On October 27, 1964, Fred Herko, dancer, choreographer and founding member of Judson Dance Theater, leapt to his death from a fourth story window in the West Village, while listening to Mozart’s Requiem. Or perhaps it was another piece of music. And maybe it wasn’t the fourth floor. Beyond the fact of his suicide, and the presumption that is was staged and performed for an unwitting friend, there is much ambiguity around the circumstances of Herko’s death. And, for that matter, his life and works. Herko’s aesthetic entanglements were many—Judson, Andy Warhol, Jill Johnston and more. His dances have been described as campy, romantic, queer, lazy, incandescent, excessive and potentially leading his career nowhere. Or, maybe he knew exactly what he was doing.
In the ensuing five decades since his death, many in his Judson cohort have met with praise and, what is more, a secured place in dance history. Herko continues to flicker on the periphery, appearing in photographs or films, alone or with other eventual giants of Judson and Warhol’s Factory. Herko’s elusive status offers unexpected lines of thinking, radicalizing traditional ideas secured within historical narratives. Herko’s presence has embroidered the works of a handful of writers and historians, notably, the late performance scholar José Muñoz in his chapter devoted to Herko, entitled “A Jeté Out the Window,” housed within his text Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. Muñoz engages Herko—and his suicide—as a choreographic figure whose movements respond to the contours of queer time, denaturalizing both the theatrical and the quotidian and inviting a kind of utopian performativity into the world. Walking the reader through a profound rumination on the limits of finitude, performance, queerness, utopia, labor and time, Muñoz, points out that this dancer’s final gesture of flight indicates apertures through which we might reflect on escapes from capitalist and historic oppression.
On October 25, 2014, almost exactly fifty years after Herko’s death, NYU's department of Performance Studies, in tandem with the Tisch Institute for Creative Research, sponsored a one-day symposium called Fred Herko: A Crash Course. Taking as its premise the fact that no one is an expert on Herko, scholars and art historians presented their biographical research and thought experiments around Herko’s life, suicide and legacy. Critical Correspondence invited eight relative strangers: choreographers, performers, and scholars to attend the symposium and then pair off to reflect on how that day’s discussions about Fred Herko, José Muñoz, Judson and the 1960s coincide with their own artistic and intellectual practices, bodies, and politics today. The meanings of Fred Herko’s life, work and death, and whether such meanings can be consistently deployed, is a central question of THE HERKO DIALOGUES.
Claudia La Rocco, Fred Herko, Jillian Pena, Judson Dance Theater, The Herko Dialogues