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(Originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, November 14, 2000)



In Trisha Brown's solo, "Homemade," Mikhail Baryshnikov schleps around a projector on his back, radiating across the theater scenes of himself dancing. The kinetic images wash across the audience and naturally draw them into their own sphere of movement. Inclusion has been the driving force behind the Russian ballet star's spearheading of a program honoring the postmodern choreographers from New York's Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s.

When Baryshnikov and his White Oak Dance Project bring "Past Forward" to The Dance Center of Columbia College, Nov. 15-19, audiences will have a rare opportunity to experience the groundbreaking original work of seven Judson founders, who were often inspired by the transcendent simplicity of ordinary movement. Still active in their fields, they also will present new pieces. And Baryshnikov will perform a series of solos and duets. He'll also consciously blend in with the White Oak ensemble.

The image of this iconic dancer hauling around a projector reflects his willingness to humble himself for the sake of art. Baryshnikov's defection to America from the former Soviet Union in 1974 gained him instant celebrity status. A principal dancer with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater (for which he served as artistic director from 1980 to 1989), he singlehandedly gave classical ballet a sexy edge that appealed to the masses.

Yet even as artistic director of ABT, he was fascinated with modern dance, bringing in avant-garde choreographers like Twyla Tharp and Karole Armitage, together with David Gordon - one of the founders of Judson Dance Theater. He asked Gordon, who contributed four works to "Past Forward," to serve as director of this panoramic paean to postmodernism.

Baryshnikov felt White Oak Dance Project, the experimental company he founded 10 years ago with choreographer Mark Morris, was an ideal vehicle for this tribute.

"I admire the Judson artists' boldness and daring," said Baryshnikov during a telephone interview from Pittsburgh, one of White Oak's stops on its nine-city tour. "It has always been White Oak's mission to challenge ourselves and our audiences. You know, we call it the Judson movement but, although they share a common love of natural motion, these choreographers all have extremely different approaches to making dances.

"They were very much hungry for discoveries. They took risks and stretched the boundaries of what was possible. It's amazing to see them all under one roof again."

And how exactly did the Judson Dance Theater take flight?

Back in the early 1960s, a group of dancers, composers and visual artists converged in New York City's Judson Memorial Church -- and various lost spaces and art galleries -- to present a cross-pollination of creative ideas.

Dance historian Wendy Perron tracks its development to Robert Dunn's composition workshops at the Merce Cunningham studio. Dunn, who was an accompanist for Cunningham's dance classes and a student of composer John Cage, was influenced by Eastern philosophy, European experimental music and Cage's spontaneity. From his classes emerged the Judson choreographers whose work served as a catalyst for White Oak's "Past Forward": Gordon, Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown, Simone Forti and Deborah Hay.

"The climate in New York at that time," explained Forti, "was one in which artists from different mediums were very much in communication with each other. It just felt natural for these artists to share ideas across the lines of poetry, music and dance.

"We weren't pigeonholed. We all became part of the movement of modernism."

Forti, who will be performing only during the Chicago engagement, has drawn inspiration from art and daily life. On the White Oak bill, her "Huddle" centered on people engaged in mundane tasks, was first performed in 1961 in a Manhattan loft.

"'Huddle' was my answer to an environmental art piece by Saburo Murasaki of the Gutai group [Japanese painters and sculptors]," said Forti. "Murasaki had done a piece in which he walked through many layers of paper attached to wooden frames. I was moved by the simplicity of this very singular action."

In addition, her "Scramble" - featuring several people darting through the spaces in between each other like lane-hopping - will be performed. Forti also will appear in a 10-minute improvised solo based on three words suggested by the audience. She will interact with a found object molded with her body in a way that transforms those words into a visual story.

While these postmodern choreographers have been criticized for favoring unadorned movement over a more heroic idiom, Forti insisted that the focus on basic movement or even stillness "encourages viewers to take the time to pay attention to what really matters now."

Gordon, who helped assemble "Past Forward's" programming, cited Dunn's composition classes as the magnet for attracting the artists who would later form Judson Dance Theater. He recalled the pivotal time when the programming coordinators at New York's 92nd Street YMCA rejected all of the future Judson artists' works.

"Our work was not within a linear narrative," said Gordon. "It was out of the mainstream of what was then modern dance. But the 92nd Street Y was a breakthrough for us. It was like the Paris art community's rejection of Duchamp's toilet. It became notorious."

Gordon and his fellow choreographers then decided to put on their own concerts at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. They, in turn, basked in notoriety.

"It was generally not entertaining work," he continued. "On the other hand, postmodern dance at that time was not necessarily entertaining. It dealt with themes, like Greek tragedies, and guided audiences in a direction of enjoying the trauma. We were dealing with work that was not so manipulative. We asked audiences to make up their own minds."

Bonnie Brooks, chair of Columbia College's Dance Department, pointed out that the Dance Center's new South Loop facility marks the smallest venue for White Oak's "Past Forward" performances.

"It's a similar environment to the original Judson Memorial Church concerts," she said.

Brooks added that the Judson artists - by challenging the accepted wisdom about time, space and image in dance - promoted the idea that "art is born from and belongs to us all. There is no 'right' response; there is only our own."

Paxton's "Satisfyin Lover" involves 42 community cast members performing with White Oak Dancers. Other works include Childs' "Carnation" (1964), Rainer's "Trio" (1966) and Gordon's "Chair" (1974). The Dance Center commissioned Gordon's latest piece, "For the Love of Rehearsal," which deconstructs the creative process.

Through "Past Forward," Baryshnikov aims to establish a continuum of artistic influences.

"I hope audiences can look back on this century to the genesis of the avant-garde," said Baryshnikov. "I think the Judson artists' material will open so many eyes because these are such highly theatrical ideas."

Gordon credited Baryshnikov with tirelessly setting out to provide a living historic record of Judson's achievements. He also observed a paradox.

"There's a great irony in the fact that it took a Russian dancer, so closely associated with classical ballet," noted Gordon, "to devote a large part of his life to preserving the American modern dance legacy. We currently have no American institution doing the kind of preservation work that Misha [Baryshnikov] has accomplished." •
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