6 July 1962: At Judson Church off Washington Square in New York’s Greenwich Village, a three-hour co-operatively produced dance performance was presented free of charge. The public debut of this loosely organised group of choreographers would come to be known as the Judson Dance Theatre. It gave birth to post modern dance, although it would be another fifteen years before that brand name could be affixed.
Birth of the Judson Group
The Judson group grew out of a choreographic workshop led by musician Robert Dunn. These wide-ranging exploratory sessions, held at the Merce Cunningham Studio, attempted to apply to dance the extremities of John Cage’s compositional ideas about music.
For any choreographer at that point, Cunningham and Cage, collaborators since 1944, represented the brightest beacon of the avant-garde. Cunningham’s ideals – not the least of which is that dance is about nothing but dancing – remain untarnished, and even today are capable of disturbing an audience who likes dance to be predictable and, if not pretty, at least tidy.
Judson became a home base for new ideas, a fertile, disruptive point of liberation. In retrospect, it now appears that the Judsonites were more unanimous in what they did not want than in what they were striving to achieve. High on their list of positions to be defied was the creeping codification which, by the late 1950s, had turned modern dance into a formulaic, even opulent spectacle more akin to ballet than to stringent radicalism. For the Judsonites, stultification was to be avoided at all costs and they created their rupture by re-thinking, sometimes eliminating, the very framework of dance. They travelled beyond even Cunningham by refusing to accept the notion that someone became a dancer through mastering a dance technique. They wanted to chop dance down to size, and the size they were after was exactly that of both the dancers and their audiences.
Stripping dance of its flounces, cutting out character, and abandoning technique in favour of everyday movement, the Judsonites attempted to shock their audiences awake and to jar them into seeing things from a new perspective. In replacing organisation with the haphazard reality of the moment, these choreographers eventually stepped across the boundaries into improvisation: with the formation of the Grand Union (from 1970 to 1976), dance was turned into a philosophical playground.
Back to Technique
The dust had hardly begun to settle on all the broken rules when several of the new choreographers started creating counterpoints to the rumbustiousness of the Grand Union. Twyla Tharp, Lucinda Childs and Trisha Brown developed highly structured geometrics of movement which were manipulated with mathematical precision. These glacial edifices of pure calculation demanded the strictest of concentration from the performers; they could no longer be danced by ‘the man on the street’ who had been the initial Judson ideal.
Having accomplished their groundbreaking, Judson itself broke up. The demise of the Grand Union turned the last remnants of the collective into history, but the questions the Judsonites asked have continued to exert an influence (both pro and con) on virtually all new dance created since.
The Judson Dance Theater’s first performances were just months after Rudolf Nureyev’s debut with the Royal Ballet and seven years before the Stuttgart Ballet’s phenomenal first season in New York led to the coining of the phrase ‘ballet boom’. The two realms of modern ballet and unstinting experimentation seemed to be separated by an unbridgeable gap of mutual distrust and misunderstanding. No one, not even the most ambitious of the Judson choreographers, would have predicted that they would grow up into the 1980s establishment, invited to make works for some of the great ballet companies. However, it is the very unpredictability of dance that keeps it eternally fascinating, forever veering off into unexpected directions.
The catalyst for the explosion was Robert Joffrey. The bombshell he chose was Twyla Tharp. Deuce Coupe, her 1973 creation for the Joffrey Ballet danced to tunes by The Beach Boys, and Push Comes to Shove for Mikhail Baryshnikov and American Ballet Theatre three seasons later, found some of her peers angrily accusing her of selling out. What she was really doing was storming the citadel. Tharp grabbed dance – experimental, classical, jazz, pop and Americana – by the scruff of the neck, tossed it up into the air and let it fall back on the stage in a shower of confetti that resisted any attempts at labelling. The dance world is still reaping the benefits.