The Herko Dialogues: Kyle Bukhari and Yve Laris Cohen in Conversation

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.


Yve Laris Cohen: One of the reasons it was difficult to prepare for this conversation is—well, did I tell you I’m co-teaching a course at NYU with Barbara Browning on Judson? It’s in the Department of Performance Studies where José Muñoz taught. I’m also participating in this Danspace Platform organized around the three poles of dance in the 60’s as described by Edwin Denby—one of them being Judson—and so Judson has been heavily in the brain this fall. Herko in particular has been on my mind as we focus on José’s legacy. I feel very saturated in this material. It’s been a different kind of encounter than just attending the symposium. What about you?

Kyle Bukhari: It sounds like you are deeply contextualized within the material surrounding Herko. My knowledge of Judson comes particularly through my research on Yvonne Rainer, and looking at some of her works within a philosophical context. My recent research has focused on Rainer’s Hand Movie [1967] and Richard Serra’s Hand Catching Lead [1968] looking at them as examples of intermediality encompassing dance, sculpture, and film. That’s what I was doing in London this year which is pretty ironic since I went to there to work on Michael Clark’s work but ended up writing on downtown New York postmoderns—that’s how things happen I guess. I’ve also done work on Rainer’s We Shall Run [1963] so that’s more where I’m tying Fred Herko in—to this early Judson work. For me, this symposium was fleshing out an obscured, darkened area, and shining some light, like a flashlight, across it, briefly illuminating the silhouette of Herko.

YLC: I feel like we still don’t have the flesh after that symposium.

KB: Yes absolutely, it’s quite elusive still.

YLC: Or not even bone.

KB: That’s true. That’s this absence, or rather a sort of absence/presence—trying to make something out of very little in many ways, an act of critical recovery—but on the other hand, he was there; it was substantial. He created work in some of the first concerts at Judson. You probably know more about this than I do..

YLC: But you know, even with Sally Banes’s detailed descriptions and her very clinical, deliberate, seemingly matter-of-fact summaries—although her own biases come through—Herko still somewhat slips away from these plodding accounts. But, paired with José’s [Muñoz] take on Herko’s dances, they give me some sense of his work. The symposium didn’t really consider his cultural production as much as his death—although that can also count as production. In many ways I’m more interested in his death and how people take him up rather than being faithful to the person, Fred Herko, and his life. Of course, Gerard Forde would take major issue with that.

KB: The precision, the empirical, verifiable fact. Gerard was really fighting for that. So, we had these different speakers, each approaching the symposium from different angles, not necessarily focusing on Herko’s work but circumnavigating it.

YLC: Danielle Goldman spoke on the “elegant lines of Fred Herko.” But it was very much building on José’s work.

KB: I liked this idea of Goldman’s that lines have history and weight. So this is building on José’s work? I’ve read his essay A jeté out the window, but I’m not familiar otherwise with José’s work. Have you gone through it a bit?

YLC: Yeah. You know, I thought this conversation would carry us toward José because, for me, José makes Fred Herko important. And not so much in the sense that Freddy Herko was written out of history and we need to rewrite him back in—that’s more Forde’s project. For José, Herko becomes this figure that is in support of José’s broader project. Barbara made this point in class.

KB: He plays a certain role within José’s larger project—or he fits neatly into it?

YLC: Well yeah, it’s not about rounding out a picture of Freddy or “fleshing out” or connecting the dots. It’s more about using ephemera, the bits that we know about, his traces—José doesn't corral all the dots but picks up a few in service of his work on queer futurity. And that, to me, is more interesting than trying to holistically examine Fred Herko's oeuvre. Herko is now more important to queer theory than he is to dance scholarship.

KB: Foucault has this great essay called The Lives of Infamous Men and this project has made me think of it, although Herko’s work, I mean, he’s more than infamous in that there is quite a bit of documentation. Foucault wrote about looking through the archives at the Bibliothèque Nationale—internment records from the 1800s—and discovering a few lines about somebody’s imprisonment and then drawing a whole history out of that. I’ve got a quote here: “The resonance that [one] experiences when he encounters these lowly lives reduced to ashes in a few sentences that struck them down.” And then Foucault talks about using these few lines to think about the institutions and the forces at work that surround this individual prisoner. He has this idea of the beam of light that illuminates—I see it like shining  a flashlight into the past—exposing this larger scenario, but at the same time he calls attention to the whole investigative production behind the act of bringing someone from the past to life. There’s this creative aspect that is perhaps disconnected from the verifiable, empirical facts that Gerard is rightly concerned with, but which also has its place. They’re sort of two different projects right?

YLC: Of course.

KB: There’s this historical, empirical perspective, and then there’s this more theoretical kind of practice. Each with different purposes and functions.  So I was just fascinated thinking about that, how the symposium and this reexamination are kind of making the tension between these approaches visible. Also to think about what we are doing within a larger framework in accessing the archive. Derrida’s “Archive Fever” is quite on point here which I think you may have read.

YLC: Yes.

KB: He does this really cool genealogy tracing the etymology of the word ‘archive’. He traces it back to the Greek word archeon, which means house, and how it was the house of the archons, the superior magistrates of the society at the time. They possessed the right to make the laws and it was in their house where the official documents were kept. And this is how Derrida sets up thinking about the archive and its power. So I was thinking about how we’re also dealing with the Judson archive. The power of it, and how it shapes the platform from which order is given in subsequent inquiry, discourse and production.. This is the idea that Derrida proposes.

YLC: And so with Judson we have an incomplete archive displaced from its house. Coincidentally, the titles of the four pieces I’ve made for Movement Research at Judson include either the word “house” or “home.” With that I was thinking about how we narrate our origin story as downtown dance people. “Home” necessitates a return. Or escape. Movement Research’s Monday series [at Judson Church] has far outlasted Judson Dance Theater, and I wonder how the accrual of Monday performances in the church, since 1991, is recasting the historic Judson Dance Theater. Something Herko illuminates is the asymmetrical treatment of the Judson artists in this moment where that era in dance is being “rediscovered” and rigorously historicized for the first time, and how the active curation of living artists plays a huge role in this reformulation of the 60’s Judson archive. The way the artists are curated now in 2014 affects how we digest their 60’s work and construct the broader Judson story. Yvonne Rainer is making new work at the same time as she’s having a zillion retrospectives. And Steve Paxton—the same thing. And Simone Forti—

KB: —in New York, in London.

YLC: Everywhere! And who else? Trisha Brown, certainly. And in the meantime, Fred Herko can only be given a one-day symposium that talks around him, and his works can’t be remounted, especially given the nature of his ultimate work. I almost said “final work,” but I don’t want to betray José’s idea about the choreographing of a suicide being a queer utopian gesture because it reaches beyond the finality of that moment—that, bracketed as a performance, Herko’s suicide negates the finitude of death through what José calls “radical negativity.” Still, Herko’s inability to be curated is exciting to me as far as the ends of reproduction. Queer non-reproduction is one thing, but then there’s refusal—which is also a queer strategy, and maybe Herko’s meta-strategy within Judson. Even now, his dances are refusing to be revived. So you know, José talks about ornament, ornamentation, and flamboyance, and excess, and those being part of Herko’s queer aesthetic that was in opposition to, or resisting, or other-than the prototypical postmodern dance model of you know, “pared-down”—

KB: —the everyday, the minimalist—

YLC: Sure. So, José presents Freddy’s work against this supposed Judson aesthetic monolith. Like queerness, for José, Freddy’s work is “something else.” I think there’s something else happening in Freddy’s work than “something else.” One reason has to do with the assumption of this so-called minimalist monolith. I don’t think that’s what Herko’s aesthetic, with its particular modes of excess, was refusing. Freddy also wasn’t alone in deploying camp: David Gordon, for one, took that tack. Freddy’s suicide does make me go back and read his “ornamented” dance pieces differently, though. That might not be fair. But as an artist, I do think there’s something to the idea of honoring a fellow artist’s full practice. And in this case it likely encompasses his suicide, so we have to talk about it, right?

KB: Absolutely.

YLC: But to what extent do we have to honor him, actually? In discussing him.

KB: Good question. For me the question right now in thinking about his suicide is does his suicide eclipse his oeuvre? The Italian Filmmaker, Pier Paolo Pasolini, said that death is the final editor—it makes us retrospectively reevaluate a person’s life—it attains this kind of crispness in death and I think this is definitely in effect in Herko’s case. My question still, though, is, does his death overshadow his body of work? Or, in some ways, because there is so little documentation of it—I keep thinking about Yvonne Rainer, you know, she’s got so little video documentation of her work from that period.

YLC: Well—

KB: —she told me once after a performance at Dia:Beacon that all the works from that period were lost. But perhaps you’ve seen some things that I haven’t seen!

YLC: But then does the saturation of documentation of Trio A, now in its many 21st-century manifestations, overpower the 1960s lack of documentation? We forget that there was no documentation then, you know?

KB: Yes, good point.

YLC: And certainly the Judson performances are chronicled in Jill Johnston’s writing, and others’—

KB: —of course, and Deborah Jowitt—but I am thinking about what Carrie Lambert-Beatty writes in Being Watched, about how our perceptions are informed by the photographic archive, and that we have to consider the double mediation from the work to the film, and back to live work again.

YLC: I’m curious about how Yvonne’s Hand Movie ties in for you, especially given that it was post-Judson Dance Theater.

KB: Well Hand Movie is definitely well after Herko’s death—but there is an interesting connection between them. I was looking through the symposium program and Rainer and Herko shared concerts where it was just the two of them—I think in 1964. I’ve also been thinking about her so-called No Manifesto, which she of course later refuted—but. there are a few lines that stood out to me when considering Herko’s case: “No to transformations and make believe. No to the glamour transcendency of the star image. No to trash imagery. No to camp. No to eccentricity.” I’m rethinking to whom or to what she  was responding, if Herko’s work might be somehow causal to the aesthetic stance she took. Herko was certainly not the only person that was working like this, but still considering his proximity to her, it is striking.

YLC: I’m so glad you brought that up. This is a question I actually want to ask Yvonne. It occurred to me as I was in class with my students and Barbara: the No Manifesto and Yvonne’s work in general are so often read as refusing previous dance traditions, as rejecting ballet, rejecting—

KB: —Cunningham.

YLC: Cunningham, but also Graham and other modern forms, but I guess most recently Cunningham. Although, Judson artists certainly took up Cunningham’s project in some ways, mostly via the Dunns [Judith and Robert], of course. But after looking at all the semester’s material I thought, Oh, is Yvonne actually talking about her contemporaries? Is the No Manifesto actually a side-eye toward other Judson artists, including Herko? Maybe especially Herko? I mean, what’s so funny about “no to trash imagery” is that the most striking, beautiful footage of Herko is him watering those trash cans in Elaine Summers’ film.

KB: Totally!

YLC: And so Herko lets us read the No Manifesto in a more nuanced way, and we can remember Yvonne wasn’t isolated within the Judson era. And that friction amongst your peers is a necessary part of art production.

KB: It sounds like, if anything, it makes those early Judson concerts sound even richer and not yet solidified into this conception of Judson postmodernism, but rather as a much more complicated and pluralistic aesthetic idea. The term post-modern is a contested idea. Susan Manning has really criticized Sally Bane’s use of the term, you know, whether you do it with a dash or not, and that postmodernism in dance does not line up with postmodernism in visual art.

YLC: Yes. Dance being out of time with the trajectory of visual art movements, and those being out of time with the progression of capitalism; modernism and modernity being misaligned, and now late modernity and postmodernism being misaligned. So what do you do with Herko, a figure who is out of space and time with dance, which is itself, as a discipline, out of space and time with art, which is struggling in late capitalism.

KB: Well that’s interesting how you just said that dance is a discipline out of space and time. The materials of dance are space and time, in a way. So is it made of space and time? Or how did you mean that? I’m curious.

YLC: In the way that José talks about Ernst Bloch’s formation of temporality, building on Marx. And I’m going to butcher this—

KB: —you’re not an Ernst Bloch scholar?

YLC: Ha, no.

KB: The surplus value produced by workers estranged from their labor and its transformation into the aesthetic right?

YLC: Right. But Bloch also talks about how people in different subject positions don’t just experience time differently in a perceptual way—they are literally in their own time, falling in or out of dominant time. Bloch draws those fault lines mostly around class and age. José brings in race, gender, sexuality, disability. He talks about “straight time” and the bodies that fall out of or slip away from that. It’s racialized bodies, it’s queer and trans bodies, it’s disabled bodies. Straight time isn’t just the heterosexual subject’s time; it’s the stand-in for this normative stricture that governs our lives within late capitalism.

KB: It’s the hegemonic time.

YLC: Yes. And he talks about a slowing or delay. And while queerness has been thought through as arrested development, José does something much more complex. It’s not just this slowing or delay, it’s something elsewhere. He brings in space. Queer time has been worked on for a while now, but trans temporality has just begun to be theorized. José mentions transpeople but only in this laundry list of bodies that don’t fit into straight time. Transness is folded into queerness, but isn’t specifically articulated. In my own work I’ve been thinking through how time gets curvaceous. How it gets distorted. It’s not just a slowing, or being somewhere else in space-time, but there’s this bubbling, ballooning, that happens through suspension. Or the ballooning creates the suspension. That’s the image that helps me. It's not stretched laterally like taffy. Especially because now the slowing of time has all these new-age associations: Slow Food, appropriated versions of meditation and yoga, “slow down” in Papyrus typeface. You can get a clear idea of the marketing image. Slowing down is not so useful for me.

KB: Time is kind of commoditized.

YLC: Totally. Paradoxically, it's become about slowing down in order to more effectively and efficiently consume. Slowing time is super hip within visual art performance discourse right now. And aside from my aversion to the fashion of it, it’s not feeling like it has much political potential anymore. What do you think?

KB: About slow time? About slowing down? About just the temporal in general?

YLC: Any of it. How does it fit into your work?

KB: I mean, I’m interested in the spatio-temporal in terms of aesthetic materials. I’m very interested in the materiality of time and space and how one can crystallize that in a work. It’s really incredible when it functions and you’re able to perceive that—how a work can make one aware of time and space in a way that is not normally possible. The poetics of it I guess.

YLC: That’s interesting that you say crystallize because already that implies a kind of physical compression—doing something material to space and time.

KB: Yes, I think it is. I saw this great piece by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker/Rosas, called Vortex Temporum. In the piece, she has the dancers and musicians all playing musical instruments together as they slowly circulate around the stage—even the piano is moving. The musical group is called Ictus — fabulous musicians. And the whole thing was circling. At a certain point, the direction reverses and goes the other way. I had a moment there when I really started to understand what this activity was doing to time and space; I was seeing how this aesthetic production was kind of like [makes a screeching noise]. Through the arts, how one can tweak time and space and show that it is a malleable material in a way.

YLC: And one question I have, just in my own work and thinking, is, how can dance’s space-time distortion transcend its role as an experience that an artist is delivering for an audience member, within the parameters of the performance? And I'm not talking about expanding or changing those parameters, although that's one way to do it. So, the audience has this cool experience of time for an evening and then everyone goes home and everything’s as it was before. How can our work actually restructure the way we live? “We," including both artist and audience. I don’t know if art can or should necessarily do that, but it’s a helpful proposition for me.

KB: Well you’re pointing to the way that the arts are displaced from everyday life. They’re separate. In the visual arts, they’re in a highly commoditized realm, right? You know, sort of luxury goods, luxury market. Dance, not so. It still has resisted to some extent.

YLC: Well, it depends who you’re talking about.

KB: I guess the New York City Ballet.

YLC: Judson has currency. Is currency.

KB: It’s very complicated and really interesting to think about how experimental performance art—I mean, yeah—at some point resists commodification, and on the other hand, it is brought to the museum to increase foot traffic, to increase visitors, it’s got a real draw. It’s a real draw also for the object-based arts; it really enlivens them in many ways.

YLC: One frustration I have with the way performance is often curated in a visual art context is how it’s just brought in to enhance your experience of the saleable works. Performance is called upon in “activating the space,” or, “activating the objects,” or, what did you say, “enhancing”?

KB: Enlivening.

YLC: Enlivening! Yes. This idea that performance provides an ultra-sensorial experience that awakens us to consume better. I told my students last week in class—and this is all hearsay because I wasn’t even at this talk—but there was this performance symposium at MoMA few years ago where Judith Butler and Shannon Jackson were delivering the keynote. I guess, in response to a question about the role of performance now, Judith Butler talked about the “de-deadening of the senses.” David Velasco found that interesting and wrote me about it, but I misread his text as saying the “deadening of the senses.” I was so excited because that sounded like an antidote to all of this yoga talk around being “totally present” and awake and alive in “in the moment”. Coming back to José: he’s talking about the “here and now” is a normative constraint—he actually calls it a “prison house.” He says we need to be thinking, feeling, a "then and there”. There’s a built-in rejection of this impetus to “be present.” Dance pedagogy pressures us to be “in our bodies.” This has a built-in temporality wrapped up in the present, so it really means, “be in your body in the here and now.” Coming from my perspective as a trans person and my investment in disability studies and crip theory, I find this directive to be incredibly oppressive. It can only really address certain dominant subject positions. But anyway, with my misread of “de-deadening of the senses,” I was thinking, Oh! Judith Butler is talking about a retreat from being the best-sensing organism possible. Here I thought she was valuing degeneration or sensory shutdown. Or getting deader.

KB: It’s really interesting how you sketched that out—how you think about the body and these unrealistic and counterintuitive expectations for our senses—and how we force ourselves into the temporal embodiment of  these individualized, atomic, separated bodies. One way that I’ve come to understand the body is how it is constituted by the social, how our conceptions of the body are socially and historically constructed. The historicity of the body—this is how Dominic Johnson frames Herko’s suicide in Modern Death.  And bringing this back to Herko—I don’t know if you had any thoughts on this—but this idea of Herko as a balletic presence within Judson.

YLC: That is exactly what I wanted to talk about!

KB: And what about that? That is a very strong position he was taking amidst the everyday aesthetics of his Judson colleagues.

YLC: Yes. And he was very prescient, in a way, with that. He both predicts the ballet boom of the 80’s and also this post-9/11 return to the balletic. In that way, he is kind of the most contemporary figure of the Judson era.

KB: The film that we saw at the symposium where he was dancing with Jill Johnston—Jill and Freddy Dancing [1963, Andy Warhol].. He is doing tours en l’air, and chassés to a perfect fifth position. He’s not at all trying not to do that. He is totally embracing his ready-made ballet dance vocabulary. I’m thinking of the Raindeers, Yvonne Rainer’s current company, and Emily—

YLC: —Emily Coates.

KB: Emily Coates brings in the use of this ready-made ballet genre to Yvonne’s more recent work. In a way, he was also embodying that.

YLC: And it didn’t feel completely parodic. At least in the glimpses we have in Jill and Freddy Dancing, his ballet dancing feels pretty sincere. There’s a wink, definitely, but we can detect a kind of love for the form. I could be projecting. Another thing: in José’s essay, when he quotes Steve Paxton, or "Bill Paxton"—

KB: Which I still don’t fully understand

YLC: I really love that typo, so much.

KB: Is it a typo?

YLC: It’s an oversight that I think is great. So, Paxton says about Herko’s work, “You would get some ballet movement, none of it with very high energy.” This is what interests me most in Herko’s dances. Low-energy ballet. It’s a really exciting proposition, as a kind of resistance. Deflation. Evacuation. Maybe even disembodiment. These can be queer strategies too. They’re certainly trans survival strategies. I’m more compelled by this formal choice of Herko’s than the camp and ornamentation and flamboyance that José foregrounds.

KB:  This makes me think of the complete reduction and decomposition of the balletic form in [William] Forsythe’s Decreation [2003] as the kind of end to this trajectory launched by Herko — he appears to have been absolutely contemporary in that way.  But I didn’t mean to interrupt you. What does Paxton say after that? Because I’m also thinking about Paxton—and different queer strategies taken up by Herko vis à vis Paxton. Does he mention camp?

YLC: In the first sentence of the quote, “It seemed very campy and self-conscious, which wasn’t at all my interest.” My last point about the low-energy ballet is just about Freddy Herko being pre-queer or proto-queer, before the onset of the gay liberation movement. José talks about this at the end of his essay, which is so gorgeous and devastating and—just drops off. That last page gives me chills. His final sentence: “Would being gay have made his utopian and vexed queerness any easier or more painful?” The fact that Herko’s not-yet-gay makes him queerer and more contemporary, in the way that queerness is other than mainstream gay political strategy. And “not-yet” is endemic to queerness anyhow, says José.

KB: Also, this proto-queerness that you mention, this ballet dancer descending from the more elite uptown to a more decrepit downtown, this low energy ballet—Herko’s got this one piece Once or Twice a Week I Put on Sneakers to Go Uptown [1962]  that highlights this interesting uptown/downtown tension, and I think there was a lot  at stake for him in the transgresssive movement from uptown to downtown.

YLC: Right. I’m just thinking of how we organize uptown and downtown dance today and how there’s this kind of nebulous category that was encapsulated by Dance New Amsterdam [a dance studio formerly operating in lower Manhattan], rest in peace. DNA was a hub for this dance sensibility that’s not quite uptown or downtown, and I wonder if Freddy would have been engaged with that.

KB: That’s a good question. I’m just reflecting on this film with Jill Johnston and Herko and wondering if predates a kind of disdain for ballet as an elite uptown form. It seems like it was no problem that Freddy was arabesqueing about or chasséing in fifth position. It’s almost as if everything was allowed and novel in a way. I wonder if these kinds of positions between uptown and downtown dance were just forming then.

YLC: Yeah. Doesn’t that film feel like it could have been shot at an AUNTS evening today?

KB: Absolutely.

YLC: On a rooftop in Bushwick.

KB: What do you think about the camp aspect?

YLC: First, I think it’s maybe a misnomer. Too often, the work of queer artists is pigeon-holed in the domain of camp, even if it’s not their intention. I’m thinking of Susan Sontag’s essay.

KB: Yes —her Notes on Camp—these are a dense proposition. I pulled one quote which I thought worked for us, which is: “camp, any sensibility which can’t be crammed into the mold of a system, something that can’t be hardened into an idea”. Sontag seems to be saying that camp resists reification; it’s a very protean thing, very shape-changing in a way. And when I think about the force of the minimalist aesthetic, it seems to really have taken a kind of priority at Judson and then I think about—

YLC: —could we pause for a moment on “minimalist”? One thing that gets to me is the way it isn’t correctly transposed.

KB: From object arts to performance arts?

YLC: Yeah.

KB: Sort of how performance art problematizes the minimalist project. You’re a sculptor also right?

YLC: Yeah. Well just that capital “M” Minimalism within visual art is a discrete art movement with discipline-specific characteristics. The word “minimalism” doesn’t easily move from that context to dance and mean similar things. It can’t map onto dance as a neat transposition.

KB: This is something that I’m interesting in within aesthetics—how the same concepts and ideas play out in different media.

YLC: Using this same word across disciplines ignores the specificity of the different disciplines’ toolboxes. Many so-called Minimalist sculptors have rejected that word, which art historians applied retroactively. Within music, Phillip Glass says, “I’m not a minimalist composer. I make repeating structures.” And yet, every fourth New Sounds broadcast announces, “Today’s show features minimalist piano works.” Which is essentially Phillip Glass and friends. It’s now accepted as both a form and genre. When I think of the genres that Judson Dance Theater initiated, there are all these ways of working now that have been dislodged from their parent decade. “Task-based” is something that is no longer specific to the 60s—it’s a way of working that anyone can take up now.  Working with tasks is just one of many things you can choose from as a dancemaker today, and if you decide to do something task-based it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily quoting Judson. Anyhow, I think we should uncouple “minimalist” and “postmodern” in dance, don’t you think? They’re often said in one breath without any interrogation

KB: I think so yes—minimalism is one among many aesthetic propositions within dance postmodernism that in effect let everything in and allowed it to be seen as dance.

YLC: Well, pastiche!

KB: Pastiche, right. From what I understand the pastiche comes in later as second stage postmodernism. And the first stage of postmodernism within dance history seems to have tended towards the minimal, the body as material, task-based operations and working with objects.

YLC: Fantastic Gardens [film by Elaine Summers, 1964] involves pastiche, though.

KB: That’s true. Stunning film!

YLC: Just one last thought. Coming back to the Derridian trace and how we interpret Herko’s traces; how it’s obviously impossible to read José’s work on Herko without acknowledging José’s death and this essay being one of his traces—albeit a very robust trace—how that makes me think through Herko differently, how I read this essay differently when José was alive than when I read it now—and how their deaths are kind of paired. What that means, I don’t know. I’m still figuring it out.

KB: Well it’s quite recent also. I did not know José.

YLC: He was on my thesis committee when I graduated from Columbia. I had asked him to be on it during a performance and choreographed that proposal. But you know, I was obviously not nearly as close to him as were a lot of NYU students and his colleagues in the Performance Studies department. It’s a heavy thing to be teaching there now and feel the grief of that department; it’s palpable. His absence is really felt right now. It’s weird to read about utopia with this—sadness. And I think that people are misreading his work because of it too. There’s a kind of romanticizing of José’s utopianism that’s happening: a misreading of it as optimism, which is different than utopian thinking. Utopian thinking is politically strategic instead of again, this new-age, “everything will be just fine,” self-help modality, which breeds complicity.

KB: So, optimism as a kind of denial whereas a utopian vision is more politically strategic in that you’re voicing this alternative future.

YLC: And he talks about the difference between optimism and hope. As we celebrate José’s life and work, we have to hold on to his own sadness too, and not flatten the complexities of his writing. His own ambivalence is an important part of his work—his book isn’t just a manifesto. And—I think I’m going to end on that.

KB: There’s this tragic rhythm from Herko’s death to José’s death and the fact that we’re looking at them both now is quite remarkable.

Fred Herko: A Crash Course was co-presented by the department of Performance Studies (NYU), the Tisch Institute for Creative Research, Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory and the Goethe-Institut New York, with associated programming provided by New York Performing Artists Collective.
Filed under:


Fred Herko, Judson Dance Theater, Kyle Bukhari, queer performance, The Herko Dialogues, Yve Laris Cohen


Join the Critical Correspondence Email List

Kyle Bukhari

Originally from Berkeley, California, Kyle Bukhari is a scholar, dancer and choreographer based in New York. He was a 2013-14 US-UK Fulbright grantee at the University of Roehampton, London where he r...
Read More

Yve Laris Cohen

Yve Laris Cohen‘s work has been presented and commissioned by The Kitchen, SculptureCenter, Dance Theater Workshop, Company Gallery, Murray Guy, Abrons Arts Center, Recess, Movement Research at the Ju...
Read More