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Flashback to the ’80s: New Dance USA

Cotton balls were given out to lessen the intense volume of Rhys Chatam’s music accompanying Karole Armitage’s Drastic-Classicism (1981), a performance in which “pitting punk pretenses against formal facility, it was a ferocious barrage of smashing guitar chords juxtaposed with an off-kilter corkscrewing of classical dance techniques.” – Allen Robertson, The Minneapolis Star, October 6, […]

Karole Armitage, Drastic Classicism 1981    Children’s Theatre, October 5, 1981

Cotton balls were given out to lessen the intense volume of Rhys Chatam’s music accompanying Karole Armitage’s Drastic-Classicism (1981), a performance in which “pitting punk pretenses against formal facility, it was a ferocious barrage of smashing guitar chords juxtaposed with an off-kilter corkscrewing of classical dance techniques.” – Allen Robertson, The Minneapolis Star, October 6, 1981

In Lucinda Childs’ Dance (1979), with a set by Sol LeWitt and sound by Philip Glass (and performed for a less convinced audience than the captivated one watching Dance in the Walker’s McGuire theater last year), “by combining speed and repetition in an unrelenting two-hour mathematical equation, Childs puts herself in the vanguard of new dance.” – Iris M. Fanger, The Boston Phoenix, October 20, 1981

At New Dance USA (October 3–8, 1981), the Walker invited Karole Armitage, Lucinda Childs, and 25 other choreographers to perform their work at five locations throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul. The festival lineup piqued the interest of audiences near and far who came to check out and assess what the 1980s postmodern dance scene was about. Along with the week of performances, the Walker—known as one of the nation’s leading presenters of dance—put together a three-part lecture series on postmodern dance, a Dance Critics Conference, a panel of dance presenters discussing creative ways to organize residencies, an exhibition of scores and graphic works by some of the participating choreographers, and a 50-page catalogue.

When I recently came across the catalogue in the Walker’s archives, it was an interesting find. Not only to read about dance in the ’80s at the same time of the Walker’s current exhibition on art of this decade but also because the catalogue points to earlier works by several New Dance USA choreographers who have returned to the Walker time again since the 1981 event—most recently Bill T. Jones and Trisha Brown—and to those such as Deborah Hay who will be here later this year. The catalogue provokes thinking about the contemporaneity of new dance and the ways in which these legendary choreographers’ work has developed over the years.

Deborah Hay. Genius of the Heart. October 8, 1981. Children’s Theatre

In considering what constitutes newness in 80s choreography, the catalogue authors recount a rich history of postmodern dance. More than 30 years after New Dance USA took place here in the Twin Cities, as we near the start of another exciting season of new dance, the catalogue is a timely read. A loose synopsis augmented with some great photo documentation follows.

New Dance USA festival catalogue cover and table of contents. Published 1981 by Walker Art Center.

With an introduction by Nigel Redden—then the Walker’s performing arts director, and organizer of New Dance USA—and essays by critics Sally Banes, Jill Johnston, and Allen Robertson, the writers addressed the question, “What is dance?” to position some criticality of what was happening with choreography of the new decade.  They chronicled the origins of postmodern dance to contextualize innovations/departures noticed of late, tracing its history to Merce Cunningham’s chance compositions with John Cage in the 50s, dating its emergence to Judson Dance Theater’s formation in 1962, and noting its subsequent essential moments in Grand Union collective’s improvisations in the early to mid 1970s.

Grand Union performing in the Walker Art Center lobby, 1975

In these years choreographers radically expanded the concept of dance.  Johnston wrote, “For a while anything anyone did seemed acceptable, even laudable.”[i] Coinciding with transgressive social movements of the time, the work was freed from the codes and rules of the old establishment that valued impeccable technique, dramatic expression, and spectacular presentation. It instead emphasized play and spontaneity, incorporated everyday life movement and objects, was performed in unconventional and often bare stage settings, and appreciated awkwardness, disorder, and the ordinary.

By the late ’70s and early ’80s, Banes wrote that dance  “had become so shorn of meaning (other than reflexive) that for a younger generation of choreographers and spectators it was beginning to be regarded as almost meaningless. The response was to look for ways to reinstall meaning in dance.” Choreographers had eradicated nearly every conventional expectation of what dance was, and with this recent revolutionizing of artistic freedom in dance that had been accomplished in the ’60s, working with a relatively blank slate they began to introspectively take their performance work into specific singular directions. Robertson commented on Trisha Brown’s recent work, observing, “individual movement gestures, once a series of distinctly compartmented movements, are now skimming along in complex, lengthy phrases,” that in the ’70s Brown “solidified her personal style,” and now in the ’80s, “she is letting her vocabulary flower.” Banes distinguished the autobiographical and intimate duets of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane (who performed Valley Cottage, 1981, at the New Dance USA festival) from the open-endedness of Grand Union’s gestures, writing that though their work similarly took up political topics, “Where Grand Union joyously or angrily demanded, ‘What is this world? And what if…?,’ Jones and Zane soberly construct order and sense in an unyielding world where people are very much of their own.” Choreographers had, by this time, carved out a more legitimated space in the art world to develop their own identities. As postmodern dance became more prominent and supported throughout contemporary culture (i.e. in 1980 Douglas Dunn was asked to choreograph Stravinsky’s Pulcinella for the Paris Opera) choreographers were becoming increasingly established, refining their personal “order.”  The dance companies many of them had recently started in the early ’70s, such as those by Brown and Childs, were taking off, and dancers such as Jones and Zane had just established theirs. [ii]

Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane Dance Company, Valley Cottage, 1981, performed at Anwatin Middle School, October 9, 1981

Though the choreographers at New Dance USA were pursuing vastly different work, some interesting common strands were noticed in the performances. Wary to generalize too much, it was recognized that a recasting of some of the constituents of classical dance—such as narrative, music, technique—that for years choreographers had departed from (and some initially were trained in), was evident in the work. As Banes noticed especially with the emerging choreographers, “they are distinguishing themselves from their predecessors, not by shifting the focus of dance to new issues, but by developing alternative aspects of earlier issues.”[iii]

In revisiting and reinventing certain elements of, for example, theatricality, choreographers increasingly collaborated with visual artists, sound artists, and non-artists to explore the interdisciplinary possibilities of working with various media that had become more available to them in the ’60s and ’70s. By the early ’80s—coming into a decade of attention to mass media—several choreographers had the means to amp up production to synthesize considerably large-scale multimedia works.  These were layered with photographic or filmic projections, sound compositions, and striking costumes that veered from the neutrality and stripped down work commonly seen in the ’60s.

David Gordon and Valda Setterfield. Close Up (1979). Children’s Theatre. October 3, 1981.

At New Dance USA, Dana Reitz’s lighting design was by Charles Atlas, Jim Self’s costumes were designed by Frank Moore, and Lucinda Childs’ set was by Sol LeWitt. And perhaps most frequently written about in the New Dance USA reviews was the prevalent incorporation of sound in these works. Some of the choreographers, such as Laura Dean, identified as sound composers in their own right—a departure from the ’60s when it was usual to watch dance in silence. While experiments with sound took off in the early ’80s (Redden had just organized New Music America in 1980, convening more than 70 participants), at New Dance USA Karole Armitage worked with Rhys Chatham, Lucinda Childs with Philip Glass, Charles Moulton with A. Leroy, Deborah Hay with Bill Jeffers, and Douglas Dunn with John Driscoll.

Jim Self, Up Roots, 1981

Jim Self, Up Roots, 1981

Coinciding with this energy of presenting dances with a higher production value was the high technicality of the dance movement itself. Mastery seemed to be in again. The catalogue’s writers also remarked on the ways that, in this “turn to virtuosity,” as Banes put it, choreographic compositions became increasingly focused in systematization, structure, endurance, and technical skill. Of Charles Moulton’s dances, Banes wrote of their “highly rigorous discipline, requiring total coordination and split-second timing.” A review of Moulton’s Arch Extract (1981) in d’Art further described his work as “exuberant, sporty explosions of technically-difficult and compellingly rhythmic movement.”  The work of Molissa Fenley, Direct Effect, was mentioned in New York Sunday News Magazine, in which the writer remarked, “The coltish, rigorous young Molissa Fenley makes high-energy nonstop patterns with cardiovascular warm-ups.” And in the New Dance USA catalogue, Robertson wrote, “Fenley speeds up the Brown/Childs mathematics to jet-age propulsion.”  It was, as registered, 1981, when artists were amidst a dismal economic (and political) situation just after Reagan’s election in 1980 that did in some sense prompt a survival of the fittest. The impetus to make independent statements, clarify one’s position, and demonstrate endurance seemed a tenor of working at that time. [iv]

Molissa Fenley. Direct Effect. Anwatin Middle School. October 9, 1981.

That said, in acknowledging the range of backgrounds, ideas and styles at New Dance USA (and of course elsewhere across the country), the writers didn’t set out to historicize the present or cover new dance in the U.S. exclusively through a few noticeable trajectories. To provide some critical context to the week of performance, the catalogue was an occasion to revisit the connotation of the term postmodern dance and consider how, as Banes put it, some of the “preoccupations” in choreography have altered over the years.

When I asked Redden about the selection of choreographers, he stated, “maybe now it doesn’t seem quite as obvious but at the time it seemed pretty obvious whom we should invite.”[v] These were both emerging dancers and those who first made names for themselves a decade or two before by shattering the paradigms of dance and were recognized as continuing to radically innovate the field. Many of them still are. Since 1981, a number of New Dance USA choreographers have done so performing their new work throughout the Twin Cities. Some Walker commissions have included:

Kei Takei (24 hours of Light, 1991)

Kei Takei, 24 Hours of Light, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, June 1, 1991

Trisha Brown (Lateral Pass, 1985; Foray Forêt, 1991; It’s a Draw—For Robert Rauschenberg, 2008)

Trisha Brown Company, Lateral Pass, Hamline University Theater, September 5, 1985

Trisha Brown, It’s a Draw—For Robert Rauschenberg, Walker Art Center. April 17, 2008

Eiko & Koma (Wind, 1993; River, 1996; Offering, 2003; Hunger, 2008)

Eiko & Koma, Wind, Walker Art Center, March 1993

David Gordon (Uncivil Wars: Collaborating with Brecht and Eisler, 2009)

David Gordon Pick Up Performance Co(S.), Uncivil Wars: Moving with Brecht & Eisler. Photo: Paula Court.

Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane (Promised Land, 1990; Perfect Courage, 1990; Still/Here, 1994; The Table Project, 2001; With the Good Lord, 2005, Story/Time, 2012)

Bill T. Jones, Story/Time, Walker Art Center, February 16, 2012

Especially for someone like myself who’s recently experienced works by these artists for the first time, finding this New Dance USA catalogue and festival documentation in the Walker’s archives lent some interesting context to what might be considered new in dance.

What that is? Minneapolis-based choreographer Linda Shapiro, who participated in the 1981 festival, reminds us of the delicacy of that question. In an interview just before the festival she put it well when she said, “it’s like walking down a street where you see all kinds of things happening and you focus yourself. You don’t get frustrated. It doesn’t matter if you see everything. You look for what interests you.  Dance is a use of movement idiosyncracy. You create it by using your own body and mind and experience.”[vi]

Linda Shapiro and dancers. Pulse. Anwatin Middle School, October 10, 1981.


[i] Johnston, 25.

[ii] Banes, Sally. 1980. Terpsichore in sneakers: post-modern dance. Boston: Houghton Mifflin; Robertson, 34; Banes, 14.

[iii] Banes, 20.

[iii] Robertson, 34.

[iv] Banes, 17; In d’Art, October 15, 1981, Caroline Hall Otis describes the choreography of this quintet—composed of Moulton, Barbara Allen, Beatrice Bogorad, Ken DeLap, and Robert Swinston—who tightly danced in unison to live electric piano played onstage with the percussive beat of A. Leroy’s score; Linda Winer, New York Sunday News Magazine, January 10, 1982; Robertson, 34.

[v] Interview with Redden, December 11, 1981.

[vi] Quoted in “New Dance, a step beyond modern, coming to town,” by Mike Steele, The Minneapolis Tribune, September 27, 1981.