Theses Doctoral

Between Precarity and Vitality: Downtown Dance in the 1990s

Wanner, Buck

This dissertation examines experimental dance in New York City in the 1990s. Earlier periods of American concert dance have received significant scholarly attention to the historical, political, and aesthetic aspects of dance practice. Moreover, certain periods of modern dance — especially the 1930s and the 1960s — have been analyzed as moments of significant change, and the artists that emerged from the Judson Dance Theater in particular have held a significant place in the theorizing and historicizing of dance in the United States. However, experimental dance practices of the early 21st century demonstrate dramatically different aesthetics, approaches, and circumstances of production than those of earlier periods, including their Judson forebears. This project argues for understanding the 1990s as a period of significant change for dance, one with continuing resonance for the decades that follow.This project uses the term "downtown dance" to situate experimental dance in New York City as a community of practitioners, rather than as a particular set of aesthetic or artistic practices. Each of the four chapters focuses on an aspect in this period that would define how dance looked, how dancers practiced, and what shaped the artistic values and priorities of this community.

The first chapter presents a history of the dance-service organization Movement Research. Tracing the history of the organization from its founding in 1978 through the establishment of its most influential programs in the 1990s — including the Movement Research Performance Journal and the performance series Movement Research at the Judson Church — the chapter locates Movement Research as a central entity in building the community and shaping theaesthetics of downtown dance. The second chapter examines the effects of the AIDS crisis on dance in the 1990s. As AIDS entered its second decade, it collided with and magnified downtown dance's complex relationship with emotion. This chapter draws on scholarship of AIDS' relationship to visual art, theater, and activism, as well as close readings of several works — by artists including Donna Uchizono, Neil Greenberg, John Jasperse, RoseAnne Spradlin, Jennifer Monson, and DD Dorvillier — most not generally understood as "AIDS dances," to argue that AIDS' impact generated a fundamental shift in the role of emotion in downtown dance.

The third chapter examines how shifts in arts funding in the 1990s connected to a major restructuring in production models for dance. This chapter connects the history of the modern dance company with both aesthetic and economic developments over the course of the 20th century, arguing that the company should be understood as a combined economic-aesthetic system. Furthermore, the chapter demonstrates the new model for dance production that began to take hold in the 1990s in the wake of widespread funding and economic shifts: the project model. Teasing out the complex web of funding for dance, this chapter makes extensive use of dance periodicals; several funding trend analyses from organizations including Dance/USA, National Endowment for the Arts, Dance/NYC, and private corporate and foundation reports; and the archives of the presenting institution Danspace Project. The final chapter looks at how the shifts in economic models for dance discussed in the previous chapter connected to changes in training and bodily technique of dancers and performers. Specifically investigating the history of "release technique," this chapter examines how attitudes toward technique and training in downtown dance in the 1990s shifted the connection between movement practices and creative output, reconceiving the role of the dancer in the dancer-choreographer relationship.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Worthen, William B.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 16, 2020