The Performance Club

Judson Has Left the Building

Howard Moody with Eleanor Roosevelt, 1959; Judson Memorial Church Archive; Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University.

By Karen Sherman

The remarkable force of Howard’s personality encouraged us to try to better the world. –David Epstein, playwright

Last month, on a Saturday morning, I went to two churches. The first was Judson, where I attended the memorial for Howard Moody, who was Senior Minister at Judson from 1957 until 1992.  Most people in the dance world know Judson, but not Howard, even though Judson’s groundbreaking involvement in the arts happened largely on his watch. In fact, myopic views on Judson are commonplace—many dancemakers don’t even realize the role Judson played in other art fields. For example:

Judson Gallery/Hall of Issues: Starting in the late 1950’s, Judson gave gallery space to and showed work by Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, Tom Wesselmann, Yoko Ono and many others. A live predecessor to “open-source,” the Hall of Issues was a gallery space open all week long where anyone could contribute a topical statement or artwork, then take part in the sometimes raging debates at the Wednesday night forum (more a happening than a forum). These debates grew so unhinged that a young Greenwich Village attorney was enlisted to moderate. His name was Ed Koch.

Literary Works: Around this same time, Judson also published an avant-garde literary quarterly called Exodous (“a magazine looking for a way out”). It published, among other things, early work from Claes Oldenburg.

Judson Poets Theater: Beginning in the early 1960’s, Associate Minister, playwright, and radical queer Al Carmines hosted experimental theater work that helped spawn what became known as Off-Off Broadway. In addition to work by Maria Irene Fornès, Diane DiPrima, Rochelle Owens, Sam Shepard, Remy Charlip, James Waring and Dan Wagoner, the JPT also presented Carmines’ work, including his famed 1973 musical The Faggot.

And then of course, came Judson Dance Theater: 1962-1964 (give or take a few months or years, depending on your level of cynicism). Judson opened its gym and then its sanctuary space (called the Meeting Room) to artists working in new approaches to dance. Some of these artists called themselves dancers, some didn’t. Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Deborah Hay, Robert Rauschenberg, Carolee Schneemann, Jill Johnston, et al.

In some ways, Dance was late to the party. And not for the last time.

Howard Moody, 1959; Judson Memorial Church Archive; Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University

But the arts were only a part of what happened at Judson thanks to Howard and his crew (Carmines and Arlene Carmen, the Church “Administrix”). There was also this:

In 1959, Howard founded the first drug treatment clinic in Greenwich Village, helping heroin addicts get sober instead of incarcerated (Judson has assembled Safer Injection or “bleach kits” for the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center for many years).

From 1963 to 1965, he worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and traveled to the South for voter registration drives and protests. But he also defended the Black Power movement, which was often at odds with the non-violence espoused by King, and insisted there was no place for a “civil white’s movement” because “the empty promissory notes of a white society came due, revealing the hypocrisy of the Northern whites for what it had always been—and this is to our everlasting shame.”

In 1967, Howard founded the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a nationwide network of clergy who helped women find safe, confidential abortions in the years before Roe v. Wade.

In 1970, he was arrested in his own church for flag desecration when Judson opened The People’s Flag Show, an art event addressing the American flag as statement and political agent. Even after the District Attorney ordered Judson to take down the show, Howard refused. As he described of the arraignment that followed, “one of the district attorneys came in with [Alex] Gross’s sculpture and took his seat with the sculpture on his lap. The sculpture was a 3-by-4-foot simulation of a penis and scrotum made out of the flag. He sat right in front of Arlene Carmen and me, and the courtroom snickering was louder than theatrical applause. That was one uncomfortable district attorney. We felt it was sheer poetic justice.”

In 1976, he co-founded the Center for Medical Consumers, a resource center and library within Judson that provided lay people with medical information so they could participate in their own healthcare decisions and be informed “by facts, not fear.”

In the ‘70s-‘80s, Howard and Arlene created the Prostitution Project, an outreach van that provided medical, legal and social services to sex workers. They also published The Hooker’s Hookup, a journal and trade magazine for prostitutes.  (Arlene was once arrested in a police sweep of street workers.)

In the early ‘80s, Howard help coordinate an underground trial of the experimental AIDS drug Compound Q, providing a room in the church where medical professionals could administer the drug, monitor patients and share results. Until then, trial participants had been undergoing treatment in isolation so an assessment of a larger group sample had been difficult to obtain. This was one of several underground trials nationwide that was credited with accelerating the FDA’s AIDS drug approval process.

There is more. But you get the gist. To say Howard was committed to social justice would be putting it mildly. He saw the things no one else saw. He saw them years, sometimes decades in advance. He tackled them with the ingenuity, creativity, and radicalism of our best artists. As someone said at his memorial, “he built movements, that built people, who built movements, that built people, who built movements.” He was a colleague and friend to me as well as a leader in instigating the society I wanted (and still hope) to live in.

The second church I went to that Saturday morning was St. Mark’s Church, where I sat for three hours listening to a wrap-up of Ralph Lemon’s Some sweet day series at the Museum of Modern Art. A good portion of the crowd was there to get down and dirty about Deborah Hay’s work on that program. You can read about it here, then here and finally here. As the discussion ramped up, then fell apart, then ramped up, stalled, and spiraled, I sat there feeling increasingly dismayed.

I didn’t see Deborah’s piece but I don’t doubt everyone in St. Mark’s that day was being truthful about the trespasses experienced by performers and viewers alike, even when their carefulness bordered on evasiveness. The dismay I felt came when I considered, in light of the discussion, the larger question of the Danspace platform—Where is Judson now?—and the life of the man I had just spent my morning celebrating. Here we were discussing a charged, emotional event encompassing issues of race, economic equity, sex, gender, freedom of expression, personal autonomy, artistic ownership, hierarchy, and art—all the very things Howard gave his life to revolutionizing yet that we, as dancemakers, seem to have made so little progress on in terms of how our art, and we as artists, live in the world. On top of it, we were mired in a conversation that did not know how to move itself forward: a new version of pedestrian stillness without a manifesto. Howard fought for the right of autonomy over one’s own body and mind. Where is Judson now? In the dance world, nowhere enough.

It seems to me that dancemakers have stayed indebted to Judson for the one thing we no longer need: the dance. We need everything else Judson has worked to create and transform, and a more revolutionary doing around integrating our lives and our art with our social values. The conversation at Danspace that day wasn’t entirely unproductive—frankly, the dance world so rarely addresses its internal problems head-on like that and I was struck by the overall considerate nature of the discussion (dancemakers may be the world’s best listeners). And the issues raised by Deborah Hay’s piece and process matter.

But they are not new in the dance world. While there were explanations for the pay differential between the two casts in the show ($200 for the white dancers, $700 for the black dancers), why is $700 for eight month’s worth of work considered enviable? What does it mean to give your body and brain to a project even as you feel robbed of agency? Beyond being in any given piece whose process or messages you question, what about working in a field that is routinely exploitative of and racist and misogynist toward its workers? Contemporary dancers are, by and large, an educated, politically-aware bunch; if most of us witnessed elsewhere what we routinely experience in dance, we’d probably lend a voice, if not a hand, toward changing it. How can we take our own working conditions forward with the same inventiveness we take our work?

As Howard said when he retired from the church in 1992, “We can spend our time talking about being in the world and how important it is without ever being out there.” Howard loved art for its aliveness and the aliveness it engendered within us; for the ways art, action, activism, and personal transformation are a moving whole, propelling us toward the world we want to be in. And by moving toward it, we live it in real, risky time. Every so often, something happens in the dance community that causes a call to arms. The trumpet of revolution sounds. Yet, just as often, our need to be innovators collides with the reality that we are overextended; we come to standstill, a place from which change cannot be enacted—they don’t call them movements for nothing. But we have models for activism in our very own legacies. Forget Judson’s dances. Look to Judson’s movements.

Howard Moody, 1986; Judson Memorial Church Archive; Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University

When we invited trouble we had to live by faith. We took lots of chances, we involved ourselves in free-wheeling interferences in the community, and we embraced unpopular causes and people. We weren’t always right, and when we were, we tried not to publicize ourselves or use our success for self-promotion. I was scared some of the time, but we muddled through. – Howard Moody, April 26, 1992



Karen Sherman makes dances, writes and builds things. Based in NYC from 1988-2004, she currently lives in Minneapolis. She was the Technical Director/Production Manager of Judson Church from 1994-2004 and its Administrator from 2000-2004.

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