PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

Wendy Perron on Grand Union: Democracy or Anarchy?

Episode Summary

Dance writer Wendy Perron, a former associate director of Jacob's Pillow, explores Grand Union, a maverick 1970s improvisation group based in downtown New York. Perron tells their story through the voices of four key members: Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, and David Gordon.

Episode Notes

Dance writer Wendy Perron, a former associate director of Jacob's Pillow, explores Grand Union, a maverick 1970s improvisation group based in downtown New York. Perron tells their story through the voices of four key members: Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, and David Gordon.

Special thanks to New England Public Media, for their support of this episode of PillowVoices. 

Episode Transcription

[Music begins, composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Jess Meeker] 

NORTON OWEN: Welcome to PillowVoices, a production of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival with content from the Pillow Archives. I’m Norton Owen, the Pillow’s Director of Preservation, and it’s my pleasure to introduce dance writer, Wendy Perron, a former associate director of Jacob’s Pillow. Wendy will be your host this episode on Grand Union, and some of the company’s post-modern pioneers, which is the focus of her fascinating new book.

WENDY PERRON: The Grand Union was a maverick improvisation group based in Downtown New York in the 1970s. With a kind of laid-back outrageousness, they had an uncanny synergy together. They combined a child’s sense of play with a deep investigation of movement. They were willing to air their conflicts in public — which could be unnerving for the audience as well as for the players. The performances involved such an intense mingling of private and public lives that Grand Union burnt itself out in six years. But during that period, they had a small, though passionate following.

The group—between five and nine dancers on any given occasion—really did improvise from the first minute to the last. And they really were a collective — a tiny democracy with no leader. If you follow postmodern dance, you will recognize some of their names: Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, David Gordon, Barbara Dilley, Douglas Dunn, Nancy Lewis, and, only for the first year, Lincoln Scott, and Becky Arnold.

I was so in love with this group back then that I wrote a book forty-plus years later. I immersed myself in the archival videos, and I felt like I was swimming in their world — a world that is familiar to me. I danced with Trisha Brown in the 70s and briefly with Douglas Dunn in the 90s, and I’ve done various projects with the others too. The title of my book, which was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2020, is The Grand Union: Accidental Anarchists of Downtown Dance, 1970 to ‘76. 

The Grand Union never performed at Jacob’s Pillow. But two of the members – Barbara Dilley and Douglas Dunn – had been students at the Pillow. And many years later, four of its members performed at the Pillow, separately, as individual artists: Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, and David Gordon. In this edition of Pillow Voices, we will tune into them.

Let’s start at the beginning. Before there was Grand Union, there was Judson Dance Theater. That was the collective that some people call the Big Bang of postmodern dance. It was a period of experimentation in a church in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan that challenged conventions of concert dance. The young dancers — and painters and musicians too — came up with new ways of making performances that crossed boundaries between all the genres. 

A big influence was John Cage. He was the composer, and really a philosopher, who encouraged people to blur the lines between art and life. His students went out and made performances called Happenings, where the audience was part of it, and sometimes they were pretty chaotic. John Cage, together with the choreographer Merce Cunningham, his partner in work and in life, created collaborations where the dance, music and visual art were made separately and put together at the last minute. There was an element of chance that seeped into the Judson aesthetic and later into the Grand Union too.

In 1960, John Cage chose a protégé of his, Robert Dunn, to teach dance composition at the Cunningham studio. Robert Dunn was so open to experimentation that many wild ideas and new approaches bubbled up from that class: task dance, game structures, experiments in perception and scale. All of these forms rejected the usual ABA structure, where you would state a theme, do something different, and then return to the theme. This neatly packaged formula had gotten predictable by that time, and these dancers wanted to bust out of those rules. In Robert Dunn’s classes, making dances was connected to everyday life. Steve Paxton was making walking dances. Trisha Brown was making falling dances. Yvonne Rainer made a dance of just running.

This idea of everyday actions being worthy of attention was connected to what was going on in the art world too. To cite one famous example, Andy Warhol was painting soup cans around this time. 

Steve, who was one of Robert Dunn’s first students. was also a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which was very demanding in terms of dance technique. Here is Steve in a Pillow Talk with Pillow scholar Maura Keefe the summer of 1998. At this point in the interview, she is asking about the influence of Merce Cunningham and John Cage on Judson Dance Theater. He takes the long view, situating Judson Dance Theater in the lineage of modern dance.

MAURA KEEFE: So at the same time as you were with Cunningham you were also working with Judson Church...

STEVE PAXTON: I was. Yes, yeah. 

MAURA KEEFE: And working on your own work at that time, and, and did that lead you away from Cunningham?

STEVE PAXTON: No, it was because of Cunningham. You see, what Cunningham and the other modern dancers, the kind of permission that they gave me, sort of starting dancing from the late ‘50s, was an example of creating forms. Because I’m thinking of Nikolais and Graham and Limón and Humphrey and Merce and…any number of people, you know, Katherine Dunham, Tamiris/Nagrin, on and on. These people who created forms, really, that’s one of the major sort of accomplishments in a way, is this, really in only a hundred years you’ve established different ways of making dance, and the permission to create sort of from the ground up.

MAURA KEEFE: So you were very interested in walking, as just exploring the means of walking.

STEVE PAXTON: From the ground up.

WENDY PERRON: In 1962, Steve took one of his walking dances, Yvonne took one of her chance dances that had a random look to it, and David Gordon took one of his talking dances, and they auditioned for the 92nd Street Y. Which was the bastion of modern dance. They were all turned down. Rejected by the House of Modern Dance, they approached Judson Memorial Church, on West Fourth Street, which already housed the Judson Poets Theater and the Judson Art Gallery. It was the right place for this rag-tag group of young dancers. It gave them an intimate setting and a freedom to explore. Here is Steve, a little later in that same conversation:

STEVE PAXTON: Yeah, it was one, Judson Church is one of several periods that I’ve noticed, you know, in these long cycles where a lot of forms are explored. Where just form exploration is really the point. And the presentation is not in a big theater where there’s a lot of stakes. So you’re, you know, we were at Judson Church on, in, in Greenwich Village, a church that just let us work, just let us do it, and gradually accumulated, accumulated lights and things like that to support this dance endeavor. 

WENDY PERRON: Different from Steve, Yvonne Rainer did not think of Judson as a continuation of modern dance. For her, what they were doing was a serious challenge to the status quo. Total rebellion. When she did a Pillow Talk with Maura Keefe in 2007, she described what preoccupied her and her fellow dancers and artists at the time:

YVONNE RAINER: A lot of conversations that, about what we couldn’t stand in dance, right? There was still a lot of, well, still, there always is all kinds of dancing and all kinds of art being made. But the, the establishment in dance up until the mid ‘60s was the Humphrey-Graham-Limón nexus, so we were often, we were railing against that, right? 

WENDY PERRON: Here, Maura Keefe asks a leading question about the critics, most of whom were quite negative about the wayward stuff going on at Judson. Yvonne’s quick answer says a lot.

MAURA KEEFE: So what was that like? So you know you’re doing something that’s different from what Martha Graham is doing. But you’re also kinda getting slammed for it. Did it, you know, was there a renegade spirit that you thought, they don’t get it but we’re gonna keep doing it? Or, you know, did you go home and cry? 

YVONNE RAINER: It was proof that we were great!

WENDY PERRON: Although Yvonne did not feel part of the modern dance tradition, she did feel part of another tradition: 

YVONNE RAINER: I consider everything I’ve done in an avant-garde tradition, which is an oxymoron. But that’s, I mean from the futurists, and I went even further back to Vienna in 1900, and Dadaists. I consider myself, I still have a Dada temperament.

WENDY PERRON: This gives us a hint about Rainer and the context she set for her dancers. Even though her tasks were simple—like ‘what can you do with a box, what can you do with a cushion when a dancer falls’—there’s a Dadaist feeling. I would define Dadaism as putting radicallydifferent things up against each other. For instance, when Yvonne made that running piece that I mentioned, with people doing arguably the most mundane thing of running in all directions, they were accompanied by a recording of the most grandiose Berlioz requiem. Definitely an absurdist contrast.

David Gordon, too, was interested in putting radically different things together, though with more of a vaudevillian flair. In a Pillow Talk with Maura Keefe in 2002, he describes his first piece at Judson Church. But what he doesn’t say here is that for that piece he was wearing full Carmen Miranda–type drag, with a flouncy dress, Spanish comb and mantilla.

DAVID GORDON: One of the very first dances I made for Judson Church performances was a dance called Random Breakfast. If you are as old as me, then you remember a movie and a book called ‘Random Harvest.’ ‘Random Harvest’ was written by, I believe, James Hilton. I loved the title Random Harvest and so made this dance called Random Breakfast. And in it, one of the things I did, without understanding that that was what I was doing was there was an entire series of improvised sections, and in one of them I explained to the audience how to make their own modern dance. And I used information from all the people I had encountered up until then. I parodied everybody’s work, and how they did what they did, and I told the audience they could do it too. And so I was talking. And it never occurred to me not to be talking. I came out and moved around and talked.

WENDY PERRON: Now, we all move around and talk every day. But with David Gordon, this walking-and-talking thing became a signature; it was witty, deadpan provocative shtick. Which he brought into Grand Union too. Here is David again, with a further clue to his onstage personality. 

DAVID GORDON: Also it’s about, it’s about being perverse. I, I want to do what you don’t expect me to do. I want to do what I don’t expect me to do. I, I also, I can’t tell if you’re having a good time unless I can make you laugh. Then I can tell that you’re there and hearing what I’m doing. So sometimes I want to have that happen.   

WENDY PERRON: That wish to subvert expectation was part of the common ground between David and Yvonne. In 1969, she started working on a piece called Continuous Project—Altered Daily that David was in. It involved simple actions with chairs and pillows, and leaning and falling, but also a Dadaist element. At any moment the dancers could choose to put on one of the outlandish accessories, which included a gigantic, humongous sombrero hat, a set of angel wings, and a lumpy thing that made you look like a hunchback when you put it under your shirt. This created absurd situations that sometimes made the dancers laugh out loud in performance. 

Here’s David again, explaining the evolution from Continuous Project—Altered Daily to Grand Union:

DAVID GORDON: So I worked with Yvonne for a while and then, Yvonne, who was moving through real political art, thoughtful, intelligent life—not what I was doing. Yvonne began to decide that she did not want to be the boss of a company. And she wanted, there were, the people in this company included me and Steve Paxton and Barbara Dilley, who ran Naropa for a while, and a lot of, Douglas Dunn, and a lot of people who you may know in other ways, we were all there being Yvonne’s company. And she began to say, “everybody here is very good…we should become a democracy.” 

WENDY PERRON: To me, this is momentous. I mean, what artistic director willingly gives up their leadership role? Yvonne is a feminist, and I think it was her aversion to certain kinds of hierarchies that made her feel that a leader simply wasn’t necessary with this band of rebels. Maybe they’d be more interesting as a collective. After she withdrew as the leader, she left it up to them as to how to proceed.

So they tried showing ideas to each other. Barbara Dilley brought in an idea about circles; Steve did some tumbling; David was working with images of sleepwalking. But it turned out, they hated learning each other’s material. They just didn’t want to submit in that way. But they did want to dance together. So, almost by default, they started improvising. And that clicked. They enjoyed throwing themselves into an unknown process. Once they decided to improvise, they invited Trisha Brown, whom they all knew to be a super sly improviser, and also expanded the group with Nancy Lewis and Lincoln Scott.

Each of these dancers was so vivid that they could command a stage on their own, and yet they had an exquisite group awareness. And this made it suspenseful for the audience. Barbara might be spinning meditatively while Douglas is staggering around, completely unhinged, and we would watch to see if or how they might intersect. Or we’d watch a single action snowball into a group action, or dissolve, or grow into something else. We in the audience had a heightened alertness because we knew everything was made up on the spot. We witnessed their thinking, their split-second decision making. We also witnessed their conflicting impulses, which could be disarming, or dramatic, or painful or just confusing. But those conflicts, alternating with moments of unabashed joy were like, they were like real life.

They gave performances in various lofts in SoHo and traveled to colleges and the occasional museum like Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. They got used to never knowing what to expect. Here’s David again. Note: he’s implying that Grand Union lasted four years, but, of course, human memory is fallible, and it was actually six years.

DAVID GORDON: And the process was one in which, the four years was one in which we tried to understand what we were doing. And when we went, we had a lot of dates, I mean, you know, we did gigs, we, performances. And we all would start doing this thing and we would hand a lot of recordings we bought in the local thrift shop to the tech guy and say, “When we call for a piece of music, would you put it on?” 

WENDY PERRON: To me this is the John Cage influence, the faith in chance, the faith that something will happen because of chance. And I can tell you that in my memory of seeing the Grand Union, and when I watched the videos much later, the music choices were just right. The selections over the years included the Rolling Stones, Harry Nilsson, Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, the Blues singer Robert Johnson, the Kinks, the Ramayana Monkey chants, and the Beach Boys. 

In their home neighborhood of SoHo, we couldn’t get enough of them. People followed them like groupies with a rock band.  But on the road, it was a different story. In a two-hour performance the audience would dwindle. Here is David again: 

DAVID GORDON: Two hundred people would come and after half an hour there would be 170, then there’d be 150, then there’d be 130, then there’d be. And sometimes at the end of the performance there would be 25 people. But they would follow us to the next place; it got scary. People were just following us. It was very intense what was going on. And we were finding out what we were doing. 

WENDY PERRON: For David, Grand Union was a laboratory for the fantasies he wove. The other dancers would be pulled in to be different characters. Barbara Dilley once found she was suddenly an opera singer; Nancy Lewis was a farmer whose crops went dry; Douglas Dunn was a wayward son. 

Trisha was less involved in those fantasies and more involved in sharpening her instincts. In this lecture-demonstration at the Pillow from 1986, even though she’s talking about her own choreography she could just as well be talking about the Grand Union in terms of the dangers of following one’s instincts.

TRISHA BROWN: In fact, that instinctual behavior became, rose so high in, in us that I have two stories that go with the period of making this dance. One was, hailing a yellow taxi in New York City and it driving up and seeing a window open in the back and, and, and picturing myself going through that window head-first in the back seat and catching myself in the nick of time. When you’re working with instinct, it happens before you have an opportunity for counsel. And the second one was, luckily, I was on the other side of the street, University Place and about 10th Street, New York City, and there’s a man running down the street, carrying, holding a broom above his head, chasing another man with a gun. Now their roles are reversed, honestly. The first guy’s out of bullets and the second guy’s got a better weapon now. And I thought, if I was over there, I would’ve mixed into it.

WENDY PERRON: Steve was also interested in instincts, but within a particular focus. In Grand Union, he often engaged in supporting another dancer’s weight, surrendering weight, sharing weight, often with Douglas, Barbara or Trisha. They were testing each other’s ability to field a moving body, whether it was leaning, falling, or hurtling toward them. At a college residency of Grand Union in 1972, Steve decided to expand this kind of exploration for a group of male students. 

In that same Pillow Talk, Maura Keefe asked Steve about this workshop.

MAURA KEEFE: Which is a nice segue then to contact improvisation. And you're saying that it came out of that time...

STEVE PAXTON: It came out of Grand Union. We were in residence at Oberlin College, I saw that there were a number of young men and this, it was a winter term kind of thing where people just volunteered to be in it and, you know, sort of out of school time. So I set a men's class and I had never taught such a thing before, and I decided to teach a kind of, a gymnastic throwing your weight around solo, but I realized I would have to figure out how to communicate what kept me safe in this or what would keep them safe in it.

WENDY PERRON: And so the language of Contact Improvisation was born. Steve felt a responsibility to keep the students safe, whereas in Grand Union, the alleged adults took their own risks. 

The last performance of Grand Union was at the University of Montana at Missoula in 1976. Trisha had left the year before, so there were five of them. From the archival video, I could see that they’d lost momentum. They got involved in mostly solitary pursuits, and they didn’t bring music in until more than half-way through. Toward the end of the performance, one male voice in the audience yelled, “Bullshit!” What happened next was not caught on video, and different people have different memories of it. 

Bruce Hoover, Grand Union’s technical director, remembers an angry man, probably drunk, coming backstage and yelling at Steve, saying “how dare you do this kind of thing onstage? This is just disgraceful.” And that Steve calmed this person down by deflecting his energy.

Nancy Lewis remembers a boisterous man being quite aggressive after the show, and Steve offering him a slice of grapefruit.

Juliet Crump, the university teacher who invited Grand Union to perform, remembers that the drama students complained afterward, but the dance students liked it.

Here is what David remembers:

DAVID GORDON: When we did that performance, which was very amazing, a man came out of the audience at the end—the audience roared, stayed, they all stayed, roared with approval—and we were up in dressing rooms on the fifth floor of the building. And a man, at the end of a performance, we made our way upstairs, a man came running up the stairs and he said, “Hey, hey, you guys, I have to talk to you.” And he ran up five flights and found us in the dressing room and said, “You are the worst people I have ever seen. I have never seen work as bad as this in my whole life. And the terrible thing is this audience thinks you’re great.” And we retired. 

WENDY PERRON: One of the miraculous things — and David has called Grand Union a miracle — was that there was no leader. There was just this democratic alchemy between all of them. The stars were aligned just right to make theater magic — until they weren’t. As Barbara Dilley had said, it was like a spinning top that got wobbly when it lost momentum. Each person went their own way, David exploring his interplay of words and movement, Steve pursuing Contact Improvisation, Trisha starting a more serious company (which I was part of back then), Douglas Dunn launching his career of non-stop choreographing, and Barbara Dilley developing Contemplative Dance Practice at Naropa University.

Grand Union’s beginning and ending were wobbly. But those years in between were glorious. And I think that six-year wild ride said something about how a collective with imagination could be, as Douglas Dunn put it, a “possible ideal world.”

[Music begins, composed, and performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: That’s it for this episode of PillowVoices. Thank you for joining us today. On behalf of Jacob's Pillow, we look forward to sharing more dance with you through the films, essays, and podcasts at danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org, and of course through live experiences during our festival and throughout the year. Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for helping launch this podcast series. Please subscribe to PillowVoices wherever you get your podcasts and visit us again soon, either online or onsite.