Judson Dance Theater Exhibition at MoMA Is a Mundane Miracle

Judson Dance Theater Exhibition at MoMA Is a Mundane Miracle

In 1962, dancers Yvonne Rainer, Ruth Emerson and Steve Paxton were searching for a place to present their work when they found a home at Reverend Al Carmines’s socially progressive Judson Memorial Church. Perhaps it was divine fate or maybe just luck of circumstance, but either way, when their group took residence in the church’s basement basketball court, the boundary-eschewing and highly influential Judson Dance Theater was born.

The Museum of Modern Art is celebrating the history of the groundbreaking group of choreographers, visual artists, composers, filmmakers and performers with a multi-discipline exhibition titled “Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done,” on view through February 3, 2019. The show, which draws its title from the Steve Paxton quote “The work is never done. Sanctuary always needed,” explores how Judson Dance Theater came together to disassemble the rules defining dance in the early 1960s. It includes archival images and ephemera, film and sculpture, and a robust program of live performances in the museum’s Marron Atrium space focusing on works from Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay, David Gordon, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton and Trisha Brown.

Peter Moore’s photograph of Charles Ross’s “Qui a mangé le baboon?,” 1963. Performed at Concert of Dance #13, Judson Memorial Church, New York, November 20, 1963. © Barbara Moore/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

The exhibition will also feature performances of choreographer Simone Forti’s “Dance Constructions,” a collection of dance pieces that served as inspiration for the Judson founders. Explaining the importance of Forti’s “Dance Constructions,” which uses both ordinary objects (like planks of wood and rope) and everyday motions (walking, standing) to create dance movement, Paxton said in the book “Simone Forti: Thinking with the Body,” “All I know is that this small, radical group of works by Forti was like a pebble tossed into a large, still, and complacent pond. The ripples radiated. Most notably, Forti’s event happened prior to the first performance at Judson Memorial Church by the choreographers from Robert Dunn’s composition class, and they took courage from it.”

Like Forti, the choreographers of Judson incorporated the mundane into their pieces, using it as a way to stretch past neo-classical and narrative-driven interpretations of dance to show that all movement can constitute dancing. It’s this image — of dancers doing everyday tasks such as walking, running and standing — that endures as the predominating association with Judson. “You know, my work at Judson was very eclectic, and the participants at Judson came from very diverse backgrounds, training and disciplines. But the pervasive view of Judson is of me and Steve Paxton walking and running,” said Rainer in a Q&A with Interview Magazine in 2012. “It’s true that I explored so-called ‘pedestrian movement,’ but it’s always been in relation to other kinds of movement. My work requires trained dancers.”

Simone Forti. “See Saw.” 1960. Performed at Reuben Gallery, New York, December 16–18, 1960. Performers: Yvonne Rainer and Robert Morris. Photo courtesy Robert R. McElroy photographs of Happenings and early performance art, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2014.M.7)

MoMA’s exhibition makes Rainer’s point clear while also demonstrating how Judson’s elevation of the ordinary extended to the use of non-dancers in some of its performances as a “critique of the notion that the dancer’s body must be heroic and virtuosic.” And what quickly becomes evident as one moves through the gallery space, first taking in the origins of Judson — including the downtown dance scene in which it operated — and then the extensive material documenting Judson’s diverse “concerts,” is the lasting impact of Judson on dance today, both in the way it looks and the way it opened up the field for new interpretations.

Top Image: Peter Moore’s photograph of (from left) Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Schlichter (hidden), Sally Gross, Tony Holder, Deborah Hay, Yvonne Rainer, Alex Hay, Robert Morris (behind), and Lucinda Childs performing Rainer’s "We Shall Run," 1963. Performed at Two Evenings of Dances by Yvonne Rainer, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, March 7, 1965. © Barbara Moore/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York