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Revival of the Judson Rogues

Baryshnikov features 'vintage postmodern' works of the group in his latest White Oak project.

October 22, 2000|JENNIFER FISHER | Jennifer Fisher is a regular contributor to Calendar

While Mikhail Baryshnikov was just learning how to plie back in Latvia in 1962, a new group of rogue New York dancer-choreographers, called the Judson Dance Theater, was pretty much deciding that all that barre work really wasn't necessary, that anyone could perform, and ordinary movement could be just as beautiful as ballet or modern dance.

And while the future Russian ballet star was learning even more proper protocols in St. Petersburg and joining the Kirov Ballet, the Judson--fast becoming the cradle of dance postmodernism in Manhattan--continued to invent its own version of dance, which resembled no other.

If you had told Judsonites back then that they would be reviving their works in 2000 for the American company of a Russian ballet legend-turned-modern-dancer--well, they might have believed it, since the '60s were a decade when it seemed anything could happen.

And since the future is now, the latest program from Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project is called "Past Forward: The Influence of the Postmoderns." Coming to UCLA's Royce Hall Wednesday through Saturday, it features work by Judson leading lights Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, David Gordon, Deborah Hay, Simone Forti, Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer.

The usually startling exploits of these dance makers are legendary in dance circles, although fairly unknown outside of them. In the '60s and early '70s, Judsonites danced on the walls of buildings (using pulleys and ropes); wore street clothes or nothing at all; walked, hopped or stood still; and used chance or mathematical formulas to structure the action.

When Judson Dance Theater presented its first concert in 1962--naming itself after the adventurous Greenwich Village church that offered its sanctuary for concerts--the dancers were setting sail on already-occupied creative waters. Inspired by similar activities in other fields (Minimalism, "found" art, "happenings," improvisational theater), they were specifically spurred on by a no-holds-barred choreography class given by musician-composer Robert Dunn.

Titles from the era sometimes tell a lot: "Intravenous Lecture" (1970), for instance, was pretty much what it said, in that Paxton talked while a saline solution was injected into one arm. Later, as Paxton led the development of the dance form called contact improvisation, the emphasis on process over product could be sensed in the title of several 1975 contact performances: "You Come, We'll Show You What We Do."

As the press material for White Oak delicately puts it, there were viewers at the time "who were puzzled by these performers." There were probably as many people who thought the work was designed just to shock as there were partisans who sensed that it was a historical moment capable of bending perception and opening new doors for dance.

Eventually, the Judson genre became known as postmodern, calling attention to its revolution against what had gone before--principally the florid Expressionism of dance modernists such as Martha Graham and her contemporaries.

Except for a television documentary film called, appropriately enough, "Beyond the Mainstream," work from the Judson era is rarely seen, although its liberating effects are woven through much contemporary choreography.

This is the first real revival, launched by Baryshnikov, who has been looking for adventure and whatever came his way since he arrived in this country in the mid-'70s. His thirst for innovation was well known, and from time to time, the contemporary choreographers he worked with in the 1980s or '90s--like Alvin Ailey or Twyla Tharp--would say to him, "You should have seen Judson."

"That's how I started to get interested," Baryshnikov says, on the phone from Lawrence, Kan., a White Oak date that precedes Los Angeles. "But my mind was somewhere else at the time. I thought, well, one day I'll have to really dig into that."

Now that the day has come, the White Oak program is not only recreating some of the Judson's most famous pieces, but offering newly commissioned works by Gordon, Rainer and Hay.

Iconic postmodern works from the past, restaged by their choreographers, include Paxton's "Satisfyin Lover" (1967), a carefully scripted symphony of walks and pauses done by groups crossing the stage; Simone Forti's "Huddle" (1961), which is, yes, like a football huddle onto which various people climb; Gordon's "Chair" (1975), a duet for two dancers with folding chairs as partners; and a version of Rainer's ever-changing "Trio A" (1966), a series of evenly danced, low-tech movements that have an oddly meditative effect.


"You have to respect these peoples' guts and endurance," Baryshnikov says. "They were booed and hit by the press badly in many instances. Can you imagine if they all believed what [New York critic] Clive Barnes wrote about them? 'The disaster that is the Judson'--it was the worst review I've ever seen. They could have said, 'OK, we quit.' And we wouldn't have seen the stunning dances that followed, or all the discoveries."

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