The Performance Club

Shifting Positions: Notes On Identity & Judson Dance Theater

Marissa Perel interviews Carolee Schneemann at Judson Memorial Church. Photo: Ian Douglas.

By Marissa Perel

“The body is the very grounds on which social and public identity is fought.” – Julia Bryan-Wilson[i]

In the year 2000, I learned of Judson Dance Theater from friends at George Washington University. We formed a group that we called “D.C. Free Collaboration,” where local poets, musicians and dancers in the Washington D.C. area would come together and perform in spontaneous collaborations. We were reading Terpsichore In Sneakers, and we just thought, “Let’s try this.” In our first event, I read a poem and then slithered on the ground, only to get kicked in the nose by a dancer who was moving past me. There was a “crunch” sound, then blood in a trail across the floor. That was my first collaboration, and given the dramatic content of the poem, seemed like an appropriate duet. Anything could happen: that incident led us to establish parameters for working together.

I was 20, and about to drop out of my studies in international politics to become part of an underground activist network and write poetry. It was at the intersection of my artistic awakening within the D.C. Free Collaboration and my participation in mass demonstrations, where I began to act from a place of agency in my own body. These simultaneous group experiences, working with chance procedures, learning the basics of Contact Improvisation, and practicing protest strategies like “going limp” on cops revealed an acute connection between dance and direct action.

The year I learned about Judson Dance Theater was a markedly different time from today: it was pre-George Bush Jr., before the continuous threat of terrorism, and hyper-surveillance, pre-Facebook, and in the pre-historic age of mobile devices. It was a time when a girl could work in an underground activist network with substantially less fear of censorship or being shut down. There was a distinction then between activist and terrorist. On the cusp of these societal shifts, my body, my world was about to be shattered in a sledding accident.

I turned to Feminist Art in an effort to re-think my body, as I could no longer use it to fight in front of police barricades. Carolee Schneemann became a symbol for me of radical subjectivity. She placed her body at the center of her art, which straddled Happenings, Body Art, and Judson Dance Theater. In 1966 she wrote:

The dancers say well, you know she is really making Happenings.

The painters say these are actually dances she makes.

The happening-men say these are not actually Happenings she makes.

I don’t find anyone else…employing visual possibilities of a personal, sensory structure, freely confounded, realized in an actual motivated space. Imaginative barriers [and] sensory blockage [have] become conventions of the avant-garde.[ii]

Marissa Perel and Carolee Schneemann. Photo: Ian Douglas.

On the 50th Anniversary of the first Judson Dance Theater concert, I interviewed Schneemann for Movement Research at Judson Memorial Church. When I welcomed her back to Judson, the home of her early performance works, she said, “Many of you who have performed here will recognize that symptom, that your energies in the space and the audience have a memory replication. I can remember the bales of paper being thrown over the balcony for Meat Joy (1964), the cues up and down the stairs, and the smelly old dressing rooms. It’s a basic psychic and physical home.”

At one point, Schneemann and I performed a critique of academic language used to characterize how artists produce their work. The game was born out of her extreme distaste for an exclusionary and categorical way of talking about being an artist:

MP: Here’s the part where we go through the language you don’t like, ‘choreographic strategy.’

CS: Choreographic is okay, it’s that other word that I reject.

MP: Make the angry cat noise.

CS: Meow!

MP: Practice

CS: Ugh, I hate using the word practice instead of process.

MP: Legitimate

CS: Yuck, instead of ‘hey, let’s just do it!’

MP: Unpacking

CS: I love this word. It is so disgusting!

MP: You have to legitimate your practice of unpacking

CS: You have a hierarchical indexality

MP: To justify your practice in a contemporary context and post-post

CS: Post-post something

(audience laughs)[iii]

Scheemann’s voice reveals a core spirit of Judson, its spontaneous and participatory origins. Judson Dance Theater’s history is quickly being subsumed into the dance canon and into the art canon. The movement loses power as it is run through a sieve of concepts that create a set of ideologies for post-modern artistic practices.

Judson was comprised of myriad disciplines, influences, identities, and bodies. Moreover, painters, sculptors, composers, poets, and film-makers were as much a part of the “Dance Theater” as dancers; the actual physical church that housed it has a singular political and social history of its own, populated by forward-thinking activists. Given all of this, perhaps it would be more useful to define the movement less historically, and more personally. The use of imaginal space in Jungian psychology comes to mind as a tool for such exploration. It is that internal space of a child’s psyche where active imagination and day-dreaming influence definition of the ego, and the connection of the self to the world.

My imaginal space of Judson Dance Theater is a space of experimentation, in which we can let go of assumptions, and break through confining stereotypes and aesthetic hierarchies. It is a space many of us in younger generations have sought to create with peers, through workshops, classes, and alone in the studio. It is a space where all things become tools for composition. In this space, learning from the everyday teaches us how to be an artist, as much if not more than a formal education can. It is a porous space where the world is permitted to seep into the process.

The physical space of Judson Church continues to be a place where history is transmitted through live, active bodies. I remember a Movement Research at Judson Church Monday night 10 years ago. I climbed up to the Meeting Hall with my cane, observing the crowd of dancers around me. I was nervous, not feeling “of” the scene, but I was hungry to see performance in the hopes that I could learn how it might feel to move again.  I had my first encounter with Yvonne Meier’s Mad Heidi. Ishmael Houston-Jones furiously flailed in a pile of dirt, wearing only a belt of rope and chestnuts. Yvonne shouted directions in Swiss German as he rolled, flopped and swooned, billowing the dirt into a hazy cloud. I thought, “This is it!”

On other Monday nights, I saw Shelly Senter performing Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A, and then do a solo from a graphic score by the now deceased Remy Charlip. I remember Anna Sperber brushing the outside of her legs with her hands, as the entire room grew quiet and focused on her minute gestures. I remember Jeremy Wade and Lyndsey Karr in a very early version of Glory, glossy nude and razor sharp. When I started performing, I was in a piece by Justine Lynch, in which I writhed on the altar topless.

For every piece I write down, hundreds go through my mind, an index of limbs, movements, personalities, and aesthetics. Generations of Judson-goers have similar indexes. It is a space where learning happens through doing and watching. It isn’t as much a space for the interdisciplinary as it was in the 1960s, having evolved into more of a home for dance than experimental performance. But at the same time, the field of dance, what qualifies as dance, has wider reach. This is one inheritance of those few years in the 1960s where many kinds of artists came into the field and pried it apart.

Performance of Steve Paxton’s “State” (1968) at The Museum of Modern Art, October 2012. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Steve Paxton’s Satisfyin’ Lover at MoMA in the “Some sweet day” series was a lesson in that historical moment. Both trained and untrained performers walked into the atrium to stand or sit for intervals at a time, including my friend, Eugene, who rolled his wheelchair into the formation. I met Eugene during a residency at Earthdance in 2009, where I was invited to participate in a Contact jam. I was on the verge of realizing that I was no longer interested in the dynamics of the jam: I did not want to be lifted, nor did I desire to take anyone’s weight. I was looking to maintain personal boundaries, and to engage in the practice with a subtlety that was missing for me there. Out rolled Eugene, dancing with his head, shoulders and fingers. We connected with our arms and heads in sweeping motions, engaging in light touch, stillness, and even with one another’s breath. My feelings of comparison to the bodies that I perceived as stronger or freer dissolved dancing with Eugene. I was moved to a deep place of acceptance about my body and a gratitude for what it is. That year, Eugene was about to face a battle with cancer that held dubious chances of survival. But he won, living to ride through the MoMA atrium three years later.

We made the reception for the first week of “Some sweet day” into a reunion of sorts, drinking wine as he recounted his cancer survival stories. It seemed that no one in the room knew how or cared to approach Eugene; he was the wild looking guy in a wheel chair near the bar. At one point, he spilled some wine on the ground floor of the museum “for the predecessors and ancestors,” which led many to stare him down, misinterpreting his actions as an uncouth slip of the glass. Soon, however, Paxton stood astride us, and a small crowd huddled near as he declared, “If MoMA really wants to support dance and performance, they should open up a space on one floor for experimentation and failure, like a Judson, but here. “

Judson Dance Theater emerged, in part, out of the shifting politics and anxiety about the future in the 1960s. Americans were realizing that the Vietnam War was not going to reach an honorable end. The Second Wave of Feminism surged with the Civil Rights Movement, and the LGBT fight was in a nascent state. The rise of media formed a ubiquitous presence in the life and psyche of the average citizen; now one could ceaselessly watch and listen to war[iv]. Of course, such exposure to uncertainty, such questioning of personal and political power provoked artists to reconsider their visions and voices. Yvonne Rainer’s “Statement” in The Mind Is A Muscle (1968) exemplifies this:

…horror and disbelief upon seeing a Vietnamese shot dead on TV – not at the sight of death, however, but at the fact that the TV can be shut off afterwards as after a bad Western. My body remains the enduring reality.

We are grappling now with issues both similar and divergent. The re-election of President Obama holds with it the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq more than a decade since those wars started. At the same time, marriage equality has gained support, and trans and gender non-conforming individuals are beginning to receive government protection. We are mired in the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression, which has led to international protest and revolt. We are now constantly connected to technology, watching and being watched by ourselves, by the world.

Taking the impact of social forces on Judson Dance Theater under consideration, I find it slippery to make claims of identity politics for these artists. They were searching for new ways to be in their bodies, and in turn, they wanted their bodies to be seen as more than the cultural signifiers placed on them. Fifty years later, artists of my generation continue to grapple with these issues. Many of my friends go by the plural pronoun “they,” choosing not to identify with the singular “he” or “she.” “They” takes on both or neither of these gender labels. Some of my friends have invented their pronouns. It’s possible that acknowledging this in others has brought me to a different way of seeing myself. I find myself considering going by “they” as I have experienced a shift in body consciousness—how it performs, and how it seeks to be understood.

I find the ability to move through society in our self-proclaimed us-ness indicative of new possibilities for embodiment. With the ability to subvert and invent identity comes that same ability within the world of artistic research and process. What kinds of breakthroughs might be made possible by the instability of our current social climate? How can we foster new arenas of aesthetic experience to account for a varied concept of identity and embodiment? Perhaps there are forms for performing with a body of multiple selves that are, as yet, coming into being.


Marissa Perel is a Brooklyn based artist and writer whose work spans performance, video and text-based installation. She writes the column, “Gimme Shelter: Performance Now” for the Art21 blog, and is co-editor of Critical Correspondence. She is the curator of Lobby TALKS at New York Live Arts for the Spring 2013 season.

[i] p. 68, Bryan-Wilson. Practicing Trio A, October #140, MIT Press, 2012.

[ii] Schneemann, Notes and Scrapbook, 1962-1966, Microfilm.

[iii] Carolee Schneemann in conversation with Marissa Perel, July 6, 2012

[iv] For further reading on the impact of media on JDT artists, read Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960’s by Carrie Lambert-Beatty, MIT Press 2008

One Comment

  1. Lydia Mokdessi
    December 1, 2012

    For audio of the full conversation between Marissa and Carolee, July 6, 2012 at Judson Memorial Church:

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