Theater archives

Time Trip with Douglas Dunn & Dancers


Douglas Dunn is standing in the corner of a white structure the size of an old-time, low-rent New York City bathroom. It’s mostly corner (two right-angled white walls and a floor). He’s facing into that corner, his feet carefully pigeon-toed to line up with the walls. Brightly lit by Amanda Ringger, he’s wearing all-black; that includes mitts, shoes, and a hood. Time passes. After a while, he lowers himself slowly and lies on the “floor.” Some more time passes. Welcome to the 70s. This solo of Dunn’s, included in his elegant retrospective collage, Nothing Further, dates from the decade during which he first presented his work in New York (1971)— while still dancing with Merce Cunningham’s company—and formed his own group (1976). The two weeks in which he offered film and video, talks, performances, a gallery exhibit, and a workshop at DNA honor that fertile decade and mark over 30 years of his company’s history.

This being 2007 and our attention spans not what they once were, Dunn cleverly layers and overlaps the excerpts from his works. He’s still, at a snail’s pace, composing himself into various positions in relation to his little white room, when two lithe younger men (Christopher Williams and Paul Singh) start gravely executing a series of remarkable moves that Dunn and David Woodberry (a contact improvisation pro) created and performed in a 1975 duet, Part I Part II. At one point, Williams leapfrogs over Singh’s head while the latter is standing erect! They’re lying peacefully on the floor in the remains of a headlock when Beau Hancock wraps padded straps around his ankles, attaches himself to a block and tackle hanging onstage, and pulls himself slowly topsy-turvy (from One Thing Leads to Another, a 1971 duet by Dunn and Sara Rudner).

I’m happy as a clam watching all this (has anyone determined whether clams are happy?). It’s easy for me to get sentimental about the seventies. For one thing, I came of age artistically speaking. during that decade (coincidentally, Dunn’s performances began on November 8, the exact date in 1967 when my first two reviews were published in this paper). But—as Dunn pointed out in a public conversation that he, filmmaker Charles Atlas (a longtime collaborator), and I had before one of the shows—downtown New York in the 70s was an exciting place in which to make and see dancing. Rents were low. Artists could live (maybe illegally), create work, and give performances in their own spaces. Dunn remembers that often you’d meet someone on the street who’d tell you so-and-so was showing something at his place that night, and you’d mosey on over if interested. No reservations or high ticket prices.

Anyone thinking it might be boring to watch a man arrange himself in relation to a corner should have seen Dunn’s 1974 “performance exhibit,” 101. For four hours almost every afternoon in April and May, he lay motionless atop a wooden maze he’d built; it almost filled his loft. You followed the signs, let yourself into the unlocked space, put some money in a paper bag if you felt like it, and tried to find him. Maybe you just sat there and thought—as he perhaps hoped you would (and as he was doing)—about what performing and being on display really meant.

Before I forget: Those were also the glory days when the National Endowment for the Arts began to give individual grants to choreographers.

Well before the 70s, those intrepid folks who’d been part of Judson Dance Theater in the early 60s, and others who, like Dunn, began to make work a few years later, became involved with devising new systems to structure and/or generate dancing. Trisha Brown’s “accumulations” are an obvious example. I’m absurdly thrilled when Dunn tells the audience in a Q & A that his barely moving corner piece has a rigorous structure; he was neither improvising nor changing positions at whim. Between his opening stance and his next position, he took 20 breaths, 19 between that and the following one, and so on, with some kind of extra second if he had to spread his legs to complete the pose.

I’ve followed Dunn’s work for a long time, admiring his inventiveness, his intelligence, his daring, and his wit. He’s a magnificent maverick, whether he’s performing in a humble venue or creating Pulcinella for the Paris Opera Ballet, as he did back in 1980. Nothing Further elegantly conveys the range of his imagination and craft. The first half of the program contains only a small component of high-energy dancing; the second is a reconstruction of Coquina (1979), in which Liz Filbrun, Jean Freebury, Hancock, Singh, and Williams, wearing brilliantly colored costumes by Atlas, whip through brainy and dazzling patterns.

Dunn himself no longer appears in Coquina, but he shows, in a dancy excerpt from one early solo, what a fluent, complex, eccentric mover he still is. His appearances in the collage are wonderfully nutty without being in the least silly. In one event, maybe from his first solo concert (1973), he places a chair, lays out sheets of newspaper in front of it, stands beside the chair for a few immobile minutes, and then steps vehemently onto the paper, scrunching some up with his feet and hastily stuffing it under his shirt. He alternates this with vaulting onto the chair and waving, his belly bigger each time. Meanwhile, behind him, in an excerpt from a 1972 collaboration between Dunn and David Gordon, Filbrun and Freebury keep meeting, exchanging little non sequitur gestures—everyday ones perverted or curiously combined—and backing away to come at each other again (the women later continue these highly entertaining exchanges in the foreground). The many overlapping vignettes include Dunn setting an alarm clock, repositioning a chair, aiming a pistol at it, slowly walking over to sit, and, when the alarm goes off, running back to his original place and shooting at the chair. Bang! Cause and effect fly into smithereens.

There was a time, as I remember, when Dunn was investigating ideas that stemmed in part from the embarrassment often involved in public performing; the task was not to fulfill any gestures or facial expressions. Suddenly, the black screen behind which he’s been making costume changes falls silently (a magical moment), and he walks forward, his face contorting with fleeting half-images of pleasure, pride, shyness, discomfort, and myriad others. Behind him, seated on chairs, or standing, Filbrun, Freebury, Singh, and Williams begin Four for Nothing (1974), a group version of his uneasy solo, with uncompleted or indecisive movements. As he explains, their task in one passage where they stand bent-kneed, their forearms resting on their thighs is to decide how to maintain the position (i.e. keep their arms from slipping off). Do they make the necessary adjustments with their backs or with their arms?

Coquina is set to a score by Robert Ashley that’s structured for quiet keyboard and his own voice reading an enigmatic text three times—softly, louder, and then somewhat flippantly. I think it’s about population and the environment, but I couldn’t swear to that (I scribble sentences like “The idea of feeding the people is something we have to live with” and “A porous bank is no bank at all” and “It is the flow, not the water.”). In the meantime, the five vividly clad dancers perform three bouts of wonderful dancing in Charles Atlas’s lighting (based on Patrick O’Rourke’s 1979 design). They retire to take off articles of clothing during the interludes when serene photos of the ocean refresh our eyes.

Coquina means ground-up shells. Although Dunn didn’t know this when he titled the piece, it fits perfectly. He mentioned that constructing the work involved collecting 152 pages of pictures (mostly of athletes or fashion models) and fashioning the captured poses into dancing. That accounts for the sexy odalisque images and similar ones that occasionally rise from the energetic, variegated patterns. The performers make the most complicated and difficult movements look like interesting tasks they’re striving to master rather than showpieces.

On the way into the theater and out of it, people can pause to watch a dual-screen video work that Atlas made of Dunn dancing in the early 80s. Lean and nimble, dressed in red against a red background, he exhibits a provocative blend of the articulate legwork that made him such a valuable Cunningham dancer and the askew wildness that often presents him (like Cunningham himself) as the wise madman, the holy fool.

Atlas, Dunn, and I reminisced in front of a changing array of randomly ordered slides—many of them showing works by still-famous artists like Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer, and others of works by people whose names are less well known to the present generation, or who have fallen away from dance or life. Remember Kei Takei, William Dunas, Kenneth King, Viola Farber, Laura Dean, and all those who helped shaped the present?

Here’s something Dunn wrote in 1997: “Dancing I have no idea keep going something happens headline leg-horns arms-deals eye-cons don’t fall back on steps you know go stub stutter flow stay inspired quit the past quote the moment. . . .” The 70s are over, but let’s not forget what that generation of dancemakers taught us about venturesome imagination, artistic integrity and the willpower to avoid compromises.

This week, Deborah Jowitt celebrates 40 years of writing for the Voice.