Arts Review

A Momentary Communion

Nothing like its absence to throw into high relief how personally important working with dancers is. For better or worse, what is it if not the bedrock of every day’s meaning. Other activities also compel: phone calls to friends and family, eating, working out, cleaning, reading, rearranging objects, paying bills, addressing the past, being grateful for what’s given beyond what’s earned, parrying impotent ambitions to improve local, international, and planetary woes, walking, admiring clear and cloudy skies, etc. But when these opportunities are all there is, confusion reigns. The center wobbles. Focus fragments. Urges to act cascade into What for and Who cares. Dancing is a magnet drawing all other doings into a charged vortex of value; is rivulets of weakness collected into a reservoir of minimal but adequate confidence; is a tree growing its rightful place in the infinite forest; is an arrow of love aimed to establish momentary communion with living beings.
—Douglas Dunn

One of dance’s basic attractions is being in the studio every day with the same people. Douglas Dunn, writing from the depths of lockdown, discerns that it isn’t only the practice class—the perfecting of a finite lexicon of moves—but the discovery of new moves that he misses so much. A kind of ultimate but temporary making of community, improvisation is at the heart of choreography. Trial and error, experimenting with moves and how they can go together, is the way many dances get made. Sometimes the leader calls the moves; sometimes a starting move is given and the dancers work individually to develop it. The moves get put together, changed, adjusted, put together again, an order established, an arrangement in space. Under a leader or a collective decision, when people come together in a common act with a common intention, the moment is like utopia. And like utopia, it isn’t sustainable. Once the process is fixed and readied for performance, it becomes something else. Much of the 100-year history of modern dance comes from attempts to preserve communal discovery, so it can be shared with an audience. In the 1960s, experimental collectives like the Judson Dance Theater and the Grand Union sought to invest performance itself with improvisational vitality and the look of everyday spontaneity.

Douglas Dunn has navigated the phases of this history. Initially attracted to writing and art history, he began dance classes in college, sampled the New York studios, then joined Merce Cunningham’s company. Before he left Cunningham, he was also performing with the improvisational group the Grand Union. He started making dances in 1971 and formed a company of his own five years later. Cunningham dance technique, the ideas of John Cage, the practice of improvisation, and the liberal arts resources of a Princeton education have informed his work ever since. Besides that, Dunn is a decidedly original mind and an inimitable mover. I’ve been watching his work since his bare-bones pieces in the early ’70s. He once wrote me a note after a review of one of these, allowing that he hadn’t known what he was getting at until he read what I’d seen in it. Now, every once in a while I get a publication or a video from him, always unusual, beautifully designed, and signed by him.

One of the recent arrivals was Corner, an intriguing book derived from Dunn’s early dance of the same name.[1] Corner Piece was made in 1973, when Dunn was exploring such basics as weight, time, and transitions. Standing on a white square in the angle between two white flats, he took and held 18 positions to fit the background. The positions were angular, offbeat, tough to maintain. The moves in between were slow and uninflected. He was timing the changes of pose to his own breath, starting with 20 deep breaths and reducing the interval until he came off the platform and was standing flat up to the audience. I don’t think I saw the piece originally, but he included part of it in an extraordinary performance at the Styrian Autumn festival in Graz, Austria, in 1976. Dunn had announced a solo dance he’d been working on, Gestures in Red, but at the last moment he scrapped his plan and improvised the whole show, incorporating whatever he found in the space. I’d served as an unofficial advisor to Gerhard Brunner, the director of the festival, who was looking for avant-garde Americans to present. Dunn was one of those I recommended. (I reviewed the performance in Graz for Austrian Radio, published the text in the SoHo Weekly News, and reprinted it in my collection The Tail of the Dragon.)

With essays by Dunn and artist Brice Brown, and a technical explanation by designers Gibson + Recoder, the oversize Corner book features a series of photographs by Paula Court, taken when Dunn revived the dance in 2018. As you open the book, Dunn stands, pigeon-toed, facing into the corner. On each of successive right-hand pages, he’s taken another pose. All the left-hand pages contain four stills of his body as he squats, twists, stoops, kneels, leans, presses, curls up, hunches, rolls, unfolds from one pose to the next.

The first 20-breath pose took about two minutes, the whole piece nearly half an hour. Maybe it wasn’t even a dance. But looking at someone standing still could be interesting, revealing, even moving. Tedious as it sounds now, Corner Piece invoked the countercultural admonition to be aware of our surroundings, to meditate on the moment. A year later Dunn made Exhibit 101, in which he lay unmoving in a wooden structure that filled his loft, four hours a day, for seven weeks. In a film made around the same time, Charles Atlas aimed his camera at a lectern with a plate of strawberries and gave Dunn no instructions. Leaning against the lectern, Dunn improvised a series of poses that became more hilarious and/or tragic as three minutes dragged on. In the same vein, Atlas made Artist, with Dunn in the same fix, wearing Rembrandt-ish clothes and leaning on the same lectern, improvising an encounter with the same plate of uneaten strawberries. Then, I remember another dance, in which Dunn sat and leaned on his thighs until the weight of his arms pulled him off balance. Who was this character, and how did he get stuck? What was going on in his mind?

Corner proposes the same questions. A looming figure, hardly human underneath the puffy black sweats, hood, socks, and mittens, an unlikely shape with only vestigial hands and feet. Sometimes a face poked out of the hood, sometimes legs were sprung apart up against the walls. Sometimes the figure upended itself in a headstand, supported by the converging corner. It could shape itself into letters, signs. After a time, the face had a mouth, and the mouth stretched into a howl. At the last it walked off the platform. On the page its body covers the camera’s lens, so the frame goes black. Mentally, you could slide the pictures together and make a dance, but Dunn probably wanted the reader to stay with the poses for a long time, as he did in the performance.

The photo sequence is followed by Dunn’s essay, a summary of the years around his making of Corner Piece, which was to begin the larger work Time Out, with his reflections on reviving it in 2018. His paragraphs switch back and forth from the impersonal third person to the confessional first—not unlike his dancing, especially in Corner, where he both conceals and reveals himself. When he was making Time Out, Dunn wanted to “emphasize the artificiality of delivering the body as art.” With the Corner Piece, he detached his work from the room—the Exchange Theater in Westbeth’s artist building, the home, not incidentally, of Merce Cunningham’s studio—and he relates several possible meanings of the evening’s timely title.

The desire to submerge one’s ego by artistic dissembling characterizes the work of Merce Cunningham and John Cage, who used chance procedures to substitute for individual preference in making dances and music. Personal distancing was also embraced by Yvonne Rainer, who headed the Grand Union. Inner Appearances (1972), one of Rainer’s pieces just after she left the Grand Union and just before she turned to filmmaking, was shown at the Theater for the New City, a few blocks from Westbeth. Rainer also used wordplay and physical puns to deflect the possibility of personal revelation. Today, the pervasive overlapping of ideas among avant-garde artists would be contested as intrusions on property-rights territory, but in the ’70s, everyone Downtown was poor. Everyone shared ideas and contributed to their friends’ work. Later they’d take a piece of this shared territory and make off with it into their own spaces.

Following Dunn’s essay, Brice Brown writes about Paula Court’s photos and three other documents from the 2018 revival. He reports the images that came to his mind. First, there was the live performance, with no sound in the room except “Dunn’s body slowly scraping through the poses” and the audience’s restless shifting in its seats. A projected screening of Gibson + Recoder’s film made Brown retrieve his own tainted memory of the performance, with Dunn as a puppet “traversing that thinly veiled gap between life and death.” Court’s photographs in their flat framing made him see the dance as a string of shapes, “ a kind of austere graphic design.” When the Gibson + Recoder film was arrested in stills, he found the body became palpable, animalistic, even erotic.

After Brown’s essay, you find two golden pages. Then the whole book turns upside down. There’s one grayish page with a faint slash like a meteor streaking down one side. Then Dunn’s indistinct figure lies on its side at the bottom of a cream-colored left-hand page. Across from that the figure kneels, with darkness drifting above it. This dark cloud hangs over and around the edges of the next pages, sinking and rising like a fog bank but never completely closing in. On the last page, the figure kneels on one knee, not quite enveloped in the fog. Overleaf, the fog has lifted, and the figure has disappeared. The page is light, and the meteor is close enough to cover half the page.

After this ghostly graphic, you find Gibson + Recoder’s practical explanation of how they filmed the dance: what kind of camera, film, lighting, speed, and how they achieved the prints. Then Brice Brown’s essay is repeated. A writer himself, though skeptical of interpretation, Dunn must have approved Brown’s impressions of what he saw, as well as Gibson + Recoder’s recasting of the dance into these oversized photographs. So many of Dunn’s dances are made around stop-action moves, and every eccentric shape suggests a character. In fact, I can hardly think of Dunn dancing when he isn’t being a character. He may start out with proper form, aligning himself according to classroom standards, but without warning he’ll tilt off center or quirk his arms backward. He’ll interrupt the headlong rush of a movement to freeze in a wayward shape, or explode out of a seemingly permanent stillness. Resting without a sign of uneasiness, he’s suddenly confronting an embarrassment of tempting choices. He’s fond of stiff-legged walks and turns. Tall and cool, he moves slowly through the group of busy dancers.

I can describe this in the present tense because so much of Dunn’s work was recorded and can be seen on film or video. We can revisit his long career even if it’s only by way of a fuzzy black and white movie taken from the back of a loft or a long view from the last row of an opera house. Though many of his dances were made for the stage, he’s often employed the cliché gambit “site specific.”

In 1991 photographer and filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt made Rubble Dance with Dunn and company in a derelict factory yard in Queens. Dunn, Grazia Della-Terza and four other dancers are at play against backdrops of graffiti-strewn buildings, railroad tracks, parked trucks, and the Manhattan skyline. For 15 minutes, filming over three days, they inhabit this urban scene with no other people in view except the occasional cameraman, and passing cars, boats, commuter trains. It looks like hard work; sometimes they seem to be having fun. Their movement is simple—everyday but dancerly, with lots of turning, arm gestures, lunges in contrary directions, and follow-the-leader challenges. We hear atonal piano music, a Latin band. In the last part of the film Dunn solos feverishly, then he duets slowly with Della-Terza. They mirror each other, but not exactly. On the soundtrack, we hear Bach harpsichord music. While Dunn is alone for a moment, Della-Terza sneaks into the frame, snatches his cap, tosses it away, and runs off. These last scenes are a kind of coda, and they reveal sides of the two dancers that we haven’t seen. Later on that summer, Rubble Dance was done at the Bates College Dance Festival, accompanied by the Soviet Army Band and Chorus. Recorded, I assume.

Adaptable as a lizard, Dunn has set his dances in unusual spaces, recycled their parts for new uses, even cast them for diverse dancers. He’s kept his dance company alive for decades by touring and commissions. He’s used periods in residence at colleges and universities to make new work, often for students he finds there. In 2019, in residence at University of North Carolina School of the Arts to set his 1980 theater dance Pulcinella on students, he omitted sections to fit the timing of a scheduled four-dance evening. He notes in his chronology that when it followed George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco in the performance, it was taken as “a dance gone crazy” and interpreted as a critique of classical ballet.

At times a dance could be no more than gestural preferences. Inclinations (2019), made for Manhattan stairways, had five company women in white shorts and T-shirts surrounded by the civilian population. The five performances took place in some of the city’s most prominent streetscapes. In a five-minute video taken on the Fifth Avenue steps of the New York Public Library, the women casually went from one odd pose to another. The surrounding population either ignored them or gazed with mild curiosity. Improvisation served as a useful device when he worked with strangers, especially during brief residencies. For the first of two visits to Repertory Dance Theater in Salt Lake City (1978), he made Relief for members of a summer workshop. The improvised performance came with his note advising the audience to take responsibility for finding their own paths through what might seem disorderly and unfocused. Then, for RDT’s fiftieth anniversary celebration in 2020, he set a quartet from Peepstone, which RDT had commissioned in 1987. The plan was to use one of the dance’s 16 quartets. Originally set for four men, the piece would also be performed by four company women. Confined to New York because of the pandemic, Dunn delegated RDT artistic director Linda C. Smith, who’d danced in the premiere, to teach it.

Dunn, at almost 80, keeps on performing. As did Merce Cunningham, he finds ways to be on stage, to belong to the action of the other dancers without joining them. So in Crag, a piece for 10 dancers that he made in 2019 for a celebration of Cunningham’s centenary, he and Grazia Della-Terza patrol the action wielding bamboo poles. The poles don’t have any real purpose, but they’re carried like spears, laid on the floor beside the partners, stacked like the bones of a teepee. The other dancers seem neither daunted nor awed by this display. He often appears in outlandish costumes, many designed by artist Mimi Gross. The bulbous shapes and elaborate decorations of these fantasy creations distinguish Dunn from the other dancers and disguise his aging body. At the end of October 2020, Dunn did another film of poses, this time in what could be the kitchen in his loft, En Dehors. To a recorded theme by the seventeenth-century lutenist Jacques Gallot, Dunn takes a series of poses, with transitions erased by camera cuts. After the first verse of the music, the camera stays on the narrow background of wooden walls and doors. Dunn then returns to repeat the poses. With each phrase in the music, he materializes in a different costume and a different character. An amazing three and a half minutes.

Alongside all his fictional characters, Dunn has never stopped exploring his own persona, mostly in his writing. Besides Corner, he’s published another substantial book. Dancer Out of Sight (2012), with his collected writings and drawings by Mimi Gross, goes from word-poems to interviews imaginary and real, tributes to other writers to travel notes. Every page contains provocation, insight into his generous and introspective mind, and stimulation for my own writing. He’s used his writing to explore and reveal his own motivations. Added together, they form a kind of autobiography too. You wouldn’t think this of such an elusive stage persona.

Recently he sent me ten pages of stories about his growing up, with a page of old photographs, and dedicated it to his sister, Susan Dunn. Happy memories, and sometimes bitter ones. I have several pages he must have sent me, and I must have printed out, entitled “Some of what he said to me, and didn’t say 1968–73.” Influenced by John Cage’s enigmatic stories, Dunn combines anecdotes and remarks from his days studying and dancing with Cunningham. I also find a postcard advertising the company, a lineup of dancers in front of an institutional modern building. Printed on the other side are 14 sentences. The first: “I dance to obliterate duration.” The last: “I dance to forget why I dance.”
[1] MAB Books, Milton, PA, 2019.