The Herko Dialogues: Tavia Nyong’o and Raja Kelly 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.


Tavia Nyong’o: I'm here with Raja Kelly to talk about Freddie Herko and some of the questions around the recent symposium at NYU. The first question that we were given had to do with defining queer performance. Someone once told me that definitions are where thought goes to die, so I don't know whether we have to define queer performance. But it’s interesting to think about how, whatever queer performance is, it was responsible for making his work hard to categorize or talk about or theorize as it was, whether in terms of dance, art or performance. It seems the queerness of the work is part of what makes it mercurial.

Raja Kelly: Something that always stays with me, since I was in college when I first heard the word "queer," was that it was always attached to the word "questioning." "Queer" was always "Queer and Questioning." Something that I enjoy about my understanding of queer performance and queer anything is that it’s still being defined to this day. "The definition of queer" presents an oxymoron. It’s something that is still being defined. That’s why I personally allow my work and myself to be identified with the word and the idea of queerness or "queer." That's my statement.

TN: I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Ball scene in New York, literally Queer Performance 101, right? And yet I've always been sort of self conscious about trying to pin it down academically. One idea that we've also been asked to talk about is the work of my dear departed friend José Muñoz and his very useful idea of ‘the evidence of ephemera,’ both ephemeral gestures as well as ephemera in the archival sense, of the material that gets collected that doesn't seem to have a category—the party invite, the hat that ends up in the archive, the t-shirt, the button. These are not proper objects for history making but they become crucial to reconstructing whatever it is, the questioning of categories, the questioning of boundaries, that, for me, is what queerness is about. So, without defining queer performance, what I took away from the event was that Herko’s work is exemplifying a certain kind of queerness in its questioning of the distinctions between dance practice and “being on the scene.” For you, as someone coming out of choreography today but also making work that is drawing on the Factory and Andy Warhol's tactics of drag and impersonation, how do those ephemeral gestures from the past inspire you?

RK: When I think of José, his talking and his book, I think about how he encourages creating community, a queer community. This is a direct congruence to the Factory, my work, this event itself, all of those things—the events where we gather to do our work, to talk about queerness. I think that's always happening, which again allows queerness to stay undefined or be defined in that nature of "still questioning." What is the event? What is the community you're building? What other communities do you identify with? That really sticks with me.

TN: How did you come to identify with the Warhol scene as a community, if you do identify with it?

RK: I do. I like that I can present a selection of ideas and have people get into it, sign onto it, surround and submerge themselves beneath it, and allow that to further the work and the ideas, like a factory where the people there are perpetuating ideas and perpetuating images and it becomes a lifestyle. To me that’s fascinating. I also think about culture. What kind of culture isn't pop culture? What kind of culture is not somewhat popular to someone? How not, if culture describes a mass understanding or a mass recognition, is it popular? Are we really taking numbers on which culture has more followers? I guess we can do that now with technology—these ideas have more followers than those ideas so this would be popular or more popular based on that. Thoughts around communities, building and using culture to tear or rip apart or define ourselves and our communities is what draws me to Andy Warhol and allows me to continue to delve into anything further. It’s endless and it’s always changing so there’s always work to do.

TN: I’m interested in what you said about being inspired by Warhol and the practice of the Factory. I'm curious about that method of art making which has, let’s say, at its core an idea of industrial production, the industrial production of mass entertainment, right? When we look at the “screen tests,” for example, taking a practice from the Hollywood studio system, calling your friends and hangers-on "superstars," it’s taking a mass culture system and producing it at a different scale. I'm wondering about that practice of industrial scale or even “delegated performance” as we might now say, does that interest you as a choreographer in relationship to dance? Is that what you take from Warhol? Or is it some other aspect?

RK: Yes, if my understanding of what you’re saying about industrial production is correct. I'm thinking about the culture of the dance field. I think that movement research is done, not really, but in a lot of ways. In the Judson era they were really thinking about researching movement. I don't feel like that’s happening so much anymore. I think that what’s happening now is that people are asking: What are we going to do with all that research that has already been done? There's Trisha Brown, there's Steve Paxton, Fred Herko, David, Debbie and Yvonne, along with the list that follows, who have done all of this amazing work so that by the time I finished college, I thought my job was to ask: What am I going to do with that? What am I going to do with that knowledge that has been developed? Knowledge that I can go and look at in order to say that this is an architectural study in the body or this is a somatic study in the body. Now, that is material, research, that’s information. What am I, as a choreographer, as an artist, going to do with that?

I think it parallels Andy Warhol in the Factory in so far as he said here's a Coca Cola bottle, here's a Campbell's soup. That's already made, now, what I am going to with it? What am I going to highlight? What am I going to draw people's attention to? The fact that someone in Pittsburgh who doesn't have a job but has a Coca Cola can be the same as Jackie Kennedy, it creates an intersection of those two people. Within that kind of philosophy he's not really making anything new, he's using what’s already made in order to comment on, draw attention to, or highlight it. I think that is one of my interests as a choreographer and why I feel connected to a Warholian philosophy.

TN: So, for instance, when you take the Drella series, his drag persona, and re-inhabit it in the present, at least part of that is about citing something. Andy Warhol becomes your Coke bottle?

RK: Exactly, exactly. What was fascinating to me about Drella, this persona, is that Drella never had a performance and they call it a drag persona. So much of what I know and what I've learned about drag is that there is a performance, there is a thing that you do as a drag queen, king, drag person, a drag performer, and Andy Warhol just took pictures, someone just took pictures of him in wig and suddenly a persona was built? I think it requires a little bit more than that, but we do that. We see pictures and fill it up with what it could be, sort of, or halfway. So, I thought, lets give Drella a show. Who is this character? What would this character do? What am I going to do with this? It’s already created. There’s Drella, which is Dracula and Cinderella—that alone has history, and then there’s me, I'm a black queer guy taking on a white queer artist, taking on being a whiter woman who is a mixture of white whore, rags to riches, princess, and a bloodsucker. The work is done, it’s laid out in front of me. I think that Andy Warhol probably felt the same way. Campbell’s soup, it’s in all of the cabinets, the repetition is in the stores. You see it there; the work is done. Now I'm going to highlight that, bring you closer, and put a magnifying glass to that. That kind of work interests me. If I were walking around New York City, or my life as a landscape, and I wanted to take a magnifying glass to something, what would that something be?

TN: That's great. What did Picasso say? I do not search, I find. And also, it’s a different way of cutting through the traditional debate around live performance or whether or not to document performance, in that if you start from the premise that the research has been done, its available, what do we do with this is almost readymade. The character Drella or a set of photographs of Drella, its become a way of actualizing that in the present rather than trying to go back and figure out what that moment was like necessarily, right? Going back always leaves us in a kind of nostalgic mode, in a recuperative mode, where we lament our distance from the past. You seem to have a different relationship to the document, where it becomes itself performative. This offers us a set of questions about how the archive can speak to work in contemporary dance, which is a different set of questions than whether or not dance can ever be captured by a camera. You said something before we began recording which interested me, when you mentioned that you were most interested in party invites. Can you mention again how invites figure in?

RK: Yes. More than half of the creation of Drella went into thinking about how we would advertise Drella as a performance or, rather, how can we? The question came up from a cast member in the work, “When does the performance start?” s/he asked. That will forever stick with me. So, we talked a lot about performativity and what we were performing. Someone said, “When does that start?” We decided that performances start when you start talking about them. I think Andy Warhol would probably say something like, “It ends when people stop talking about it.” The performance of Drella is still going now as we are talking about it. As I started to talk about it with people and developed with my team how we would advertise and invite people to the show, this will serve as the first experiential document. People started deciding what the show was going to be about and we started guiding that, framing. People will think and believe it is about this because that is what we are putting out and that gives us a lot of control, right? What I say to a person and how I present the piece. They'll begin to come up with their opinion of the work and they'll begin to start seeing the work.

I can say confidently that a part of my interest was the bait and switch. I can create the image of the performance as one thing and then decide if I give that to them and then find if and when I can switch it up. When can I make it something else and what would that something else be? I think in performance that is powerful. Whereas maybe in a screen test Warhol's thing was, "I'm going to make you think that something else is going to happen and you'll wait for that but nothing changes." That's also really wonderful. I think that the document of Drella will still always be that. People will always remember their original feeling, what they felt, and maybe even during the performance they'll have a war with themselves, I thought it was going to be this and now its this other thing, so they are participating even though I haven't asked them to do anything.

TN: I think about the ways Trajal Harrell has developed his proposition about Ball culture and Judson dance, but then, before all the performances I’ve been to, he issues the disclaimer: don't take this literally. But it’s there in your mind and obviously shapes what you experience in the performance. It also makes me think of my own research into this area. My primary point of entry into the Warhol Factory is actually very tangential, Shirley Clarke's film Portrait of Jason and, in particular, Jason Holliday, her subject, who later advertised himself as a “superstar” at a moment where that would have been read in the underground as a Warhol superstar. Actually, what I have been able to look at in the archive is the ephemera of his presence on the scene because other than Shirley Clarke's movie, which has been canonical in the underground film, there’s not a lot of evidence of Jason himself. So, there's always a careful balance between trying to pin someone down whose queerness and obscurity, in the sense of a racial underground, is part of what I need to think about. The filmmaker Stephen Winter is now taking and reimagining and restaging that movie set in which Clarke and Holliday interacted precisely in a kind of sense that we're speaking of. Contemporary artists interested in taking their research materials from the past that are not trying to tell that history truthfully or fill in the gap of the record so much as take them as provocation for understanding the present, to make new work. But I guess that a question comes up: What emphasis do you place on newness for its own sake? Is novelty a value in your practice?

RK: In some ways, yes. I believe that I have an attachment to aesthetic and that I really want my work to look a particular way. Choreographers talk a lot about what they’re doing and the content of what we're doing yet do they remember that people are going to see it? If they don't see it in performance then they'll see the document of it. How can your aesthetic match also your conceit? That's also something I wonder about you in respect to how you create your work, your writing, and how that in some ways is a product. Do you think any of these ideas play into the subject in you writing? How do you manage the same ideas that are happening in the scene of what you may be writing about in how you write or how you present your writing? Do you find any parallels?

TN: There are some parallels and there are some differences. As a scholar I'm responsible to a certain kind of verity. My claims have to be true at some level even if that truth is always under debate, revision, and contestations. But, in a way, that truthfulness, that verity, is always a bit of a ruse. I conveniently started writing about the distant past without any relationship to any sort of living artist, which made it easier for me because there was no pushback, no one to say "no that’s not the way it was" or "that's not how I see my work." But also, even beyond getting it right vis-à-vis artistic intentions or autobiographical memories, there's also the question of how scholarship and criticism works in relationship with artistic contemporary production. I think this is one of the legacies of conceptualism. It’s interesting to place it in the field of pop culture and pop art but I think both pop art and conceptual art in different ways have really privileged the discursive surround of artistic production, generally speaking, and that therefore this has also made artists into entrepreneurs of themselves, in terms of articulating the meaning of their work. This has also placed the critic or scholar in an ambivalent relationship to artistic careers. I find this is another place I can return to.

José Muñoz's work was so influential for me in modeling a critical voice that was very unique in that it set its own research questions in dialogue with the meanings generated by artists. How do you get from Ernst Bloch to Jack Smith, from Giorgio Agamben to Freddie Herko? You don't get there by saying there was some sort of influence that we failed to notice before. Rather, you get there by a kind of theoretical juxtaposition that is in itself a creative contribution to the ongoing dialogue. It adds or expands upon the potential meanings of the artwork and that act is always a necessarily delicate thing. In adding you are inventing. You are no longer in the stance of the objective verifier of truths. I think the anxiety for certain scholars is around precisely that point. Are you bringing something to the artwork or to the life? Some people draw a hard line between what scholars and artists can do. An artist is granted permission to have creative influences, while scholars have a different kind of responsibility. I don't think these roles necessarily have to converge or become identical.

I don't think of my scholarship as a practice in the exact same way as an artistic practice, although I do recognize that there are writers that do think of their writing as part of a creative practice that also can include photography, etc. Me, I'm sort of a non-practitioner. In writing or theorizing, I want to look for the places where my own teaching and my own interpretive predilections can offer something to an ongoing scene. I think that's also, at its best, what queer performance does. That questioning, as you began by saying. I think academics are, if nothing else, here to ask questions.

RK: What you've just said for me draws what you and I do closer. Meaning, there’s the document of what we do, which for me is the performance. I think of performance as a document in a lot of ways, an idea was born in 2009 and in 2014, it’s presented and there’s all this history of what I've done and where it’s been and where it could've gone. Then there’s the document that I call the performance. For you, as well, there’s all the research you've done and who you've talked to and your opinions. There’s all of that history and then there’s the document, the scholarship, the result of that. I think it comes down to these questions. José Muñoz makes me think: Are you going to kill something? Or kill yourself? Or are you going to offer hope? There's everything you did and what became of what you did so what becomes of that? Does it give us hope? Or did you kill yourself or are you killing a subject?

TN: José co-wrote an essay with Lisa Duggan called "Hope and Hopelessness: A Dialogue" and they say that the real thing to guard against is neither hope nor hopelessness, but complacency. The resistance to complacency, that’s what I take from Herko, from the work that you're doing, and from even the idea of a “crash course” with all the attendant risks of that title. It’s all beginning to think about how a performance can reverberate over time in all kinds of unexpected ways that take us out of our complacency. I welcomed the clash of opinion and attitude at the event. I think that it’s important not to imagine queer community or collectivity as simply harmonious. It wasn't ever harmonious. People were and are on divergent tempos of aggression and passivity. It’s not about all converging in a happy kumbaya moment (although I loved singing “Kumbaya” as a hippie kid). It would also be a mistake to think of things as totally nihilistic or individualistic, it’s much more creative than that. It sounds like that’s what you're responding to in the work.

RK: Yes. In this moment of speaking I wondered what would it be like to think of this symposium as a performance. If that were a performance it changes my opinion of what happened or what could happen. Especially with respect to everything we just said. Now going back to the symposium or the idea that there's all this research and the document of that, and so, what is that? What comes first? And where does that leave us? In some ways there must be conflict; there must be more questions. My mind goes on a complete turn around if I start to think about that. I'm reminded of a moment in a workshop with Miguel Gutierrez. I had said that I have a belief that we're always performing. He challenged me to really know the difference between when we are and when we're not. He definitely knows for himself. However, I think that challenging that can allow us to consider what we can actually learn from thinking about how we shape performance in respect to how we naturally engage with one another, how we engage with history and fact and scholarship. When they're put up against each other, where we go. What if we were presented with the idea that this symposium was actually a performance, with a restaging. Here's this situation that was real and now here's a situation that’s performed, in a venn diagram. I want to know what we can think about in reference to that middle section.

TN: It is a whole can of worms. We're talking about this a lot in performance studies. One way we're talking about it is through the category of performance-as-research, or performance-led-research, or creative research. On the one hand, there seem to be an additional burdening of artists with the obligations of research that traditionally fell to academic researchers. In order to integrate into the university system and attain teaching jobs, you have to be a researcher. Why should that be? Why can't you make and teach art? Why does research have to be included in the rubric for it to be legitimate? On the other hand, there are artists that do all kinds of research and the research outcome is their artistic work. So there are lots of these conversations. And conversely, as you were just alluding to, I feel in sympathy with what I imagine Miguel was intending by wanting to know when you are and are not performing, because when I said earlier, I don't necessarily think of my writing as a practice, in part that is to allow space in my life for reflection upon art. I want to allow a space for me not to be the performer so that performance can happen and I can be in dialogue with it. That's very important to me, especially as a somewhat introverted and shy person who does not like to be on display. In other moments, like while teaching, I've come to embrace the idea that I am always performing. The idea that teaching is a kind of performance I can rehearse and get better at, one that can go well or poorly but has to be repeated either way, there are moments when I do very much have performance consciousness in that role.

So, was the symposium a performance? The symposium was very much staged around a set of research aims, one of which was to bring Herko more centrally into dance and performance studies. But what does that mean? Also, how does it accomplish that? Does it accomplish it by making him canonical or by redefining the genres so he becomes newly legible within them? What role does veracity or verity play in all this? I was very struck by how one researcher was very concerned that we know that Herko was 27 and not 28 when he died. Or was it the other way around? Again, that fact matters (and certainly it matters to Herko) but in what sense does it matter? What is the difference of knowing his exact age at death make? Or that so-and-so was not yet divorced when a certain event occurred? This fact only matters in a particular kind of frame, depending upon what you're trying to do. It may matter for a biographer but it wouldn’t matter, or would matter differently, for a different kind of scholarly or writerly project. Different facts matter depending upon what you're trying to do with them; they are infinitely perspectival. This is the great lesson of Samuel Delany’s memoir, The Motion of Light in Water.

RK: I wrote down a couple things while you were speaking. Namely, intersections and function. This question about when you're performing and when you're not performing for me is about understanding. In my day-to-day life when I'm not performing, when does performativity come up, when does it intersect? If I start performing, for what function am I doing that? In order to understand why or the effect or what can be gained when it’s in a situation out of its nest.

TN: There's a perfect example of this in the film Portrait of Jason, which I recommend highly. Jason, the subject, is speaking the whole time and he's what you'd call “a character,” so he’s always performing and telling stories and performing himself. But there's a specific section of the DVD that’s titled "Performance" and it’s where he does a version of his stage act, because part of what his hustle is is to hustle people for support for this cabaret act that he's forever promising. So, he does a version of it. And it’s so interesting to see it framed, not even in the film itself but in the DVD, as that is the performance. There are brackets around brackets around brackets. That is what I mean by saying it’s infinitely perspectival. There is always an angle from which something can be seen as performance. The film is such a rich source for thinking about the relationship between authenticity and performance in popular culture because of what Jason is doing at that moment, he's performing Mae West, he's performing Scarlett O'Hara, Butterfly McQueen. He's not in drag but he's doing a queer performance. If you watch the film you'll notice how even now, in contemporary downtown performers, you can see this performance was a template. Jason is visible and audible in Justin Vivian Bond, in any number of contemporary performers who have sort of taken on aspects of his raconteur persona. This question of where is the moment where we stop performing is fascinating.

RK: First, I think this is exactly where the symposium ended and is where a lot of things should have started. When this woman who had been around in the 60s, everyone in the room knew that and she knew the people we were discussing, mainly Fred Herko, said that we are putting this, meaning the conceits, on top of them. We as scholars and performers are taking information, taking what’s not performed and performing it in order to learn and to disseminate information. In so doing, we’re naming things, we're defining things in order to dance and talk about it. I think we make templates, and I think that’s the “hope” that José discusses when he talks about what queer performance can do; offer us hope. These templates afford way I can explore this side of this thing or that which I couldn't formally put a name to. There it is; there is my template. Then, it’s a matter of, if it’s just a template, is it a dead end or a template that offers another template or another pathway?

TN: It goes back to what you said about the aesthetic and how important is it for you to think about the aesthetic and how you present your work even before it’s performed. It’s a template but it’s also not a full template. Maybe its more an implement or an example or instance showing that can happen. If that can happen, what else could? That is interesting. You can do ballet or modern dance on one roller skate. It doesn't necessarily mean you're going to do that piece again but it opens up a what if?

RK: Maybe on a roller skate with one hand, upside down, in whiteface.

TN: Yes, very good. Let’s let that be the last word.

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.
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Fred Herko, Judson Dance Theater, queer performance, Raja Kelly, Tavia Nyong'o, The Herko Dialogues


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Raja Kelly

the feath3r theory is Brooklyn-Based. Artistic Director, Raja Feather Kelly Created the feath3r theory In 2009, After Writing A Novel Of The Same Name During His Exchange Studies In Sydney, Australia....
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Tav Nyong’o

Tav Nyong'o is an Associate Professor of Performance Studies at New York University. His areas of interest include black studies, queer studies, critical theory, popular music studies and cultural cri...
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