of Modern dance practice and theory.

The first Judson concert took place on July 6, 1962, with dance works presented by Steve Paxton, Fred Herko, David Gordon, Alex and Deborah Hay, Yvonne Rainer, Elaine Summers, William Davis, and Ruth Emerson.

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Developments in dance practice that can be traced back to the Judson Dance Theater include contact improvisation, dance improvisation, and dance for camera. Contact improvisation (CI) is a dance technique in which points of physical contact provide the starting point for exploration through movement improvisation.

Contact Improvisation is a form of dance improvisation and is one of the best-known and most characteristic forms of postmodern dance. Contact improvisation can be practiced as concert or social dance form.

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In the social setting contact improvisation meetings are called "jams" in which participants can participate or watch as they choose. The name is perhaps derived from the "jams" of jazz musicians, who come together to spontaneously explore musical forms and ideas. Contact improvisation is often practiced in duet form but can also be performed in groups or as solo using physical objects (floor, walls, chair, etc. as the point of contact. As many teachers say in introductory classes, the floor is your first partner.

Contact improvisation techniques can include weight transfer, weight sharing, counter balance, rolling, falling, suspension, and lifting. Dance improvisation is the creation of improvised movement and is sometimes associated with 20th century concert dance but is not exclusive to that genre. Video dance is the contemporary term for the genre of dance made for the camera. In video dance, movement is the primary expressive element in the work rather than dialogue (as in conventional narrative movies) or music (as in music videos).

Other names for this form are screen dance, dance film, cinedance, and dance for camera. Development of improvised movement material is facilitated through a variety of creative explorations including body mapping through body mind centering, levels, shape and dynamics, sensory experiences through touch or contact improvisation, and perceptual schema. Because movement is a basic element in all time-based visual media forms, video dance is distinguished from other film genres by its emphasis on the craft and composition of movement in the work.

Often this movement is recognizable as dance in which people are moving in stylized ways, however in some experimental and animated video dances the movement can be pedestrian and unstylized, or even the motion of animals and inanimate objects. Unlike most dance troupes, the members of the Judson Dance Theater were both trained dancers, as well as, untrained visual artists, musicians, poets, and even filmmakers. On July 6, 1962 the theater company gave its first performance, Concert of Dance #1, at the Judson Church.

The dancers of Judson Dance Theater emphasized improvisation and reflected Cagean notions of chance and randomness on their first concert. A John Cage composition, Cartridge Music, was used for two different dances performed either simultaneously or overlapping each other. Ordinary actions such as walking or even standing still were often portrayed as a type of dance. The press release described the choreographics as "Indeterminacy, rules specifying situations, improvisations and spontaneous determination. The evening for the first performance started with the projection of a film - Overture - which consisted of edited clips from a variety of sources.

The dance critic for The New York Times referred to the film as "a moving picture assemblage" and noted "The overture was, perhaps, the key to the success of the evening, for through its random juxtaposition of unrelated subjects - children playing, trucks parked under the West Side Highway, Mr. (W. C. ) Fields, and so on - the audience was quickly transported out of the everyday world where events are supposed to be governed by logic, even if they are not. Part of the success of the theater was due to the conscious effort of its artist to work collectively.

As Judith Dunn, one dancer in the group wrote, "no important decisions were made until everyone concerned and present agreed. " This, along with the toleration of artists from a variety of disciplines, contributed to the groups feeling of unity and community. Two of the members of the Judson Theater are Yvonne Rainier and Elaine Summers. Yvonne Rainer is an American dancer, choreographer and filmmaker, whose work in these disciplines is frequently challenging and experimental.

Rainer was one of the organizers of the Judson Dance Theater, a focal point for vanguard activity in the dance world throughout the 1960s, and she formed her own company for a brief time after the Judson performances ended. Rainer is noted for an approach to dance that treats the body more as the source of an infinite variety of movements than as the purveyor of emotion or drama. Many of the elements she employed—such as repetition, patterning, tasks, and games—later became standard features of modern dance.

In her early dances, Rainer focused on sounds and movements, and often juxtaposed the two in arbitrary combinations. Somewhat inspired by the chance tactics favored by Cunningham, Rainer’s choreography was a combination of classical dance steps contrasted with everyday, pedestrian movement. She used a great deal of repetition, and employed narrative and verbal noises (including wails, grunts, mumbles and shrieks, etc. ) within the body of her dances. A turning point in Rainer’s choreography came in 1964, when, in an effort to strip movements of their expressive qualities, she turned to game structures to create works.

All movement aimed to be direct, functional, and to avoid stylization. In so doing, she aimed to remove the drama from the dance movement, and to question the role of entertainment in dance. Throughout this stage of her choreography she worked towards movement becoming something of an object, to be examined without any psychological, social or formal motives. She opted for neutrality in her dances, presenting the objective presence of the human body and its movements, and refused to project a persona or create a narrative within her dances.

In 1965, as a reaction to many of the previously stated feelings, Rainer created her "No Manifesto," which was a strategy formulated to demystify dance. This exploration in reducing dance to the essentials climaxed with one of Rainer’s most famous pieces, Trio A (1966), initially part of a larger work entitled The Mind Is a Muscle. Something of a paradigmatic statement that questioned the aesthetic goals of postmodern dance, Trio A was a short dance that consisted of one long phrase. In Trio A, Rainer intended to remove objects from the dance while simultaneously retaining a workmanlike approach of task-based performance.

Not simple but certainly not fancy, it was a demanding piece of work, both to watch and to perform. She explored such dynamics as repetition, the distribution of energy, and phrasing. The movement consisted of task-oriented actions, emphasizing neutral performance and featuring no interaction with the audience. The dancer was to never make eye contact with her observers, and in the case that the movement required the dancer to face the audience, the eyes were to be averted from the audience or the head was to be involved in movement.

Rainer sometimes included filmed sequences in her dances, and in the mid-1970s she began to turn her attention to film directing. Her early films do not follow narrative conventions, instead combining reality and fiction, sound and visuals, to address social and political issues. Rainer directed several experimental films about dance and performance, including Lives of Performers (1972), Film About a Woman Who (1974), and Kristina Talking Pictures (1976). Her later films include The Man Who Envied Women (1985), Privilege (1990), and MURDER and murder (1996).

The last-mentioned work, more conventional in its narrative structure, is a lesbian love story as well as a reflection on urban life and on breast cancer, and it features Rainer herself. Elaine Summers was a founding member of the workshop-group that would form the Judson Dance Theater and significantly contributed to the interaction of film and dance, as well as the expansion of dance into other related disciplines, such as visual art, film, and theater. She furthermore fostered the expansion of performing dance in new, often outdoor locations.

Her movement approach Kinetic Awareness offers a comprehensive perspective on human movement and dance. Summers was born in Perth, Australia and grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. She came to New York in the 1950s and became part of the workshop-group originally initiated by Robert Ellis Dunn that would later be referred to as the Judson Dance Theater in its second term 1962, together with a. o. Trisha Brown, Ruth Emerson, Fred Herko, Sally Gross, Edward Bhartonne, Carolee Schneemann, Gretchen MacLane, Deborah Hay, David Gordon, and Valda Setterfield.

At Judson, Summers shared in the ongoing experiments with chance methods and pedestrian movement as part of the interest in expanding the then accepted methods of creating and performing dances. However she also embraced the more theatrical part of the collective. Summers expanded dance into other disciplines, experimental film, visual art, and body work. In the later phase of the Judson Dance Theater she created dances that would to work with the entire environment of the performance space. Summers worked intensively with film and its inclusion in live performance.

This happened as early as in the first Judson Concert of Dance, when she went out to dance in the projection of her self-initiated chance-film Ouverture which she had made in collaboration with John Herbert McDowell and Eugene Friedman. Her learning of filmmaking and her experiments at Judson finally lead to her own intermedia presentation Fantastic Gardens in 1964, where she used the entire performance space, located the audience in several settings, bathed the whole space in film- and slide projections, and combined many works of music and sculpture with her own dances, many of them improvisational scores realized by the dancers.


Updated: Dec 12, 2023
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Judson Dance Theater: Postmodern Dance Pioneers. (2016, Oct 17). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/judson-dance-theater-essay

Judson Dance Theater: Postmodern Dance Pioneers essay
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