The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 5: Dance Quote Unquote: The Spirit of the Sixties

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 Jill Johnston

(First published on The Dance Insider in November 2005. Subscribers contact Dance Insider publisher Paul Ben-Itzak to access more Jill Johnston. 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.)

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 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, 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 KarlheinzStockhausen’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

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