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When a dance collective was like a rock band
A contact sheet of Wendy Perron, the author of “The Grand Union: Accidental Anarchists of Downtown Dance, 1970-1976," in New York on Oct. 12, 2020. Perron’s book about the Grand Union explores this group of improvisers, who could transform “almost nothing” into “an unforgettable something.” Jingyu Lin/The New York Times.

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In 1970, the Grand Union came into being, and the dance world has never been the same. An improvisatory, leaderless group of artists, the Grand Union hung around for six years — a pretty thrilling six years by most accounts — during which discomfort, wit, boredom, chaos and excitement were all ingredients for creation. These performers were dance rebels who inspired the kind of adoration that rock bands did. They even had groupies.

The Grand Union emerged out of a work by choreographer Yvonne Rainer, “Continuous Project — Altered Daily.” Along with her, the group included Trisha Brown, Barbara Dilley, Douglas Dunn, David Gordon, Nancy Lewis, Steve Paxton, Becky Arnold and Lincoln Scott. Its predecessor was another collective: Judson Dance Theater, the 1960s group of experimental artists who, among other things, rejected the psychological material associated with modern dance for something more — on the surface at least — in line with the everyday.

The Grand Union wasn’t everyday. As Wendy Perron writes in a new book, “The Grand Union: Accidental Anarchists of Downtown Dance, 1970-1976” (Wesleyan University Press), “The stars aligned briefly to create something as rare as a total solar eclipse.”

Perron, a former choreographer who danced with Brown and others, attended only a few performances by the Grand Union (Gordon named it after the supermarket chain) but while researching Rainer’s collection at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, she came across some videotapes.

“I thought, Oh, I’ll just look at some of these,” she said, and approached watching them with the question: Could this possibly be as good as I remember? She discovered that it “was even better.”

Many choreographers have changed the course of dance — Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham — but Perron became entranced with writing a book about the dynamics of group creation. “Really, it was the relationship that they all had, and that they complained about and that had ordinary personal limitations and irritations,” she said. “But it was something to admire. This group synergy that created performances from scratch. There was no plan. They had to accommodate to what else was happening. It’s a life lesson.”

Her lively book, peppered with interviews and writings from the participants and observers, as well as her own reflections, includes biographical entries and what she calls “Interludes” — many of them excerpts from published writings — to give a more nuanced sense of the scene. And in her play-by-play descriptions of Grand Union performances, we grasp how spontaneous dialogue and movement could create moments in which, she writes, audiences could witness “the almost nothing transforming to an unforgettable something.”

In her detailed, intimate narration of the archival videos, Perron creates a sort of dance-theater of the mind — a trippy experience that seems all the more potent now that live dance has been put on hold. In some ways, the book, with its multiple voices and context-providing interludes, feels a bit like choreography. And throughout, it’s a story about people — she keeps them on a first-name basis — overflowing with imagination.

Perron, an educator as well as the former editor-in-chief of Dance Magazine, dedicates her book to writer Sally Banes, whose influential study of postmodern dance, “Terpsichore in Sneakers” ends with a chapter on the Grand Union. (Banes died in June.)

“I was thinking that what I’m doing is I’m taking that chapter and expanding it,” Perron said. “I feel like it was a project I did with Sally — this whole book.”

Recently, Perron spoke about the her experiences diving into the Grand Union. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: What it was like to be in the room at a Grand Union performance?

A: One that I remember was at NYU and Barbara [Dilley] and David [Gordon] were kind of chasing each other and there were pillows. There was an attraction and an anger, too. Their emotional states were so ambiguous, and I felt like I was reading their friendship, their affection for each other — like a brother-sister thing almost.

I remember thinking, are they really mad at each other or are they acting? And then when I was interviewing them both, I realized they didn’t know either. They were just in this realm.

Q: How did you come up with the structure of the book, which unfolds in many sections and includes a variety of remembrances?

A: I liked the idea of having different voices. I’m not a novelist. Everything I’ve written has been pretty short. In a way, all I wanted to do is just describe what I saw in the videos and then to give background. I thought there would just be a few interludes and then they sort of mounted up — all the different tangential things I wanted to happen in the book.

Q: It creates a visceral experience of an artistic movement, and I think that’s because of your dance background — you were part of the fabric of the time.

A: With a university press, they expect you to be academic in a way. I know that some of my colleagues in universities will feel like it’s too personal, but that’s the way I write. And I wouldn’t be interested if I were standing back and being totally objective. I was part of an improvisation group with Douglas Dunn. I took a workshop with Barbara Dilley. I’d seen her dance nude. I’d watched David Gordon’s “Chair” piece. I was in the soup, aesthetically, with them.

Q: Could anything like the Grand Union exist today?

A: I felt like it was really a thing of its time and its place and would never happen again. That’s what I felt the whole time I was writing the book until the MCA Chicago showed the video of Ralph Lemon, Ishmael Houston-Jones and Bebe Miller improvising. Watching that video, I got the same feeling of amazing improvisers allowing things to happen, having unbelievable relationships with one another. Unbelievable movers. Unbelievable patience. And I felt that kind of magic with the three of them, even watching the video. It wasn’t even a live performance! So after saying that I think it could never happen again, I felt like I was watching it happen.

Q: What do you hope that people take away from the story of the Grand Union?

A: That a collective could be something to work for. I want people to get a sense of the time — that time that had a sort of free-form thing about it, but also a rigor. And I do think dancers should write about their experience and the world that they’re in. That, to me, balances out a critic coming into the dance world from the literary world or the music world. I feel that I belong in this world. I don’t have to make theories about this world.

Q: Because there are many layers to it?

A: The intellectual layer is one layer. The visceral, physical layer is another layer. The psychological, the sexual are all other layers to see dance in. And I guess I feel like I jump in with all my body and soul into looking at dance. I think all these Grand Union people do, too. That’s what I want people to get out of it: the wholeness of encountering and responding to dance.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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