Book Review: Defining Radical Bodies

Three dancers laying spread out on a porch

Radical Bodies Cover / photo by Warner Jepson

When someone says “radical change,” I wonder which definition they are using for “radical.” The word can refer to an approach that comes from outliers, one that challenges existing views, habits, and conditions. In other uses, “radical” refers to core, fundamental aspects of a group or moment: in botany, “radical leaves,” are those that are located at the base of a plant or stem, especially arising directly from the root.

This first definition of “radical” seems to be at play in the title of the exhibition and catalogue, Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955 to 1972, curated by Ninotchka Bennahum, Wendy Perron, and Bruce Robertson. From January to April of 2017, the exhibition appeared at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which is directed by Robertson. From May to September 2017, the exhibition was presented at the Vincent Astor Gallery at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center. As a stand-alone text (I did not see the exhibit), the catalogue is a collection of photographs, drawings, letters, scores, and essays that delve into facets of these artists’ careers with essays by the curators plus composer Morton Subotnick and former editor of the New York Times Arts & Leisure section John Rockwell (who also served as a performer and publicist for Halprin).[1]

As I read through the essays and studied the images, I questioned if the second meaning of “radical,” something fundamental to a moment or group, may be the more apt application of this term. This led me to consider how such books and exhibitions propagate certain reputations. As UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Tria Blu Wakpa asks, “If we position certain artists as ‘radical,’ where are the spaces for those who are intervening in ways that challenge the dominant order by calling attention to ongoing injustices and inequities? It is important to consider how archives can reproduce and reinforce hierarchies.”[2]

Having lived on both coasts, in New York for about 10 years and the Bay Area for 5, I was curious about the curators’ premise that California, and specifically “Halprin’s fabled dance deck in Marin County,”[3] is an overlooked catalyst in histories of dance, and Halprin herself “the elder stateswoman” in this narrative. The curators’ interventions seem to be twofold: first, “the conventional story” that has privileged New York as the epicenter of postmodern dance needs to be reconsidered, and to do this they position Halprin as “the first to break with dance modernism’s reliance on character (representation), codified technique (“Do as I do”), and epic narrative (stories residing outside the human body) as roads to proscenium performance.”[4] Second, the curators, who come from different disciplines and professions, “sought to understand from one another what effect(s) dance had on the arts from the Cold War era to the feminist movement.”[5]

Robertson’s essay, “Dance is Hard to See: Yvonne Rainer and the Visual Arts” most explicitly describes influences amongst dancers and visual artists. Robertson begins by tracing connections among Rainer, Robert Morris, Robert Rauschenberg, Carl Andre, Eleanor Antin, and Louise Fishman, and then analyzes similarities between Rainer’s The Bells and Morris’s sculpture Column. Although he states his “goal” as bringing dance and sculpture “back into balance with each other,” Robertson seems to be using his disciplinary lens as an art historian to approach The Bells as sculpture and to view Column as immaterial (like dance) or “unviewable.”[6]

This essay’s detailed attention to how disciplinary boundaries can obfuscate engagement with artists’ work sparks questions about how dance historians and critics typically approach an artist’s event. As scholars like Randy Martin have noted, dance criticism tends to isolate a performance from broader influences of social, political, and economic forces. Randy Martin uses the term “underreading” for criticism that places “emphasis on a purely descriptive language” and a tendency to detach “text from context.”[7] For example, Bennahum’s essay in the catalogue, “Anna Halprin’s Radical Body in Motion,” begins with the statement, “Anna Halprin revolutionized dance and dance making in the twentieth century…” Bennahum attributes this revolution to “Halprin’s invention of a radical dance body” and “her belief in the ethical capacity of human beings to construct new ways of being through the practice of conscious movement.”[8]

If we widen the lens to include bodies and dances often neglected by Eurocentric critics and scholars, we may notice how dancing has connected “ethical capacity” and “conscious movement” for centuries. Scholars like Adria Imada describe hula as “a highly venerated, selective, and restricted form of religious and political praxis,”[9] while Jacqueline Shea Murphy has written extensively about Indigenous epistemologies. Practices like the Cahuilla Bird Singing and Dancing are, in Shea Murphy’s words, “about showing and practicing strength and continuity over time (including maintaining your language), even in the face of colonization; about knowing and valuing the place, and land, where you are from; and about knowing whom you are connected to in your community, and staying connected with them.”[10]

Halprin attracted practitioners and audiences who may not have been familiar with such practices, but my question is about Bennahum’s framing: Halprin’s events “revolutionized” dance as it had come to be defined through higher education, through concert venues, and through a dance canon, three institutions steeped in Whiteness.[11] When Perron writes about participating in Halprin’s 2014 Planetary Dance, she notes that the distinguishing features are: “community rituals, dancing for a cause, and reveling in the natural environment.”[12] Aren’t these characteristics present in dances around the world, so long as we acknowledge that there is, and has been, a lot of dancing happening outside of concert contexts? By asking this question I do not mean to diminish the important roles Halprin has played as a performer and director. I wish to call attention to how disciplinary approaches police the boundaries between “artist” (Halprin) and “cultural dancer” (often artists of color).

In their essay “Radical Bodies: An Overview,” the curators acknowledge that museums played a legitimating role in Halprin’s, Forti’s, and Rainer’s careers. For example, when the Museum of Modern Art acquired Forti’s Dance Constructions in 2016, they write that this “groundbreaking move” bestowed “on them the value of notable visual art.”[13] In many ways their own exhibition and catalogue grant these artists wider acclaim and appreciation. As an archival object, the catalogue makes it possible to circulate their ideas to broader communities.

Perhaps this potential to reach large number of readers, especially students of dance history, motivates my questions about the curators’ approach: most of the essays focus on these artists as unsung heroes who “radicalized,” a word the curators use, dance. But a photo of Halprin’s dance deck that appears twice in the catalogue, on page 4 and 5 and again on 31, is dated 1959 and shows 16 people, many wearing traditional leotards and tights. Bennahum writes that “Halprin turned away from training the body” in the 1950s, but this image reveals that participants subscribed to an attire associated with modern dance.[14] By 1969, in a photo of students climbing “cargo netting,” all of the participants are naked. How did these transitions occur? What motivated these shifts? Rather than pronounce “Halprin’s invention of a radical dance body,”[15] it may be more useful to notice how she both subscribed to core tenets of institutionalized dance and gradually introduced elements that existed for centuries in dance forms outside of proscenium walls.

Bennahum writes that Anna Halprin traveled to James Woods’s Studio Watts in Los Angeles to work with “a besieged neighborhood.”[18] Wasn’t the Bay Area in the 1960s home to social justice movements and programs that addressed racial inequities? Why and how did Halprin select Los Angeles?

In one striking image on page 77, Halprin stands on her deck with Ruth Beckford and Merce Cunningham. How did Beckford, who set up a modern dance program for Oakland’s Department of Parks and Recreation in 1947, and in 1969 coordinated the Free Breakfast for Children program with the Black Panther Party, inform Halprin’s ideas about community? The only information about her in the catalogue appears in a footnote in the curators’ overview that begins, she was “the first African-American to dance with Halprin’s Company…”[19] Rather than bracket Halprin as a “radical” innovator, it seems more historically accurate to note the many prominent artists around her who motivated social change through the arts, but who have not received widespread acclaim or exhibitions.

The intertwining of dance and activism that the curators describe in the catalogue continues to be a defining feature in projects by Bay Area practitioners, many of who are overlooked in history books and dance publications: Sara Shelton Mann and Contraband, Ed Mock, Amara Tabor-Smith, Patricia Berne, and Marc Bamuthi Joseph––to name a few. In the wake of protests about historical monuments of Confederate leaders and their effects, attention to how we write histories is particularly urgent.

Radical Bodies adds to a growing collection of research about three artists who are part of the dance history canon, who are frequently studied and written about, and who made significant projects during a time of intense changes in American cultures. I hope we can also examine those artists who are much lesser known, who are not acknowledged in our dance history textbooks, and who inspire us to look more deeply at the structures and criteria that decide who is “radical.”

[1]John Rockwell, “A Collaborative Community: Ann Halprin and her Composers,” Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955 to 1972 (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 161. Rockwell writes about “…my writing sessions with Ann: we would discuss in detail what she wanted to say in press releases, manifestos and articles, then she or I would write up a draft that we would polish together.”

[2] Personal conversation. August 25, 2017.

[3] Bruce Robertson, “Preface,” Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955 to 1972 (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 13.

[4] Ninotchka Bennahum and Bruce Robertson, “Introduction,” Radical Bodies, 17.

[5] Bennahum and Robertson, “Introduction,” Radical Bodies, 18.

[6] Bruce Robertson, “Dance is Hard to See: Yvonne Rainer and the Visual Arts,” Radical Bodies (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 130.

[7] Randy Martin, Critical Moves: Dance Studies in Theory and Practice (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 59.

[8] Ninotchka Bennahum, “Anna Halprin’s Radical Body in Motion,” Radical Bodies, 56.

[9] Adria L. Imada, Aloha America: Hula Circuits through the U.S. Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 11.

[10] Jacqueline Shea Murphy, “Native American Dance,” Dance Heritage Coalition: Dance Treasures. Available here: http://dhctreasures.omeka.net/native_american2

[11] For deeper analysis of Whiteness, please see Jesse Williams, “Developing Racial Justice Allies,” Whiteness in Higher Education.

[12] Wendy Perron, “You Make Me Feel like a Natural Woman: My Encounters with Yvonne, Simone, Anna, and Trisha,” Radical Bodies, 182.

[13] Perron, Bennahum, Robertson, “Radical Bodies: An Overview,” Radical Bodies, 36.

[14] In “Radical Bodies: An Overview” the curators write, “Halprin ‘turned away from training the body’,” and add that her approach was “an escape from the standard technique class.” This photo makes me wonder who these dancers “escaping” technique and wearing leotards and tights might be.

[15] Bennahum, “Anna Halprin’s Radical Body in Motion,” Radical Bodies, 56.

[16] Nan Ellin, Postmodern Urbanism (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999), 84. Ellin writes, “These so-called ‘urban revitalizations’ entailed a ‘creative partnership’ between the public and private sectors and succeeded in replacing declining manufacturing industries with a new economic base and generating a renewed sense of pride in downtowns. But in gentrifying central city districts, it also accentuated the polarization between rich and poor.”

[17] Bennahum and Robertson, “Introduction,” Radical Bodies, 27.

[18] Perron, Bennahum, and Robertson, “Radical Bodies: An Overview,” Radical Bodies, 52.

[19] Ibid., 54

PUBLISHED October 1, 2017

POSTED IN In Dance

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