Judson & Johnston, together again, III: “Bach” and A Lotta Who Shot John

momajudsonrainer smallFrom the exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done, running at the Museum of Modern Art through February 3: Al Giese’s photograph of Yvonne Rainer’s “Bach” from Terrain, 1963. Performed at Judson Memorial Church, New York, April 28, 1963. © Estate of Al Giese/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2006 Jill Johnston

(Today’s re-posting of this article — first published on the DI/AV in 2006 as the Johnston Letter, Volume 2, Number 2 — in conjunction with the Museum of Modern art exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done,  is sponsored by Slippery Rock Dance . Like what you’re reading? Please consider making a donation to the DI/AV today by designating your donation through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check.)

I had a one-person organization a few years ago called FUM, meaning Fed Up [With] Media. I got the word from “Fee Fie Foe Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishmun.” It would be a cover for writing letters to media objecting to everything. But I never did. I’m agitated enough just trying to sleep at night. A friend called me and said, “What’re you up to?” and I said, “Surviving.” Driving down the West Side Highway, I told Ingrid, who keeps changing lanes and racing cars a lot newer than ours, “I seriously don’t feel well.” Having established that, I looked ahead and noticed an SUV license plate right in front of us. It said “SURVIVOR.” I took it personally. After talking quite a bit with people about medical issues, I made up a fantasy organization that I haven’t tried to name. I see the country crisscrossed by networks of friends and families, online printouts in hand, filibustering to help each other survive the medical profession. And of course the insurance companies which have sold us down their rivers. At my gym one day, I accosted a young man wearing a bright green T-shirt with white lettering reading, “I am a doctor, don’t trust me,” asking him if he was in fact a doctor. He was, he said, smiling broadly and meaningfully. It’s nice to see art work in the gym. While I was watching The View the other morning, admittedly a really decadent thing to be looking at, esp. at 11 a.m., I had a FUM moment. The View is that unscripted free-for-all kaffeeklatch of four or five women led by the ageless Barbara Walters. Barbara was regaling her three fellow klatchers, who sort of huddle together parabolically on a couch or around a table constantly interrupting each other, with the great time she had had at the White House amongst the Kennedys celebrating the Special Olympics. She had been one of a hundred privileged guests. Special Olympics is a body we all hail and believe in, but Barbara’s explanation of how it came into being was scandalously omissive, and touched on one of my noir issues, i.e., the one where I can’t bear what happened to someone I never knew, and where media collude in covering it up. Barbara had to say that Rosemary Kennedy, the first daughter and third child of Joseph and Rose, was the inspiration for these Olympics, but she could hardly say what happened to Rosemary — that she had been retarded and behaviorally problematic, a potential embarrassment to her ambitious father, and was lobotomized (in 1941) and subsequently put away forever in her new vegetative state. Not that this is not common knowledge. But the subject on The View was not Rosemary or even the Special Olympics or for that matter the Kennedys; it was Barbara’s career-enhancing inclusion in a White House party, thus advertisement for The View. Anyway lobotomy would raise questions of madness, which would hang in the air like string theories. Had I been in the audience of The View, I would have interrupted the klatch and declaimed the truth, then been bounced right out of the show onto the tarmac on my arthritically inflamed foot. But then, I would never be in such an audience. Movement is required, for a start. You have to get there. In the 1970s, I was pretty active. I went to a Women and Madness (book title) party wearing a “Certified Insane” sign. I had been feuding with the feminist author of the book because I thought I knew more about the subject than she did. I wasn’t too mature then. But I did know more about the subject, having actually been mad. My sign was the picket type, reading “Certified Insane” front and back in big magic letters. The author was so threatened and upset that she called the cops, I guess for disorderly conduct, certainly not for breaking the First Amendment. In my memory the cops never came, or I left before they did. I was not the sort of activist who solicited arrest. As for art work or activity, it was never a feminist interest, except when the movement turned its attention to women who were artists. Down in the equatorial dumps yesterday, I was complaining to JM on the phone from California, who wisely summed up our times, saying, “We’re in a terminal period of awfulness.” It’s in this gloom that I have kept shambling along looking for a doctor for my foot, like Diogenes bent over his upheld lantern in broad daylight searching for one honest man. The foot is not popular with doctors. It’s too far away from the heart, the organ of course of medical preference. It’s far away altogether from world concerns, the blood of the Englishmun. At 11 p.m. one evening I caught Charlie Rose on PBS schmoozing with his guests Bill Gates and wife along with Warren Buffett who had just contributed an indecent amount of money to the Gates Foundation. I like Gates and his philanthropic spirit — I always wonder where exactly the money goes (if I had any money and contributed it to something I would accompany it right to its announced destination to see if it got there and if so who handles it and how) — and now I suppose I have to like Buffett too. But Rose’s real subject was not the desperate global plights to be alleviated by these new billions, but Rose himself as a friend of his fabulously wealthy guests. You know this as you watch him descend to unmitigated vulgarity, making his guests laugh with him over things mysteriously private (undiscovered no doubt even by them, or by the perpetrator, Rose), as they are forced to engage figuratively in sucking each other off. Now what you are watching are three schoolkids (leaving the wife out of this — she appeared to stay on point), laughing over their impossible mission. And you thought it was about saving the world. So FUM them. I wake up yelling sometimes. I had a Katrina-type dream. I’m one of Thoreau’s masses, leading a quietly desperate life. In our final phase of empire, I see Nero with his banjo everywhere, and the flames licking our skylines. I see GW talking about how “sad,” how “pathetic,” the new violence in the Middle East is! I read about “our shamelessly narrow definition of ‘torture.'” I get into a conveyor belt situation at a clinic to see a rare type of doctor, a foot surgeon. First you check in with a woman at a high wooden desk that surrounds her, and she isn’t smiling. At that moment, you should walk right back out. Heck, I can still walk. I just walk minimally, and with help, to avoid the pain it can cause. At the end of the beltway, not a single functionary en route smiling, I waited with Ingrid in a large bare square office for the surgeon, who when at last he came told me surgery is not a good idea, that I don’t look my age, and I should see a neurologist. They hand you around like a plate of cookies. On our way out I saw scads of overweight dejected looking people waiting their turn on lines of chairs, gazing vacantly, mouths slightly open, surely stupefied by drugs. Next I went to a doctor of anesthesiology/pain management, an intriguing-sounding specialty. He would inject me with the bad stuff I want, but I could tell he wasn’t going to care about me. That’s the only specialty that matters to me. He gave me a prescription for a drug called Neurontin, and after reading the list of its side effects I threw the whole three-dollar vial of 90 Neurontins out. Then I went back to the only doctor I’ve met who looks into your eyes with kindness, and who I hope to designate my de facto primary physician. He smiles gently in the long-suffering style, and under his white coat wears subtly mismatching ties and shirts. He’s clearly a man of art. He took my foot warmly in his hands and said you have to start using it more because it’s getting osteoporotic. And he can give me bad stuff in a way that won’t kill me. However I would never forsake the help or advice of friends. I’m very sad that Neno, our flower-store friend, sold his shop and is moving on, but Ingrid saw him on the street this morning and he told her to tell Jill to walk 500 steps every day. What a great idea! I’m going to try it. I’m so mature! Later on in the 1970s, quite a while after my “Certified Insane” episode, I did something that called out the cops again, but this time it changed my life. It was not one of my more artful events; in fact to be frank it was an act of pure violence. I was visiting the Fallsburg New York headquarters of a major guru, having accompanied a devotee there. Standing in line to be “blessed” by a bunch of peacock feathers wielded in air around your head by the guru, I ducked out of the way when I saw it coming. Later, alone in the huge dining room, I suddenly, and with no sublunar reason that I can conjure up, propelled with a mighty push a tall pile of dinner plates off a table onto the floor. They crashed and fractured into a winning mass of rubble, bringing me to the attention of the meditation authorities, who called the cops. I retreated in haste to the parking lot, and lurked invisibly around my mgb, waiting for my devotee friend. Two older women standing together materialized in front of me, about 20 yards away. One I recognized as the poet and potter MC Richards, who turned to her companion and told her who I was, using the epithet, “troublemaker.” Troublemaker! Such a common tag. After that, I stopped acting out in public. And so life goes on, said Gertrude in her book on Picasso. It may all be a lotta who shot John, i.e. a lotta hooey, as Judge Judy sometimes yells at her losers. Judy is abusive and awful, and I could FUM her to death. But where did she get this pearl?

©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com. First published on the DI in 2006. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here.

Judson & Johnston, together again, II: Reviving Amsterdam & Schneemann ‘Newspaper Event’ in New Amsterdam

momajudsonpapersFrom the exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done, running at the Museum of Modern Art through February 3: Al Giese’s photograph of Ruth Emerson in Carolee Schneemann’s “Newspaper Event,” 1963. Performed at Concert of Dance #3, Judson Memorial Church, New York, January 29, 1963. © Estate of Al Giese/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of Carolee Schneemann, Galerie Lelong & Co., and P•P•O•W, New York.

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 Jill Johnston

(Today’s re-posting of this article — first published on the DI/AV in 2005 as the Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 1 — in conjunction with the Museum of Modern art exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done,  is sponsored by Slippery Rock Dance . Like what you’re reading? Please consider making a donation to the DI/AV today by designating your donation through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check.)

Once upon a few decades ago I wrote a column. A title for one could easily have been OLYMPIC GREASY WATERMELON — words I saw just last week, down the street on a T-shirt at my Crunch gym. The guy wearing it was at the counter where I show my plastic card to sign in. I used to think up zany titles for my columns, ones that might make you want to find out if they had any bearing on anything, thus read on. Since the column appeared in a newspaper I could be sure someone would see it. Here a click is involved. I’m trying to adjust. I adjust all the time, otherwise I’d be dead by now. I go to the gym for instance even though I can’t go places on their running and biking machines. I mingle with the biceps jocks in the pushing pulling and lifting areas. I never walked or ran or danced on my arms, which therefore don’t mind my trying to use them this way. Sometimes when I check in and a worker asks me if I want anything, like a towel, I say yeah two new legs. They smile agreeably, not collusively exactly, but patronizingly I suppose. When I was their age, God will know, I saw the likes of me as a species apart, arrived here perhaps from another planet fully formed in this steeped or percolated state. An important adjustment to make as you await new legs or launch a click column is to forget about saving the world, realizing you will only offend people. By world of course I mean self. I start every day at my c.s. or coffee shop, before going to work which entails returning home. I’ve called it Segafredo after the first name I gave it, before knowing that Segafredo is the coffee they make, not its real name. Lately I just say c.s. Practically the whole place is distressed — the walls, floor, ceiling, bathroom and my favorite table, a large round wooden leaning affair, its top thick as a butcher block, with half inch crevices unevenly crossing its scurfy surface. The bathroom is masterfully small and has a nice mirror if you can get far enough away from it to appreciate your dubious morning visage. The front end of the toilet lid is all of six inches from the wall it faces — a hastily hammered raggedy-edged vertical stretch of graffiti-decorated plaster board. The friends I make at the c.s. are a bit like those you meet on shipboard or airplane. You may see them there repeatedly but not anyplace else. If you leave the c.s. with one of them you are probably in trouble. Not that you can’t get in trouble inside too. I made a big adjustment when I started hiding more or less at the back, in relative darkness, at the large leaning wooden table, next to the kitchen, armed with my newspaper, papers in general, my journal and book du jour. Just last week, opting to sit at one of the two small round window tables up front, I had an adventure. Two points of interest suddenly converged — a striking lady of years sitting at another table, and an arresting quote in my biography of T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence is my latest love. I fall in love with dead people — as who does not. It isn’t just my percolated state. And I still have arms for embracing the living. I should have used them, strengthened by Crunch machines and all, to embrace Bertha Harris before she died last month. I may have been making up for it at the c.s. by approaching this beautiful picture of decrepitude, a lady of surely eighty plus, stark white hair straggling to shoulders, a vase of flowers at one elbow, a bleached face, a look pensive and defeated, with my quote by T.E. Lawrence. I had just excitedly come across it. Having adjusted to an unexciting life, this wasn’t easy to handle. I almost ran the four yards to her table. A little earlier I had introduced myself by way of passing her and commenting on her pretty vase of flowers, which came, she remarked impassively, from a friend’s garden. Now, breathless after four yards, I laid my book in front of her, open to the page with the quote. She read it and said she wanted to copy it. I gave her my pen and she found a piece of paper in her bag. The quote goes: After 70 an unearthly richness attacks most of our elders and they become wells of satisfaction to me. Only then one gets to like them too much and away they go and die. After that great deed I finished reading my book and went to work. I have something new at home — a giant pot housing my avocado plant. The pot blocks out one third of the light from one of our two tallish windows facing south. By “our” I mean myself and Ingrid, who set up this space for a click column. She designed the whole website . My son Richard did the technology. On Ingrid’s part, it’s a conspiracy of sorts. Back in 1969 long before we met she saw one of my columns on an Amsterdam newsstand. By 1980 when we got together I was no longer writing them and between then and now I have written books and sundry articles in many publications. Now, as it seems, Ingrid has revived Amsterdam, and resurrected the reason she wanted to know me. I’m a very obliging person, during the day at least, full of eagerness to adjust. At night I’m focused on nothing more or better than begging every power in creation to help me sleep. When I get up I celebrate survival with agreement. I haven’t entirely adjusted to my new pot, which my daughter Winnie brought here one day with her son my grandson Ben, creating an astonishing replanting scene involving hacking apart the old pot long cracked down one whole side of it anyway and banging in a board to extend the window shelf. Wrapping up this column replanting, I have more watermelon news: Those three words, OLYMPIC GREASY WATERMELON, seen on a T-shirt at Crunch, describe a game played by Olympic hopefuls or Crunch trainers involving two teams standing at pool’s edge poised for a greasy watermelon to be thrown into the water whereupon they all dive in and grapple to secure this dirigible fruit and bear it off to the opposite team’s goal. That was a good day at the gym. I might forget sometimes to set a pile of blocks at my grand weight of 15 pounds and start pulling on the cords. One day the cords wouldn’t budge. I thought the mechanism was broken or something, and consulted a biceps jock standing nearby. He said it was set at 100 pounds! At the c.s., I have had worse moments but the other day, working at the back next to the kitchen I was in for a pleasant surprise. A woman with upswept white hair approached me on her way to the bathroom. She was wearing a copious long white like peasant dress, dotted all over with appliquéd flowers. I didn’t recognize her until she said she wanted to thank me for that quote. She was the quote lady! Today she was smiling, and she inquired animatedly, “How did you know I was over 70?” Making me sort of gape. “How old are you in fact?” I asked her. And she came up with 71! But really even smiling and wearing a cheerful dress she couldn’t be a day under 80. She wandered off murmuring over the quote, the “wording of it…so unusual.” The word “attacks” struck her fancy the most. “At 70 an unearthly richness attacks our elders.” I wish I could tell Lawrence. He was still alive when I was born. I’m clicking away. It’s a new age, heading for the open seize, in publishing.

©Jill Johnston 2005. Originally published on www.jilljohnston.com ; first published on the DI/AV in 2005 as Volume 1, Number 1 of the Jill Johnston Letter.

Back to the Future: How to access stories on the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager

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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 www.jilljohnston.com 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 paulbenitzak@gmail.com, 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.