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Roots of Modern Dance Are Traced through MoMA’s Current Exhibit About Judson Dance Theater

Judson Dance Theater

By Sheila Kogan, Contributing Writer, September 18, 2018

The current exhibit at MoMA entitled Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done is an homage to the dance artists who created work at the Judson Church in the 60s and 70s. The dancers and choreographers who created work there have had an enormous influence and impact on American modern dance. Martha Graham may have battled against the norms of classical ballet when she began choreographing, but these dance artists experimented and questioned elements of movement itself. They studied pedestrians walking on city streets, incorporated everyday activities, and deliberately rejected theatrical norms. The performances were very avant-garde at the time, and in fact, may still be considered so.

Judson Dance Theater

Peter Moore’s photograph of Philip Corner’s Intermission, 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.

MoMA’s exhibition includes many vintage photos, as well as snippets of films that may you give you an idea of the more outrageous dances (like rolling around with a plucked chicken) or some of the tamer, charming pieces, like one by a young Merce Cunningham and his company. There are recorded and printed interviews, particularly of the now-famous No Manifesto of Yvonne Rainer; and actual pages of the Village Voice whose critics, like Jill Johnston, helped encourage audiences. A couple of lovely costumes on mannequins are on display. Film footage made as a casual record of performances (some very grainy) is projected onto large screens in the middle of the room, as well as small screens throughout the exhibition rooms, with a huge video installation at the entrance. They all provide a window into the past, so you may see for yourself the improvisatory nature and variety of work being performed at the time. On occasion you may come upon a live performance piece in the gallery.

The Italianate bell tower of Judson Church is currently a part of the landscape on the south side of Washington Square in Greenwich Village. Originally, the church was a center of religious activity and social services for Italian immigrants. In the 60s and 70s, the church extended its arms to the artistic community in the area, providing performance space for dancers, choreographers, musicians, and theater artists.

Judson Dance Theater

Simone Forti: Huddle, 1961; performance; committee on Media and Performance Art Funds; performed in Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 16, 2018–February 3, 2019. Performers: Martita Abril (top), Vanessa Vargas, Alexis Ruiseco-Lombera, Lindsay Londs Reuter, Samuel Hanson, Christiana Cefalu, Elizabeth Hart, Laura Pfeffer, Miguel Ángel Guzmán; Digital image © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art, New York; photo: Paula Court.

Many of these companies still exist, still perform, and still have their fans and those who still don’t get it. Included are Merce Cunningham, Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown, Deborah Hay, David Gordon, Steve Paxton, and others. If these names are unfamiliar to you, then you may receive an introduction and overview at the exhibition. If you know these names, then it will be interesting to see a glimpse into some of their early work.

Judson Dance Theater

Installation view of Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 16, 2018–February 3, 2019; © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art; photo: Peter Butler.

If you were around in the 60s and 70s, the exhibition will be a nostalgic trip. If you weren’t around at that time, or not living in New York, then this will be a view of important dance history and the influential, creative activity in a specific place during a specific time. Some of it may seem plain silly, but it’s possible to see how the process developed to become an essential part of the modern dance scene of today.

Besides the actual exhibition, there are performances, lectures, discussion groups, workshops, and film screenings scheduled through February 3, 2019. For more information and for a list of ancillary events click here.

Judson Dance Theater

Installation view of Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 16, 2018–February 3, 2019; © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art; photo: Peter Butler.

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Cover: Peter Moore’s photograph of Lucinda Childs in ‘Pastime,’ 1963; performed in Surplus Dance Theater: Program Exchange, New York, March 2, 1964; © Barbara Moore/Licensed by VAGA at ARS, NY; courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.


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