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New York City's gift of motion: A 1970s tale
The Rod Rodgers Dance Company in New York, Aug. 22, 1975. “Motion as discovery and motion as adventure, and the freedoms that come with that,” Elizabeth Kendall writes. Tyrone Dukes/The New York Times.

by Elizabeth Kendall

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- One April evening in the depths of lockdown, I looked down from my building’s second-floor-terrace onto the intersection of Ninth Avenue and 42nd Street. No cars, just a bus rattling by with a shadowy driver in front and a lit-up passenger in back. A jolt of fear hit me for these two loners out there in a perilous world. Then a jolt of envy, that they were going somewhere — anywhere. Such paradoxical feelings attached to the simple fact of mobility took me back in a rush to the 1970s New York of my youth.

Everyone I knew in those days was moving fast: flying down streets, making instant friends, switching apartments on a whim. For me, speed was part of my profession. I was a dancer, or I wanted to be. There were a lot of young people using New York as a springboard to activate their bodies, even if the city itself was in a dismal state. It was the Lindsay era. At any moment you could get mugged, propositioned or overwhelmed by the smell of garbage.

It was also the moment when dance became, as critic Laura Jacobs once wrote, “the most vital performing art in America,” when audiences were flocking to theaters to see it, and funding was (relative to today) pouring in. I had discovered dance late, in graduate school at Harvard University. On many campuses, things were changing. The old brain-heavy reasoning was out: It had brought us the Vietnam War and other hypocrisies. Body-friendly modes were in. Zen. Psychedelics.

For me it was dance. That revelation came in the old vaulted McKim Mead & White gym in Radcliffe Yard. Two guest teachers, Barbara Dilley and Steve Paxton, arrived from the art’s avant-garde edge in New York. They said deep ’70s-style things like: “To dance well, you must learn to be upside down” and “To find your balance, you have to find your center.”

New York was calling, even if I suspected it was too late for my still blurry, white suburban body to toughen up and find its muscles. I arrived one October day in 1973, to a city of strangers. Soon, though, thanks to some instant friends, I was in the dance fold, ensconced in an upper Broadway apartment with two modern-dancer roommates.

We were the dance boom’s battle-ready foot soldiers, and the whole city was our territory. We imagined it spread out like a huge animated map, or a giant pinball machine, with dance destinations flashing on and off.

Midtown Manhattan flashed on every night when well-heeled audiences jammed its theaters (City Center, State Theater) to sit on red plush and view the musical armies of New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet, along with the one great modern-dance company that had made it to midtown: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. We came too sometimes, when we had saved up for a splurge or could sneak in on someone else’s ticket stub.

The city’s edges belonged more to us. I remember the feel, smell, texture of each New York studio with its own kinetic aesthetics, which seemed to seep into the surrounding streets. The Merce Cunningham studio on the top of Westbeth Artists Housing in the far West Village, where we practiced his cool, precise motions — upper backs curving and bare feet sucking the polished floor, while a lemony sun set in the window behind a water tower.

The ivy-covered town house of the Martha Graham Company way east on 63rd Street, where, in whitewashed studios that almost smelled of blood, we reached up from the floor as if in agony or got imaginary-gut-punched in several positions.

Richard Thomas and Barbara Fallis’ New York School of Ballet on the Upper West Side, where we descended into a musty, resin-fragrant cream-and-brown studio. “Now reverse the combination!” Thomas would direct us. That meant your body taking over while your mind shut up. It was something I never quite managed.

For me the most enticing part of the map was a part that glowed darkly — the crumbling, half-colonized region of SoHo. That is where the avant-garde postmodern gurus lived and worked (Trisha Brown, David Gordon, Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Lucinda Childs, Meredith Monk, Twyla Tharp et al.). You couldn’t study with them; they did not have studios. But SoHo was where I took tap dance with a young female acolyte of the veteran Harlem hoofers. She had borrowed the key to an empty warehouse on the corner of Prince and Mercer streets. She would put a boombox on the dusty floor, and we would stomp, shuffle, time-step to its beat.

SoHo was dance spilling out into life. It was a grimy laboratory of the future. In SoHo you could get a turnip soup with an asymmetrical bread chunk at an exotically rustic cafeteria named Food. You could climb leaning stairways to see free-form jazzmen riffing in lofts. And you could meet other dancers on street corners and converse with them in the deadpan physical vernacular of Rainer’s “Trio A.” Somebody would start those opening arm swings of the sloppy-tidy, faux-plebeian dance, and somebody else would cross the street and join in with the next move.

What those SoHo deconstructors, otherwise known as the Judson Church Dance Group, had done was put dance on a shape-shifting autopsy table — and life, too. They had walked on stage walls, signaled from city rooftops, broken down bodies into micro-parts, blown up stages to macro size, substituted mundane tasks for dancing (carrying mattresses, marking floor grids), all in the service of bringing dance into line with counterculture politics. Some of the Judsons had made a collective called the Grand Union. They improvised whole shows at scruffy theaters like La MaMa, talking, joking, even dancing, as we foot soldiers sat riveted on the floor.

For those few years, I lived a New York version of the bohemian dream. The city gave me dance; dance gave me the city. I remember not only the classes with their different bell-jar intensities but also beatnik scenes beyond the studio. Sitting on the floor with paper cups of red wine, in the shabby West Village apartment of a tall, earnest Frenchman named Michel, who had crossed the ocean to study with Merce Cunningham. Sitting with my roommates in the warm light of our fourth-floor kitchen, reporting our technique highs and lows under windows that looked over upper Broadway. Sitting down one day, abruptly, on the side of the bathtub in the bathroom next to that kitchen, clutching to my ear the kitchen phone extension. I had published some little articles about dance. One of them had caught the eye of The New Yorker’s critic, who was calling for my advice about a piece she had just written on the Judsons.

At that moment something clicked. I wasn’t going to be a dancer. I was going to be what I am today: a dance critic and historian. I could stay in the field, just move over to a branch I was more equipped for. Better for all concerned. But I wouldn’t trade those years of pretending to be a dancer for anything, since what they gave me are things that still define me today. First, I got to be a stock character in a Puccini opera, one of those impoverished artists all but bursting into song in a great city’s underside. Second, I got a body that knows itself — a lower back that steers me, sentient hamstrings, glutes and even upper arms (although those are going). A body is an indispensable companion for a mind, both in lockdown and out.

Third, and most radical, I got a sense of myself in relation to the cityscape. This is the hardest thing to describe, but transformative for a woman, then and even now. I had come to New York as a product of the postwar suburbs, that land of the little houses with garages attached. Before, when I had tried to picture my future self, all I saw was a blank, or rather, a sort of female jellyfish wedged into the driver’s seat of a car, with children in the back seat headed for lessons. I had resisted that cozily shapeless vision of a future self as hard as I could — that was part of the lure of dance. But for a long time, I couldn’t replace it with a new vision.

New York gave me that. If the self I had harbored inside had resisted a shape (or molded itself to a car’s front seat), now it was a galvanized figure in an urban surround, anonymous, activated, moving on its own steam. No cars — maybe buses and subways to hop on and off of. A figure playing its role in the city choreography. Even if momentarily still, it was free to turn, pivot, go where it wanted as slowly or quickly as needed. By the end of the ’70s, the real me wasn’t the nice, obliging female person earlier dictated by a suburban origin, but one of those human matches lit on the rough SoHo sidewalks.

I think I would call this gift from my long-ago New York corporeal feminism. A lot of my nondancer female friends at that same time were more politically minded than me. They went to protests, they demonstrated, they joined consciousness-raising groups. That’s how they found autonomy for themselves. I was getting the same thing through apprenticing myself to the art of dance, whose bold pioneers were so often women (Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan), as were the bold Judsonesque challenges of the bold pioneers.

I regularly revisit E.B. White’s great 1949 essay, “Here Is New York.” It moves me to read his idea of those “queer prizes” the city “bestows” on those of its people eccentric enough (he implies) to want them — namely, “the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” To his gifts — still greatly prized by a New Yorker like me, even after months of lockdown — I would add a third: motion. Motion as discovery and motion as adventure, and the freedoms that come with that.

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