Redefining Innovation

The Avant-Garde Takes Center Stage

Once, people knew what constituted an avant-garde in the arts, and when they had one. It was Saint-Simon who, in the 1820s, first envisioned artists as an advance force, scouting out a harmonious new society and trumpeting news of it to the troops resting comfortably behind the lines. In the years surrounding World War I, Dadaists, Futurists, and Surrealists were less concerned with social change than with storming the barricades that divided life from art, jolting the academy, and shocking the bourgeoisie.

Dance became part of a vital avant-garde in 1960s America. The members of Judson Dance Theater weren't bent on destroying modern dance tradition (Martha Graham, José Limón, et al.); they simply wanted to stake out new territory. (There is, as Michael Kirby once pointed out, an implied directionality in the concept of an avant-garde.)

Inevitably, an avant-garde influences the mainstream and itself becomes history. This fall, Mikhail Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project begins to tour PastForward, a program subtitled The Influence of the Post-Moderns. Does anyone not find this startling? One of the century's greatest ballet stars presents and performs new commissioned work and old rebel-classics by Judson royalty: Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Simone Forti, David Gordon, Deborah Hay, Yvonne Rainer, and Steve Paxton. Reports from an August performance at Princeton's McCarter Theater indicate that, while some spectators walk out, are bored, or don't "get it"—a danger now that the original context of rebellion no longer exists—the bulk of the audience is entertained, and often riveted.

Steve Paxton with chickens, live and fried, in Robert Rauschenberg’s Linoleum (1968)
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
Steve Paxton with chickens, live and fried, in Robert Rauschenberg’s Linoleum (1968)

We don't have a raucous avant-garde today. Earlier this summer, I sat down with Paxton, then with Brown, to hash over the matter. As Paxton says, "You've got to have contrast to see anything. I strongly feel that's one reason for the avant-garde; it lets you see what the center is." But these days the division between that "center" and the fringe is more porous. If, indeed, we can determine a center. Once, shocking audiences was a political strategy, considered to be a way of waking them up (e.g., Yvonne Rainer's 1970 Flag Day piece, with its nude dancers wearing American flags as bibs; erotic display was in another galaxy). Now, on some fronts, breaking taboos is more likely to afford sensual pleasure in the name of verisimilitude (Nicole Kidman on Broadway in the buff). Too, audiences aren't easily shocked. Even The New York Times can link the words "tasteful" and "urination" (Jack Anderson reviewing a concert at the Kitchen by Jennifer Lacey and Erin Cornell). John Jasperse's rhythmic dance of genitals and breasts (Excessories)—witty, taboo-challenging, and conceptually provocative—has received rave notices here and abroad.

The radical discoveries of the '60s have assumed spectacular and theatrical guises. In 1969, when Trisha Brown set a man walking down the side of a building, the deceptively simple act generated a shift in visual perspective, redefined a public site with an anomalous event, and posed an unspoken query, "Is this art, and if not, why not?" When dancers in Elizabeth Streb's highly original work dive onto trampolines, tasks mutate into heroic, pulse-quickening spectacle; and hers is not the only company to play against gravity. Contact improvisation, the "art sport" invented by Paxton in the early '70s, has become a tool for highly emotional, often violent partnering. Liz Lermann incorporates nondancers or atypical ones into a dance, and the result is a polished and inspirational image of the family of man.

Collage and unlikely juxtapositions, strategies of the '60s, inform recent work by Irene Hultman, Koosil-ja Hwang, David Neumann, Sally Silvers, and others. When they assemble contrasting "texts"—drawn, say, from history and/or popular culture—in insightful, offbeat, and personal ways, it's to intensify significance rather than to query it. Brown spoke admiringly of Ann Carlson's dances with live animals a few years ago as not "so much the taking apart of something as a perilous tangent all her own."

Brown recalls Simone Forti reading a poem in Robert Dunn's seminal 1960s composition course and announcing that it was a dance. "And then she and Bob Dunn duked it out for the rest of the class." Certain climates foster experiment with movement and form; one of today's battles is to win an audience. Judson Dance Theater emerged at a time (1962) when political and social revolutions were sparking the arts and vice versa, when collegiality among like-minded artists in all fields and low New York rents encouraged creative fooling around. Brown, with a rent of $15 a month, could support herself on flexible part-time work as a typist; she had time to ponder, invent, and dare. It was possible to rent a studio for $1 an hour; you could even live in one—able to roll right out of bed and into rehearsal.

Both Brown and Paxton refer to innovative work being done in improvisation. Actually, Brown brings up Paxton, who spent years single-mindedly presenting profound and mesmerizing improvisations to Glenn Gould playing Bach's Goldberg Variations and then moved on to the English Suites: "He has never settled into a system. . . . He's a master who continues to put himself into the unknown." Paxton thinks that improvisers have reached a new level of heightened sensitivity over the last three years in Europe, citing in particular David Zambrano, Franz Poelstra, Vera Mantero, Boris Charmatz, and Katie Duck. He likens the work to that of a good jazz group—almost as if the performers have 360-degree awareness and empathy: "A high sociability has come to it. . . . You feel like you're feeling and thinking and perceiving faster. Now, that's a kind of avant-garde."

Merce Cunningham, it's agreed, is still moving into new territory via computer-generated images, having tampered with Western expectations of time, space, and causality for about 50 years. Brown: "He's our hero." Paxton: "He just insisted that everybody come along with him. And you couldn't ignore him. He was too good. It was too brilliant. It was too well-put. It would raise the hair on the back of your neck even if you didn't have the vaguest ideas of what was happening. . . . And, yes, he made us see things in a different way. And I think he still does that."

Paxton makes the point that increased travel opportunities have changed our mind-sets. How can plotted unfamiliarity "compete against an all-night Zuni ceremony or an all-night Balinese temple performance? . . . I think we're beginning to understand that the idea of taking off your clothes and dancing doesn't cut it anymore. The stakes have been raised enormously by our information." I'm reminded of spectators at an enthralling hours-long Javanese shadow-puppet play at Jacob's Pillow some summers ago. They came prepared—eager—for the unfamiliarity, the occasional tedium, the discomfort, "which," Paxton interjects deadpan, "the avant-garde used to provide."

Onetime hell-raisers Brown and Paxton continue to evolve, while Baryshnikov dances Paxton's 1964 Flat, or maybe Brown's 1965 Homemade, from Anchorage to Chicago to Paris—asserting the lineage of today's postmodern choreography. The strategies that Brown brings to directing opera (Monteverdi's Orfeo) and to choreographing with David Douglas's jazz score (Rapture for Leon James) are dazzling offspring of the structural and philosophical complexities that guided her early work, even though the nature of the quest changes. "I know the stage. I know my mind reach," says Brown. "I know the people that I'm working with, and know how to—not be avant-garde—but how to create havoc and straighten it out and undermine and reconstruct and all that. . . . One could go on into the sunset, and then that question comes up: 'Well, why are you doing this if you know how to do it very well? If it's not for the money, why are you doing it?' And it's really to communicate, it's really the wish to express ineffable subjects."

Paxton says he never needed to think of himself as avant-garde; he slipped into a time, place, and bunch of empathetic colleagues. "I don't think I've ever changed whatever it was that happened to me in that first five years, [although] I've had a lot of other kinds of changes." His love for Bach's music endures, "but the connection is well-established. It is now an old marriage and I have the seven-year itch and am feeling a little promiscuous these days, listening to anything, kind of looking for a new mate.

"Maybe the avant-garde is the people who are not naturally self-imprisoning," muses Paxton, "and who are inviting the rest of us out from our own confinement." If vanguardists are scouts, he wonders, what intelligence are they bringing back? "Maybe it depends on what the society needs, where its perimeters have been drawn. And people would bring back information from beyond that."

At the beginning of the millennium, iconoclasm and perilous missions are not in the air. Reviving '60s vanguard work for a general public transforms it into a theatrical event. Communication is a priority, and, right now, alienating audiences—a side effect an avant-garde often endures—just doesn't seem to make sense.

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