Jill Johnston: The Johnston Letter

To access five years of the Jill Johnston Letter on the Dance Insider, subscribers contact paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Not a subscriber? Subscriptions are just $36/year or 32 Euros and also include complete access to our 20-year archive of more than 2,000 exclusive reviews of performances on five continents by 150 writers, plus commentary, art, and more. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check. Institutional rate of $99 or 99 Euros/year gets full access for your entire company, school, etcetera.

Jill Johnston was the first dance critic of the Village Voice and thus the preeminent chronicler of the Judson Church movement before going on to broaden her horizons — and ours — as one of the founders of the New Journalism. This periodically updated space includes recently re-uploaded columns previously published on the DI. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here.

The Johnston Letter, Volume 2, Number 4: Add your light to the sum of light

 

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2006 Jill Johnston

“What then must we do?” This is Linda Hunt’s big line in the 1982 film “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Hunt, you’ll remember, plays a diminutive cameraman named Billy Kwan, a role for which she won the Oscar. She, or he I should say, quotes the line, and its source — from Luke, chapter 3, verse 10 — near the beginning of the film while taking journalist Guy Hamilton, just off the plane from Australia, on a tour of Jakarta’s slums. Billy has plans for Guy, played by Mel Gibson. Here is the pre-Passion, pre-Lethal Weapon, pre-Braveheart, pre-blockbuster-addicted and drunkenly arrested anti-Semite raving Gibson as a young darkly handsome leading man in an intimate romance, directed by Peter Weir and put through his paces by co-actor “Billy,” a spiritually and socially enlightened “dwarf” as he is sometimes identified. His very first lines are his own voice-over while sitting at his typewriter creating a file for our hero, through whom Billy will live: “June 25, 1965, Dossier #10, Hamilton, Guy, born 1936 under the sign of Capricorn, occupation journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Service — Jakarta, first assignment as a foreign correspondent.” A revival of “Dangerously” in movie theaters country-wide would be appropriate right now. The political undertow, a steady pull powering the film beneath its fictional romance is the US/UK intervention in Indonesia to drive out the people-driven Communist movement, or PKI, depose President Sukarno who had been aligned with his people and install the dictator Suharto, making way of course for all manner of Western capitalist ventures. For the full Letter, click here.

The Johnston Letter: “Merce 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

(On the occasion of Merce Cunningham’s death, the DI shared excerpts of several of Jill Johnston’s articles on the artist originally published in the Village Voice and Art in America and reprinted by permission of the author.  Our re- 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. For the full article, click here.

 

The Jill Johnston Letter, Volume 2, Number 6: Complete Surrender

 

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2007 Jill Johnston

First published on the Dance Insider on in 2007. Today’s re-publication is made possible by DI co-Principal Sponsor Freespace Dance

When Gerald Ford died I learned that his wife Betty was once a Martha Graham auxiliary and that she had her own dance company in Grand Rapids. When her husband became president, her new press secretary asked her what she could do for her, and Betty said, “I don’t know, what am I supposed to do?” I clipped the color photo of her at the Washington Cathedral service being escorted to her seat by Mr. Bush, whose wife and parents look on around him. It’s a great shot. You can count 24 people in three rows, eight of them the living presidential couples, all in identical photo-darkgray suits and dresses, and turning to look at the new widow, except for Hillary, who hasn’t turned and is staring downward. She’s wedged between Bill and Chelsea, only a piece of her head visible. Barbara Bush, in the forefront, tilts hers slightly and wears an expression of pained sympathy. Laura Bush looks a little stunned, like, “Is that what’s going to happen to me?” Betty is really old and not her former self. I can see her dancing though. For the full Letter, click here

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.” For the full Letter, click here.

 

Judson & Johnston, together again, I: Dance Quote Unquote — The Spirit of the ’60s

momajudsonjill smallFrom the exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done, running at the Museum of Modern Art through February 3: Andy Warhol, “Jill and Freddy Dancing,” 1963. 16mm film (black and white, silent), 4 minutes. Original film elements preserved by the Museum of Modern Art Collections of the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Contribution the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2007 Jill Johnston

(If journalism is the first draft of history, Jill Johnston, writing initially in the pages of the Village Voice, was the first historian of the Judson Dance Theater — whose legacy the Museum of Modern Art is celebrating through February 3 — with columns which also served as the first draft of Jill, Johnston being one of the founders of a personal style of reporting which became known as the New Journalism. In conjunction with the MoMA exhibition, the DI/AV is resurrecting the Jill Johnston Letter, first exclusively syndicated on the DI from 2005 until Johnston’s death in 2010. The essay below 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 was revised and edited by the author. Special thanks to Ingrid Nyeobe. — Paul Ben-Itzak)

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. For the full Letter, click here.

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. For the full Letter, click here.

 

The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 2
July 2005: In Search of a Blank 

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 Jill Johnston

The most famous dance review of all time was a blank space about six inches long, perhaps three wide, circa 1958. The concert and choreographer were identified and the review was signed but that’s all. The “writer” was the publisher of the rag in which it appeared, telling you something. I never had the power or authority to be so smart. Recently I was invited to northeastern Vermont for an “art event” called a fulmination sculpture. The “North East Kingdom,” so also known, has always seemed an attractive place to go, if only for its exotic moniker. If I turned the event into a blank, which I have been conflicted about, I could only say I went, and that I have consigned it to blankdom. The look of the thing would be lost — its brilliant commentary. Anyway it’s the sort of literary performance that can only really be done once. A c.s., i.e. coffee shop, friend of mine called Myrta asked me what I would be doing on the weekend. I said I was going to Vermont. She said, “What’s that?” She never heard of Vermont. Nor New Hampshire or Maine either, as it turned out. I love that. She is about 55, and came to New York from Puerto Rico when she was 16. Her life is very rich and she doesn’t have to go anyplace. Or even know the names of places she doesn’t go to. She knows Miami where she drove once with a boyfriend and two other couples. As soon as they arrived, she caught a plane back to New York. I see her at the c.s. only on Fridays when she comes in from Yonkers and then only for 20 minutes at most, provided I manage to get there before she goes to work cleaning houses in my neighborhood, and believe me I look forward to it. Her stories, good ones or bad ones, swell with knowing pleasure and laughter. I doubted that the “fulmination sculpture” in Vermont would be funny. Advertised as a shooting fest with real guns and a poor old standup piano for target, certain remains of the piano, like its cast-iron “harp,” would end up as the “sculpture.” It was an excuse to go up there. And I know people in the Kingdom, most appreciably artist Patty Mucha, ex-wife of Claes Oldenburg and newly threescore and ten. She invited Ingrid and I to stay overnight at her house. I like seeing people from old lives. Or current lives. Although I am very absorbed in myself, to paraphrase the great Florida Scott-Maxwell when she was 82, a large part of me is constantly occupied with other people. Sometimes I wish I had an investment in cosmology or bees or penguins or something that would take me more away from people. Imagine for instance being part of those obsessive teams of astronomers staying up all night hunting for the smallest, dimmest crumbs of creation, trying to find out whether or not we are alone in the universe. I hope they find out soon, because we really need new company. Penguins are perfectly wonderful (yes I saw the new film about them and their inconceivable 70-mile “March,” waddling to breeding grounds in Antarctica), worthier by far no doubt of the zealous attention we reserve for our fellow hummins. And with penguins we share an extraordinary parallel but of course separate history as species that developed somehow into evolutionary disasters. While penguins are simply birds that can’t fly, we are creatures who can’t die, finding everlasting life in ways of killing each other off. I can’t explain the paradox. Call me a writer in search of a blank. In the North East Kingdom the sky is very high, and the vistas stretch to infinity. I love driving around there, and the air is just as pure as its reputation. It was raining all day the day of David Bradshaw’s fulmination event. I know David from the past too. Back in 1991 Ingrid and I were in an audience of perhaps five for a dynamiting performance he staged in the hills whereby a large sheet of steel positioned over an excavated hole was rocketed into smoke-borne pieces, the makings I believe of a “sculpture,” once they fell back to earth. He is well known in the remote Vermont hills for this activity. Pianos are not his true métier. Before now, he has shot only one to death, and that was unplanned. After staying up all one night as he tells it banging on a piano until the felts were dead, he carried it outside and shot it from 15 yards away with a 44 magnum revolver then terminated it by setting a jug of gasoline on it. I asked him why he did that and he said he didn’t know. I would never have told my c.s. friend Myrta about this or why I was going to Vermont. She understands many things, and is altogether much smarter, wiser anyway, than I am, but I wouldn’t risk putting our brief weekly meetings to the test. Her life revolves around her family and cleaning houses. Cleaning is a kind of meditation which absorbs her troubles. She gets lost in it. And it’s a good living. I asked David how he makes a living and he doesn’t know how he does that either. I suppose women take him in because he’s hunky and good looking and does inexplicable things. As an expert marksman, he can offer protection, and neighborly help when, say, certain outsider animals have been eating ones that are penned in. Patty told me that David once drove an hour south from Mad Brook Farm — a surviving outpost of the New Age commune era, close to the Canadian border, where David lives when he’s in Vermont, and site of his new piano eradication — to her house to shoot a raccoon that was threatening her chickens. Patty keeps only ducks now, just two of them. I watched her make deviled duck eggs and place them artfully on a platter, then cover it with tinfoil, as her contribution to a potluck that was scheduled to succeed the death of David’s piano. However the piano never died, not while we were there anyway. Forty-five shooters with revolvers, semi-automatic pistols and rifles of different vintages couldn’t make it keel over, surely the reliable sign of death for things that stand up. Two or three thousand rounds of ammo were shot at it. This was a plausible disturbance of any peace. I sat in a field with my ears dubiously plugged looking up at the hillside where the 1902 Wheelock, not tuned in many decades, thus somehow deserving of its dreadful destiny, faced us down — until I felt shellshocked, and went in search of Patty’s deviled duck eggs, stowed away for later consumption in a nearby Mad Brook house. Forty or so spectators who milled around in raingear under umbrellas were invited by David to inspect the poor Wheelock after its keyboard had turned into a mass of wood and ivory splinters. I milled a little but was mainly settled into the most divine chair, a ten dollar canvas affair bought by Ingrid at Bed & Bath which folds up and slips into a matching colorfully striped canvas golf-like bag. Patty stayed close by, resplendent in red: red slicker, red boots, red umbrella. The right color obviously for defense against any friendly fire. We made it to her eggs before they were all eaten by the chips & soda guardians, collecting food for the potluck. Ingrid had on an aesthetically faded New Age tie-dye, suitable for Mad Brook, though I wished I had encouraged her to wear her famous Ben Vautier T-shirt that says “I don’t want to do art, I want to be happy.” Imagine a penguin T-shirt that would read, “I don’t want to reproduce, I want to be happy.” Am I moving toward the desired blank? After all, though my subject here is not apparently dance or dancing, it is being syndicated in a much bigger website called The Dance Insider, a serious online dance magazine. There were no blanks at Mad Brook. David pressed three crushed bullets into my hand, mementos of his shooting spree, now secreted in my bamboo jewelry box along with some other unusual gems. When I see Myrta again, she will know nothing about all this, as we resume laughing over our lives. Her stories are not really funny per se, it’s just the way she tells them, her own amusement over events she has mastered by possessing them so completely. She is, to paraphrase Florida S-M once more, fierce with her own reality.

©Jill Johnston 2005; originally published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here.

The Johnston Letter
Volume 1, Number 1: Reviving Amsterdam

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 Jill Johnston

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. For the full Letter, click here.