Dance Review/Commentary: “The Grand Union” — The Story of the Accidental Anarchists of Downtown Dance
By Marcia B. Siegel
This fascinating book, and the rich literature of films and writings around it, have helped me feel a bit more positive about these shrunken times.
The Grand Union – Accidental Anarchists of Downtown Dance, 1970-1976, by Wendy Perron. Wesleyan University Press, 384 pages, $27.95 (paperback).
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Reading Wendy Perron’s new book was like taking part in a conversation. The improvisational group Grand Union, whose short life she documents, thrived at the heart of what was beginning to be called the postmodern dance. I was there for many of the performances Perron describes, and even reviewed them when I could. I knew most of the characters, including Perron, some of them quite well. So the following remarks will hardly be disinterested; neither is Perron. And that’s part of what makes her book so good.
The Grand Union grew out of workshops and performances at Greenwich Village’s Judson Church in the early ’60s. Digging into the aesthetic chasms opened up by John Cage, Robert Dunn’s workshops were meant to explore the possibilities of making art from scratch. The notion that a dancer didn’t have to depend on any prescribed training system, or that choreography could be any kind of structure, or no structure- — this was the ’60s, remember — fostered alternative solutions and combinations of resources. Some of the workshop members were dancers to begin with, like Yvonne Rainer. Some had little or no dance training, like David Gordon. Some of the solutions relied on non-dancerly behavior like athletics and sports. You could be doing something ordinary, or something risky, or something repetitive and boring. You could be exploring props or the room. You could be who you were, wear a bathrobe, dance with a musician.
The experiments and their aftermath were shown in the Judson Church sanctuary. A couple of years later, some of the Judson dancers coalesced in a piece called Continuous Project — Altered Daily. The leader, Yvonne Rainer, later described the piece as an accumulation of activities, polished and raw, that would change each time, and that would give each of the performers a chance to emerge as individuals. Talking was allowed. That group later evolved into the independent Grand Union. Perron’s novel narrative structure begins with the group’s separation from Judson in 1970, and ends with its demise six years later.
Judson and post-Judson has more meat on its bones than one book can cover, though a few have begun the task. Judson dance has been pretty well documented, but the work of the Grand Union, along with other, non-Judson experiments of the period, has largely dissolved into the later — more visible and less risky exploits — of the 21st century. That transition is also another book. (*Shameless plug: See my The Tail of the Dragon – New Dance 1976-1982.)
Perron undertakes to grasp the ephemeral, listing a whole page of the Grand Union’s performance venues and residencies. Every Grand Union show was improvised, unrehearsed, and different from every other. Seven men and women (Rainer, Barbara Lloyd Dilley, Trisha Brown, Nancy Lewis, David Gordon, Steve Paxton, and Douglas Dunn), with an occasional guest or barely tolerated drop-in, entered a space and made up movements. Some gambits entailed physical tasks or challenges, and some simulated housekeeping, chance encounters, and family get-togethers. Most of the outcomes were unpremeditated. Two or three of these actions might be going on at the same time, the actors vying for attention or quietly focused on themselves and their partners. The competing parties might join together into a single maneuver or skit; the actions might die out altogether, stalling the momentum while the actors considered their next move.
Even when the participants brought props, music, or costume possibilities with them, they never knew how their comrades would use these prompts. The talking option might begin as if we were watching a studio rehearsal, with the players trading instructions, feedback, corrections, and encouragement. This kind of low-key interchange could evolve into dramatic scenes and role-playing. Finally, the audience began to see the participants as real people living their lives in public. Which, in a way, they were.
Perron’s nominally chronological framework opens up to include her generous descriptive accounts of particular performances, some of which she witnessed, some she watched on recorded tapes. She transcribes long segments of hilarious, absurd, or baffling dialogue and action, and checks back for the participants’ later comments on what they did.
She expands this context with “Interludes,” other writers’ commentary reprinted at generous length. Some of them are theoretical (like Philip Glass’s reflections on John Cage) and some of them personal (like Perron’s own thoughts about dancing subsequently in Trisha Brown’s dance company).
Perron’s innate respect for writers and their work isn’t surprising. She’s a writer herself, having contributed to mainstream and alternative publications. She edited Dance Magazine for nine years. She collected five decades of her reviews and commentary in her first book, Through the Eyes of a Dancer (2013). (*Further disclosure: Perron began that book thanking me and fellow critic Deborah Jowitt for writing classes we gave together in the ’70s at Dance Theater Workshop. I’d forgotten Perron was one of our students.)
Perron is particularly good at looking at how individuals contributed to the work they were doing. She supplies profiles of each of the core GU dancers and makes room for some consideration of where the participants’ careers took them after the group broke up. Toward the end of the book, she also describes other improvisational groups and practices that were happening at the same time. It’s all tied together by Perron’s own narrative of the Grand Union’s development and the culture around it, with lots of photos.
Inevitably, the community began to disperse. They got to know each other so well they couldn’t always suppress their differences in the instant-response moments of improvising. They all wanted to do their own work, starting with Rainer, who left after two years to make films. Perron devotes a chapter to thoughts of the members and critics about the breakup, and her own reflections.
Perron made me more conscious than ever of the importance of writing your time. I’ve always done this, for publication and for myself. It’s what critics do, accumulating history as it happens. This fascinating book, and the rich literature of films and writings around it, have helped me feel a bit more positive about these shrunken times. Anarchy can’t last, as Perron says, but, we can hope, creative rebellion will rise again.
“The Alchemy of Grand Union” virtual book talk | Wendy Perron and Douglas Dunn | free on Zoom on October 21. Register here.
There will also be a livestream of Conversations Without Walls: Barbara Dilley & Yvonne Rainer with Wendy Perron on November 21 at 12 p.m. ET. RSVP here.
The CWW digital series are prerecorded and will be streamed on YouTube and archived on the Danspace Project online Journal. More about Conversations Without Walls
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at the Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for the Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. She has contributed two selections to Dance in America, the latest edition in the Library of America’s “Reader’s Anthology” series.