Blog pro tanečníky, choreografy, kritiky, pedagogy

14.12.2018, 21:41:08   |  Foto: Viktor Čech  |   Kategorie: Čas, Prostor, Tělo, Tvůrčí proces

Postmodern dance today


Significant developments in the American cultural scene of the 1960s were not limited to fine art, music and society. The decade also saw radical shifts in the field of dance art. The importance of this period extends beyond the creators themselves and is notable for the interesting way in which the work of dance artists came into contact with concurrent activities in other artistic disciplines. A consideration of this era can enrich our understanding of contemporary minimalist or performance work.

The ideas of John Cage were a key inspiration for the community of creatives that coalesced around New York’s Judson Memorial Church in the early 1960s. The events that took place there from 1962-1968 under the name Judson Dance Theater catalysed a number of crucial shifts in the role of the dance maker as artist. Key initiators included John Dunn, a student of Cage, and a number of significant dance artists such as Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, Simone Forti, Lucinda Childs and Deborah Hay, who transported the traditional “theatrical” position of dance to a completely new context. An interdisciplinary collective of individuals including fine artists such as Robert Morris, Robert Rauschenberg and Carolee Schneeman also played a role. Particularly at the outset, when a desire to integrate non-dancers was at its height, artists from both camps often crossed paths and shared collective working processes. For a number of artists, this ultimately led to their first interventions in a second medium. Robert Morris’s choreographic work (see his performance Site, 1964) exemplifies this, as does the moving image work of Yvonne Rainer (see Hand Movie, 1966). Morris’s work at Judson Dance evidently had a significant influence on his minimalist installations. One of his first works with “blocks” - the performance The Column (1961) - was created with repurposed blocks originally intended for Rainer’s The Bells (1961). It’s no coincidence that the concept “object as body”, or its opposite, “body as object”, is of great significance to both artists. Morris’s understanding of minimalist installation as spatial composition, in which the viewer moves like an object among other spatial entities, casts a literal sheen on Michael Fried’s accusation of “theatricality” in Morris’s work.

Reliance on discipline-specific understandings in both fields, with their focus on contact and exchange, risks an oversimplification of the situation at the time. A large number of the above-mentioned artists frequently repositioned themselves within artistic spaces which reflected their interest in creative approaches from drawn from professionally differentiated fields. The evolution of Simone Forti serves as an example. At the start of her career, Forti vacillated between painting and dance. While the influence of her teacher, Anna Halprin, ultimately let her to choose dance, it’s possible to detect in her work a strong engagement with artistic techniques such as drawing, or the concept of work with the body as akin to many artistic actions (as in her choreography Huddle, 1961). Meanwhile, some of the most essential works of the Judson Dance circle, such as Yvonne Rainer’s The Mind is a Muscle (1968), or Trisha Brown’s Homemade (1966) incorporate not only the “task-based” approach derived from the work of Cage, but also video. In the case of Rainer, interest in this medium ultimately led her to abandon her dance career and redirect her interests to the field of experimental cinema. Meanwhile, a number of Trisha Brown’s events (such as Walking on the Wall, 1971), characterised by a shifting application of physical principles and an emphasis on effort, were framed as performance, rather than dance, and presented in public spaces or galleries.

In the Czech context, awareness of this work remained quite peripheral for many years and, where it existed at all, constituted merely knowledge of snapshots or descriptions of the work. The close relationship of 1960s dance art to the Minimalists, or artists engaged in performance or associated with Fluxus, was also largely ignored by Czech theoreticians, despite the canonical position of these movements. The international art world’s retrospective interest in the dance art of the 1960s has been palpable for a number of years and has manifested in such events as the re-staging of Brown’s Floor of the Forest (1970) for the Kasseler Dokfest in 2007, as well as a number of recent exhibitions in London and New York devoted to considering the relationship between dance and fine art.

This trend has been slow to reach the Czech Republic, and so it is with a sense of gratitude that we acknowledge that the impetus and most interesting domestic opportunity to consider this work has come, perhaps surprisingly, from the dance field itself. Under the title “Postmodern Dance Today”, the organisation SE.S.TA., which focuses on production and educational activities in the field of choreography, organised a pair of dance workshops and performances in the Small Lobby of Prague’s Trade Fair Palace and in the lobby of Brno’s House of Arts. The events took place under the leadership of American choreographer Martha Moore, who presented work from the Judson Dance Theater circle.


The Judson Dance tradition and “Event” - Martha Moore

Martha Moore continues the Judson Dance tradition by framing her presentation of some of the group’s key choreographies as “events” that emerge primarily from experimental concepts. This follows the ethos of such works as Rainer’s Continuous Project - Altered Daily (1969-70) and The Mind is a Muscle (1966-68), as well as works by Simone Forti, Trisha Brown and others, which culminated in the activities of the improvisational group The Grand Union (1970-76).  Moore put her direct experience of work with these choreographers to use in the Prague and Brno “events” (a name which recalls the somewhat earlier activities of the New York group Fluxus), employing “task” strategy.

An important aspect of task-based work is a degree of casualness and chance, which affords performers a certain amount of freedom to respond within the confines of a given task. The simple tasks, which performers are assigned at the beginning, include a number of “natural activities”, such as running or interacting with other performers by following them, for example. The resulting event has the appearance of a dynamic field of play, which, complemented by the blurred borders created by spectators standing or seated at the edges of the space, suggests something between a collective happening and a dance event. Objects, too, play a role, often functioning as objets trouvés and connecting, via their improvised use, to the unfolding of the event in time and space.  The entire event is based on the assemblage of parallel activities taking place across time. Performances generally occur in gallery-like spaces, which lack the typical theatrical division of stage and auditorium, and combine both mutual interaction and work the spatial properties and possibilities of the site itself.

The specificity of the performance site plays a key role, as a comparison of the Prague and Brno events demonstrates. In Prague, the performers worked in the spacious, rectangular space of the Trade Fair Palace’s Small Lobby with a discernibly Cartesian system of coordinates. Their movements and interactions created something which could be (somewhat inappropriately) likened to a football pitch, except in this instance, the individual spectator determines where the ball - or the centre of the action - is, based upon his or her position. In the Brno space, which is divided both horizontally and (at higher levels) vertically by columns, the performers’ activities became a play with the architectural properties of the space and the different points of view resulting form the various positions of the spectators.

In relation to the contemporary dance scene, the free behaviour of the performers in these events, who do not pursue dance so much as the authentic execution of the given physical tasks (which themselves are not strictly mimetic in relation to the events of everyday live), runs the risk of confusing the spectator at the outset, due to the sheer variety and number of tasks. However, sustained attention is rewarded with the unveiling of a delicate balance between freedom and system, between the agency of individual actors on their “playing field” and the rules of the game. As a result, both events produced an unexpectedly fresh impression that allowed spectators to breath the fresh, creative air of the 1960s for awhile.


Trio A

The Brno programme included a performance of Rainer’s Trio A by Zdenka Brungot Sviteková and Anna Sedlačková. This choreography lasts less than 5 minutes, so three repetitions with variations takes no more than twenty minutes to perform. Today, Trio A is considered one of Rainer’s most iconic works, and a seminal work of 1960s choreography in general. It was most famously performed in Rainer’s above-mentioned The Mind is a Muscle (1966-1968).  The not-too-physically demanding sequence is characterised by its emphasis on smooth, continuous movements, devoid of static poses. There is no repetition or variation; the movements flow continuously until they reach their end. The expressivity of individual movements is articulated through their unforced naturalness and largely avoids conventional dance vocabulary. Among the movements used, it is possible to discern a number of dance-specific postures, or gestures recognisable from daily or working life. However, the given movement is never mimetic. It is autonomous movement, meaningful only in itself. The dancer, according to the choreographer\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\'s instructions, avoids eye contact with the audience, constantly averting the gaze to avoid an encounter.

The three repetitions of Trio A in Zdenka Brugot Sviteková and Anna Sedlačková\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\'s performance carry the spirit of Rainer\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\'s own work on different variations of the choreography. First, one performer dances and then the second follows, during which the first dancer tries to catch her eye  as she follows her physically. In the third version, both dance, this time with background music, thanks to which another aspect of the work is brought to the fore: Rainer’s emphasis on the execution of each given movement at its natural tempo. Thanks to this, there are constant shifts as the performers fall in and out of synch. The time frame is independent of the music, which ends during the dance, allowing the last moments to take place in the resumed silence.

In the history of dance Trio A is considered an iconic work of dance minimalism due to its suppression of the dancer’s psychological expressivity and the removal of narrative references, traditional forms and mimetic actions. It is further characterised by moderation in performance, based on the natural expenditure of energy adequate for each given movement, as opposed to straining towards dramatic gestures, and by the unchanging flow of the dancer’s energy from beginning to end. The spectator cannot discern any clear postures, or static gestures, which might also be considered an embrace of the un-spectacular. The impression of lightness and simplicity in the work comes primarily from movement based on “pacing” – a continuous state of flow that could be described as “arriving, but leaving”, which facilities a continuous shift from moment to moment. On one hand, we are talking about set physical structures, which, with the exception of the work’s independence of music, carries all the hallmarks of artistic dance, and is thus able to function more conventionally than some of Trisha Brown’s or Simone Forti’s work. On the other hand, however, the above-mentioned properties imbue Trio A with a radically civil character and distance it from the pathos of Cunningham’s virtuosic forms or the artistic spectacle of some of Trisha Brown’s events. Rainer doesn’t cross the borders of her “medium”, but nor does she lead it towards neoclassical abstraction. 

We must search for the transformation she brings in the paradigmatic of art dance itself, which has its origins in seventeenth-century ballet. The concept of representation is the subject of much discussion among art theoreticians, particularly as it concerns Velazquez’s painting Las Menimas, which can be taken as an important point of departure for questions of interpretation. For Michel Foucault, this painting was a model example of classical representation (for the purposes of this discussion, we will disregard later critical evaluations of his thesis, such as Svetlana Alpers’). The gestures and gazes of the figures in the painted scene establish contact with the viewer, which in the context of the given relationship and proxemics we could consider reciprocal. This reciprocity is found in a whole number of works and, in this case, determines the spectator’s power over the scene (if we substitute him for the owner of the work – in this case the king and queen, visible in the mirror). In this classic concept of scene, where the actors serve as means of representation for the spectator, it is the gaze and the expressivity of the face, whether direct or stylised, together with the associations carried by the poses and gestures, which serve as the essential means of expression. In contrast, the performer of Trio A avoids these means of expression, becoming an autonomous actor, who executes the choreography as if she is doing the entire activity for herself alone.

On the other hand, we must not suspect Yvonne Rainer of taking an absolutely “autistic” position. In this case, we’re dealing with a certain form of representation: an individual, who completes their action as an independent activity, non-hierarchically shared with the spectator. Such a reading speaks to the popularity Trio A has enjoyed from the outset; during course of the 1960s it became a favourite in a number of reinterpretations. Today, however, Rainer will only authorise its presentation by performers who have undergone careful instruction.

Both Sviteková and Sedlačková studied Trio A in the United States under the leadership of Pat Catterson. The moment when dance achieved a restrained form, associated primarily with the execution of “actions”, has been posited as part of a Marxist-orientated interpretation of such practices as a critique of capitalist work processes, in which the dancer’s movements are autotelic and independent of any “production”. However, this is a somewhat extreme reading, which does not correspond to the author’s intention. In the Brno performance of Trio A, the pair of performers brought a particular character to the work (even despite Rainer’s very precise and detailed conditions for its performance) thanks to their individual dynamics and personal movement signatures.

In contrast with the above-mentioned events led by Moore, the performance of Trio A can seem a more traditional experience, however the particular character of the work cannot be ignored. Its fundamental dance-ness unmoors it, to a certain extent, from the context of dance theatre and fashions of it an autonomous work, which ignores the classical boundaries between media. After viewing it, it is difficult to imagine the context of performance work at that time without it.



The international art world’s current and renewed interest in dance can be seen in a number of artist’s works (see Kelly Nipper, Pablo Bronstein, Sharon Lockhardt and many others) and curatorial projects (such as Move: Choreographing You at London’s Hayward Gallery, curated by Stephanie Rosenthal in 2011). Recently, this trend has also been possible to observe in the Czech context, in the work of Aleš Čermák, Dominik Gajarský and others, or in the 2012 curatorial project Pohyb v místě (Movement in Place). These developments demonstrate the importance and necessity of addressing the relationship between contemporary art and contemporary dance in a wider historical context, in order to shed light on the ties that bind these two distinct, evolving fields. 


Viktor Čech

Thanks to Zdenka Brungot Svitekova for consultation on Trio A.



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