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At MoMA, How Judson Blew Up the Rules of Dance

Category: Art & Culture,Dance

A group of dancers sat on the floor of a gallery at the Museum of Modern Art one day last week, looking intently at two plywood boxes. The room was motionless and silent except for what sounded a little like bird song. Walking in mid-rehearsal, you might not have realized there were people inside the boxes, whistling — heard but not seen.

The choreographer Simone Forti observed from the sidelines, responding to the dancers’ questions. She was acquainting them with her Dance Constructions from the early 1960s, a collection of performance pieces that also make use of a seesaw, a wooden ramp and simple rope contraptions. In “Slant Board,” dancers resemble rock climbers scaling a tilted surface; in “Hangers,” they stand still in loops of rope suspended from the ceiling.

Cropping up three times a day, three times a week, over the next several months, works from this collection will be part of an ambitious new exhibition, “Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done,” which opens on Sunday. Through archival materials, film screenings, discussions and live performance, the show explores the history and impact of Judson Dance Theater — a loose collective of artists, based at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, who threw open definitions of dance in the 1960s.

In the past decade, the museum has often presented the work of Judson founders — Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer — but it’s hard to think of another MoMA show that has committed so fully to excavating this chapter, or any chapter, of dance history.

That Judson is relatively recent history, and that many of its founding members are still living and active as artists, was one impetus for presenting the exhibition now. The curators Ana Janevski and Thomas J. Lax, who organized the show with Martha Joseph, said they began to work on it after the museum acquired Ms. Forti’s Dance Constructions in 2015. (Ms. Forti, 83, was not a Judson regular but a friend of, and inspiration to, many of its participants.) The constructions, when not being performed, essentially exist as a set of instructions for how to perform them.

“It was this pivotal moment in the start of thinking: What does it mean, the conservation of this work?” Ms. Janevski said. A performance is not, say, a painting; keeping the constructions in good form would mean teaching them to a new generation, or as Ms. Janevski put it, “body-to-body transmission of knowledge.” And who better to transmit that knowledge than Ms. Forti?

“We really benefited in making the exhibition from working directly with the majority of the artists whose work we’re presenting,” said Mr. Lax.

That benefit is not lost on the choreographers. In the first of several performance programs in the museum’s Marron Atrium, Yvonne Rainer, 83, will offer a selection of her dances from the ’60s. (Later programs highlight the work of Mr. Paxton, Ms. Brown, Lucinda Childs and David Gordon.) “It’s sort of my last hurrah in terms of that period,” she said. “I don’t expect it will ever happen again.”

“As far as my work goes,” she added, “it’s being exposed while I’m around and I can supervise it. I’m glad of that.”

Ms. Rainer has often joked, referring to Mr. Paxton, that “Steve invented walking and I invented running.” If one word has come to define the aesthetic upheaval that took place at Judson, it might be “pedestrian.” But, as Ms. Rainer pointed out, there was more to what she and her colleagues were doing.

“People think of Judson as being about minimalism,” she said. “But there was all kinds of work. There were dancers who were dancing, and I was one of them.”

Ms. Janevski and Mr. Lax said they were interested in honoring that stylistic range.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is not to say that Judson was about one aesthetic winning out over another,” Mr. Lax said. Instead, he added, the show seeks to recognize that “these different approaches could exist in and alongside one another, through disagreement, through negotiation, without resolution.”

Another point of curatorial interest was “enlarging the space of downtown” often associated with Judson, Mr. Lax said. The second of three galleries, under the banner “Downtown,” draws connections between Judson Memorial Church and nearby cultural hubs, including the jazz club Five Spot Café, the Living Theater and the headquarters of the literary newsletter The Floating Bear.

This constellation of places nods, if subtly, to an often overlooked aspect of Judson: the influence of black culture and black artists, like the pianist Cecil Taylor and the writer Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones at the time), on the largely white collective. As Mr. Lax writes in the exhibition catalog, “Judson was predominantly made up of white artists, but black culture nevertheless persisted in its sanctuary.”

Some questions that guided the team’s research, he said: “How did ideas circulate and permeate from black makers to nonblack makers?” And: “In what ways does black culture enable certain kinds of transformation to happen?”

Telling Judson’s history is a tall order, and Ms. Janevski and Mr. Lax stressed that they did not set out to construct a comprehensive or fixed narrative.

“I think the title itself says a lot: The work is never done,” Ms. Janevski said. “The impossibility of telling this story from the beginning till the end — we love this challenge. I think it’s what is actually interesting and important to acknowledge every time you work on a kind of historical show.”

They’ve also built in space for conversation and critique, through programming at the museum and off site at MoMA PS1 and Judson Memorial Church. For two weeks in January, the organization Movement Research takes up residence in atrium, hosting classes, reading groups and other gatherings intended to open up dialogue, especially among contemporary artists working with or against Judson’s legacy.

“I think artists have a capacity to try to rejigger a historical arc in a way that’s different than we do as curators,” Mr. Lax said. “We have a position, and we’ve made that set of positions clear and available for people through the show and through the book. But it’s not just about us. It’s also about creating the conditions of possibility for other people to say, ‘No, I think’ — fill in the blank.”

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