Judson Now Writer-in-Residence Danielle Goldman on Conversations Without Walls Organized by Steve Paxton
September 21, 2012
“WHAT’S MORE IMPORTANT TO TALK ABOUT TODAY: WHAT HAPPENS ON THIS STAGE OR WHAT HAPPENS OUT THERE?”
In 1967, Steve Paxton created Satisfyin Lover, a dance for 40 people who walk from one side of the performance space to the other, sitting or standing as indicated by a written score.[i] In Paxton’s original notes to the performers, he explained, “The pace is an easy walk, but not slow. Performance manner is serene and collected. This dance is about walking, standing, and sitting.”[ii] But even if the dance purported to be about nothing more than these pedestrian activities, it had far-ranging effects, challenging conventional understandings of technique, virtuosity, and the very kinds of bodies that were thought to be fit for modern dance. In response to a 1968 performance of Satisfyin Lover, the Village Voice dance critic Jill Johnston celebrated “the incredible assortment of bodies, the any old bodies of our any old lives… walking one after the other across the gymnasium in their any old clothes.”[iii]
In 1970, Paxton proposed a version of Satisfyin Lover that would be performed at New York University by forty-two red-haired performers in the nude. But the school’s administrators said they wouldn’t allow the nudity. In response, Paxton created Intravenous Lecture, a solo in which Paxton spoke about his recent experience of censorship, while hooked up to an IV (administered onstage by a doctor). Saline solution dripped into Paxton’s blood as he spoke about performance. According to the author Sally Banes, “[Paxton’s] performance made clear his conviction that censorship is more violent, more obscene than either the nudity would have been, or the medical attack actually was.”[iv]
On Saturday, September 8, the choreographer Stephen Petronio, who proclaimed himself the “bastard child of Paxton and Trisha Brown,” performed Intravenous Lecture as part of Danspace Project’s “Conversation without Walls: An Afternoon Marking Judson Dance Theater’s 50th Anniversary,” organized by Paxton. Petronio explained to the audience that Paxton had given him permission to speak about his own experiences with censorship and to do his own original movement. Petronio then defined censorship as “the willful suppression of movement or information that’s decided to be unfit for public consumption,” and he asked, “Who decides what we see or don’t see?” Underscoring the insidiousness of self-censorship in an inevitably social world, Petronio, while clasping and unclasping his hand, asked, “Why do I pull my hand away from my boyfriend’s when I’m 20 years old?” He then asked, “What’s more important to talk about today: what happens on this stage or what happens out there?”
This question about relations between choreographies on the stage and choreographies of “everyday life” persisted throughout the afternoon, with great political poignancy. In Joanna Steinberg’s lecture, “Judson Memorial Church: A Sanctuary for the Arts,” she highlighted the extraordinary synergies between the Judson Memorial Church ministry and the artists in their midst. Early in her lecture, Steinberg quoted a sermon by Al Carmines, the associate pastor from 1962-1979, who proclaimed: “Somehow if the church is going to be faithful in this age it must cut its way under through the sticky glutinous syrup known as religion and deal with real people in real situations who have real feelings – and real bodies.” As part of this effort, the church provided a space for artistic experimentation. Although “sanctuary” refers to the space of a church that surrounds the altar, the term also refers to a haven – both literal and figurative – for fugitives. Over the course of Steinberg’s lecture, the term “sanctuary” took on this latter resonance. In a recording of an interview played by Steinberg, Paxton reflected, “We could be doing whatever inside that church, when you would be swept away instantly out there.”
Here, Paxton was talking about the Peoples Flag Show in 1970, which Jon Hendricks, Faith Ringold and Jean Toche organized to protest the recent arrest of gallery owner Stephen Radich and others for “desecrating” the American flag in resistance to the Vietnam War. As part of the protest, several members from the Grand Union (Lincoln Scott, Paxton, David Gordon, Nancy Green, and Barbara Dilley) performed Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A, nude with five-foot American flags tied around their necks. In another audio recording played by Steinberg, Paxton explained, “The atmosphere was one of suppressed anticipation of cops busting through the door at any moment.”
Photographs from the Peoples Flag Show exist in several dance history books. But in her lecture Steinberg showed rare footage of the actual dancing (which can be viewed at NYU’s Fales Library). Seeing Trio A’s austere choreography performed in the nude – with unfailing attention and utter silence – felt potent, even now, especially with large American flags hanging around the dancers’ necks. Following two weeks of political conventions – massive spectacles full of balloons and flags and all manner of national symbols – the Grand Union’s work reminds one that the body of the nation is always comprised of bodies. As the country debates foreign policy, healthcare, abortion rights, and even tax policy, bodies are always at issue.
The afternoon concluded with a slideshow narrated by the art historian Barbara Moore, who showed photographs that her husband, Peter Moore, had taken of several Judson-era performances. Representing Judson at its most eclectic, Moore presented stunning images of Freddie Herko spinning as if into thin air, Deborah Hay crawling down a hill under the cover of grass, and Steve Paxton surrounded by inflatable plastic structures. The slides provided a rickety bridge back to ephemeral events from fifty years ago. Ultimately, though, the slideshow underscored the importance of witnessing dance, especially those experimental acts and practices that might have been “swept away,” as Paxton put it, in other social contexts. Night after night, Barbara and Peter Moore showed up. At one point, Barbara Moore described watching a private performance of Trio A that took place in Rainer’s loft in 1965, the night before Moore attended a peace protest in Washington with several members of the Judson Church. Stories such as these illustrated the fact that dances travel to other places and other times, largely through their witnesses: from the Judson Memorial Church to St. Mark’s, from Greenwich Village to Harlem, from 1962 to 2012. This movement allows for overdue embraces as well as freshly imagined critique. We’ll see what Judson Now engenders.
[i] Steve Paxton will be presenting Satisfyin Lover at MOMA on October 17th and 21st as part of Some Sweet Day, curated by Ralph Lemon. http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1316
[ii] Sally Banes Tersichore in Sneakers, 74.
[iii] Jill Johnston, “Paxton’s People,” Village Voice, April 4, 1968; reprinted in Johnston, Marmalade Me, 135-137
[iv] Sally Banes, Terpsichore in Sneakers, 61.