At MoMA, Judson Dance Looks Back With Anger and Toughness

At MoMA, Judson Dance Looks Back With Anger and Toughness

The Judson Dance Theater exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art honors a generation of genre-changing dance-makers who first came into their element in the 1960s. When you look at the objects, pictures and photographs on the walls, you can understand that yes, they were once radical.

Then, when you watch the performances that accompany the exhibition, you recognize that yes, they’re radical still. The choreography we’ve seen by Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay and David Gordon would seem arresting, provocative, important, witty, disquieting if it were offered today by choreographers in their 20s.

The exhibition’s subtitle, “The Work Is Never Done,” is especially appropriate to Deborah Hay’s “ten,” a 1969 piece named after its number of performers. The stage space often resembles a building site: Some dancers join one another in striking poses, while others consult and supervise. One tableau after another builds, like coral formations, until several performers had master the same position, as if becoming part of a frieze. Every grouping is a work in progress.

And the eye feasts on these poses, which are not of virtuoso training but of memorably sculptural detail. One of the most striking is a complex kneeling gesture adopted, first by Miguel Angel Guzman: balanced on one knee, while leaning against a horizontal rail, he rested the opposite — straight — leg at a complex diagonal while holding one raised forearm upward in a pointing gesture. That’s tricky to describe but gorgeous to observe; it proved entertainingly tricky for others to execute — then spectacular to see as, slowly multiplied, it turned into motionless group choreography.

Seriously loud music was played, live, by Gang Gang Dance (who composed it, too). Its volume and implicit violence existed in drastic contrast with the stillness and subdued tone of the rehearsal-like choreography.

In David Gordon’s “The Matter,” the same stage space becomes the echo chamber of the Gordon mind — not unlike the echo chambers of our own minds. You hear the voices of Mr. Gordon and his wife, Valda Setterfield (and see, projected on a screen, the play-like text they are following: a very Gordon form of theater). These are often overlaid by other Gordon-Setterfield recordings; the aural layers become, deliberately, baffling. Mr. Gordon (seated) and Ms. Setterfield (who, seated at first, later becomes a more mobile participant) are part of what sometimes looks like chaos, with some 18 other performers crisscrossing the stage, taking up poses and then slowly varying them.

What’s rehearsal here? What’s finished art? What’s history? What’s new? What’s accident? What’s real life? “Perhaps figuring out what matters most matters most,” Mr. Gordon is heard saying at one point. Like many Gordon dictums, the line has a Gertrude Stein quality.

And perhaps what matters most to Mr. Gordon — even more than the endlessly ambiguous overlaps of life and art — is the way the present is the echo chamber of the past. You see younger dancers working on movement material that Mr. Gordon made years ago for Ms. Setterfield and himself; you see films and stills of Mr. Gordon and — especially — Ms. Setterfield.

“The Matter” ends with very two different duets, both featuring the stalwart, cool, assertive Wally Cardona. The first is like a rehearsal for a romantic duet: Mr. Cardona dances with Karen Graham, while screens show us both the bygone Gordon-Setterfield duet they’re now performing and those film romances. The duet has gestures and sequences of romantic abandon, rapture and trust, but it’s also studded with self-critical adjustments: Ms. Graham (like Ms. Setterfield before her) extricates herself from an intimate embrace, distances herself from Mr. Cardona, then rejoins him in a now quite dissimilar position.

Here, as in earlier in “The Matter” too, Mr. Gordon’s work resembles Ms. Hay’s (and, before that, both Merce Cunningham’s and the classical dance forms of India) in its fascination with the connections between stillness and movement. There are many overlapping histories going on here (both Ms. Hay and Ms. Setterfield danced with the Cunningham company; Cunningham steeped himself in the Asian philosophical principles that underlie Indian dance).

But neither “ten” nor “The Matter” feel like historic revivals warmed up from cold storage; they feel brimful of inquiring thought. At one point, Mr. Gordon shouts the words of Fanny Brice’s song “Secondhand Rose” with remarkable anger. After all the decades, Mr. Gordon and his Judson colleagues are not going gently into history; they’re looking back with anger, toughness, skepticism.

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