Book Review—The Mind Is a Muscle

postmodern american dance as us intellectual history.

X-posted from US Intellectual History Book Review.

  • Ninotchka Bennahum, Wendy Perron, and Bruce Robertson, eds. Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955-1972. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016. 
  • Ana Janevski and Thomas Lax, eds. Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2018.

“The Mind is a Muscle.”

It was the title chosen by the avant-garde choreographer Yvonne Rainer for a program of dance performances in 1966. The name serves as a reminder that intellectual history has often overlooked dance as an area of inquiry. While dance studies and performance studies have become vibrant fields, and art historians increasingly address contemporary dance when it intersects with the visual arts, intellectual historians have only occasionally included dance in any robust way in their examinations of the past.⁠⁠1 Rarely do intellectual history and dance meet, even though, as Rainer proposed, the mind might be understood as a kind of muscle and, more crucially, in choreographic work such as hers, muscles do quite a bit of thinking. 

Why has intellectual history ignored dance? The arts always have a tenuous hold in the subdiscipline because their expressions of ideas in non-expository forms present challenges of interpretation. Dance, however, trails behind the visual arts, film, theater, music, even television in terms of inclusion. One obvious reason why dance is missing is the ongoing issue of who gets to count as an intellectual. Because women have often taken leading roles in shaping dance within a patriarchal society, dance rarely receives full attention in examinations of intellectual life.⁠2⁠ Moreover, dance theater as a high art intersects with social dancing; popular culture is also an area that intellectual history tends to neglect. In short, the “history of the body” may have become increasingly prominent when scholars study “the life of the mind”; the dancing body, less so. 

Ann Halprin, The Branch, the Halprins’ dance deck, Kentfield, California, c. 1957: A. A. Leath, Ann Halprin, and Simone Forti. Photograph by Warner Jepson. The Estate of Warner Jepson © by Warner Jepson – 2017. Museum Of Performance + Design, San Francisco.

Two edited collections that document recent museum exhibitions offer an opportunity to get the dancing body back into the thinking of intellectual history within the United States, particularly in the decades after World War II. Edited by Ninotchka Bennahum, Wendy Perron, and Bruce Robertson, Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955-1972 presents a bicoastal tale of female-led experimentation that began at workshops held on Halprin’s famous redwood “dance deck” in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Ana Janevski and Thomas Lax’s Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done shifts the scene to New York City’s Greenwich Village, where many of the ideas that first surfaced on Halprin’s deck developed further. In contemporary dance history, figures such Halprin, Forti, and Rainer are giants of the field, and Judson is much mythologized, even canonized, as a venue; but beyond those in the know, the stories of these artists, locations, events, and milieu remain almost invisible, especially in terms of their intellectual import. They deserve a better place and can add substantively to intellectual history.

So what were the core ideas worth investigating when it comes to postmodern dance in the United States? And why do they matter as intellectual history?  There are five key point of significance suggested by the volumes under review. 

First, within dance history itself, figures such as Halprin, Forti, Rainer, and others pushed past the constrained formalism of ballet and the neo-Classical psychodramas of Martha Graham and Denishawn School modernism. Along with Merce Cunningham, who worked with many of them, these artists announced the arrival of postmodern dance. Most distinctively, and unlike Cunningham’s persistent continuities with ballet and modern dance, they turned more fully toward investigating ordinary movement and the conditions of everyday life in the technological, consumerist Jet Age boom of the 1950s and 60s. Yet there is nothing quotidian about their focus. Blurring the boundaries between theater, sculpture, film, and music composition, they often infused their work with a healthy dose of weirdness and defamiliarization to make sense of the common world around them. In many respects, they were part of what has sometimes been labeled the Neo-Dadaist moment in the visual arts, and in fact collaborated with many of those very visual artists (Rauschenberg, Johns, the Fluxus group). They also can be counted as important instigators in the turn toward Minimalism and Conceptual Art in the 1960s. Stripping down dance to its most core elements, to the point that sometimes the dances were more a set of instructions to execute rather than a finalized work, they simultaneously naturalized movement and de-naturalized it, suspending audiences between a simple literalism and an uncanny alienation, an immersion into the everyday and a potent estrangement from it. They made dance in what Rauschenberg famously described as “the gap between art and life.”⁠3

Second, as part of the effort to access the everyday in new ways, draw our attention to it, and elevate its importance, artists such as the influential Halprin (“The Source or The Fountain,” dancer and critic Wendy Perron calls her) as well as Forti, Rainer, and many of the Judson Dance Theater participants reformulated spirituality in relation to secular life. They examined how the mystical and magical lurked in the everyday and ordinary. Their work challenges straightforward arguments about the secularization of the US in the decades after World War II. If there was secularization in the sense that Americans turned away from mainline religious institutions, there was not in terms of the infusion of spiritual concerns into the spaces of the avant-garde and bohemian culture.

Third, the rise of postmodern dance reveals the importance of geography and location in the postwar era. Halprin, Forti, and Rainer all came of age on the West Coast (the first moved there during World War II; the second two, slightly younger, grew up there). Their work registers a new bicoastal interplay in American life and culture during the 1950s and 60s, with California’s different history of natural world and built environment—more fluid, sometimes skipping over the sequences of industrial development found back in the East and Midwest—surfacing in postmodern dance’s new combinations of rural wildness and urban cosmopolitanism.

Fourth, postmodern dance artists investigated the relationship between objects and bodies themselves. They did so through an oscillation between a cool neutrality (treating bodies like specimen in a laboratory, detaching gestures and movements from clear emotional connections) and a deeply inhabited subjectivity (shape-shifting through stances, roles, spatial arrangements, use of props, and site-specific locations for dancing beyond the proscenium stage to explore multiple states of being and becoming). These dancemakers wanted to challenge the boundary between the objective and the subjective, reconfiguring the dynamic between things—including the thingnessof the body itself—and their animating spirits.

A final theme for these dance artists centered on self-presentation as a mode of deep civic engagement. Through theatrical movement, they addressed questions of gender, sexuality, race, commodification, communication, and dehumanization. This might seem odd at first since so much of the movement they developed sought to be about nothing more than itself. Nonetheless, as the Civil Rights movement unfolded and the Vietnam War escalated, many of the artists connected their dance to issues of race relations, militarism, and state-sponsored violence. For instance, Halprin grew increasingly interested in street protest (Blank Placard Dance, 1967) as well as, a bit later, communal ritual (Citydance, 1976; Celebration of Life-Cycle of Ages, 1979). Forti’s work touched upon environmental issues. Rainer even brought the American flag directly into newer versions of her iconic Trio A dance. Much of their work and that of other Judson Dance Theater dancemakers especially foregrounded women’s experiences and issues of feminism, gender, and sexuality as powerful forces in the postwar United States.

Halprin, Forti, and Rainer loom large when it comes to the intellectual significance of postmodern dance. Others who include mention are Trisha Brown, who became among the most choreographically celebrated for her curiosity about repetition and the links she probed between dance and visual arts. Carolee Schneemann produced gloriously strange, messy, decadent performance art at Judson. Deborah Hay, Lucinda Childs, and Elaine Summers should be included when the story of Judson Church is told. Trumpeter and composer Bill Dixon was one of the few African-American participants in Judson, and created improvisation-based collaborations with his wife, the dancer Judith Dunn. Steve Paxton went from Merce Cunningham’s company to Judson to help develop the practice of Contact Improvisation; his interest in how to “learn falling skills” and ask “what can be learned by catching a hurtling body” are fine examples of the ways in which more adventurous modes dance went together with deeper modes of thinking about the world and how to exist in it.⁠4We might more accurately say that the movement in Contact Improvisation, as in much postmodern dance as a whole, was the thinking, which then generated new language and thought. Dancing and thinking fell into place together here out of their collisions with each other.

Democracy’s Body…of Thought

Overall, these artists opened up intellectual possibilities for what dance scholar Sally Banes has called “democracy’s body.”5 One might indeed track their explorations of self and society alongside the more influential social and cultural thinkers of the day: Irving Goffman, David Reisman, Theodor Adorno, Daniel Bell, Hannah Arendt, Betty Friedan, Susan Sontag, Jane Jacobs, James Baldwin, Franz Fanon, Michel Foucault, and other heavy hitters of postwar intellectual history scholarship. Which is to say that these dancemakers were not only embodying ideas, but also enacting them and shaping them. They too were philosophers, grappling with perception and its relationship to knowledge, meaning-making, and power. They too theorized the ideational, but they did so in muscular, skeletal, spatial, and multi-mediated forms. 

The dancemakers investigated many of the same questions as the social theorists: what did it mean to be a free person in postwar America and the world? What kind of liberties could one discover? Where were the limits? What were the ironies and contradictions? How did the past itself matter to these questions? Most of all, how might one truly embody the experience of being a democratic citizen in the context of Pax Americana, with its odd mix of expansive wealth, technological change, imperial hubris, and expanded opportunities yet also oppressive conformities? What were self and society to be in this stormy mix of liberal ideals, radical stirrings, and reactionary counterforces?

As Anna Halprin was already putting it in 1940, when she delivered a lecture at the University of Wisconsin in Madison on “Fundamentals of Modern Dance” after returning disenchanted from studies with the “Big Four” of modern dance (Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Martha Graham): “Dance is like democracy. It is a point of view—a concept.” Halprin was already breaking away from what felt like ossified forms that kept dance from delivering intellectual value alongside, indeed through, physicality. “We do not have a code of movements that is standard step patterns. We do not have a dogmatic system of rules and regulations that sets a dancer as a cog in a machine.” Instead, Halprin pronounced, “The ultimate aim is a perfection of the knowledge of our materials of dance and the nature of man” (63).

Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955-1972

Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955-1972starts with a fresh geographic perspective on the rise of postmodern dance in the United States during the early 1960s. “Rather than presupposing New York City as the point of origin for our discussion of the radical body,” editors Bennahum, Perron, and Robertson argue, “we offer a more fluid perspective that traces the symbiotic exchanges between California and New York” (16). The shift is subtle, but also significant: it flips the flow from cultural center to periphery and reminds us that California was on the rise culturally during the postwar period. Famous East Coast choreographers such as Merce Cunningham traveled out to Halprin’s dance deck in the 1950s and 60s. So too did music composers such as John Cage and La Monte Young. But the most important participants were fellow female dancers such as Forti and Rainer.

To Bennahum, Perron, and Robertson, the bicoastal quality of postmodern dance put in motion (quite literally) a new kind of feminist politics in dance. Halprin, Forti, and Rainer, the editors contend, “centered their political activism within the body as a site of feminist expression” (16). The crux of their radicalism was the “total lack of desire to ‘mold,’ train, or discipline the human body into vision of someone else’s desire.” Instead, these dancemakers put forward a “feminist eradication of virtuosity, a challenge to modernist dance practices and ideologies of the past” (22). They most of all challenged the male gaze in dance. No more Balanchine quipping “Ballet is woman” here. The intense investigation of the very “thingness” of the body grew so laser-focused that it, paradoxically, undermined gender norms. And the rigorous focus on the body, when pulled out of the scripts of ballet and modern dance, could sometimes even suggest potential kinesthetic emancipation from gender categories altogether. As Halprin hoped, “the body moving becomes a dance expression; but it also becomes the self, a performed, opened score of feminist embodiment and will” (74). 

This was exciting work to be doing in postwar America. Building on Halprin’s almost clinical interest in the body (informed by her studies with Margaret D’Houbler at the University of Wisconsin—before she came to California, Halprin was a Midwesterner), these artists insistently stripped away dancing to its essence. “Back then,” Forti herself writes, “making a piece was like brushing away all the sand and debris to reveal one stone” (88). For Rainer, the tactic of paring down older models of dance took on more aggressive qualities: “In the middle of executing a gesture that I feel is overly intimate to my body or too close to what I learn in class—then I fragment it,” Rainer explained early in her career, “break it up or literally throw it away, or try to do it in an exaggerated manner” (135). This became “an idea” Rainer continued, to “try doing this to a classic port de bras…Also find myself in sudden retreats from familiar movement: retreat, attack, retreat, attack—until the ‘stuttering’ creates its own dynamic” (135). Halprin herself would eventually begin to shift her performances to public spaces and wield humor, ritual, and environmental workshops, inviting collaboration and spontaneous experience rather than formally choreographed movement. 

Going right at the male gaze itself, one tactic Halprin, Forti, and Rainer employed was counterintuitive: they turned to displaying the nude body, but in de-sexualized terms. According to Bennahum, Perron, and Robertson in their respective essays, the superficial shock value of this move quickly gave way in their work to a kind of radical feminist act in that it re-situated the female body outside the traditions of ballet and modern dance. Halprin, for intense, had her dancers strip and then put their clothes back on in Parades and Changesnot as a sexual act, but in a kind of neutral, affectless, almost Brechtian enactment of the daily, mundane act of donning and removing clothing. Forti created a video of herself dancing naked as part of her animal studies in the mid-1960s, blurring the line between the human and the non-human through mimetic movement. Rainer developed a duet with Steve Paxton in which, naked, they mirrored each others’ gestures to propose new possibilities for the non-normatively gendered body. As Paxton himself believed, the use of nakedness in physical performance made possible new ideas and concepts. For him, “What I value more is the primal naked mind provoked at first seeing. The 1960s seems to have been particularly rich with such encounters” (50). Nude bodies and “naked minds” went together to offer radical moves both kinesthetically and intellectually.

The important factor in both respects was attention to the ordinary dimensions of “everyday life played out on stage and on the street” (22). Halprin, Forti, and Rainer, along with their compatriots in postmodern dance such as Trisha Brown (who, remember, also spent time on Halprin’s Dance Deck and in Judson Church), asked what could be discovered about the body and its ability to think when pushed toward the vernacular aspects of postwar American existence. For Halprin, this meant striving for a radical body that was ultimately what Bennahum, Perron, and Robertson describe as a “community-activating body.” Her goal was to achieve a democratic convening of common people—individual bodies in the social body. They were brought together through improvisation, workshops, exchanges of movement and ritual, interactions of play, the serious sharing of vulnerabilities and fears, and the pursuit of spiritual awakening. For Forti, by contrast, the radical body was a “pre-cultural body,” pursued through what Bruce Robertson calls, using art historian Michael Fried’s term, a kind of “literalism” similar to the work being done by her collaborators in the visual arts world. Rainer adopted a more critical stance, more analytic in some respects than Halprin’s West Coast hippie style and more confrontational about the problematic dimensions of social power than Forti’s formalism. As Bennahum, Perron, and Robertson put it well, Rainer concentrated on the “rigorously examined cultural body” (54).

Despite their differences, all three artists nonetheless “relied on similar resources: movement and objects picked up from daily life; a sensitivity to the natural workings of the body; and odd juxtapositions unfiltered by conventional narrative” according to the editors of Radical Bodies.In this way, “The radical minds/bodies of Halprin, Forti, and Rainer opened up the body as a site of exploration for artists of every kind” and “contributed to the changes sweeping the country, such as the Free Speech Movement, the sexual revolution, multiculturalism, and the women’s movement.” For Bennahum, Perron, and Robertson, Halprin, Forti, and Rainer “not only ushered in postmodern dance but were active players in the larger social and cultural revolutions of our time” (54). One might even say that they were active players precisely because they delivered exhilarating new ideas through striking new modes of dance.

Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done

One place where the California ideas of Halprin, Forti, and Rainer further emerged was at the Judson Dance Theater. Organized by Rainer, Paxton, and fellow choreographer Ruth Emerson in the summer of 1962 after the 92nd Street YM-YWHA turned them down, Judson Dance Theater came into being at a liberal Baptist institution on the south side of Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park. There, the sacred and secular mingled when choreographers, visual artists, musicians, and others turned the church’s sanctuary into a daring artistic venue, collaborating in breakthroughs of multi-arts performance that positioned new modes of dance at their core. Their work was shaped by Halprin, of course, as well as the circle around Merce Cunningham and John Cage, particularly through a series of workshops held by Robert Ellis Dunn; it also included participation from a wide range of avant-garde artists from the period, including Fluxus, various sculptors such as Robert Morris and Robert Whitman, post-Cage composers, and filmmakers who sought to develop an “expanded cinema.”

Because it was such a deeply collaborative space, Judson was marked by a complex set of intersecting concerns among those who took part in it. Rather than reduce the diversity of performances to a unified symbol, co-curators and editors Ana Janevski and Thomas Lax want to emphasize the complexity itself. “Today the term Judson acts as a stand-in for some of the hallmarks of postmodern dance,” Lax explains. “The use of so-called ordinary movement, those gestures more common to everyday life than dance studios, as well as composition strategies thought to favor spontaneity, such as allowing a situation, an environment, or a dancer’s interpretation of a set of instructions to determine a work’s structure and content.” In fact, they point out, Judson “had neither a unified aesthetic nor a political program, functioning without a designated leader” (15). If anything, Lax contends, Judson’s “story is one of mutual refusal,” a radical act in its way, yet one lacking in grandiose manifestos. As an unsigned press release dryly put it a few months after the first presentation, the goal of Judson was “periodically presenting the work of dancers, composers, and various non-dancers working with ideas related to dance.” Rather than consolidate the perspectives of its participants into one style, Judson did “not so much reflect a single point of view as convey a spirit of inquiry into the nature of new possibilities.” As the influential Village Voice critic Jill Johnston put it succinctly after witnessing the very first evening of performances, Judson offered a “democratic evening of dance” (15).

Despite its quiet diversity—maybe because of it—Lax argues that Judson’s dance performances were influential not only for its artistic innovation, but also for their larger social and intellectual contributions. Janevski points in particular to the feminist dimensions of the Judson Dance Theater in this respect. Drawing on comments from Judson participant Carolee Schneemann, Janevski writes that the project “was effectively a group of women working together, subverting the dominant authority of their male colleagues.” In this way, “Judson’s female protagonists were practicing a form of collective anti patriarchal politics within their personal daily lives” (28). As Lax points out, “Later, in the mid-1960s and 70s, many of these figures would associate themselves with the second-wave feminist” as well as the “anti-Vietnam War, gay and lesbian pride, and Black Power movements.” The activities at Judson, when considered in total, were “aspirational efforts that differently claimed the intimacy of everyday life as a contestable political space, and which are still being struggled our in our time.” For Lax and Janevski, Judson heralded, and indeed shaped, a new kind of political attention to private, ordinary life in the 1960s and into the 1970s. Their ideas, danced in publicly embodied forms, enacted social struggles to come. It’s no wonder we call this kind of art making avant-garde.

Bringing Judson up to contemporary times, Lax writes that “#MeToo and Black Lives Matter, to name just two of today’s most vibrant forms of contemporary political organizing, have demonstrated the ways that collective actions can respond to violations that occur behind closed doors or on the street” (16). To be sure, Judson began merely as “a subset of cultural practices” that “would become formative for an overlapping group of artists,” as Lax explains (16), but over time, it fed a more capacious social movement, one especially concerned with the relationship between personal and political. We sometimes call that movement the New Left, at other times the counterculture, at still other moments by the misleading term of “identity politics” (what politics isn’t identity politics?). Most often in 1960s and 70s America it was a polyglot mix—its own kind of “democratic evening of dance” in the domain of political theater, striving to realize the full potential of American freedom as well as reckon with the legacies of injustice and oppression in the American polity and the world. 

At Judson, the intimate was put on display; yet, often, the public domain proved already to have infiltrated personal domains. Bodies rolled around on newspapers in Elaine Summers’ Daily Wake (Newspaper Dance), 1962 and Carolee Schneeman’s Newspaper Event, 1963, as if the body itself were bathed in the events of the day. Athletic postures from photographs of professional sports informed the dancing bodies in Paxton’s Jag vill gärna telefonera (I Would Like to Make a Phone Call), 1964. Dancers leapt around mattresses in public, blurring the lines between the stage, the gymnasium, and the bedroom (Rainer’s Parts of Some Sextets, 1965, erotic pun of Sextets intended). One could cite many other Judson presentations that also delved deeply into, as Lax puts it, “the fraught question of personal and collective identification that has so fueled the political gestures of subsequent social and artistic movements” (16). 

Judson did many things as it reworked the personal and the political. It troubled the boundaries between art forms considered distinct, mingling sculpture with dance, film and sound with theater, in new admixtures and striking contrasts. It remixed the wild pastoralism of Halprin’s Marin County dance deck with the grit of downtown New York. It brought the profane quite literally into a place of worship, creating what Steve Paxton calls a very different kind of “sanctuary” for new works. 

As Adrian Heathfield, Danielle Goldman, Benjamin Piekut, Kristin Poor, Julia Robinson, Gloria Sutton, and Malik Gaines all suggest in one way or another in their essays in Lax and Janevski’s book, it was most of all relational, continually calling into being what Gaines describes as “the unguarded sociality of the work, an exquisite production of being together” (61). This democratic risk-taking is what makes Judson matter as intellectual history in physicalized form. Its practitioners made inquiries into ideas, affective states, emotions, and somatic interactions through performance; they investigated problems through improvisatory tasks or environments; they attempted to enact ideas of freedom and confront issues of constraint. As essayist Julia Robinson puts it, they left behind not just “snapshots” of an era, but actual “physical things” that continue to provoke contemplation, that continue to move.

You Get the Idea

Radical Bodies and Judson Dance Theaterraise a final relevant to intellectual history: how do we consider the ephemerality of the past? As Lax and Janevski note, in creating a museum gallery show about Judson, they “were confronted with how to build an exhibition when the very subject of this exhibition exists only in traces that are necessarily mediated or translated into other forms, including films, photographs, scores, and oral histories.” They had to “acknowledge the intimate connection between the artist and the manifestation of the work, when it resides initially, if momentarily, within the body of its maker” (29). You can’t go back again, at least not directly. Historians know this well. 

But if the mind is a muscle, then the past might be understood as a skeleton. The flesh is gone, but the bones are still good for understanding the forms, moments, and movements gone by. The historical essays as well as the photographs, notebook pages, scores, and other archival sources richly documented in the two books mean that while we can’t go back again to the dancing bodies themselves, we can still activate the meanings left in their wake. As with intellectual history writ large, so too postmodern dance: from what remains, you can get the idea.

There are too many works of scholarship to mention by name, but since it pertains to the topic at hand, one might begin with Sally Banes, Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987). A recent study of great value is Danielle Goldman, I Want to Be Ready Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013). Also worth investigating is the scholarship of Susan Leigh Foster, Susan Manning, Janice Ross, André Lepecki, and Thomas DeFrantz, among many others. In art history, recent works include Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Practicing Trio A,” October140 (May 1, 2012): 54–74 and “Simone Forti Goes to the Zoo,” October152 (May 1, 2015): 26–52;  Carrie Lambert-Beatty, Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011); Meredith Morse, Soft Is Fast: Simone Forti in the 1960s and After(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016); Amanda Jane Graham, “Out of Site: Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece,” Dance Chronicle36, 1 (January 2013): 59–76; and Elise Archias, The Concrete Body: Yvonne Rainer, Carolee Schneemann, Vito Acconci (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016). These just scratch the surface of the vibrant scholarship in these intellectual history-adjacent disciplines.

One notable exception is Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (New York: Random House, 2010), which uses the history of ballet as a window on broader issues in European intellectual history.

Robert Rauschenberg “Statement,” Sixteen Americans, ed. Dorothy C. Miller (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1959), 58.

Paxton quoted in the narration to the film Contact Improvisation at John Weber Gallery, New York City, 1982,

Banes, Democracy’s Body: Judson Dance Theater, 1962-1964 (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, 1983).

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