Moving Spaces

Excerpt from: Moving Spaces: Choreography, Metaphor, and Meaning

Most young dancers begin their training in ballet; I began mine as a small child taking classes in the Martha Graham technique. My uncle, Irving Burton, was a modern dancer who had been an understudy with the Martha Graham Company, and was dancing at that time with the New Dance Group, led by Jane Dudley, Sophie Maslow, and William Bales.(1) Like many modern dancers during that era, my uncle was vehemently anti-ballet. He suggested that I study with one of his teachers from the Graham school who was opening a dance studio around the corner from where my family lived. Her name was Marjorie Mazia; she had been an early member of the Martha Graham Company and was married to the American folk singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie.

I started my dance lessons with Mazia when I was five years old, and she taught us a modified version of Graham technique. As we contracted and released or moved across the floor, I could feel the drama of the technique, the passion of the contraction and the liberation of the release. Even as a child, I always felt the space around the body was electrified with the tension of those movements. We moved across the floor on the diagonal in simple triplets, prances, skips, and leaps, and did many exercises  that took place in either a seated or kneeling position, or standing in one spot. The Graham technique did not feel like it was about cutting through and moving out into space, but rather about creating tension within the spaces around and inside the body. The pelvis and its energy was the centre of all movement. At the end of class we would make dances up sometimes with scarves or hoops, exploring circles and spirals, or themes like autumn, Thanksgiving, or Easter. I remember Mazia saying that we could never be a tree or a leaf in a dance; we would always be humans, for these dances were about people. In our work, like Graham’s, we were to explore the human condition. We had guest teachers such as the Graham dancer Stuart Hodes, the choreographer Sophie Maslow, and the dancer/teacher James Truitte, who taught Lester Horton technique, and eventually ballet teachers like the New York City Ballet dancer/teacher Richard Thomas. But the teacher who had the most effect on us was the choreographer James Waring. Jimmy, as we called him,  was a great eccentric who choreographed wry dances filled with dadaist imagery.(2) He taught his own unique and idiosyncratic version of ballet class and choreographed a dance for us when I was twelve years old, the first dance I was in by a professional choreographer. He told us that all we lacked that professional dancers had was a strong sense of focus in space. The dance was filled with wit and fantasy, yet he worked with great seriousness in having us sense direction and clarity in space through our use of focus.  From Mazia and all the teachers at her studio, we learned that the space in the studio was special, different from the other spaces of our lives. It was open, empty, a place to imagine, where anything could happen.

I went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison for my undergraduate degree, majoring in dance. We studied a form of Wigman technique as it was brought to America from Germany by the choreographer Hanya Holm and one of her assistants, Louise Kloepper, who was the head of the program at Wisconsin at that time.(3) Wigman’s work was concerned with such formal properties of dance as space, rhythm, and intention. It was derived from Rudolf Laban’s theories, but Wigman continued to develop it within her own choreography and teaching.(4) The work at Wisconsin was very different from the training I had received from my Graham teachers, although in both there was an understanding that as a dancer and choreographer, one tried to create something original and individual through the act of dancing itself. In our theory and composition courses we dissected and analysed interrelated aspects of space, time, and force. In technique classes we moved through space, walking, skipping, and running in geometric patterns, working to clarify our projection and focus. Space felt alive in this technique as we projected our energy into it, and responded to its pushes and pulls, its ups and downs.

In 1968 I returned to New York City and studied at the Merce Cunningham Studio.  There, I began to feel as if the space I moved in had been liberated. We moved through an open field,  detached from the logic of the pushes and pulls of the Wigman school, or the internal drama of the Graham technique. In Merce Cunningham: The Modernising of Modern Dance (2004), Roger Copeland observed that Cunningham’s

“decentralising” methods of stage space–whereby a dancer positioned, say, down-stage center assumes no automatic pride of place over dancers positioned “say” upstage left or right–has challenged inherited ideas about spatial organisation that have literally “held the stage” since the introduction of the proscenium arch and single-point perspective scenic design in the early 17th century. (4)

Through Cunningham’s ideas we understood that the space around us could stand for itself, the body did not always have to present itself frontally, and movement did not need a front or back. We cut through, over, and around the space, not only in simple locomotor patterns but also in complex rhythms and combinations of steps. Through Cunningham’s chance methods of creating, his work admitted the irrational, unpredictable, and accidental nature of events. At that time of change, unrest, and possibility in the late 1960s and early 1970s in America, his work reflected a sense of the world around us. Influenced by Merce’s experimentation and the radical nature of the times, younger choreographers were also exploring and experimenting with ways of creating and perceiving space.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I danced in the companies of Viola Farber, Dan Wagoner, and Mel Wong. Both Wong and Farber had worked in Cunningham’s company and were influenced by his ideas of chance and the concept that any movement could follow another. Farber’s work flung itself through space, and many of the pieces I was involved in had both improvisation and chance elements, allowing the dance to unfold in different ways each time we performed. In Farber’s work I was acutely aware of the fleeting nature of each moment in space, of the constantly changing nature of movement.(5) Wong approached space like a visual artist. His work was intuitive, dense and exploratory, it asked you to view the whole space and the juxtapositions  of movement and visual art elements, rather than focusing on one or two dancers.

In 1970 I also worked with Twyla Tharp on a site-specific work, Dancing in the Streets of London and Paris, Continued in Stockholm And Sometimes Madrid, which we performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Tharp was in the early experimental phase of her career. We rehearsed for hours every day, often working within the museum after it closed. We spread our dancing through the spaces of the museum. Streaming up and down the grand staircase in the Great Hall doing Tharp’s complex stepping patterns, we alternated between seemingly pedestrian actions and rigourous group movement, depending on split-second timing as we passed the movement from one dancing group to another. I was affected by Tharp’s rigourous way of working, in the ways she split up and reconfigured movement, but also by the experience of moving in that great museum. The space inspired alternative ways of thinking about performing in both its immensity, and in the moments of intimacy it allowed with our audience as they moved around us.

Dance in New York during that period seemed to be bursting with energy and ideas. Meredith Monk was also taking dance outside of conventional spaces and exploring alternative ways of seeing. In 1969 she choreographed Juice: A Theater Cantata in Three Installments, which took place at the Guggenheim Museum, The Loft (a small space in Soho), and Minor Latham Playhouse at Barnard College. These three very different spaces shifted the perspective and the scope of the materials she was exploring. Later, Monk made Butch Cassidy and the Cisco Kid, which was performed in the arboretum at Connecticut College and which she called a real live movie. In it she explored cinematic techniques, such as close-ups, pans, and zooms, in a real-time performance.

Other choreographers and artists also stimulated my ideas about dancing space and its possibilities. In 1965 I saw an early in-progress version of Yvonne Rainer’s solo Trio A, which became part of The Mind is a Muscle (1966) in a small space, The Toilet, on St. Mark’s Place.(6) I was stimulated and excited by Trisha Brown’s early work exploring perspective and alternative spaces such as Roof Piece (1973) and Walking on a Wall (1971). I saw the work of other choreographers, such as Lucinda Childs and Laura Dean, who were making formalist, and sometimes austere, dances. They worked with concepts similar to those being explored by the minimalist  composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass, echoing in space their spare and  repetitive patterns. I remember watching Steve Paxton  and a group of students from Oberlin College roll and tumble on mats at a gallery in Soho in 1972. The work, Magnesium, marked the beginnings of the form known as Contact Improvisation. The dancers moved through three-dimensional pathways, and in this work as well as many others created during this period, the space became democratised.(7) All points in the space were considered as having equal value.

In “Looking at Movement as Culture: Contact Improvisation to Disco” (1988), Cynthia Novack points to the ways movement is connected to social and cultural ideas and institutions. She states, “Cunningham’s aesthetic dictum that any movement could be considered dance proved a powerful concept for younger dancers engaged by re-emerging ideals of social equality and community” (107). I was one of those young dancers, and these ideas of the possibilities of dance, of questioning what dance could be, and examining alternatives to the traditions of the past, were not only part of my dancing life but were important to how I thought about the spaces of the world I lived in. At first the ideals of the 1960s, of community and social equality, were explored by avant garde choreographers in their inclusion of pedestrian, everyday movement. By the early 1970s the movement became more free flowing, with energy thrown out through space in multiple directions. Contact improvisation used the entire 360 degrees of space around the body to tumble and roll, and these uses of spatial energy also appeared in the very different works of Trisha Brown, Laura Dean, Lucinda Childs, and the choreographers with whom I worked with during that time such as Viola Farber, Dan Wagoner, Mel Wong and Twyla Tharp.

I first began showing my work in New York City in 1975. I was influenced by the dancers and choreographers I came in contact with and admired. In addition I was affected by the social and cultural values of the changing times. Adhering to the Cunningham aesthetic in my first works I used sound as an element independent from movement. In 1978 I started to explore other relations between music and dance, in the way these elements might coincide, collide, overlap, and contrast. In her introduction to the second edition of Terpsichore in Sneakers, Sally Banes notes that independent choreographers in New York in the 1980s began to explore the possibility of narrative, theatricality, virtuosity, expression, and content (1987). I, too, became involved in exploring these interests, for as the environment and my personal and professional priorities shifted, the concerns of my work, along with those of my colleagues, changed. The philosopher and writer Brian Massumi maintains that “a body is defined by what capacities it carries from step to step. and these are constantly changing. Our body’s ability to affect or be affected isn’t fixed” (in Zournazi 2002). Massumi’s work suggests that as we navigate our way through life there are different pushes and pulls that propel us forward. These ideas resonate with me, for my interests and processes shifted. During the 1990s I taught and choreographed in Asia, yet I carried with me the influences of those teachers and choreographers who inspired me to more clearly see and feel movement in space. I also continued to be influenced by the memory of the spaces I had moved through, the places I had lived in.

(1)All of them were both associated with the Graham company and dedicated to leftist social action through dance. They were instrumental in establishing the New Dance Group which continued as an influential center for modern concert dance in the 1940s through the early 1960s. For more on the early part of this period see Stepping Left (1997) by Ellen Graff.

(2)Waring gave concerts at venues throughout New York such as the 92nd Street YMHA and Judson Church and many of the people who were associated with experimental dance in the late 1950s and 1960s such as David Gordon, Yvonne Rainer and Aileen Passloff, who danced and/or took class with him. For a more thorough discussion of Waring’s work see “James Waring and the Judson Dance Theater: Influences, Intersections, and Divergences”  (2003).

(3)Margaret H’Doubler created the first dance program at a university in the United States in Madison in the 1920s. She believed that dance was a means to express one’s own ideas and feelings through movement. In Dance: A Creative Art Experience (1940), she wrote that for her, technique was “training the mind to use the body as an expressive instrument”(xi). She viewed dance as both an art and a science. Kloepper was an American dancer and teacher who trained in Germany with Mary Wigman and taught and danced with Hanya Holm in the 1930s and 1940s. She taught and became the chair of the dance program at the University of Wisconsin after H’Doubler’s retirement.

(4)Many of the teachers and students at Wisconsin were also associated with another choreographer within the German school, Alwin Nikolais. The choreographer and dancer Don Redlich, who worked extensively with Holm, also taught and was a prominent influence at Wisconsin.

(5)Farber was one of Cunningham’s most distinctive dancers in his early company and has been described by Cunningham as having a dissociated quality of being “like two persons, another just ahead or behind the first” (Lubow, 2009).

(6)At the end of the performance Steve Paxton stood up and asked Rainer about her processes in making the work and her use of her visual focus within the work. She said she never allowed her focus to engage the audience, and her neutral and task-like actions seemed to be stripping away the conventions of dance and theatre. Yvonne and Steve were both part of the Judson Dance Theater, a circle of experimental choreographers in the early 1960s who sought to develop new choreographic processes and concepts, redefining dance and the ways we see it  and serving  as an inspiration and springboard for many of the influential choreographers of the following decades (Banes 2001, 350 – 361).

(7)For further discussion of these issues see also C. Novack’s Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture, (1990).




Banes, S. 1987. Terpsichore in Sneakers. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Banes, S. 2001. “Choreographic methods of the Judson Dance Theater.” In Moving

History/ Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader, ed.  A. C. Albright and  A. Dils, 350- 362. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Copeland, R. 2003. Merce Cunningham: The Modernizing of Modern Dance. New York: Routledge

Graff, Ellen. 1997. Stepping Left. North Carolina: Duke University Press.

H’Doubler, M. 1940. Dance: A Creative Art Experience. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Lubow, A. 2009. “Can Modern Dance Be Preserved?” New York Times, 5 November, Magazine.

Novack, C. J. 1988. “Looking at Movement as Culture: Contact Improvisation to Disco.” TDR. The Drama Review – A Journal of Performance Studies. Vol. 32, Number 4, (Winter).

Novack, C. J. 1990. Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Satin, L. 2003. “James Waring and the Judson Dance Theater: Influences,Intersections, and Divergences” in Reinventing Dance in the 1960s: Everything Was Possible, ed. S. Banes, 51-80. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Zournazi, M. 2002. “Navigating Movements: An interview with Brian Massumi”, in 21c Magazine, issue 2,