In Mary Edsall Choquette’s biography of Robert Ellis Dunn (PhD Dissertation, 2003), she noted that Dunn appeared to expect her assistance ‘in gaining the national reputation he felt he deserved, but that had eluded him throughout most of his life.’ Her words ring true, at least that Dunn didn’t receive the acknowledgement he deserved. For he was indeed the Papa of Postmodern dance, recognized broadly as such or not.
Sally Banes, the dance historian most known for writing of the Judson Church dancers and the Postmodern era of dance, gives very little credit for Dunn’s part in this movement in her texts. Ironically, she credits those who studied with Dunn for developing the democratic artistic community in the US. This development was no small thing in dance nor in American culture, as Mary Edsall Choquette notes that Dunn was part of a movement that connected the origins of Modern dance to today ‘through [his] prolific teaching in higher education’. As she continues: ‘No longer is the lineage of American dance heritage evidenced only in the dance master at conservatory environments or professional studios’. That Dunn was a master teacher of dance improvisation and choreography who taught in several higher ed institutions, cements his place in this legacy as well as in the Postmodern era he helped usher in. Without his classes at the Cunningham and Judith Dunn studios, it is doubtful that the students there, students who are known as the progenitors of the Postmodern movement in dance, would have realized their ideas in a way that sparked a tectonic shift in Western forms of performative dance.
Although Banes may not have included Dunn in a set of appendices in her book Terpsichore in Sneakers: Postmodern Dance (1977), the dancers/choreographers she did cover (e.g. Simone Forti, Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, etc.) all referenced attending his composition classes in interviews about the Judson era. Banes did mention, albeit briefly, in Democracy’s Bodies: Judson Dance Theater 1962-1064 (1983) that Dunn’s approach to teaching composition was ‘rooted in his incorporation of the collective flow of artistic and aesthetic ideas and actions readily available through the cultural milieu in the Village [Greenwich Village, New York City]’ during the early 1960s’ (quoted in Mary Edsall, 2003).
Hoping to create a ‘clearing’ for students, a space where exploration could take place without his needing to teach doctrine, Dunn discovered the challenge for students steeped in a culture where instructors looked for approval and/or disapproval based on what he called ‘recipes’. Yet Dunn was a structuralist, and did tend in his writing, at least, to organize his words and, as a librarian, organization via cataloguing intrigued him. So while opening a space during class for exploration, when it came time for discussion he did have a structure, at least for feedback. The importance of feedback derived from Dunn’s time spent at the Boston Conservatory where he worked with Jan Veen, whose modus operandi was ‘make a dance kiddies and we’ll talk about it’ (as quoted by Dunn). The way Dunn approached it was more structured (as was his style) and in notes listed his Principles for choreographic feedback:
- State the strongest and most original qualities of the dance (even if in your private opinion and at first sight it is a piece of junk)
- Make a stab at a structural description
- How many sections does it consist of?
- What is its dramatic or poetic structure?
- Following discussion, what are first steps toward further sharpening or developing further?
Whatever Dunn’s methods, he did support his students during the few years he instructed them, offering the first concert of their work at the Judson Memorial Church, a concert lasting over three hours due to his reticence to curate their work. From that period of giving birth to choreographers who changed the face of dance in the US, and eventually across the world, Dunn proceeded to inspire and train hundreds of students through academic appointments, one-off lectures, and workshops.
Through his work, it is clear that there were many influences on Dunn, and that he incorporated them into his philosophies of movement composition, or what he insisted was ‘choreography’ (he felt that composition meant dance had assimilated into other art forms, while choreography was THE proper terminology for art based on movement). In an article in Contact Quarterly (v14, 1989, 9-13) titled “Judson Days”, Dunn gives an account of his memories of working and teaching the Judson dancers (and others who attended classes). He notes his ‘attitude in teaching’ as coming from several sources: the Bauhaus pedagogy, Heidegger, Sartre, Buddhism, Taoism, among other influences. Most importantly, however, were two important influences on his approach to his arts (music and dance): John Cage and Irmgard Bartenieff.
About Cage R.E.D. noted in an informal interview in 1993: “In the case of John Cage (my John Cage, there are many others), to attempt to locate and grasp leading qualities, I would list three:
- His sense of human relations and social occasions as they arise in the interface of art and life;
- His sense of divine influences present in music, poetry, and theatre;
- His sense of emotional sobriety (Hölderlin’s ‘heilige Nüchternheit’) pursued through such strategies as acceptance through close attention to detail and an all-saving framework of humor" (Dunn mentioned this list more than once, but it is captured in his words in the ‘Kitchen Interview’ video which can be viewed through the videos page on this website).
It is interesting that Dunn noted Cage’s humor, as Dunn’s own humor was mentioned at his memorial by Jane Shapiro: ‘I can still hear…that wonderful laugh of his, full of bubbling, gentle amusement'. Dunn also singled out and honored Irmgard Bartenieff and her teaching of the Laban theory and her own Bartenieff system. Inspired by her ideas, Dunn began working toward a Certification in Movement Analysis in 1972 at the Dance Notation Bureau. When Bartenieff left the DNB and started her own Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies in 1978, Dunn was there teaching and working with the founding members of LIMS. He credited Bartenieff for giving him grounding in observing movement and a way to combine humanities scholarship/theory to the study of the body via movement analysis.
Always one to reflect on his art, in a tribute to John Cage in 1989 Dunn stated:
‘Art, in any acceptation of the term (including that of Marcel Duchamp) is precisely that which can be shared. This is in all reality a moment-by-moment and person-by-person negotiation, and the source of all the magic art still retains for us.’ The magic was certainly there, as his stepdaughter, Miranda Benedict, said at his memorial service in 1996, ‘Once he donned his (clearly magic) black tai chi slippers, he became Ariel, a nymph who could fly through the air.’