Go see the Museum of Modern Art’s “Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done.” By all means, see the exhibition — and read the catalogue, which is a useful supplement to the objects on display — but really, go see the dance performances. If you’re too far away to visit the museum, search for footage of the dances online. (YouTube has lots of them.) There is one subtle advantage to watching the dances at home. If you feel compelled, you can try the movements. If this idea calls to you, you may want to join Movement Research at the MoMA in January for a series of workshops and classes on creative process and movement.
In the language of dance, choreography is “set” on dancers — the dancer’s body is, in a real sense, the raw material of creation. (Of course, there’s also the space activated by the dancer’s body, the light, the sound, the colors–but the dancer’s body is the kernel of the work. Without those bodies, there would be nothing.) There is a famous Merce Cunningham quote, frequently cited by / much loved by dancers: “You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.”
While the MoMA show presents an impressive array of documents and artifacts, Cunningham gets to the truth of dance. It is an art form that lives, moment by moment, in the dancer. The tradition of dance, like any other craft-based tradition, is handed down through memory and performance. By “performance,” I do not mean that situation where one performs in front of an audience. I mean the practice of the craft, of performing the actions until the craft lives within the body, in its joints and sinews, muscles and bones.
It is both poignant and absorbing to watch choreographers and dancers try to shake off that body of tradition, to rebel against memory, shake off the classical line. But the body is an instrument that is not easily mastered. Watch history creep in, despite the iconoclasm. Watch tradition return, in the after image of a gesture.