This is a piece I wrote that was published in the Performance Journal #41. I thought I would post it here for those who do not have access to the journal. Many of these ideas are guiding the thinking behind this project.
The Hudson Movement
In 1981 I had a beautiful boyfriend from Italy named Enzo Cosimi. He loved me very much and I him. He was studying in New York for two years at the Cunningham studio when we met. Together we learned about dance and sex and art and film. We were both in the early stages of becoming choreographers and found support in each other for our individualist natures. For the next decade I lived for part of each year with him in Rome. One day as we were transferring from one bus to another at Piazza Argentina in the elegantly chaotic center of Rome I said to him, “I don’t think Judson is so important for me.” The aforementioned love appeared to drain from his face as though he’d been hit with a tranquilizer dart. I realized in that moment that I was treading in dangerous waters and I thought it best to keep those thoughts to myself for a time. So I tried to shut up for years as I watched Judson come in and out of focus, its mutable definitions appropriated by artists and producers and many dance critics as a catch phrase for “alternative” dance. The enormous surge of Judson in the last ten years, perhaps due in part to Baryshnikov’s Past Forward experiment on the White Oak Dance project, in addition to many other factors had me asking – are we still here? Have we not assimilated this information?
Back in the early 80’s, as we traversed the lengths of Soho where galleries resided at that point, Enzo and I were both dazzled by- and critical of – the mega-paintings of Julian Schnabel, Enzo Cucchi, Robert Longo, Frank Stella, Elizabeth Murray, Susan Rothenberg, Jennifer Bartlett and so many others. Molissa Fenley, Dana Reitz, Trisha Brown, Laura Dean and Lucinda Childs were offering movement based choreographic visions on BAM stages. The burgeoning “East village scene” in art, dance and performance was breaking conventions. In addition there were the ballet companies of New York City. City Center presented the larger modern companies such as Cunningham, Lubovitch, Ailey, Taylor, Tharp and others. Mark Morris was in his beginning stages. Patty Astor’s FUN Gallery had already had a huge affect on the art world boldly facilitating the way for rap artists and graffiti artists to join “high culture.” In Europe people like Jean Claude Galotta, Dominique Baguet, Karine Saporta, Jan Fabre, Ann Terese DeKeersmaker and numerous others were part of an amazing moment of change forging a new European dance. Unfettering themselves from the influence of American modernists they created unprecedented works produced with funding and government support that Americans could never imagine. They defined a creative territory that was theirs alone. All of this was about to collide with the AIDS epidemic and its subsequent activism which ignited the field. Most importantly, this was also a moment that occurred well before globalization had created a necessary wash over all pre-existing stances and the Europe/America binary was up for serious questioning. The art I was seeing then was moving in divergent pathways. Some of it reflected the Judson aesthetic but much didn’t. In fact many of the dance folks were reclaiming virtuosity and spectacle. Trisha Brown was on a migration from DIY conceptualism to ethereal movement based explorations. Herself a Judson participant, she evolved away from its tenets, blending some of its relevant correctives and revolutionary zeal into her vision, but not heralding that. This woefully undocumented, but amazingly complex moment in dance was where I started to choreograph.
At that point for me, Judson offered an ideological myopia that seemed to be at odds with my nascent choreographic research which told me repeatedly that choreography eschews singularity of meaning by its very nature. My work in dance didn’t seem to move towards a platform for delivering my own politics to the world but rather towards the creation of a container that could assess relationships between ideologies. My work had a lot of ballet in it at that point because I had just come from Purchase where we received a heavy dose of New York City Ballet based training. I felt politically distant from ballet and angry at it, yet it had been such a big part of my embodied experience that I needed to work away from it through process as opposed to just chopping it off. I liked having it and other elements as obstacles to my individuality. Was I to cleanse my work of anything that wasn’t born of my own ethics and didn’t behave as I wished? Must I represent the dismantling of power structures by announcing my position on the surface of my dance or can I include it in the substrata of my work as a homeopathic element?
Now don’t get me wrong. I have great respect for the artists of Judson. They changed our minds and created an important moment in history. But it is a ”moment in history.” Art forms go through transitions and the momentary manifesto, often a motor for change, should not be confused with a point of arrival. I have changed my work drastically over the years and in earlier times felt somewhat convinced that the new mode I’d found was “it”. But after awhile these adamancies were smoothed out and became components layered into the whole spectrum of considerations that comprise my work. They found relativity in the network of elements I use instead of vying for primacy there. I think it is like this with artistic movements as well. They are necessarily born of revolutionary stances but where they end up is personalized and diffused throughout the work of many artists over time. These moments need to be absorbed for them to have done their duty. Of course someone had to introduce pedestrian movement, anti-spectacle, and anti-institutional concepts into the art form. It is part of a natural growth pattern already documented in other art forms and in the political weather of the sixties. As ideas that augment the potential of choreographic thought these are welcomed additions. As militant statements against the status quo they have become enervated for me.
Reinterpreted outside the original artists’ intention, Judson can be mistaken as the purveyor of great restriction not unlike the institutionalized classicism they pushed against. Particularly inane is the expression of “no” as a basis for an aesthetic. Although I imagine it to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Yvonne Rainer’s “no manifesto” which I also found to be bratty and youthful, was particularly disruptive for me at the point when I was faced with an ocean of information as a young artist. I loved, and still love, works that are born of various, conflicted political realms both stated and inferred. I am particularly drawn to works that reside in integrated zones where the ethics are not shot from a canon at you by the author but where you are responsible for finding your own. I am more interested in work that locates its aesthetic over time and doesn’t brandish the artist’s belief system as its sole purpose. Work that searches to place its proclamations into destabilizing dialogue with a larger view of consciousness draws me in. An internalized Judson is useful as a balancing device that looks askance at historical influences in one’s own work – to temper these and to clarify them, not necessarily to annihilate them.
Sadly the “no manifesto” still seems to be the bellwether for artists who place themselves at the vanguard via the suggestion that the excising of “old” elements defines their contemporary status. All that came before is irrelevant and to be trashed. I recently read a quote by Tino Seghall in The Guardian: “For me, politically, to sit people down, shut them up and ask them to look in one direction, somehow doesn’t belong to our times.” I have never seen his work and I have heard wonderful things about it, but for me this kind of statement is what belongs to another time. Finding the political content of one’s work by placing oneself in a contentious relationship with history is a banality for me. Especially because these proclamations often include a historical amnesia and an insular scope arguing issues that would be quickly diffused if viewed through a lens including all history and peoples. There are many usages in art practices- not just one. A relationship to history is a much more variegated affair and its complexity finds fertile territory in dance. The pronouncement by artists of “a new way” that they have located and that you need to find is the true anachronism. I am aware of all the potential political points of view available on earth and do not require artists to point them out. Is it really the realm of our work to position ourselves in a place of certitude creating encampments of politics from which we proselytize? Or is this perhaps a saleable posture embodied unconsciously by artists and congratulated by presenters and curators? Many of the provocations in art of recent years have been accompanied by some of the most simplistic and unambiguous politics. Perhaps this simplification is due to the fact that provocation has become a commodity and a capitulation to the market. Marketable objects are not enhanced by convolution or uncertainty. What really seeps through some of these expressions of self-anointed contemporariness is a longstanding anxiety around the entire project of dance and a need for it to deliver definition.
In their efforts the Judson artists necessarily moved away from Merce Cunningham but in so doing discarded the enormity of his vision. His work extended way beyond his chosen style and the technical dancing employed, which is purportedly one aspect of what they had a gripe with. In fact the look of his work was just a kind of spray used to bring into evidence the complex, irresolvable knots that drive human psychology and experience. He created for me the incredibly liberating nexus of irreconcilability from which I still ideate my works. I remember the end of a Cunningham piece, which I believe was a “Minevent”, at the Joyce Theater in 2006. As often in his works, the curtain came down as the dancers were still moving and the lights were still on. The way in which this was simultaneously an expression of his taste and an obstacle to its full manifestation struck me. It was a climax deadening, unspectacular ending, implying that you the viewer will finish the dance as you survey it in your memory. It suggested that this is not a place of dogma, but a place of expanded vision -inclusive and horizontal. I am so much more interested in the ambiguous and unknown quantities that find themselves at home in the choreographic mind. I am excited by the work of artists whose singularity of vision is arrived at by how many contradictions find their way into its assemblage and the diversity of readings it can sustain.
Cunningham was definitely my biggest influence in dance and his work offered differing advice over the years. Validating a range of practices from the aleatory to the hyper-designed, his presence aided my understanding of what to look for in my work. I used to stay at Westbeth in the summers during college and I remember thinking – “He’s up there.“ Because his studio was in Westbeth on the west side of Manhattan, right next to the river and blocks from the Judson Church, I used to think of starting another movement of his followers called the Hudson Movement. Its manifesto would be: Continue in any way you wish, stay awake and question your own and any other certitudes. You are contemporary because you are here and processing the world right now so don’t worry about that.
Tere O’Connor is choreographer and professor who splits his time between New York C and The University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.