Charles Atlas
Charles Atlas

In the early 1960s, many of the dancers who would go on to found Judson Dance Theater studied or performed with choreographer Merce Cunningham. Cunningham was known for the way he used non-traditional means--chance, indeterminacy--to create dances that didn't tell stories or express inner emotions but rather reveled in unexpected encounters. Among New York’s tight-knit experimental dance community, Cunningham became a magnetic pole—a source of attraction and rejection for Judson dancers. Steve Paxton, one of the founding members, recalled that it was “incumbent on Judson to not imitate Cunningham or any other artist who they had studied with...but [rather] to move on and to make new material.” Charles Atlas (b.1954) reflects on this from a unique vantage point, having been immersed in the work of both Cunningham and the Judson dancers. After moving to New York in 1969, Atlas collaborated with Cunningham to develop “video dance," which the camera itself moves among the dancers, and movements are choreographed in relation to it. Atlas has since become an acclaimed artist and filmmaker in his own right, creating video-based installations and performances that explore themes of gender, sexuality, and portraiture in collaboration with well-known and underground figures alike. On the occasion of Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done, Atlas worked with the curatorial team to create a new video installation in MoMA’s Marron Atrium, featuring archival footage of the Judson choreographers dancing. In this interview, Atlas reflects on the installation and what it was like to revisit Judson’s history.

Could you take us back to the early 1970s, when you just moved to New York, and tell us a bit about what it was like to be an artist living here at that time?

Well I started working for [Merce] Cunningham, that got me involved with the dance world. There wasn’t really a performance world then. All the dancers in the Cunningham Company were friends with the people who were the next generation, and people followed what different people were doing, like Yvonne [Rainer]. I came after the Judson period, but the ideas were still current. Yvonne Rainer was the main person that I was interested in, both in a positive way and as something to react against.

When I started making work, in 1972, I was motivated by being against everything that she was doing. And at the same time I was also working for her, with her, and I was very fond of her and respected her work. But when it came to do my own work, I was looking for another way to go. So I was interested in color, and dreams, and emotional materials.

Every generation does something different from the generation before. I was not interested in ordinary movement at that time. I was interested in making something more baroque, colorful, elaborate -- a dreamlike aesthetic. Everything that wasn't plain.

Can you tell us about the nature of the work you did?

I was the technical director, kind of like a stage manager. I was assistant stage manager at the Cunningham Company, so a lot of people [including Rainer] knew about that and hired me. My work for the Cunningham Company at that time was part time, and we were guaranteed a certain number of weeks of employment so we could get unemployment. That's what we all lived on.

Charles Atlas (filmmaker), Merce Cunningham (choreographer). Walkaround Time. 1973
Charles Atlas (filmmaker), Merce Cunningham (choreographer). Walkaround Time. 1973

Do you have memories of seeing later performances by the dancers who were founding members of the Judson Dance Theater?

I went to all of the performances that were in New York that I could. And they lasted for hours and were fascinating and riveting, and sometimes boring, but the people were all stars. I mean, I always saw it as the stars throwing away their technique. It wasn’t just like ordinary people doing this stuff. It was really highly skilled performers.

I loved the Grand Union, which was based on Yvonne’s continuous projected Altered Daily. Then it got to be kind of out of her hands and became a collective, but it was basically her idea that formed it. I went to all those performances. They were the most exciting things that I had seen. It was just a bunch of the Judson people, David [Gordon] and Trisha [Brown] and Yvonne. It was also Barbara [Dilley] Lloyd—my favorite Cunningham dancer, who had already left the Cunningham Company by the time I had gone. And Douglas Dunn, who was in the Cunningham Company and was a friend and collaborator of mine.

Could you tell us a bit about your thinking about the installation in the Marron Atrium?

When I was asked to do a video for the Atrium, I had a bunch of ideas. The available footage was unbalanced. There was a ton of footage of some people and for others there was hardly any. So I thought that maybe we should emphasize the group quality rather than the individual, and then feature the individuals as much as they could be featured. That’s how I came up with having sort of this group section, and then the featured individual. Then the featured individual came in between the group sections and sometimes there was a lot, sometimes there was a little, but it still had the same kind of feeling of group individual, group individual.

90% of the material is the old ratio of video, which is 4 x 3 and the projector is 16 x 9. I didn't want to just have it be 4 x 3 looking like a postage stamp on the wall, so I figured out another system to fill the image a little more.

What were the challenges?

Well, the thing about the show and about Judson in particular is there's very little documentary footage from the period. I mean, it was before video, the actual Judson performance took place before video [which really took hold a decade afterward]. Film was very expensive and hardly anyone had any films. So there really isn’t much contemporaneous footage. I mean, there are still photos, but that’s it. It’s problematic. That’s sort of the given in making a show about this. You have whatever you have, so it’s like figuring out how to make a show out of that.

Now I’ve seen all sorts of dance, like the Koli and flamenco and every form of dance. I love the Japanese kabuki, and I’ve always wanted to work with other forms of dance. I continue to be interested in dance.

What do you think our visitors can learn from Judson?

I think among the general public there’s still some notion about what dance is that doesn’t include a lot of the flavors of Judson, which is really an expanded notion of what dance could be as an art. The Judson people were—as was Merce and many other contemporary dancers—very aware of the trends in the art world and what other artists were thinking. A lot of their work was a reflection of that.