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

Jill bells group

“I see the bells as a silent scream.”

— Michael Gorra

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 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 and syndicated exclusively on the Dance Insider. Photos courtesy Jill Johnston. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here.


The Johnston Letter: “Cunningham belongs to that great shift of focus — from representation to the concentration on materials — which is so central to the revolution in art in this century….”

By Jill Johnston
Copyright Jill Johnston 2009

(Originally published in the Village Voice and Art in America and reprinted by permission of the author, whose many milestones include being the first dance critic of the Village Voice – and thus the oracle of Judson.  Dance Insider subscribers get access to five years of the Jill Johnston Letter, as well as 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading critics of performances around the world from 1998 through 2015.  Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for just $29.95/year by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. If the Merce Cunningham Dance Company no longer exists, the Cunningham works “How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run,” previously performed in Paris by the company, “Inlets 2,” and “Beach Birds” will be reprised next May 30 – June 2 at the Theatre National de la Danse Chaillot (across the river from another monument, the Eiffel Tower) by the company of the  Centre national de danse contemporaine d’Angers (whose recent directors include the influential Emmanuelle Huynh), featuring veteran Cunningham dancer Ashley Chen. Today’s publication sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock Dance .)

It is not easy to see. Outside the theater, living as we do, most of us see very little with our eyes wide open…. It is rare to see more than a general outline. Or to see more and still enter. That is the crucial transition, from seeing to entering. Not only crucial but mysterious, so I won’t say any more except to note that I think most people who go to dance concerts don’t see very well, not even dancers, sometimes dancers especially, and most often critics, who must attend special classes in becoming blind.

Mr. Cunningham presented a new dance, “Aeon,” almost 50 minutes long, to a score by John Cage and with decor by Robert Rauschenberg. “Aeon” is a dance of great scale. It moves through so much, in range of quality, physical force, the human condition, that the whole thing is staggering to think of in retrospect. Human events: the activity of dancers on a proscenium stage. Other human events: the ways people communicate with each other, or speak for themselves. Exterior events: explosions, clouds, lights, a machine, sounds. And always the dancing, the superb dancing. The stillness too, which is never a mere choreographic stop, but an act of undaunted containment, of simple yet magnificent composure, of not-being which is the essence of being. A complete act, not a choreographic or dramatic transition.

Cunningham’s own range in this dance is fantastic. Not only those typical sudden shifts from motion to stillness, but the subtle gradations of energy (I have a vivid memory of an ‘incident’ originating as a vibration in the thighs, transferred to the stomach, traveling upward to the arms and shoulders and exploding like a geyser at the top); not to mention all the complicated coordinations, and wordless drama that every movement event secretes.

Cunningham is a great dancer, and you know it not by his technical range and command alone; you feel it in the whole man, the whole man is in it every time. You may see a procession of selves and the man never makes a move not true to himself.

— From “Dance: Cunningham in Connecticut,” The Village Voice, September 7, 1961.

The exclusion of Cunningham this summer, despite the anniversary, despite the fact that Limon is a charter member of the whole affair and that Graham is almost a national monument, is a sad reminder of how impossible it is at any moment in a history of anything for certain (controlling) groups of people to see where a thing is going, to put their fingers on the heartbeat of a movement…. Maybe New London should stick to a museum policy only. In this category they can hardly miss. And Limon and Graham easily command the field where statues are in question. They both have attitudes about themselves and about dancing that have more to do with the glory of Greece and grandeur of Rome than they do with life in America at the present moment.

— From “DANCE: New London,” The Village Voice, August 30, 1962.

The dance world is embarrassingly backward. Cunningham should pack Philharmonic Hall for a week at least. He has no peer in the dance as a consummate artist. Moreover, he continues to be abreast, if not in advance of all recent developments…. Cunningham belongs to that great shift of focus — from representation to the concentration on materials — which is so central to the revolution in art in this century…. The curious thing about this kind of dancing is that emotion is created by motion rather than the reverse, which is the traditional view of modern dance. But since there is no specified emotion, I believe that what you feel in the movement is the impact of a total action. Each movement means only itself and it moves you by its pure existence, by being so much itself. It is Cunningham’s magic as a performer to make every action a unique and complete experience. The gesture is the performer, the performer is the gesture.

— From “DANCE: Cunningham, Limon,” The Village Voice, September 5, 1963.

In the 1980s Cunningham presents a profile of extremes. His iconoclastic approach to choreography (launched in the ’50s in collusion with Cage) — the dance and music co-existing in a common time frame, but otherwise independent of each other; the application of chance procedures to the movement itself; the defocusing of the space in an allover look, no element supposedly more important than another — is still state-of-the-art work. And where Cunningham sees examples of work by younger choreographers in which dance movement is measured in meter, to the music, or in which movement appears to represent anything other than itself, he will characterize it as 19th-century work. Yet in some respects Cunningham himself exhibits 19th-century characteristics. In the ’50s, and even in the ’60s, this 19th-centuryness could hardly have been apparent, if at all, because the deep, or a priori, structure of the work, the gender-given aspect, still went unquestioned, and was therefore invisible.

Conscious gender play has in the meantime entered into the choreographic considerations of a number of younger artists (among them David Gordon, Mark Morris, Steve Paxton, Lucinda Childs). But Cunningham himself clearly continues not to question this ‘deep structure.’ Most apparent, and most boring, in the range of male/female breaching in his work is the predictable lift. “Roratorio,” with its extensive social partnering, has more than the full complements of lifts to be expected in a Cunningham dance. Again, he inherits this convention from the ballet, yet generally the way his men lift or carry or place or drag his women is much more like a vestigial echo of the ballet than anything resembling the no-nonsense support of the ballerina for the purpose of exposing her line and ‘sex’ and sweeping her through pedestals in the air. Although Cunningham’s manipulations of women are comparatively matter-of-fact, frequently like an afterthought, en passant really, they still appear to affirm, if only perfunctorily, the assumed dependency, weakness, helplessness, etcetera, of women. Certainly, his women remain armless in this way, except in the conventional decorative sense. But Cunningham would no doubt say that lifting is, simply, along with leaps, jumps, turns, etc., part of the raw material of his medium, something that bodies can do on stage, and to which he can apply his chance operations, obtaining the most interesting variations in rhythm and sequence.

“Roratorio,” like all Cunningham’s dance, brims with the most wonderful changes in speed, direction, rhythm, dynamics, groupings, as the whole piece moves stage left to right, in a linear action (not, incidentally, unlike the circular structure of “Finnegans Wake”), finally exiting to the right as the dancers carry off the seven or so stools that accompany them as they traverse the space. But the one variation you won’t find is in the lifting of women. Men always lift women, or “girls,” as Cunningham calls them throughout “The Dancer and the Dance,” the excellent book of interviews with him by Jacqueline Lesschaeve. And these days, no doubt because Cunningham, in his late 60s has lost even a hint of virtuosity in his own dancing (he essentially walks, and gestures), the vigor and expansiveness in his work is all projected through the males in his company.

At one time, say as late as 1972, when Carolyn Brown quit the company, Cunningham’s men and women were at least technically somewhat closer together. He had more mature women dancing with him then, not only technically accomplished (Brown was of prima quality) but with interesting character as well, and he and the men also of course were nearer in age. Now there are great gaps in his demography. He is 67, one of his men is 40, the rest are in their early 30s, and 20s. His men are fun to watch, his women are good, certainly attractive, but only Cunningham, immobile and arthritic as he is, carries the weight of character, of presence, of the necessary eccentric factor, that makes any company great. The general impression is of a marvelous gaunt grandfather tree, craggy and leafless, weathered and patinated, amazing in its knotty configurations, its sheer endurance, sticking way up over a band of brightly colored acorns dancing at the foot of its trunk.

There was a certain perfect reverberation between Cunningham, on stage, and Cage, in his box, in “Roratorio.” Cage delivered his Joyce text like some hoary old poet; Cunningham appeared on stage like some ancient satyr. And the panoply of noise along with the explosion of movement that surrounded them invoked that great line of Thomas: “Do not go gentle….”

— From “Jigs, Japes, and Joyce,” Art in America, January 1987.

The DI, Year One: The Return of Jill Johnston — Our Man in Flat Iron Sees Anthony Through Her Eyes

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2000 Chris Dohse

NEW YORK — Forgive me, I’ve spent the weekend reading Jill Johnston and I am madly inspired to wonder how many postmodern angels fit on the head of a pin. Therefore I’m going to write the next several hundred words pretending to be her, circa 1965.

Ariane Anthony resembles Buster Keaton as much as Mary Wigman. I mean Ariane Anthony’s quality when performing quizzes Keaton and Wigman in equal proportions. Ariane Anthony & Company make Ausdruckstanz that riffles through Twentieth Century Avant-Garde “Isms” like a rack of thrift store bargains. It is a quirkfest and I like it.

To receive the rest of the article, first published on May 9, 2000, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2016, plus five years of the Jill Johnston Letter. Just designate your PayPal payment to, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $129 (institutions) Purchase by February 28, 2017 and receive a second, free copy for the recipient of your choice. Contact Paul at .

Charleston Diary 1: Writing about art as art

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2011, 2017 Chris Dohse

First published on May 28, 2011, re-publication of this article on Dance Insider is sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance & Freespace Dance .

NEW YORK — In a few hours I leave for Charleston. Preparing my body-mind-heart to write again. I haven’t revealed myself in this way, stripped off my skin and displayed the stinking gut of my brain, for nearly three years, except for a few lackadaisical posts on my blog, Know Your Own Bone.   I’ll be dispatching daily or periodic blog entries about my experience attending 10 days of the Spoleto Festival. I got my press badge through the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager, and I’ll link simultaneously to Know Your Own Bone, for perhaps slightly altered entries.

The container of the experience will be simply being again in my beloved Charleston, the city of my becoming (1981-1985), and how do I even talk about that. It’s physically painful, the throb of nostalgia, regret, the solipsistic regret. The smell of pluff mud transports me to a ditzy 23 years old. Many of the houses are gone where I had my joys and sorrows, my starving hysterical naked love affairs. They were wiped away by Hurricane Andrew. Many of the lovers are dead.

Secondary will be throwing myself again into the fray of critical discourse. Will it go tits up or nipples to the wind I wonder.

I approached Dance Magazine and Musical America to see if there was any interest in placing traditionally formatted reviews of specific shows in either place. Both said no…. Dance projects that aren’t premieres have already been reviewed and music projects are being covered by someone else. I don’t want to write that deadening format any more anyway but I thought I could make a few bucks. At this point in my life, I feel finished with the objective journalistic who-what-when-where of the traditional review. It’s just another form of advertising that serves no one except the artists who maybe get a pull quote for their next post card. Buy me! Consume me! The New York Times/Village Voice deems me worthy!

But wait. As Burroughs said, the ultimate addiction is to being right. And now already here I am, scrambling in one of my hamster wheels again, the rung of sour-grape festooned hell reserved for sufferers of post-traumatic embitterment disorder.

So what is it I aspire to write if not “deadening journalism”? Let’s see if I can gather and clarify my thoughts on the subject. What is my project anyway? I thought I’d like to call it dharmic criticism. Then I came up with non-canonical post-historicism. I think I’d feel proud if I could produce subjective, performative writing — like Jill Johnston or Gary Indiana — that captures everything in the constellation of my identity. (See elsewhere in these DI Archives for writings from Jill Johnston.) The stuff I’ve spent my life studying: praxis, theory, and the history of visual art, theater, and dance. Through the lens of the rest of the stuff I’ve spent my life studying: the bottom rung of the ladder, the gutter, frailty, falling down and getting up, getting laid and getting high, passion, art, radiant hootenanny happiness, enduring love.

“A woman like that is not ashamed to die. I have been her kind.”

–Anne Sexton

And what the hell does this writing look like and can it be accessible? Wikipedia tells me that performative writing is mostly feminist. I’m okay with that. But the entry sounds a bit surly: “It [performative writing] is often loosely semi-autobiographical, free-flowing in an ersatz stream-of-consciousness mode, and heavily informed by Left wing critical theory, but arises ultimately from linguistic ideas around performative utterances.” It cites Peggy Phelan, whose writing is about as penetrable as week-old pumpernickel. If I need to puzzle and puzzle till my puzzler is sore to understand it, what good is it? Why does it exist except to exalt the ego of its utterer? And how the hell can stream-of-consciousness be ersatz exactly?

I think I once wrote in Movement Research Performance Journal that I wanted people to read my writing because I wrote it. Otherwise it wouldn’t be criticism but program notes.

Since then I’ve spent time clarifying:

* The body in the body

*Feelings in feelings

*Mind in mind

*Phenomena in phenomena

I have stumbled across the idea of listening with my tongue. This is my invention entirely. I was at a program at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra on Meads Mountain to receive a reading transmission from Lama Karma Drodul. We had been instructed to absorb or receive these texts with our hearts, to allow them to fill our hearts, and I had been experiencing a lot of tension in my jaw and throat. An acupuncturist there mentioned that Tibetan medicine considers the tongue to be connected to the back of the heart, so I tried receiving the sacred sounds with my lolling tongue — like an open-throated baby bird with a song in the bottom of its heart reverberating with the sound of Lama’s Tibetan phonemes.

Since then I’ve been experimenting with grokking art objects and performances this way, just kind of hanging out with and corresponding to them. It seems to help remind me that everything is exactly as it should be, if you slow down enough to notice.

I’ve learned a distinction between judicious criticism and judgmental criticism, as defined by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who has written: “So how do you know if your criticism is going to be judicious? Ask yourself four questions before you say it:

*Is it true?

*Is it beneficial?

*Is this the right time and place to say it?

*Am I the right person to be saying it?”

*I’m not clear who receives this benefit. I’ll be working that out as my writing gets read again and people send me death threats or marriage proposals. Is criticism “for” the reader, me, other people who saw the thing I’m criticizing, the object I’m criticizing, or its maker?

I used to categorize my interaction with the world as expression and relationship. Now I prefer the words response and connection.

Brenda Dixon Gottschild said something once, and I’ve paraphrased her many times in trying to understand the role of a person who writes about art and who wants that writing to be considered art: “Criticism is a response to a primary source, a kind of choreography for the page.” I would go further. I want to make friends with the performers in this hard-copy choreography of mine. The elements of personal memory, the absorbed knowledge of history and context and nomenclature, the goddam canon, the images that come unbidden — Joni Mitchell’s lyrics or Tenniel’s Alice illustrations, Plath Sexton Giorno, budding virions, sluts, slatterns, the performance of gender as an imitation for which there is no original (thank you Judith Butler), the ersatz stream-of-consciousness, my ongoing unflinching gaze at despair.

Who am I ideally writing for, other than myself, because I’m fond of the flatulent sound of my precious voice? I’d like to speak to and for the Queers, the fatties and pizza faces, the wallflowers, the Ichabods, the disease-riddled whores with hearts of gold, the androgynes with bird-like wrists, the flatsies, the tomboys, the unseen, the unclean, the doomed the damned the dead.

In other words, the people David Gere referred to, in his book How to Make Dances in an Epidemic, as “women, freaks, and marginalized others.”

So that’s it. What am I hoping to do? How am I hoping to do it? And who is it for? As Chiang Kai-shek said to Henry Kissinger, when asked what impact the Napoleonic Wars had had on world events, “It’s too soon to tell.”

Deaths and resurrections

jilly-dancesNew York City Ballet in Jerome Robbins’s “Dances at a Gathering.” Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

Girl with a Black Mask in a Red Room,” 2005. Acrylic on canvas in handmade metal frame. By and ©Jo Ellen Van Ouwerkerk, courtesy Woodward Gallery, New York.

Copyright 2011, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK — After a temporary blip in my bludgeoning, er, burgeoning French theatrical career Friday night — Sam Bernhardt, c’est moi — I was glad to be back in the cultural thick of things Saturday, finding myself sitting next to Meredith Monk at Judson Church on Washington Square for the afternoon’s Gathering in Tribute to (late DI contributor) Jill Johnston, a genuine gathering of the tribes, and School of American Ballet legend Suki Schorer Saturday night for an impeccable “Dances at a Gathering.” Add a Lower East Side interlude at the Woodward Gallery on Eldridge Street, where painter Jo Ellen Van Ouwerkerk not only made the scene but made her own frames, and there was once more reason to believe that New York is still a many-splendored helluva town and art capital, with a rich past and cause to be confident in its future.

To receive the rest of the article, first published February 1, 2011, including more images, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check or in Euros. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $129 (institutions) Purchase before February 14, 2017 and receive a second, free copy for the recipient of your choice. Contact Paul at .

The Johnston Letter: Merce, Historical –‘The whole man is in it every time’

By Jill Johnston
Copyright Jill Johnston 2009, 2017

(Editor’s Note. January 9, 2017: By the majesty of her writing, perspicacity of her insight, and scope of her perspective, which transcended the typically insular universe of most of her contemporaries in post-Denby, pre-Dohse dance criticism, Jill Johnston elevated post-modern dance to a position of equal footing with larger modern and post-modern movements with observations like, here: “Cunningham belongs to that great shift of focus — from representation to the concentration on materials — which is so central to the revolution in art in this century….” Originally published in the Village Voice and Art in America and first reprinted on the DI, by permission of the author, in May 2009.)
It is not easy to see. Outside the theater, living as we do, most of us see very little with our eyes wide open…. It is rare to see more than a general outline. Or to see more and still enter. That is the crucial transition, from seeing to entering. Not only crucial but mysterious, so I won’t say any more except to note that I think most people who go to dance concerts don’t see very well, not even dancers, sometimes dancers especially, and most often critics, who must attend special classes in becoming blind.

To get the rest of the article, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015, as well as five years of the Jill Johnston Letter. To subscribe via PayPal, just designate your payment to, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check, Euros, or British pounds. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $129 (institutions). Purchase before January 15 and receive a second, free copy for the recipient of your choice. Contact Paul at .

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