Lutèce Diaries goes back to school, Secret Origins: Machine Politics comes to Princeton or, the Supreme Court Justice, the Governor, and me

One might deduce — it’s been too long for me to recall all the circumstances — that one of the reasons I left Princeton at the end of Freshman year is that I spent too much time muckraking for the Nassau Weekly, the nascent alternative student rag of which I was the founding managing editor. The following article, re-published today for the first time in 43 years, first appeared in Nassau on April 18, 1980, before I legally changed my last name from Winer to Ben-Itzak. It was edited by Alexander Wolff, himself already a published author and a contributor to Sports Illusrated, and has been slightly modified. The first paragraph below reproduces the story’s cover teaser. “USG” was the Undergraduate Student Government, the “Prince” the Daily Princetonian, and Cloister a non-selective eating club, eating clubs being the Princeton variation on fraternities, invented by university president Woodrow Wilson before he went on to float a much less viable idea, the Versailles Treaty. The addresses referred to in the second paragraph are those of Cloister, the Prince, and the USG. The “proctors” are the campus police. The reader is asked to keep in mind that the protagonists, like the reporter, were between 18 and 21 years old at the time the interviews took place and the article was written. As a Princetonian, I am proud of the bulwark to Democracy Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan became and the crusading New York State attorney general that Eliot Spitzer went on to be. I was also delighted to encounter Andy Ilves again in the early ’90s when he was a mayoral aide walking the picket line with employees of the San Francisco Chronicle, a story I was covering for Reuters. And I feel priveleged and honored to have been able to exchange with all of them when we were all finding our sea legs. — PB-I

The USG’s Prince-Cloister Connection: Clioster was where they ate. Steve Bernstein, Stu Mieher, Elena Kagan and Dave Hardison; John Frank and Eliot Spitzer: the big names on the Prince managing board and in the USG. The office of USG chairman was up for grabs, and Frank was the candidate.

By Paul Winer
Copyright 1980 the Nassau Weekly & 2023 Paul Ivan Winer Ben-Itzak

“If you’re looking for grand conspiracies between the Prince and the USG, you won’t find any, because there aren’t any.”

— Steve Bernstein, chairman of the Daily Princetonian

Could Princeton’s own Tammany Hall be at 65 Prospect Avenue? 48 University Place? One Chancellor Green? Or all three? A Nassau investigation has revealed that the new Daily Princetonian managing board and certain leaders of the Undergraduate Student Government do form an establishment of sorts. While this machine will admit to no “grand conspiracies,” several of its products portend ominous times for the future of judicious student government and journalism at Princeton. Consider:

*Prince managing editor Harmon Grossman doesn’t want his reporters talking to Nassau, but I found two reporters who gave me the inside story on the Prince‘s conduct in the March election for USG chairman.

*USG vice chairman Brad Smith claims that the USG doesn’t keep candidates’ spending reports, but he insists that I surrender over a dozen spending reports from past years which I have seen — but don’t have.

*In an election-day letter to the *Prince*, Greg Waddell charged chairman candidate Andy Ilves with tearing down one of opponent John Frank’s campaign posters. Frank later appointed Waddell and Fran Palmieri, who also claims to have seen the act, to paid positions in the USG.

*Although former USG Chairman Eliot Spitzer wouldn’t talk to Nassau for an article we did relating to the chairman election, he later claimed to have contemplated suing us for the story.

*Although seven members of the *Prince* managing board, including Bernstein and editorial chief Elena Kagan, are in the same eating club — Cloister — as John Frank, and five are in the Woodrow Wilson School with him, Kagan insists, “I don’t think that any of the people in this office could really be termed friendly with (Frank) to the extent that it might affect anything.”

*For the first time in anyone’s memory, the 104-year-old *Prince* endorsed a candidate for student government’s most powerful post. Needless to say, it was not Andy Ilves; when Ilves called Bernstein early on the morning of the Frank endorsement editorial to protest such a radical departure from precedent, the annoyed Prince chairman called the proctors.

“I never understood why we can go five days without mentioning Nassau, and you can’t seem to go a week without mentioning us,” Steve Bernstein quipped as I set up my tape recorder.

“The Prince influences campus life,” I answered. For that reason, this story starts in the chairman’s office.

“Was the Prince endorsement of John Frank,” I asked, referring to a March 3rd editorial, “influenced by Frank’s eating in the same club as you and seven other members of the managing board?”

“No. The endorsement didn’t run for reasons of personal likings…. By examining the respective candidates’ stated positions on various issues, we decided that John was the best person for the job.”

“Which came first, the decision to endorse a candidate or the decision that Frank merited the endorsement?”

“We first decided that we’d like to do an endorsement.”

“Is it true that by doing so the Prince broke a 104-year tradition of not endorsing student government candidates?”

“I don’t know. It’s the first time in recent years.”

“So why did you break [with] recent tradition?”

“Every managing board determines its own policy, including editorial policy.”

“What was unique to this year?”

“Oh, it didn’t have anything to do with who was running this year. It’s just that we decided that there was no reason we shouldn’t do that. Who the candidates were wasn’t a factor at all.”

“Why did a March 14 story on John Frank carry no byline?”

“It was probably written by an editor or….”

“A member of the managing board?”

“Oh, I think I know why: that was probably written by a staffer who forgot to call in his or her headline.”

“Was it written by a managing board member?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Do you think that your and so many other members of the managing board eating in the same club as John Frank taints your coverage of the USG?”

“I don’t think so. We try to be careful to separate the two.”

“Do you think that your coverage of the last election was tainted because Eliot Spitzer, who coordinated the election, is also in the same club?”

“We covered the election very fairly. There are lots of stories we could have run had we wanted to which we did not, for the very reason that we did not wish to damage either candidate’s chances by publishing certain types of material which we deemed irrelevant.”

“If you ever want to hear stories,” Bernstein said at the end of the interview, “not for print, come by again.”

I asked Bernstein where I could find Kagan, so that I could interview his editorial chairman. He led me down to the editorial office. Before I could step in, he asked me to wait a minute. “I want to talk to her first,” he said. “It’s not about this, it’s about something else.” Fifteen minutes later Bernstein let me in. He kept us company for the whole interview, at times [joining in the conversation].

“Buddy Rogers and I had not met before,” Kagan began when I asked her to describe her respective relationships with John Frank, Andy Ilves, and vice chairman candidates Buddy Rogers and Brad Smith prior to the election. “Brad Smith I had occasionally called for stories. Any Ilves I had done the same thing with, and had been somewhat familiar with from USG meetings I had covered. John Frank I had also been familiar with from USG meetings, and he happens to eat at the same club that I do.”

“What about Eliot Spitzer?”

“Eliot Spitzer I know better than the other four. Also eats in the same club.”

“Did this play a factor in your endorsement?”

“The endorsement wasn’t of Eliot Spitzer.”

“I mean, with the other four.”

“I don’t think [so] at all. I don’t think [so] by any stretch of the imagination.”

“Why did you decide to break with tradition and endorse a candidate?”

“Well, I think that it is every managing board’s prerogative to decide what we do and do not want to write edits about. I don’t think any of us felt too strongly that just because something hadn’t been done in the past, it shouldn’t be done this year. And, we felt that, in each of the two races that we endorsed people in, there was a candidate who was better.”

“Before you decided to make an endorsement, you decided there was somebody who was better?”

“I don’t think the two can really be separated…. When we sat down and decided whether we wanted to write an endorsement, the determining factor was whether we thought there was somebody to endorse.”

“Why didn’t the Prince make any effort to substantiate Greg Wadell’s charges that Ilves was tearing down Frank campaign posters?”

“I don’t think we didn’t make any effort to substantiate them. We had — “

“Did you contact Ilves?”

“Can I talk?”

“Go ahead.”

“We had those same charges from several people and felt that they were reliable.”

“Did you contact Ilves?”

“Well, we hard this from several independent people. Now, if you’re asking me — “

“I’m asking you if you contacted Ilves.”

“No, we didn’t.”

“How come?”

“When we publish a letter — let’s say we publish a letter saying that the University sucks. We don’t call [Princeton] president [William G.] Bowen and say, ‘Mr. Bowen, John X. has just submitted a letter saying that you’re a lousy president.'”

“So if someone submitted a letter making charges against Bowen, you would print it without rebuttal from him?”

“Yes, if we thought that the letter wasn’t a complete figment of somebody’s imagination, absolutely.”

“I have a witness who says that he contacted you before the letter was printed, giving testimony that contradicted Waddell’s charges.”

“I don’t know what happened in the newsroom, but absolutely not, we were never contacted in this office.”

“Last year,” I went on a little later, “you called for the release of the attendance records of USG members just before the chairman election. Why didn’t you do so this year?”

“Do we have the right to counsel, Paul?” Bernstein interceded.

“Did he ask you this many questions?” Kagan queried [him].

“Yeah, that’s [Nassau publisher] Bob Faggen’s handwriting,” Bernstein erroneously asserted, referring to the list of questions I had scribbled out.

Kagan then continued, “Honestly, it never occurred to us.”

“Did it have anything to do with Ilves’s perfect attendance record while on the USG?”

“No, I said honestly it never occurred to us.”

“Actually, it was a USG screw-up,” Bernstein suggested. “It’s their policy.”

Kagan assented….

“I guess you could call us friends,” Stuart Mieher said, describing his relationship with Eliot Spitzer. This did not affect the Prince‘s election coverage, he insisted, since “I don’t edit any copy that has Eliot’s name in it — just because we are (Wilson School of Public and International Affairs) carrelmates.”

Explaining why a story on Frank’s listing the names of 26 students on a flyer without their permission (see Nassau, March 7) was buried inside of the paper, Mieher said, “It was not clear that an impropriety had occurred… a regulation like that is a pretty small piddling detail. It’s not like the Prince has an obligation to cover every tiny USG rule. I mean, that’s not a very important rule.”

While Prince editors were pretty open, they told at least one reporter [not to talk to me]. I was in the newsroom talking with student life beat leader Cliff Glickman, when Harmon Grossman quickly came in and told me to get out. “Could you please leave?” he requested, adding, “It’s nothing personal. This is just business.” After I issued an invitation to drop by Nassau’s office anytime he wanted, Grossman explained that the Prince prohibits its reporters from talking to Nassau in the newsroom.

Glickman still wanted to talk with me, so I waited outside while he and Grossman conferred. After a few minutes Glickman emerged. “Sorry, I won’t be able to talk with you.”

  • * *

Grossman hadn’t [inhibited] two reporters — we’ll call them “Scoop” and “Ace.” They filled me in on the Prince‘s disposition in the chairman election….

Scoop observed that, in the beginning of the chairman election, “the Prince received a lot of complaints that it was actually pro-Ilves. So they felt it was important to, as one editor put it, make it a lot more fair.”

As for Bernstein’s attitude, Scoop said, “Professionally, he didn’t care who won the election. Personally, everybody on the staff did care who won.” But Scoop insisted that this did not affect news coverage. “The coverage in articles was fair,” he said. “The editorial coverage, and the editorial page coverage — which includes the columns and letters — I don’t think was fair…. They didn’t really show both sides of the issue.”

Ace agreed. “On the day-to-day news coverage, I thought it was fair. But in the editorial coverage, it wasn’t. The selective printing of letters — I thought that was pretty bad.” He concluded, “I don’t think it will go down in the history of the Daily Princetonian as a shining example of judicious campaign journalism coverage.”

Scoop cited an election-day letter to the editor from Greg Waddell as an example of injudicious editorial coverage. Waddell accused Ilves of tearing down one of Frank’s campaign flyers. The Frank campaign worker claimed that he saw Ilves defacing the poster in Holder courtyard. Ilves gave me quite a different story. But since of course he would, I contacted a witness — Ilves’s roommate — who corroborated [the candidate’s] account.

“We were walking towards Holder on our way to dinner,” Nassau editor Don Hawthorne recalled. “Ilves bent down and picked up a John Frank flyer that was on the ground. We started walking across the courtyard reading it. By the time we got halfway across the yard, we heard someone call, ‘We got ’em now, that’s Any Ilves — he’s ripping down Frank posters.’ We turned around and saw those two — Waddell and Palmieri — coming up behind us. We didn’t know what was going on. Wanting to avoid a confrontation — Andy was in no mood for a scene — we ducked into a friend’s room. One of them followed Andy into someone else’s room, and I stopped the other one at the doorway and told him to get lost — which he did. That was the last we saw of them.”

Waddell’s account differs: “We had been hanging posters up by Holder. We saw Ilves reading a poster, and then he took it off the bulletin board. He started walking away. I went up to him and I asked him if I could have the poster back. He said he didn’t know what I was talking about.” Waddell says he persisted but to no avail. Then, he says Ilves “ducked into a room and we followed him to the door of the room. Because we knew that, as campaign workers, they wouldn’t listen to us alone, we started yelling, ‘You’re in trouble,’ to draw attention and get some witnesses.”

Whether or not Waddell’s account was [accurate], the Prince thought it warranted being printed. Bernstein acknowledges that Hawthorne gave him a dissenting report, but the two differ as to when this was. Bernstein says it was “after the election,” while Hawthorne recalls that it was “the evening before the letter came out.”

One reason Hawthorne decided to visit Bernstein is that he had heard that the Prince was considering running a news story on the alleged act. Bernstein denies this. Mieher says, “We never considered running a news story on the incident. One reason is that that night it was too late to get something in. We didn’t consider it too important.”

Scoop says the Prince did consider running a news story. “Cliff Glickman was very seriously considering running something on it….”

Palmieri was later appointed USG executive secretary, while Frank gave Waddell the newly created position of communications officer. Frank sees nothing suspicious in this. “If I’d had the choice,” he contends, “I would not have had the letter written or printed. Greg worked on the campaign and, aside from the letter, I was very impressed with his capabilities.”

Many people worked on Frank’s campaign, and one of the many rumors flying around after the election was that some had been paid for doing so. When I tried to obtain the candidate’s spending reports to check on this, Frank told me to see Spitzer.

Spitzer told me to see Frank. But just as I was getting ready to leave Spitzer’s carrel, Brad Smith, who had been visiting him there, said that spending reports were “kept for a week, and then they were probably thrown out.” He said that the usual policy is to throw them out. He later clarified this, maintaining, “We don’t make an attempt to keep them” after a week.

I had been shown fourteen spending reports from previous years, including two of Smith’s. When I told Smith this, he had no explanation. He said that he would search the USG office and try to find the reports from the last campaign. He later spoke with Nassau editor Don Hawthorne and demanded the reports which I had seen. Frank later warned me that Nassau would be “contacted” regarding the spending reports which we had seen — but, still, don’t have. Frank still didn’t know where the last election’s reports were.

There may be nothing so sinister as a conspiracy between the Daily Princetonian and the Undergraduate Student Government. And machine politics may not yet have gained more than a tenuous foothold at Princeton. But many people in the USG and at the Prince [seem to be concerned] about the results of an investigation like this one. When I called the Prince and asked to speak with Eliot Spitzer, the person on the other end of the line answered, “Are you investigating the USG?”

Some of the people I talked to readily offered conclusions about the relationship between the press and student government on campus; for instance, Brad Smith and Steve Bernstein informed me that Andy Ilves and Don Hawthorne are roommates.

John Frank says of the relationship between himself and the Prince, “I’m very conscious of the need to let hem fulfill their obligations to report the news.” As for Nassau: “I think you guys have over-stepped the line of propriety on this one.”

Post-note, contemporaneous: Having served simultaneously as student body president and newspaper editor of San Francisco’s Mission High School, Paul Winer knows all about collusion between government and the press.

Post-note, Spring 2023: Following the initial publication of this story, Nassau received, and published, a letter accusing us of practicing “yellow journalism” from two former Nassau editors, including David Remnick, who would go on to edit the New Yorker. I crossed paths — one might even say joined forces — with Eliot Spitzer in the early 2000s when, as New York State attorney general, Spitzer, rightly, took the side of the Martha Graham Company, Center, and School on behalf of the State of New York in their Federal court battle to retain the rights to Graham’s ballets, on which the Dance Insider provided lead coverage. Thanks in no small part to Eliot Spitzer, the good guys — the dancers — won.


The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 8: Blood on the Dining Room Floor, juxtaposed with Andres Serrano’s “Blood on the Flag”

From the Dance Insider / Arts Voyager Archive and the exhibition at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie: Andres Serrano, “Blood on the Flag.” Copyright Andres Serrano. To date, there have been 221 mass shootings in the United States this year. (If we have taken the liberty of including Serrano’s photograph and Jill’s Letter in the same post, as opposed to juxtaposing them as separate posts, it’s also to avoid WordPress inserting potentially objectionable ads between the two works.)

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2006 Jill Johnston

(Call her “The biggest enemy of the Movement” if you like; here’s Jill once again representing something larger than herself. First syndicated exclusively on The Dance Insider in 2006.)

Well, well, in no particular order. In just a few months’ time my two children have acquired three half-siblings. The only parent they have in common is their father, who was married four times, so far as we know. A blood bond has formed. I am just one of the mothers. There are three, and there was one stepmother, who was very important to me because she took on my role when I failed in it. Although our feminist suburban mystique leader, who died recently, was a half generation older than me, we were mothers in the same decade of the formaldehyde fifties, when women were embalmed in their homes. I was not thus interred however, and would probably have done a lot better had I been. Besides doing bottles and diapers and trying to survive a wildly inappropriate choice of husband, I was running around teaching and undertaking writing assignments. I was liberated too early, on my own recognizance, and not from the suburbs, from whence the true feminist, the one who wrote the book anyway, seemed to emerge. Three more stages of liberation were just as promising. Following four years of marriage, I was on my own with two children under five — a ghetto of three until I met a few mothers of the Lower East Side who had somehow lost their men, and embraced me as one of their own. Escaping enthusiastically into their life of parties and dancing, art-world connections, thrift store excursions and Provincetown holidays on fantasy money, my credentials and cache as a mother, such as they were to begin with, were weakening. Now in other words I had left my home in a big way. We had places to live, but that’s all I would call them. In my third stage of “liberation,” with my children now safely under the roof of their father and his new wife, I tore the city apart. My escapades or public displays can be found in the literature, most of it written by myself. Had I been a desperate housewife in the subs, after reading The Book, I would simply have commuted happily to the city to a nice magazine office job, a magazine for women of course, leaving my children in charge of expensive nannies, meeting my appropriate husband after work, maybe going to the opera with him before taxiing to the train station for home. He would have got used to it after awhile. If not, I could have divorced in style, and gone on to another desperate life, living long enough to find myself enshrined in a popular sitcom. Last month I found our great subspert in a NY Times article headed, “Betty Friedan’s Enduring ‘Mystique'” — illustrated by a photo of her at the one and only place I ever met her, a feminist fund-raising party in East Hampton, August 1970. Recalling what happened there, the photo and caption gave me a certain complicated thrill. The party took place around the pool of the house belonging to art collectors Ethel and Bob Scull. By then I was awash in my fourth and final stage of liberation — a kind of offshoot of the very thing The Book was said to have set in motion. Eventually this “final stage” would become yet another playing area from which to be liberated. All of life seems like that. Once we settle into some phase or other, and become attached to it, some unknown force makes us move on, only death obviously relieving us from these exhausting cycles. At the party in East Hampton, Betty was suitably appareled in a gown. Anyone raising money there was in a gown. These were all real girls. I was there comparatively in rags, clearly out of place. I had been eager to see these ex-urban gowns assembled in one location, and the newspaper for which I was writing every week was curious to see what I would do about it. My days of anarchic public disorder, admittedly a strange sort of art form, previously useful only to generate my own copy, could now be transplanted to events of political import. I could represent something larger than myself. I had never in my life been political. What aroused me was a hefty conundrum I sensed strongly but couldn’t solve. It would take that revolutionary metaburban woman Ti-Grace Atkinson to finally put it together when she said, “Feminists are women who fight the patriarchy by day, and who go home to sleep with the enemy at night.” I may be paraphrasing, but I’m close. Having endured a variety of PMSD, i.e., post-marital stress disorder, as a result (with other factors figured in) by Atkinson’s dictum I was a real feminist. I no longer slept with the “enemy” at night, at home or elsewhere. So who were these “others”? Enemies in both genders abounded during that time. I was about to be called one myself, a really important one in fact. At the Scull party, one of Betty’s henchladies brought her over to meet me. There were no amenities or anything. She simply delivered the line that I would collude in making as famous as possible, calling me “The Biggest Enemy of the Movement.” At last I had some recognition for my liberation traumas. And I celebrated by tearing off my faded denim shirt and pants and splashing into the inviolate pool (the gowns were standing decorously on the walkways surrounding it, holding long-stemmed cocktail glasses), swimming laps in my best Australian crawl, climbing out at the shallow end where Bob Scull was waiting nervously with a large bath towel. Oh I became an overnight pool sensation. Even Time magazine published a photo of this birth image: a curious Botticelli, hair streaming, emerging topless from the deep. So I had thrown down my gauntlet, my body, on behalf of the war that would be waged between the gowns and the guerillas. Nonetheless, in due course I would prove to be a political impostor. I was aware of this, but only inarticulately. Years later my son Richard, the second oldest of his father’s five, gave me a clue, pointing out that my dada activities were oxymoronic in a political arena. These were not his words exactly. The sense was that I had superimposed exhibits from one of my liberation periods incommensurately onto this new platform, making me a kind of movement of one, betraying my own idea of serving others in a larger cause. Underlying this paradox was a greater narcissistic reality. I was a writer first, and everything else came second, subjects for sure, but even blood. My first liberation was not from the home but from not yet knowing what to do in life. This can happen at any time in progress from womb to grave, though in the 1950s only for males — but who knew? Not knowing, I was self-propelled, with an open mandate. It’s 2006, have things changed? A NY Times letter today, March 20, reads, “There have been a few distressing items in the media of late tending to favor women’s being restricted to domestic chores rather than a woman’s individual right to pursue fulfillment in her professional and private life as she might wish.” I was around 25, still unmarried, when something I wrote that was published carried my by-line, which stuck out a mile. In context of my children’s new half-family in formation, all bearing their father’s surname (except for the oldest whose mother remarried when he was six, and he got a stepfather’s name), I am a mere Johnston — a name my mother stole from the foreigner she chose to sire me. I have no other relatives by that name in America, unless you count degrees of separation, and I don’t. The by-line still looks okay, but in any family constituency, such a name is a real floater. I consulted my friend Sandra who had five children by three different men. She had their fathers’ names while married to them, and at last, reverting to her maiden name, she no longer shares a name with any of her children. However, she raised them all, she’s the only mother, and she seems to have perfect matriarchal status. She was liberated from husbands, but never gave up her children. During the early 1970s, as I grappled unconsciously with my guilt in still not raising my own (in their early teens then), I lit upon the ancient or mythic Amazons, so popular with feminists at that moment, to produce an acceptable setting for motherhood. I wrote a big article about it for Ms. Magazine called “The Return of the Amazon Mother,” picturing myself somehow in a large community of women, all missing one breast, bearing the scar of honor, where each mother’s children belonged to the whole group. It seems simply amazing to me that the magazine, headed up by Glorious as we called her, published this thinly disguised compensation. What kind of magazine for women was that?! So how, you might like to know, did my nuclear-raised children turn out? Well, well, in no particular order — i.e., they are very successful. And one way to look at this outcome is that their delinquent mother modeled a way of life doing what she wanted or had to do. Also, I have been enthusiastic about their developing half-family, even without blood in it, denoting a proper possessiveness, a proprietary interest in all their connections. I never forgot that I gave life. Looking back at my Amazon phase, I can see something interesting there about blood. An implied de-emphasis of this liquid in group submergence resonates with my origins, where our futures are located. My origins were shrouded in secrecy over blood. The line of my father proceeded abroad in the normal family fashion, but was not exported to America. I was on my own with my American mother, who by the way set up my eventual maternal unfitness through her own modeling of independence. So blood is not my strong point. I can’t be trusted with blood. I do better with ink and swimming pools, liberating myself from one word or body of water to the next. Do I know what this is really all about? No, but I can refer you to the Gertrude Stein title, “Blood on the Dining Room Floor.”

©Jill Johnston. Previously published on .

Happy Birthday to Martha Graham, and from Martha Graham: Here are 10 ballets by the Mother of Modern Dance in the public domain that you can perform for free

(The Dance Insider provided lead coverage of Graham versus Graham, the federal court trial that pitted Martha Graham’s dance company, center, and school against her legal heir, Ron Protas. This breaking news story on the court’s ruling in favor of the Graham entities, first published on August 24, 2002, concisely sums up the case and its global implications — and also includes a list of the 10 works the court deemed to be in the public domain, meaning anyone can perform them without having to pay royalties. Today is Martha Graham’s birthday.)

By Paul Ben-Itzak, with Darrah Carr
Copyright 2002, 2023 Paul Ben-Itzak & Darrah Carr

NEW YORK — The Martha Graham Center owns copyrights to 45 of the ballets created by Martha Graham, Ron Protas owns one, and ten are in the public domain, a Federal judge ruled Friday, in a landmark decision that saved Modern Dance’s greatest legacy by placing it securely in the trove of the Martha Graham Dance Company.

“I am elated,” an ebullient Marvin Preston, the Center’s executive director, told the Dance Insider Friday. “This is an overwhelmingly positive outcome for us.”

Protas, the Center’s former artistic director, had sued the center — which comprises the dance company and the Graham school — over ownership of 70 ballets created by Graham between 1926 and her death in 1991. In ruling against him, Federal District Court Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum also declared ten of the dances — including the 1944 “Appalachian Spring,” perhaps Graham’s best-known work, and the 1947 “Night Journey” — as belonging in the public domain, and five as belonging to individual commissioning organizations. For nine of the ballets, including the 1947 “Errand into the Maze” and 1948 “Diversion of Angels,” she ruled that neither side had shown whether these dances were “published” (normally, as videos or films available to the public) with adequate copyright notice included.

The dances awarded to the center range from the 1931 “Primitive Mysteries” to the 1991 “Eyes of the Goddess,” and also include “Deep Song” (1937), “El Penitente” (1940), “Letter to the World” (1941) and “Embattled Garden” (1958). Protas owns the right to the renewal copyright for the 1955 “Seraphic Dialogue,” Cedarbaum said, although the center owns the Isamu Noguchi scenery. The dances owned by individual commissioners are “Herodiade,” “Dark Meadow,” “Cave of the Heart,” “Judith (1950),” and “Canticle for Innocent Comedians.”

“They’re not a problem,” Preston said of these five works. “The people who commissioned those pieces wanted Martha Graham and her dancers to dance them. We consider all those people friendly.”

The center had claimed that because Graham was its employee, dances she created while she had that status from 1956 to 1991 were ‘work for hire’ and belonged to the center outright. The judge agreed, citing numerous precedents in her 110-page decision.

“Work for hire applied to some of the dances because Martha Graham wanted it to,” Preston explained. “I.e., with full knowledge of the consequences, she created the organizations that exist today and chose to create her works as an employee knowing that doing so would give ownership of those works to the Center/School.”

The center also claimed, and the judge agreed, that Graham assigned it the copyrights to an additional 21 works created prior to 1956, including “El Penitente,” “Primitive Mysteries,” and “Letter to the World.”

To make its case, the center relied in part on a handful of documents. “The few ancient documents that were produced,” Cedarbaum wrote, “became very important guideposts” in a trial that was “an effort to recapture a history that partially predated the knowledge and memory of the living witnesses.”

Key among these documents was a September 1968 letter from center administrator LeRoy Leatherman to the Netherlands School, denying a request by the late Benjamin Harkarvy, the school’s director, to perform specified Graham dances:

“Recently Miss Graham assigned performing rights to all of her works to the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, Inc.” Leatherman wrote, “…and the decision to grant such rights rests now exclusively with the center’s board of directors.” In 1971, responding to a request by the Netherlands Dance Theater regarding rights to perform Graham works, Leatherman wrote that the choreographer had “assigned all rights to all of her works to the Martha Graham Center, Inc.”

The judge was also swayed by the testimony of former Graham treasurer Edmund Pease, who in 1974 undertook a thorough study of commingling assets belonging to the center and to Graham, “with,” wrote the judge, “the purpose of determining what belonged to whom. According to Pease, his examination of documents dating back to 1948 revealed that dance royalties had been paid to the (Graham) Foundation/Center and that the Center had born the expense of creating the sets and costumes. The study’s final report concluded that the Center’s assets included the dances, sets, and costumes, and recommended that these items be carried on the Center’s balance sheet as assets at nominal value.”

Pease, wrote the judge, “was a forthcoming and credible witness at trial.”

In her decision yesterday, Judge Cedarbaum also found that the center owns all Graham sets created by Isamu Noguchi prior to January 15, 1957 and all jewelry for the same period, and directed Protas to “return to the defendants (the center) the costumes and artworks identified by the defendants as in his possession.” In addition, she ruled, the Center is entitled to recover from Protas $180,000 in licensing fees and Library of Congress sales proceeds, plus interest.

As she did in an earlier stage of the trial, denying Protas’s claiims to the name “Martha Graham” and the term “Martha Graham technique,” Cedarbaum found his credibility wanting.

“After listening to his evasive and inconsistent testimony and observing his demeanor,” she wrote, “I again find Protas not to be a credible witness.”

But some observers had warned that regardless of what one thinks of Protas, to whom Graham’s last will left everything she owned, a victory by the Center would pose a threat to all choreographers’ rights to their own work. Not so, insisted Preston.

“This is no threat to any choreographer,” he said, “since a one-line agreement to the contrary can be entered into by a choreographer and his board or his company.”

At presstime, Protas’s lawyer, Judd Burstein, could not be reached for comment.

The 45 Graham ballets to which the judge awarded copyright ownership to the center are:

“Tanagra,” “Three Gopi Maidens,” “Harlequinade,” “Primitive Mysteries,” “Serenade,” “Satyric Festival Song,” “Dream,” “Saraband,” “Imperial Gesture, ” “Deep Song,” “Every Soul is a Circus,” “El Penitente,” “Letter to the World,” “Punch and the Judy,” “Salem Shore,” “Deaths and Entrances,” “Eye of Anguish,” “Ardent Song,” “Embattled Garden,” “Episodes: Part I,” “Acrobats of God,” “Phaedra,” “Secular Games,” “Legend of Judith,” “The Witch of Endor,” “Part Real-Part Dream,” “Cortege of Eagles,” “Plain of Prayer,” “Mendicants of Evening,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Lucifer,” “The Scarlet Letter,” “O Though Desire Who Art About to Sing,” “Shadows,” “The Owl and the Pussycat,” “Ecuatorial,” “Frescoes,” “Judith (created in 1980),” “Andromache’s Lament,” “Phaedra’s Dream,” “Song,” “Tangled Night,” “Persephone,” “Maple Leaf Rag,” and “The Eyes of the Goddess.”

Ownership of the renewal copyright to “Seraphic Dialogue” reverted to Protas as the executor of Graham’s estate.

The judge found that for 24 of the disputed dances, “neither side has established ownership of copyright.” These include ten works in the public domain, meaning that now anyone can perform them: “Appalachian Spring,” “Night Journey,” “Chronicle/Steps in the Street,” “Lamentation,” “American Document,” “Heretic,” “Flute of Krishna,” “Frontier,” “Panorama,” and “Celebration.”

Individual commissioners own the copyrights for the five works already named above. The remaining nine works, the judge found, have been “published” in film or video form available to the public, but “neither side has shown whether any of those dances were published with adequate notice of copyright.” Those dances are “Errand into the Maze,” “Diversion of Angels,” “Clyttemnestra,” “Circe,” “Adorations,” “Acts of Light,” “The Rite of Spring,” “Temptations of the Moon,” and “Night Chant.”

At presstime, it was unclear how or whether the judge’s finding would affect the company’s ability to perform these dances.

Speaking of the Moon, Protas had also sought recovery of several items he claimed were his and that he alleged the center to have in its possession, including three Chinese moon viewing chairs which used to follow Graham around on tour and to speaking engagements. He also claimed the center had Graham’s vicuna throw rug, Max Waldman photos given to Graham, a Tibetan lama statue, four trunks of his personal papers and clothing, benches designed for Graham by Noguchi, and several other items which he said belonged to him.

For all of these items, Cedarbaum ruled, Protas failed to establish his ownership or even that he knows for sure the center has them.

The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 7: Baryshnikov Dancing Judson (Juxtaposed with Dalí Dancing at the Art Institute)

From the exhibition Salvador Dalí: The Image Disappears, on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through June 12: “Mae West’s Face Which May Be Used as a Surrealist Apartment,” 1934–35. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Mrs. Charles B. Goodspeed, 1949.517. © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2022.

Edwin Denby once observed that what dance criticism needs is not more technicians, but more poets. What we have here is a writer who started out as a dance critic, moved on to literature, and then stepped back into dance, treating it as a canon. What we also have is the critic as curator, handling the artifact with reverence, appraising its historical value, and amplifying our appreciation with the refined eye of the experienced regarder. A critic who, despite her protestations of being a true “old-timer” who “tends to believe that all that came after is crap,” is anything but jaundiced. Freshly arrived in New York in July 1995, I found myself sitting next to a veteran New York Times critic at an Elizabeth Streb concert at the Joyce who told me, “I’ve been going to Elizabeth Streb concerts and not liking them since the 1970s, and I still don’t like them,” prompting me to wonder, “If you already know what you think and you know you won’t like it, what are you doing here?” In the column below, Jill the historian (for the Times critic in question was also that) who was there at the birth may well warn us that, “This is Judson gone Hollywood, theatricalized in ways that fully contradict the tenets of Judson’s origins and early performances in its heydays,1962-64,” she nevertheless goes on to tell us what she sees in the performance in front of her, enriching the import of her present reactions by historical comparisons where they are pertinent. Another Times critic of the same epoch once started a review of a performance in SoHo by complaining about having to climb five flights of stairs to sit on a folding metal chair; yet another, by proclaiming that the proscenium was dead. I myself once ‘reviewed’ a performance of a new work by Moses Pendleton on which Moses and the collaborating dancers had worked very hard for years with a 17-syllable haiku, because I was pissed that his company’s managing director hadn’t gotten back to me about advertising. Jill was more famous, more fine in her writing and critical skills than all of us put together, and yet she’s the one who, from the moment she enters that theater, humbles herself before the artists, with no other agenda than (to cop a phrase from another critical hero, Marcia Siegel) watching the dance go by. — PB-I

This article originally appeared in the December 2001 issue of Art in America and is reprinted by permission of Art in America and the author. Desiring to juxtapose Jill’s column with an image from the exhibition Salvador Dalí: The Image Disappears, on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through June 12, we have decided to publish them in the same post to avoid either Jill or Dali running next to a potentially objectionable ad supplied by WordPress, over which we have no control.

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2001 Jill Johnston

I went to see Mikhail Baryshnikov and his White Oak Dance Project at the Brooklyn Academy of Music the week of June 4 because the work of seven so-called Judson choreographers was featured. The program was called “Past Forward,” meaning that post-Judson work by the choreographers, up in fact to the present, was included. I often put myself out to see the work of my time, or work by those of my time as it keeps evolving (or not), generally seeing little else. As a true old-timer, I tend to believe that all that came after is crap. In the case of the Judson revolution in dance-making, I may actually be right. Oh, I know there are individually brilliant works around, and of course there have been for years. But it takes a group to make a revolution. And revolutions happen probably only once or twice a century. And for those of us leavened on the art of revolutionary times, there can never be anything like it again. Not unless it comes again. And the 1960s will never come again.

Judson revisited under the auspices of Mikhail Baryshnikov is a sort of archival display, a retrospective exhibition, with differences so noteworthy as to make the subject new or unrecognizable. A fabulous displacement in context changes everything. The original performance space of the funky, cavernous, high-ceilinged, peaked-roof sanctuary room of Judson Church on Washington Square, with its woolly downtown in-crowd audience whose wild enthusiasm and educated interest were not least of what composed the revolution, was a setting integral to the work itself. Likewise, the grandly formal, corporate-sponsored proscenium stage at BAM, with its throngs attracted chiefly by the fame of a great ex-ballet dancer, is an arena that completely defines what we see there. This is Judson gone Hollywood, theatricalized in ways that fully contradict the tenets of Judson’s origins and early performances in its heydays,1962-64.

Anti-spectacle, anti-entertainment, anti-star image, anti-proscenium frontality, anti-expression or narrative, anti-dance movement itself as traditionally understood — here was a dissenting canon as insurrectional as the revolution in dance ushered in by the barefoot, ballet-hating Isadora Duncan in the late 19th century. Her pioneering work would be refined by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, then Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham (both schooled as Denishawn dancers), and in their wake by the Humphrey disciple Jose Limon. At last Merce Cunningham, formerly a Graham dancer, introduced in the 1950s a dance esthetic that was entirely new. It was off Cunningham’s back that the Judson choreographers leapfrogged. Among them were the seven represented by Baryshnikov at BAM: David Gordon, Steve Paxton, Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs and Deborah Hay. Cunningham’s studio at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue was actually a launching pad. There Robert Dunn, a composer and follower of Cunningham’s partner, John Cage, and the husband of one of Cunningham’s dancers, Judith Dunn, taught the class in choreography that led to the first evening of performances at Judson Church, on July 6, 1962. Much as Cunningham was admired and his aleatory method of composition a class expedient, his maintenance of the old bedrock of dance in technical training, whether ballet or modern, was ditched entirely in the Judson experiment.

The new and unprecedented Judson look was movement lifted from everyday actions of ordinary people, including dancers when they are not dancing. “Pedestrian” was the word, and still is, for the new “dance.” A pedestrian is a walker and there was plenty of plain walking in early Judson work. Steve Paxton, a Cunningham company member (1961-64) all the while he was rebelling with the Judson group, particularly loved walking. And sitting and walking. In his 1964 solo “Flat” he sat and walked around and studiously removed his “costume” of shoes, jacket, shirt and pants, hanging them on hooks taped to his body; then put his clothes back on, ever continuing sitting and walking. Sometimes he sat or stood still. It was very boring. Boring was tremendously exciting in the revolution. “Flat” is one of only three pieces transplanted intact from the Judson of 1962-64 in Baryshnikov’s Judson archive evening. And as its updated soloist, Baryshnikov makes it far from boring. Not because he doesn’t follow its instructions to the letter, performing it in the required pedestrian “boring” manner. But because… well, because he is Baryshnikov. Just the question why he is doing this at all makes it pretty interesting.

Anyway, boring has long ceased to be exciting. A precise replica of an old Judson concert in its original or similar setting would make any old-timer sigh. We like simply the memory, and a belief that being there was a sacred privilege. The new thing is what Baryshnikov is doing with it all. He’s the real creator here. With techno-resources, financial backing, much experience as an artistic director (for nine years at the American Ballet Theatre) and a cultivated passion for dancing in the works of postmodern choreographers, he has forged an entertaining, commercially viable program out of an unlikely piece of history. For himself and his White Oak company of professionally trained younger dancers, he has dusted off several old, prosaic, Minimalist treasures, intact and/or adapted by the intrepid survivors, and integrated them superbly with examples of their work from the 1970s till now.

A downstage screen, dropped at intervals during the evening, is almost an “extra” performer, a “choral” auxiliary, helping to glue the parts together. The names of the Judson seven appear in succession on the screen while Baryshnikov in voice-over describes how he assembled the choreographers for his evening. A prologue video by Charles Atlas shows clips of them talking among themselves and includes fragments of work from that time. A fleeting image of artists Robert Morris and Carolee Schneemann in Morris’s “Site” of 1965, one of Judson’s most extraordinary pieces, reminds us that creators in mediums besides dance were participating, and that there were many more contributors than seven to that indelible scene. (More than six, actually, since Simone Forti was not a Judson performer; she was included in the Baryshnikov evening for her pre-Judson seminality in game- and task-driven “ordinary” action.)

Some of those who were left out, and who helped make it all happen, might at least have been listed by name on that all-purpose dropped screen. Not even the critics, essential scribes in any revolution, are noted, except by Rainer (speaking to a confrere on the Atlas video), who says guilefully, “And all the critics were outraged.” Forgetting obviously that Allen Hughes, filling in as dance critic at the New York Times, did a most commendable and charitable job of covering the group then.

Concerts continued at Judson Church until 1968, but by then they also abounded in art galleries, lofts, other churches and different non-proscenium spaces. Such opportunities led inevitably to major independent careers. Sally Banes has described all this in her fine 1980 compendium of the era, “Terpsichore in Sneakers.”

The meeting of Baryshnikov and Judson was, it seems, a fortuity waiting to happen. He says that long before he formed White Oak (in 1990), while still a dancer at the Kirov in Russia, he was drawn to the work of the Judson post-modernists. He must have meant what he had heard or read about them, since he did not arrive in America until 1974, the year of his defection. He was an enthusiastic defector. Before long, and even as he was taking Westerners by storm — the most breathtaking ballet virtuoso since Nijinsky and Nureyev — he was dancing as a guest in works of modern choreographers, including Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, and even Limon and Graham. As director of the American Ballet Theatre during the 1980s, Baryshnikov upset and challenged the ABT trustees by commissioning difficult postmodern work. David Gordon, of the golden Judson age, was one of his choices. On the White Oak program at BAM, Gordon is listed as “director and writer” — in effect Baryshnikov’s deputy organizer — and represented by three dance works. The earliest is dated 1975; the most recent, titled “Chair Intro 2000,” is a showboat solo opener made for Baryshnikov and a chair, set to the music of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Striped Forever.” It was quite thrilling indeed, designed no doubt to let us know that nothing we were going to see here would be “anti-spectacle” or “anti-entertainment.” Even Lucinda Childs’s uncompromising, soundless 1964 solo “Carnation,” danced at BAM by White Oak company member Emily Coates, is divertingly updated with a live video enlarging the performer’s projected image on screen behind her several times her size on stage. But this makes sense for such a big auditorium, where the small detailed gestures of “Carnation” — once so visible from, say, 20 feet at floor level in Judson Church — could be hard to make out.

Yvonne Rainer’s signature solo work of the early period, “Trio A” of 1966, has undergone a number of transpositions since then, but surely none as concessional as its most recent manifestation in Baryshnikov’s Judson evening. Here called “Trio A Pressured #3,” danced by the seven White Oak company members, its original soundlessness and famously uninflected movement — a long, deceptively simple, un-punctuated phrase — have been seriously compromised. With seven dancers facing every which way and performing the phrase contrapuntally to music of the Chambers Brothers (“In the Midnight Hour”), this once purist icon has been cast in a confusing Cunninghamesque space, and trounced additionally, sold out you could say, to rock-&-roll entertainment. But so what? It’s new, it’s different. And it helps to keep the program jumping. Still, why not have bypassed “Trio A” altogether to bring back a much less boring Rainer artifact from the even deeper past? “Three Seascapes” (1962), for instance, is a solo that would need no special gussying up to qualify for the Baryshnikov show (except perhaps to be enhanced with live video like Childs’s “Carnation,” or David Gordon’s durable chair fun for three dancers, “Chair/two times,” 1975).

Who would not love to see “Three Seascapes” again, or for the first time? The trouble is, who would perform it? It’s got a lot of character, with weirdly restrained, as well as wildly expressed, emotion. Rainer’s screaming fit, which constituted the third of her “Three Seascapes,” was no doubt a cliched commentary — shorn after all of narrative context — on the expressiveness that Judson, and Cunningham before Judson, banned. But it couldn’t help functioning also as catharsis and release for all that repression — Rainer’s and the group’s — in their coded tyrannies. Her “Seascapes” tantrum reverberates down through the Judson years and right into this page, decades later. Her stage presence altogether remains memorable. Even the bland constancy of “Trio A” as originally executed by Rainer was a commanding performance. Her controlled impassivity harbored an emotional intensity, a quality of pent-up fire and feeling, a volcanic reservoir of desire and ambition. We could see all that again, along with its reprieve, in “Three Seascapes,” if the right stand-in were enlisted. It’s very much a girl’s piece. But I could envision Baryshnikov doing it. He can do anything. (Except for the strenuousities of ballet; at 52 and with old occupational injuries, that’s over for him.) He was beautiful in a blue velvet gown at BAM in 2000, doing a slow vampy solo made originally by Rainer for David Gordon’s wife, Valda Setterfield, in 1972. This appeared in a 35-minute collection of episodes strung, beadlike, or positioned for simultaneous performance, that Rainer culled for Baryshnikov’s company from her pre-1975 choreography, titling the ensemble “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan.”

Rainer, alone among Baryshnikov’s seven chosen Judson relics, abandoned the field (in 1975) to pursue another career, in filmmaking. For “Past Forward,” therefore, she left the Forward part of it to her old Judson cronies, who have evolved as dance/choreographers in variegated ways. Some of the results have helped Baryshnikov enormously in concocting his audience-pleaser evening. Two artists, Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs, needed no special introduction by Baryshnikov to dance-goers at large. Their reputations in fact exceed the limits of the dance world; they have companies, managers, publicists, and access to a slew of state-of-the-art designers and composers. Today, their roots in Judson seem truly archaic. By the early 1970s they had stopped sitting and walking (running was popular, too) or pushing objects around to begin dancing again — as dancing is commonly understood.

While Paxton and Hay also began dancing, they both fled New York in 1970 to live in a community in northernmost Vermont, never forming permanent companies to undertake tours or engage theaters for weeklong appearances or the like. In ’76 Hay removed herself even further, to Austin, Tex., where she has led large group workshops that have ended up in local performances. Both Hay and Paxton, as well as Simone Forti, insomuch as she has continued performing, have relied heavily on improvisation as a style or premise of their appearances. For Paxton, improvisation has been practically a science. That was clear on June 7 at BAM, the third night (there were five nights altogether) of the “Past Forward” performances, when five of the seven choreographers, including Paxton, took advantage of a dispensation by Baryshnikov to appear on stage and dance.

For Brown and Childs, who did solos, this was no novelty; they dance in the BAM kind of arena, here and abroad, all the time. Their works are completely set or determined, as is generally expected for large houses. Paxton’s long solo improvisation, “O (for Simone)” frankly made me hold my breath. It was very nervy and intellectual. High puzzlement was his gambit, best befitting no doubt the incongruity of such a piece in front of the unwashed. A sort of lecture/dance questioning the nature of performance or performing at all, or presenting fixed choreography, it had several preset elements. First, just deciding to appear onstage; also, knowing that he intended to talk (however unscripted) about space; and having four bottles at hand to outline a performing space inside the proscenium space, within which he ultimately performed a dancerly improvisation. Paxton remains a fine dancer, in whatever context he devises. His message, in this instance, was not unfathomable. What do we really see or expect to see when we structure the frame that we find in the theater? Why do we have these barriers or borders? Why go to the theater?

These questions may be worth asking, and one has to admire Paxton’s courage in taking his challenge straight into the theater’s jaws, i.e., its proscenium space. I personally regard the jaws, am ready to walk into them, with no question at all. Public improvisation makes me nervous. I become very conservative. Why can’t they leave all that to therapy or the studio, and bring composed work to the proscenium, or any other type of performing space? Deborah Hay wisely chose to do a duet with Baryshnikov that evening. So whatever was improvised about it — a program footnote says the dance, “Single Duet,” has a score that is interpreted differently in each performance — was absorbed utterly by the fascination of Baryshnikov, his every step or gesture a jewel of congruity and perfection. And Hay herself, at 60, in a duet with a romantic trend, looked concordant with her celebrated partner, humbly seductive in her more alluring gender-specific part.

I’m an old-timer gone reactionary and rheumy. That’s what happens. I loved the Baryshnikov show. (I take it that his elderly Judson captives did too.) And far from expecting anything so “democratic” as the ’60s revolutionary inclusiveness to happen again, I look forward to the enthronement of the next woman in the great line of Duncan, St. Denis, Graham and Humphrey. This is a heritage that Americans can be proud of. It carries the only creative medium in the world invented, evolved and heroized by the weaker sex. My present superannuation has its roots back in the 1950s while I was seated at the feet of Doris Humphrey, a choreographic genius who no longer danced due to an arthritic hip. By then the modernist movement was having its last hurrah. She and Graham were the inevitable combatants of their era. Now it looks like Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs are the heirs to that earlier rivalry. Not that their work, and dancing personae, bear the least resemblance to those of Graham and Humphrey. Actually, Brown is physically not unlike Humphrey in her long litheness and open, airy dance style. However she is not the architect or disciplinarian of space that Humphrey was. Her work can sprawl incontinently, and it depends on some brilliant assists of music, set designs, lighting and costumes. More critically, Brown dances too much, tends to be carried away by her dancing. There’s a lot of “hooptedoodle” in the work, like prose that’s too wordy. As if to make up for a lack of composition — a skill that Childs, by comparison, has turned into her signature.

So you’ve guessed it. My candidate for enthronement is Lucinda Childs. Perhaps Baryshnikov thinks so too, since he crowned his Judson evenings with her 1993 “Concerto,” a stunning example of her obsessive group compositional style, one piece different from the next only by variation on a singular method of organizing her space. “Concerto” is accompanied by a score — Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki’s “Concerto for Hapsichord and Strings” — as driving and exciting as the relentless pulverizing consumption of space by White Oak’s seven dancers. At BAM and elsewhere, the dance has brought the house down with thunderous ovations.

Childs’s space matches Cunningham’s in its compendious nature. Every dance summarizes the whole oeuvre. The oeuvre is, so to speak, all one work. If placed end to end, the individual pieces would resemble something like the sameness of, say, Pollock’s high drip-period paintings, or Rothko’s or Kelly’s color transmutations. Once a method or formula is established, there can be wonderful variations, but in a sense nothing new is going to happen. What is most wonderful really is having a formula. It takes care of the problem of invention every time a new work must be made. The invention was the formula, an a priori event, and “new work” is made to fit into it, thereby expanding it. Cunningham established his aleatory principium, coupled with dancing independently of his commissioned sound scores, by the late 1940s.

Childs’s approach, developed by the late ’70s, is entirely mathematical and geometric. Her dancers are stick figures in schemes for moving them around the space in complex patterns. They are animated by very simple kinds of movement: walking running skipping, stopping and turning, whatever gets them from one place to another, with some but not much arm action. Torsos remain mostly upright. The legs never shoot out or up or do anything “dancerly” that might distract from their main purpose of moving the body from here to there. It’s an art of locomotion, and repetition. A permutational reordering of minimalist phrases creates a dense overlay of movement that keeps accreting, cumulating, into something much grander — and more stirring, finally — than you might expect from such slight units of composition.

Not unsurprisingly, Childs has frequently chosen accompanying sound scores by such minimalist composers as Philip Glass, John Adams, Terry Riley and Gyorgy Ligeti that best analogize, therefore advance and promote, the additive building effect of her dance geometries. Equally important in the work, and in keeping with its thorough abstraction, is the omission of gender distinctions — by size or role or traditional sort of coupling — and gender bending, such as David Gordon and Mark Morris have explored. But Childs’s dancers are, after all, mere pawns in systems that absorb their individuality.

Baryshnikov’s presence as one of the seven performers in “Concerto” is a challenge to that concept. He integrates himself perfectly, but you look for him nonetheless. Interesting questions form themselves around his appearance in this kind of work, and even in the solos that have either been made for him, or exhumed by him from the past. How much of his attractiveness is due to his investiture? Would he look special in the street in a crowd, or by himself? Is this a former god of the ballet descended to earth to grace our lowly modern dance tradition? To this I say resoundingly yes. He came from Russia with love — for America. Not with instrumentality, like Balanchine, imported by Lincoln Kristein in 1933 to help establish the European court tradition here, which at length obscured our own indigenous high dance art form. But hey, without Balanchine, it’s unlikely that Baryshnikov would have found a job in the U.S. in 1974. Anyway, by then the ballet and modern dance/choreographers had been infiltrating each other’s mediums for some time. A vibrant crossover culture existed. Yet the ballet has persisted in America as the form de resistance, the premier money-maker and dance trade of high visibility.

The eclipse of America’s homegrown dance art by a form that flowered in Europe for the pleasure of royalty — a supreme irony as regards our constitutional origins as a nation — is under redress by a man who had grown up unhappy in a repressive regime at the Kirov. Bad things were going on there by the time Baryshnikov joined the company in the late ’60s. The repertory was moribund. Good choreographers were lacking, and the Soviet authorities refused, on patriotic grounds, to invite Western choreographers to the Kirov. In 1974, Baryshnikov told Anna Kisselgoff of the New York Times that he had had no freedom to choose his own repertory and almost no opportunity to dance in new ballets, especially those created for him. “Roles that are created for you open up new reserves in you that you didn’t know about…. It is very exciting.” Under the Kirov’s imperious rule, and at a time of worldwide restlessness, a crisis existed. With the desertion of Nureyev (1961) and several others, leading dancers were under surveillance for fear of more defections. On tour in London, Baryshnikov was wildly acclaimed; he made friends with the defector Nureyev, saw the ABT perform, and went to modern dance classes. According to Joan Acocella, writing in the New Yorker in 1998, his watershed moment occurred in Leningrad, after the London trip, when he staged what was called a Creative Evening. Here, apparently, is the precedent for Baryshnikov’s Judson evening. By Kirov custom, a dancer would commission a program of short works, often from young choreographers, assemble sets and costumes and star in the production. The ballets thus contrived would normally be shelved by the Kirov administration. Baryshnikov met a worse fate when he was told how bad they thought his show was. It was allowed a few performances anyway. Then at a cast banquet, while he was trying to make a speech thanking his dancers, Baryshnikov burst into tears. A few months later, on tour in Canada with the Bolshoi Ballet, he defected.

Will his personal vindication, coming full circle in the smashing success of the Judson evening, and his embrace generally of the American-type dance, have any far-reaching consequences? Why not? Dancing with his White Oak company, Baryshnikov has created the most interesting thing to happen terpsichoreally in America since the very Judson revolution he has so imaginatively exploited. Possibly America will catch on and realize that right under its nose an indigenous tradition of great choreography bloomed and died out and is being born again under the sponsorship of a man who once starred in the medium that triumphed over it. A new expressionism may even be afoot. Baryshnikov is himself a touching performer, even in deadpan work. His ballet history, after all, includes narrative partnering and character roles. He has done Limon and Graham, the two masters of late modern thematic hyperbole. In the future he may choose postmodern work emphasizing affect or emotive context. Which is not to say that we want any storytelling again. I hardly loved it back when. What I find missing in work of any nature is inner depth, and maturity — the latent meaningfulness of lurking subtleties wrought, say, by that great soloist Katherine Litz.

A standout at BAM was Lucinda Childs’s brush with ecstasy in her 2001 solo, “Largo,” to Arcangelo Corelli’s “Concerti Grossi Op. 6,” performed the third evening, when the choreographers were invited to appear on stage and dance. In a contracted grammar of the structures that hold her group work, with the same precision and incisiveness, yet with a new-looking give in the torso, a greater generosity with the arms, she patrolled her space along that rarest of lines embracing the romantic and classical at once. Carried onward by the elegance of the composition, the systolic breath and exhalation of its perfect phrasing, the lushness of the Corelli, she generated a strange, unearthly, attenuated passion. A frontal moment near the end, when Childs’s arms are outstretched, palms upward, was a vapor from a past age — Isadora as she appeared in all her glory, at the barricades in the tragic ardor of “La Marseillaise.” We’re not ready yet for an unleashed Isadora. But in “Largo” we’re looking at a pulsing resonance, possibly the figment of a new revolution. At the very least, we’re looking at mature work, infused with a depth of feeling that simply a mastery of composition can inspire.

Baryshnikov himself may not have an ambition for the American dance such as I am gibbering on about. Asked by Acocella in her 1998 interview if he had got what he wanted in the West, he replied, “Oh, more than that — I never dreamt that I would work with so many extraordinary people.” Acocella’s comment: “That was all he wanted, just to work with interesting people.”

The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 6: My Ur-Country; juxtaposed with Salvador Dali’s “Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach,” on view at the Art Institute of Chicago

From the exhibition Salvador Dalí: The Image Disappears, on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through June 12: “Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach,” 1938. © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2022. Photo by Allen Phillips/Wadsworth Atheneum.

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2006 Jill Johnston

(To avoid juxtaposing either of them next to potentially objectionable WordPress ads — as well as for the aesthetic provocation — we’ve decided to juxtapose Jill’s Letter and Dali’s art, on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through June 12, in one post. The introduction below applies to the column.)

(Did we learn anything from Covid? I’m not so sure.The infection and death numbers were hardly down before we went back to killing or otherwise harming each other: One country was launching war on another in the latter’s territory (echoes of the U.S. in 2003), some police went back to killing unarmed Black civilians, migrants continued fleeing lethal political or economic conditions while governments continued leaving them to die at sea or be kidnapped by land, White supremist phallocrat Republican state legislators in Tennessee and Montana were muzzling and expelling Democratically elected Black and trans representatives for, respectively, sticking up for children shot down by guns while these legislators were passing laws protecting gun manufacturers and speaking out against transphobic laws which were already killing trans children before they were even passed. And the oil companies and the banks which fund them went back to killing the planet; even Joe Biden authorized new drilling in Alaska. All the more reason to keep our eyes on the receding prize: Jill Johnston’s Ur-Country. What’s yours? First published on and first syndicated exclusvely on The Dance Insider in January 2006. — PB-I)

A book review I saw started with the line, “The author comes out swinging right from the bell.” For a second I saw the author actually swinging from a bell before realizing he was being pictured in a boxing ring. I didn’t read the rest of the review. I read almost nothing in the paper unless it comes out swinging against the “war,” or touches on more personal things, like my body. I put war in quotes of course because this country is not technically at war, but rather in a state of occupying a foreign power following a gratuitous invasion. An entire article on knee replacement surgery I read closely. There is nothing wrong with my knees, but I have a titanium femur and wrist, and an arthritic left foot over which orthopedists have muttered the words “bone fusion” in my presence. What they do is to surgically fuse the nine small bones clustered at the north end of the five long metatarsals. My choices seem to be to live with Mr. Arthur Itis as Ingrid has jokingly called my infirmity or get a new foot that I suppose would behave like a board or a cement block. I have issues, but I’m still good at creating diversions. I like Martha Stewart on TV. Her rehabilitation has been so successful. She wants to help people “lead a pleasant life.” One day she was showing how she “spot-cleans” her linens after every dinner party. I made careful note. Little things can help. The other morning when I woke up I told Ingrid I can’t live in a criminal country any more, and want to move to Denmark. She talks me out of it with no trouble, reminding me that I speak no Danish, and that I wouldn’t be able to call Marianne so freely. Marianne and I are practically related since we pushed our babies together in Washington Heights Park in another century. She can make me laugh even when nothing is funny. She is cheerfully in denial over her worst complaints, saying so herself. Ingrid points out that I’m healthy except for my foot. That may be true, but I’m going to die anyway, and I can’t run to the bus any more without pain, as the knee replacement writer declared of her new life under titanium. She now also has to garden sitting down — her precise words. I have a garden all right, but it’s situated on my window sills, and I have only to worry about walking there to water it. I wouldn’t dream of even trying to run for a bus. A dreadful story about a Frenchwoman whose face was clawed off by a dog in the middle of the night can make you feel that any grievance you have is completely unsupportable. In the world’s first face transplant, the woman got a new one from a woman who had just died! The dog was “destroyed.” We never say a human was destroyed. We might say they’ve been taken under arrest and never heard from again. Or that they died in a coal mine from having to wait too long to be rescued. While I worry about walking, coal miners are dying, and genocide is going on in Africa. In discussing the past, which of course is all we have with any certainty, people wonder if they did the best they could or not, and judge each other accordingly. The families of the twelve miners who died in West Virginia had several parties to blame: the owners of the hazardous mine; the failed rescuers; the informers who led them to believe during three joyous hours that their loved ones had survived when in reality they were dead. For a while, the clamor over this “lie” seemed equal to the shock and grief over the deaths. The media, implicated in the false information as one of its messengers, gave us this impression anyway, getting very involved in it, eager to locate its original source. Lies in America at large, over the “war” and the reasons for it, have been similarly however more sweepingly under investigation. Now that the lies have been exposed, people, government and media seem to have rested our case. After all, we’re over there now, so let’s forget about the lies, and go on killing people, theirs and ours, while trying to claim a victory, or bring the army home without losing face. We do not want a face transplant! And the families of loved ones who have died understandably want to see them as having served America honorably, not for nothing. They still think America (as known) exists. I don’t think so. Behind the war fictions can be found the false information that we still exist. The denial of our death is going to be big. Even my accepting friend Marianne, whose family once found refuge in America after escaping the Nazis, may have trouble with this one. Comic relief is available, for now anyway. One night David Letterman, quoting the 39% approval rating of our prez, then said, “The country wants to see him supplanted by Geena Davis.” A mixture of applause and laughter was real titanium stuff, i.e. replacement therapy. Letterman could have added that the country would welcome Geena’s script writers too. I hang on helpful lines, not just Martha’s. The phone rings. I pick up the receiver. There’s a pause. A Voice says, “Congratulations.” I hang up and have Ingrid shake my hand as she leaves for her office. More than just lines heave up, though not always remedial. I try out Mallomars, a comeback cookie, and can give expert testimony that they bear no remembered taste whatever to what they were in the 1940s when I gluttonized them throughout six years at boarding school. Good thing too, because I couldn’t eat them anyhow. I’m on a strict diet, which I break in ways that don’t include unadulterated sugar, except when a piece of pure chocolate comes my way. I do the best I can; you never can do any better. Under review, it may seem so, but when things are done and gone, we’re left with what happened, and with dealing with the consequences. I don’t confuse my ignorance — for instance of the reasons for lies — with my sense of safety. My fantasy is that an awakened population will proceed to Denmark, leaving America to the oligarchy that has overthrown it. Under re-forestation, they won’t last long, and Native Americans will justly reclaim the land. By Denmark I mean of course any good place. All the doctors are kind and attentive and know where to send you if they can’t help you themselves. I met a wonderful one recently, a rheumatologist, and just about fell into his arms, he was so unexpected. It wasn’t what he did or prescribed so much as his attitude. He had this old fashioned hippocratic spirit, making me feel I was worth taking care of, then sending me on to an orthopedic friend of his, a surgeon recently retired who looked up at me from under wise whitened brows, his head tilted a little, and murmured, “You know, people our age want to avoid surgery at all costs.” My insurance didn’t matter to them either. In my ur-country, nobody is uninsured because there is no insurance at all. Imagine that — health without proof that you or somebody can pay for it. Moving along, Media tells the truth, having left entertainment to the entertainers. Media doesn’t worry about pressure from the corporations, which have split up in a million pieces. Memoirs tell the truth too. Art is amazingly important and well made movies like ‘Brokeback’ feature not only men but women, all with happy endings! Teachers are paid more than baseball players and the environment comes absolutely before business and industry. I wear clothes outsourced in my own country. Our president is far from imperial, and she walks around without security, sort of like King Christian X in Denmark who rode his horse every morning throughout Copenhagen during the Nazi occupation in WWII, wearing the Star of David on his sleeve. Religion is utterly personal, in fact one religion per person is encouraged. Dogs are never “destroyed” — there’s some kind of court for them to see if they should be locked up and rehabilitated or what. Death penalties in general are remembered as relics of the brute ages. Sperm donors are fully identified in the original files so their children can find them later. Titanium people with healthier knees to chase after their grandchildren (as that knee replacement writer said proudly of herself) are exemplars of replacement therapy. Reruns of Oprah shows demonizing ageing look incomprehensible. No wars or invasions are allowed. Conflict resolution is as common as day and night, taught in school along with spelling and arithmetic. Parenting preparations begin at a young age. Children are learning about parenting and considering their options by first grade, also talking about how they see it working in their own homes. Finally, Marianne is just as happy as she was in America. And Swinging from Bells is widely practiced. ©Jill Johnston 2006; originally published on .

Andy Warhol captures a ‘Little Race Riot’ then tries to capture Jill Johnston Dancing: Art by Warhol + The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 5: Dance Quote Unquote: The Spirit of the Sixties

Jill Johnston (and friend), dancing, as (not entirely) captured by Andy Warhol. Image courtesy Jill Johnston.

Editor’s note We wanted to publish Warhol’s powerful image and Jill’s potent Johnston Letter separately but juxtaposed, but WordPress inserted a nice little ad in Hebrew between them selling who knows what, so, out of respect for both these artists, we’re publishing them in the same piece. Warhol’s “Little Race Riots” follows the riots Jill often created on stage as recalled by her including the one captured by Warhol above. Ladies first.

Author’s Note: This essay was originally commissioned by Sally Banes for her book “Reinventing Dance in the 1960s,” published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1999. This version has been revised and edited by the author.

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 Jill Johnston

Dear Sally,

I’m studying a list of performances I did during the 1960s, looking for a common thread, or at least some sweeping reason for having done them. There were 13 performances altogether, although two had only one audience member. That was Andy Warhol, who was shooting them as home movies. One took place the day of JFK’s funeral in November 1963 at Billy Kluver’s house in New Jersey. I doubt that it was premeditated, and I have no memory of what we were both doing there. But while the funeral was in progress on TV in the living room, Andy was shooting me in Billy’s muddy backyard running around in circles with a rifle slung over my shoulder, wearing a beret, a red jacket, cut-offs, and tall black boots. Afterwards, we drove into the city to a party where Larry Rivers, taken by my outfit, asked me to pose for him at his Chelsea Hotel studio for a painting as a Moon Woman. When he was finished I appeared life-size in one panel of a diptych; the other panel would be occupied by a painting of an astronaut in full gear. Was posing for Larry also a performance? I suppose so, by the lights of the sixties. But my list includes only dance-like or dance-contextualized activities. Or things that were Happenings, the form that a number of “dance” performances assumed then. Dance quote unquote was a leading conundrum of the day. If it was done at the Judson Church by the Judson Dance Theater, no matter what it was, it was called dance.

Running in circles, even or especially in the mud, was definitely an appropriate dance activity by Judson articles of faith. I never “danced” at Judson, though I presented an entire evening there, in 1962, before the first Judson Dance Theater performance in July of that year. I know someone asked me to do it. Probably Al Carmines, the Judson minister. I would never have offered or asked to do it myself. Had I heeded that fact, I wouldn’t have done anything when asked either. So there you have it. The whole evening was a nightmare, beginning with the martinis I consumed beforehand to dull the violent edges of my fear. The effect of course was to prolong the night’s agony, my multifaceted field of action involving quite a few people slowing down considerably while I performed under the influence. John Cage was there — the man we all believed had the last word on art then. And at the end he came up to tell me he wished he could be so “free.”

I doubt he meant that exactly. If he were that free we would never have known of him. He sought plenty of freedom in his work, but only after establishing structural conditions for it. “It” was widely called indeterminacy. Later that year John found me at a party wearing the same red dress in which I had staged my disorderly masterpiece at Judson, and asked me to perform with him and David Tudor in his 1958 piece, “Music Walk.” He intended perhaps to help me find some form. I could do whatever I wanted during the ten-minute length of the piece, but within limits imposed by his “score.” I must have felt buoyed up to realize that the primary responsibility was not going to be mine and that I would be appearing in very good company. How could anything go wrong? Moreover, I was billed as a “dancer,” lending me some legitimacy. “Music Walk” was originally for one or more pianists. Then in 1960, dancers were added, and the piece was retitled “Music Walk with Dancers.” John took it on tour with Tudor, and with Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown, the most legitimate dancers around. Now for our upcoming version, it would have yet another title: “Music Walk with Dancer.”

At home in my fifth-floor walk-up in Washington Heights, I puzzled over John’s “score.” I was free to select any number of activities. Then the order of their performance and allotted times for them would be determined through readings obtained by placing a transparent rectangle having five parallel lines over nine different sheets full of points. Harnessed finally in my red dress, armed with a stack of three-by-five index cards bearing the proper notations according to John’s score, and a carload of household equipment including a baby bottle, a toy dog on wheels, and a vacuum cleaner, I arrived at the theater — the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan — for a brief rehearsal before the performance. Right there something went wrong. My stack of cards came afoul of a pool of water, blurring the inked notations on them. After a moment of consternation I coolly abandoned them, and during the performance proceeded from station to station where my household items were set up, in whatever order occurred to me, and without much regard to time spent, except to stay within the ten-minute frame of the piece. John and David were all the while fiddling with their radio dials and monkeying around with the insides of a grand piano, following instructions on their own graphically immaculate, intact — of course — cards. Everyone seemed happy with the event until afterward, when we were partying at a restaurant and I told John, with a certain misplaced glee, about my accident with the cards. Learning that I had forsaken his score, he scolded me for not giving up my ego. He meant I suppose for not giving it up to him — an ulterior design I would grow to suspect of him.

My list tells me I became a para-Judson performer or dancer, a wall-flower in waiting for an opportunity, usually upon being asked, to create some disorder at large. There was one area, however, where I needed no invitation, and that was the world of parties, many of them in artists’ lofts, where I excelled at making rare spectacles of myself. My signature tableau vivant was hanging upside down on horizontal loft pipes close to the ceilings. A torn dress or a lost shoe was the expected result. Otherwise I was a very enthusiastic party dancer, making the most of the step or move du jour and of the new style of pretending to be dancing with a partner while really doing one’s own thing. As for performances proper, I never felt left out of the Judson Dance Theater, even though non-dancers along with dancers were acceptable or sought-after performers there. After all I was continually writing about Judson work at that time, and it would have been unseemly for the critic to be evaluating concerts in which she appeared. But opportunities arose to perform with the artists and dancers outside the inviolable space of the church.

One such chance was a series I produced at the Washington Square Art Gallery in August 1964. A carte blanche feeling about the situation evidently overcame me. People were away for the dog days; key members of the Judson scene were on tour dancing with Cunningham in Europe. I asked Yvonne Rainer, a captive on my program, to do an improvisation with me, and I suppose she could hardly say no. An evening that would live in downtown infamy was underway. Yvonne chose a lush operatic Berlioz to accompany us, perhaps with the intent to drown us out. By the time we started I was already drowning — in alcohol, a half of a fifth of vodka as I recall. Thus while I know I stayed on my feet in fulfilling my obligation to perform, I thankfully had and have total amnesia as to what transpired. A single photographic record shows me in dark shades hovering menacingly from the top of a gallery staircase, legs astride its ironwork, in black tights and my well-traveled tall black boots. I was, it seems, about to jump onto and kill Yvonne on the floor below, she at that moment having an intimate relationship with a gallery pillar, her arms wrapped lovingly around its circumference. Afterward I learned she was displeased, not with the event per se (necessarily), but with my need to perform blotto. I took the criticism to heart and never performed blotto again.

At the Buffalo Festival of the Arts in the spring of 1965 (here I had been asked to present Judson choreographers, and decided to include myself) I did another duet, this time with artist Robert Morris, and became very particular about its form. It seems I had learned something by then. He would build a structure onstage out of two-by-fours; it would have a horizontal crossbar strong enough to hold me when I got ready to hang from it, and unhinged enough to cause the whole structure and myself to crash to the floor. While Bob built this damage-worthy assemblage stage left, I busied myself stage right stuffing a box with crumpled newspapers, in preparation for making a daring leap into it from the height of a chair. That accomplished, I ambled over to Bob’s shaky skeletal frame and self-destructed on or with it — a finale that was surely fraught with significance, perhaps a dire warning about the future. I think I was very ill that evening with a Shanghai flu or something. Photographic evidence shows that I had advanced from the tall black boots to white pants. However, I was not through yet with the boots. They had been so serviceable. In June 1963 at the Pocket Theater on Third Avenue, I had done a really successful performance in them.

It was called “In an English Country Garden.” I had asked Malcolm Goldstein to sit onstage and play that famous tune over and over again on his violin. My garden was further set with a round tin tub of water afloat with artificial flowers. While Malcolm sawed away, I appeared in the boots and heavy black rain gear, a slicker hat and slicker coat, and stepped into the tub of water and flowers. Bob Morris in the meantime was walking down the aisle of the theater toward the stage dressed in a sheet with a sign on the back that read HILL. When he climbed onstage and approached the tub, he stood on a chair there (like a hill — get it?), produced a watering can from under his sheet, and sprayed its contents over my head. When his can was emptied I threw off my slickers, appearing in a skimpy black dress, and showered the audience with the soaked plastic flowers, tossed with much gusto and great merriment into its midst. The audience was happy (they were cheering and laughing); the next performers, David Gordon and Valda Setterfield, were not. The stage, I would hear later, had been flooded with water that they had had to mop up. Morris, by the way, has claimed that he was not costumed in a sheet at all but a kind of “hoop dress” of a beige color, with possibly suspenders or harness or bra on top. He remembers being like part of a bell. He felt “upholstered more than gowned.” I just cannot imagine how he could have been a “hill” in a hoop skirt. But with no photographic evidence, it’s his word against mine. Anyway, the piece was great. And it didn’t stop there. It went on into the night, an endless party at an Egyptian belly-dancing place where I got uncorked and became seized with the inspiration to dance like Isadora on a restaurant table, as I had read about her doing someplace in Europe or Russia. The black boots, of course, went there too.

And on to Los Angeles in the spring of 1965 at the L.A. County Museum, where curator Jim Elliott had invited Bob Rauschenberg to bring his Judson friends out to perform. We were kept for three weeks in an apartment on the pier over a merry-go-round. Besides Bob, Steve Paxton, Barbara Dilley, Trisha Brown, and Deborah and Alex Hay were there. We drove go-carts and played multiple competitive solitaire, whiling the time away until we had to perform. I never found out why I was included. But summoned within the clique, I gave my contribution my very best thought and put on a most organized effort, free of spilled substances and other unwanted disturbance. As a sort of guerilla performer, I seemed containable when asked “inside.” In October 1964, Allan Kaprow asked me to join a host of other performers in a presentation of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Originale” — a big, teeming Happening to take place at the Carnegie Recital Hall. Here a formless situation — a bewildering pileup of unconnected activities — became a prescription for unlimited lawlessness. Kaprow made the mistake of casting me as a “free agent,” and I got into all kinds of trouble there — denounced, for instance, by a painter and his wife for interfering in their act. On my own, one way or another, I was reliably unpredictable and reckless.

During 1967 and 1968, I presented three panels at New York University’s Loeb Student Center. The first was relatively conventional; the next was a deranged critique or commentary on panels. Lists of Q’s and A’s were passed out to panel members beforehand. Any Q could be answered by any A, to be interpreted at will. Steve Paxton, who was in the audience, remembers Barbara Dilley in a large turban walking a pig around; I remember Willoughby Sharp taking all his clothes off, and someone else parading or dancing across the long panel table. The plan called for replacing ourselves as panel members at random from the audience. A steady march toward anarchy was afoot from the start. I was shocked myself by the chaos I had let loose. A man at the back unleashed a scare, yelling “FIRE, FIRE, FIRE….” And a young woman, evidently new in town, began to have a public breakdown. I thought she was demonstrating, but Steve, who took her in hand to calm her, has told me that no, she was just pleading for humanity. My third NYU panel was my last performance of the sixties. It was 1968, by which time I had passed through various transitional fires.

All of which had led to an abandonment of criticism, and to a column representing my life. I was no longer split between serious writing and theatrical hijinks. Serializing my life, the things I now covered were completely self-generated. I was the performance; the writing was an extension of it, a running account and commentary. And freed of criticism, the writing got very twisted, guaranteeing a continuance of attention. My last panel at NYU, titled The Disintegration of a Critic, heralding this new life, or memorializing the old, called for my absence. Critic David Bourdon, armed with some of my phone bills and bank accounts, moderated it. Cellist Charlotte Moorman participated, accompanied by her cello; Andy Warhol was there, probably with recording equipment. And I don’t remember the rest — well except for John de Menil, the oil tycoon. I never tried to find out what they all said about me, if anything.

During the 1970s I continued performing, but now as a common lecturer at large. A microphone, I discovered, was a great crutch — lending confidence and shelter. A mike and a lectern were the only objects involved in the performances. I didn’t have to bring them, and they stood still like a house or a tree. I had had lots of trouble dealing with objects. I could just dance, no quotes around it. But the object-ridden sixties dictated dangerous collisions for someone like me, living essentially in her head. The general form of my lectures was a reading of my last column followed by audience questions or interaction. I construed these gigs differently from my presenters — universities most often. While addressing the radical subjects upon which I was invited to speak, I subversively viewed my writing as the raison d’appearance. Indeed, what else brought me there?

Love, Jill

©Jill Johnston 2005. In addition to the book “Reinventing Dance in the 1960s,” this essay has also been published in revised form on . First published on The Dance Insider in November 2005.

Andy Warhol goes to a ‘LIttle Race Riot’ in Chicago

Among the 44 works newly on view at the Art Institute of Chicago as part of its Contemporary Collection: Andy Warhol, “Little Race Riot,” 1964. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edlis/Neeson Collection. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 4: A Tale of Two Bells

“I see the bells as a silent scream.”

— Michael Gorra

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 Jill Johnston

First published on, and first syndicated, exclusively, on The Dance Insider in October 2005 — and more pertinent than ever today: Do any bells remain in Maripol? Photographs courtesy Jill Johnston.

Flying to Cologne September 14 for an art event, accompanied by Ingrid, I had an unexpected postwar experience at the foot of Cologne’s great Cathedral, its Dom. By “foot” I mean its vicinity, and I was always there. Our hotel was close by, and Museum Ludwig, site of the art event, a pebble’s throw away. The whole city really is in its vicinity because the structure looms everywhere, seen from all vantage points, a giant double-spired sentinel more omnipresent than our World Trade Towers were, or Empire State Building is. The Dom is very old, a structure begun in 1248, and everything way below it is new — or so it seems. In a British RAF “thousand-plane” raid March 30 1942, 90% of the city was firebombed and destroyed. Oh I’ve been in other German cities where I would look for what’s old, and notice the new. Hamburg, in 1943 one of the worst hit, leaving a charred city and 200,000 dead, was one of them. In Osnabruck for a day and a night I saw nothing old at all. I’ve been to Berlin, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt and Hanover. I’d visited Cologne once before, in 1993. But I never had an Experience, not in Germany anyway. In Britain I had the kind of emotional exculpation I’m talking about, a terrible seismic sadness, in Coventry, the midlands city firebombed the night of November 14 1940 by the Luftwaffe in a raid code-named “Operation Moonlight Sonata.” And I had it right on the Cathedral premises, or I should say the ruins. St. Michael’s, like the Dom in Cologne a medieval treasure, dated from the 1300s. All that’s left of the body of St. Michael’s are low decimated walls on three sides, and remains of a polygonal apse with tall arched open-to-the-air windows. Amazingly, its head — tower and spire, rising 295 feet — survived. Like the Dom, it’s another sentinel, here overlooking an impressive carcass, a cross at opposite end fashioned from scorched beams that fell in the November 1940 carnage; and something brand new — a shockingly modern cathedral joined by porch and built perpendicularly to the ruins, dedicated in 1962. Such an enormous architecturally necrologic “birth,” literally from the side of the ruins, was what undid me. I experienced this in 1976. After Cologne last month, I could draw a straight line between the two cities, the perfect zoom lines you see in airplane magazine maps. At home and as of yesterday I’m adding Lubeck, a moderate-sized city in northern Germany on the Baltic Sea, a place I’ve never been. Reading and scanning a book someone gave me that had been lying about in my apartment since the end of summer, showing up unaccountably here and there, I found Lubeck in it. If my lines were finer, and maps more accommodating, they would pinpoint my special interest in these cities of the Dom in Cologne, the ruins of St. Michael’s in Coventry, and most recently the Marienkirche in Lubeck. All three were damaged, one beyond repair, in a war of unprecedented terror against civilians, including six million singled out for special annihilation as Jewish, and all three have extraordinary bells. The ones in Cologne and Coventry survived, but of Lubeck’s pre-war tower bells there are only two, and these are fallen mementos, lying just where they crashed — in a wrecked but somehow aesthetic configuration, under the south tower in the Marienkirche. They are pictured in a photo on the cover of the book I finally got around to investigating. An American professor of English, Michael Gorra, wrote about his travels in Germany after spending a sabbatical year there. Books by professors are not my normal fare, but the photo, and title, “The Bells in their Silence,” could be a curiosity even for those not incurably habituated to these bronze shapes the way I am. For myself though, I’ve passed up many literary references, always quoted to invoke the romance of bells — Dante, Longfellow, Byron, Tennyson and Shakespeare among them — and Gorra’s title seemed fairly belletristic. It took my recent trip to Cologne to make the war connection. Gorra’s beautiful fallen image from Lubeck, embedded in the richly muted grey-green colors of his jacket cover, must be the memento of his travels, the symbol of his search for what Germany once was and has become: a replete civilization, a land of rubble and devastation, finally of buried memories. One month after Lubeck in 1942, Cologne became Germany’s second city to be firebombed and depopulated by Allied forces. I was there this September to attend the opening of artist George Brecht’s retrospective at Museum Ludwig. Brecht, an ex-pat American and old friend, now 79, has lived in Cologne since 1972. Strangely, or not perhaps, he never appeared at his opening (an event marking an exhibition that’s a major deal for an artist whose work has been dedicated to showing that life is more important than art), and I replaced him, as I fancy now, with the city’s colossal Dom, the tips of whose spires we could see over a lush growth of trees from our hotel windows. The din of its bells had me excitedly opening the windows, leaning way out and shooting pictures. It would be through postcards — black and white pictures dated 1945 — that I realized I was staying in a vast war memorial, buried under the rebuilt city, hidden in the Dom by seamless repairs. Here is a postcard showing the skeletons of burnt and roofless buildings from the heights of the Dom. Here is another, of the Dom’s high Gothic interior — its floor a chunky mass of marble and wooden debris. While we were basking briefly on the Rhine one afternoon, I shot a pretty crescent-shaped iron bridge, later finding a postcard picturing the same bridge, the Hohenzollern in 1945, twisted and broken, half submerged in the river, the Dom looming in the background. At home I made a before-and-after photo album, anchored at the end by a postcard image of Cologne’s magnificent swinging bell, St. Peter, tuned to a deep C, at 24,000 kilograms Europe’s largest, inscribed: “St. Peter is my name of birth,/I protect the German earth;/Sprung of German agony,/I raise my voice for unity.”
I presume this “agony” is of that earlier conflagration, the Great War, since St. Peter was cast in 1923. If you have no fear of heights or claustrophobic spiral stone staircases, you could climb 509 steps to see it. Imagine a bell of that magnitude falling like Gorra’s two, and from the Dom’s dizzying summit, 157.38 meters tall. Left as a memorial, to see its shattered remains you would be peering over the edge of a deep crater. “What altar,” Gorra writes of Lubeck’s bells, “could compete with this twisted mass of bronze?” He had originally been drawn to the city because of a literary hero, Thomas Mann, born and raised there. Now he was making his last of many visits to Lubeck before returning to the States. And he saw something in the Marienkirche he had never seen before: “… a gleam of silver in the corner of my eye, and I turned to see two stainless steel spikes, put one against the other in the shape of a cross, the NAIL CROSS OF COVENTRY IT’S CALLED, MADE OUT OF METAL FROM THE RUINS OF COVENTRY’S CATHEDRAL: a gesture of reconciliation from the city that Hitler destroyed to the one on which the British took vengeance.” (Upper case mine.) So Lubeck was Britain’s first catastrophic incendiary strike against Germany — a year and four months following the demolition of Coventry. After 234 aircraft dropped 144 tons of firebombs and 160 tons of high explosives, at least half of Lubeck was destroyed. The Marienkirche had a gaping hole where its spires had been, and its roof had been blown off. I found a phone number for Gorra and put in a call to him after reading about the “nail cross,” wondering if he knew that the altar in Coventry’s new cathedral bears the same kind of cross, made of nails salvaged from the same ruins, its own. No he didn’t. Then I rushed in where fools might, imagining that bells in general, like those at Coventry or Cologne, alive and swinging, should interest him. However, the last line in his book reads, “Other bells may ring, but these (Lubeck’s) will stay silent.” He seems clearly to rest his involvement here. In their “silent scream,” Gorra finds Germany’s culpability (“… the curse that the Nazis laid upon their own house”), and his personal sorrow for the German people. In his moving words and through my discoveries in Cologne, I find my own lament. Ingrid, while traveling through Germany in 1954 with her Danish parents, saw Cologne’s ruins from the tower of the Dom, 509 steps up. She quotes her mother as saying, “This is what happens when people don’t get along.” Is this an understatement, or what? Why, I have asked, did Cologne’s Dom, damages withal, remain standing? And why, you might ask, am I so interested in these Christian edifices? I am not and have never been a Christian, and I find the history of Christianity appalling (as what thinking person does not?). The answer to both my questions lies in the bells. I’m not interested in dinner bells or hand-bells or cowbells or bell telephone, only bells in towers, and many of these, such as university towers, are secular. The Dom in Cologne survived because of St. Peter and his nine companions, several of Middle Ages vintage. It may be hard for Americans to understand how important bells are in European countries. Other traditions were imported to America, but not the concept of Europe’s consummate and ubiquitous bell population, an indispensable spiritual voice of the people — independently of religious faith or ideology. As Europe was in flames, many bells were saved by tacit or open agreement between opposing forces. In one such pact, the Allies consented not to bomb the great swinging peal in Cologne Cathedral if the Axis spared Belgium’s historic carillon in Mechlin. Many historic carillons in the Netherlands, France and Germany, were thus saved. But many carillons and swinging peals did perish, or were stolen to be melted down for armaments. Over 100,000 bells were deposited in holding areas in Hamburg and other German cities.
Thirty of these ended up in Lubeck’s rebuilt tower of the Marienkirche after the war. They had belonged originally to a 36-bell carillon in Gdansk (Danzig), Poland. When Hitler annexed Gdansk in 1939, a key moment in the outbreak of war, he pirated the contents of the city’s towers. The story goes that Lubeck received its gift in thanks for hosting many postwar refugees from Gdansk. Now I can extend my zoomy airplane magazine lines to a city in Poland, not a place I could previously even envision on a map. But I return always to Coventry for my signature experience of an event I would never know first-hand, not until September 11 2001 when I saw our Towers in New York come down. And Coventry held a second coming for me. In May of 2002, Ingrid and I were approaching St. Michael’s tower and steeple when a huge ruckus filled the air. A band of change-ringers holding ropes to 14 bells was making the most stupendous ear-rending cacophony. I never knew that bells existed here at all. They ring out wildly over St. Michael’s ruins and new cathedral body — a resurrection and the life.

©Jill Johnston 2005; originally published on .

The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 3: Be Ready for Anything

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 Jill Johnston

First published on, and first syndicated, exclusively, on The Dance Insider in September 2005. A founder of the New Journalism that flourished in the 1960s and author of numerous books, Jill Johnston was the first dance critic of the Village Voice and, as such, the first to chronicle the Judson Church movement of the ’60s that would revolutionize dance and the performing arts in the United States and beyond.

Dear Paul, Thanks for those tickets to the Mostly Mozart festival at Lincoln Center to see Mark Morris. Before taxiing uptown I was sitting with Ingrid outside our house, dressed to go, a large colorful woven bag slung over my shoulder, saying I didn’t think I could make it. She talked me into it by saying that if when we got there I didn’t want to go, we could turn around and come home. I’m not agoraphobic exactly, but really when I go anyplace besides the neighborhood it’s to get in our car and drive out of the city. I go uptown once in a while for some appointment or other. Driving out is not always wonderful. Last week at the height of our torrid humid summer, imagining we would beat the heat at 9 a.m., we drove to IKEA near Newark just for the treat of their cafeteria-served Swedish shrimp over egg mayo on lightly toasted bread. That was my goal anyway. Ingrid toured the furnishings with Joye, a friend who lives next door. I stayed in the cafeteria. They didn’t buy anything, and we forgot that by the time we drove home the temperature would soar to 100, and our car a-c, currently delivered by a fan from Garber’s Hardware 5 inches in diameter made of rubber blades and plugged into the cigarette lighter outlet, while causing much witless laughter was not gonna keep us from expiring. It was some event of this nature that made me fearful of going to the New York State Theater to see Mark Morris. I wasn’t sure what precisely but once we were inside and collected our tickets at the press table (so nice by the way to be called “Jill” smilingly by the young man who handed them to us) and found our seats, it became clear. It was culture shock. I’ve been leading lives without number in a secure sequestered space enjoying my stereo Mozart and a proscenium that lights up 20 inches in front of me and performs whatever I want to say. In our brief existence suspended between two vast eternities, we can have lacunas in time causing culture shocks we’ve already had over the same thing. No, but this was different. It’s always different. Driving out of town is too of course. We went to the same lake in Massachusetts we did last summer but this time I wanted to come right back home. The air was as unfit and unbreathable up there as here, and if I have to stay in the house a-c the whole time I’d rather be home where the things around me are mine. Jumping in the lake was out of the question. My son Richard who lives nearby on an adjoining lake spied a loch ness turtle out there. He was looking at it through high-powered binoculars. I ran so to speak over to see for myself, picking up the binoculars in time to behold some prodigiously spreading rings made by its dive. Ingrid wanted to stay at the lake in order to lie in the scorching sun — when it did come out, which wasn’t often. My journal entries for those days say things like, “The sun struggles to come out,” or “Now the skies are uncertain,” or “The sky is whitish blue, not the blue of a totally out sun.” When it was totally out you can be sure Ingrid was lying under it, while I was hiding from it. As I believe you know, she is Danish, and Danes have to have the sun after their wretchedly long dark winters. It’s in their DNA. I was in the meantime discovering a new sleep agent. I could put on a favorite film video, turn off the sound, and fall insensible both on and through it, right to the end oblivious even during and after it has rewound itself. I recommend this only if you love the film dearly and you know the entire script by heart. At home, when my Mozart-saturated environment is over for the day, and I have watered my avocado plants (the big one replanted in an awesome pot by my daughter Winnie has turned into a forest!) and gone to my gym and had dinner and read some literature, I turn to the TV proscenium in the bedroom. At Lincoln Center, sitting in our presidential seats dead center of the first row mezzanine looking at the real thing, surrounded by the highbrow masses exuding the anticipatory fervor of ancient amphitheaters, I swooned and nearly fainted. I’m not exaggerating. You can ask Ingrid. Recovering a semblance of myself, I studied all the program notes, showing me that the entire brilliant career of Mark Morris from 1984 on — including our evening’s “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” to Handel’s 1740 choral work and considered Morris’s unrivaled masterpiece — has been going on without my knowledge. After seeing him at BAM in 1984, his first concert in a large “mainstream” theater, I realized I could exist without him. The work was campy and set to the music — the former I had had enough of in, say, Jimmy Waring’s dances, the latter I thought had been put to rest in the modrin dance idiom by Merce Cunningham. (Can’t Isadora’s descendants be called something in these post-post-post times besides “modern”?) Morris in ’84 looked to me regressively Humphreyish at her musical best. The musical Balanchine I never counted because he came fully formed from the European traditions. The morning after Morris, at my coffee shop I saw an actor friend Phil Levy who came in wearing a T-shirt that read “RACQUET BACK.” When I asked him what that meant, he said, “Be ready for anything.” Is that a great shirt or what? I am coming gradually to the point, having delayed saying that over the Morris I had an epiphany, and that at intermission I wanted to leave, telling Ingrid I can’t stand too much beauty. I don’t really listen to my Mozarts, or my Handels; they are Satie-like “furniture music,” a heraldic backdrop to my writing productions. Dance is something you obviously have to look at. It won’t help you write or paint or just get by living; it will only distract you. But I wasn’t simply looking at “L’Allegro.” In some deep inaccessible part of my brain I was busy thinking, trying to tame the beauty, i.e., make it mine. A perfect predictability in knowing that the dance sequences are going to slavishly imitate the music is constantly confounded by the surprise and suspense of their invention. Oh I could go on. But I’m eager to reveal my long sleep over dance history. A shorthand version goes like this: In the 1970s I left town and lived with rivers and birch trees, writing my way out of a cul de sac; in the 1980s I returned to town and started seeing and writing about things again. Pluralism in aces now rained. I saw no through-line in the American dance tradition, except for the inspired and sustained minimalism of Lucinda Childs’s ensemble work. The premiere in 1988 of Morris’s “L’Allegro” would have stopped my unending lament. The grand emotionalism of “the old days,” pre-Cunningham (and I don’t mean the story-telling), parallel to the abstract eloquence of Mozart, Handel et al, was back. Now of course I’m a sort of computer potato, putting out an awful lot of emotion over the performances on my screen. Then there are the videos. Recently I acquired the six volumes of “Brideshead Revisited” — the saddest damn story in the whole world. But we drive out to see turtles and humming birds and eat Swedish salads and stuff like that and now I can say I saw the greatest dance in America, bar none. Thanks again for the tickets. Best regards, Jill J

©Jill Johnston 2005; originally published on . Click here to read The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 1 on the Dance Insider, and here to read Number 2.