Peculiar Works Project honors Judson House's legacy on the eve of its destruction
By Gia Kourlas
Judson House is, in the Rev. Peter Laarman's words, an albatross. The handsome brick turn-of-the-century building on the corner of Thompson and West 3rd may be beautiful on the inside, but it's a monstrosity on the inside. Like many of the city's older buildings, it's structurally unsound. Termites have eaten away at the woodwork, and the floor is an unsightly, uneven mess of rotting linoleum. Not only does the building lack handicap accessibility, but the stairway leading from the basement to the first floor is treacherously narrow.
"The truth is, it wasn't maintained," explains Rev. Laarman, senior minister at Judson Church, at the southern edge of Washington Square Park. "Year after year, we spent thousands on repairs. A gut renovation would have meant $2 million." In the end, the church let someone else decide the building's fate: Judson House, where many of the progessive church's social programs were based, was sold to New York University Law School and is set to be demolished in August, over the protests of some neighborhood preservationists. In its place, NYU will build law school facilities, and Judson House will continue offering its services in the new building.
"The proceeds will build a new space and take care of some much-needed work in the main building," Rev. Laarman asys. "We need to put in a wooden floor for dance performances, which we've raised money for, but found out we couldn't install it until the space is air-conditioned. We need to make the sanctuary handicap-accessible and turn the gym into a safe zone for people in need. And not me, but our members decided it was worth it to deal with the evil empire, provided we do it with our eyes open. But it's very hard. Right now it feels like a death; I think the longer story is death and resurrection."
Before it's time for the funeral, Peculiar Works Project, the arts organization (led by Ralph Lewis, Catherine Porter and Barry Rowell) that created Big Art in small places, has curated an ambitious multi-disciplinary art-and-performance send-off this weekend. The Judson House Project brings together nine artists for the daunting task of creating a piece in response to the history of the building -- where such legends as Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg lived or worked, helping to form the New York avant-garde movement in the 60s.
Don't expect a museumlike homage. While participants tackle themes that pay homage to the experimental heritage of Judson, each work is fully cemented in the present. Each Peculiar Works artist has plenty of fodder; in the early 60s, Judson House expanded its reputation by providing not only social-service programs, but cultural ones as well, like the groundbreaking Judson Gallery, Dance Theatre and Poet's Theatre.
Peculiar Works mission is to present emerging artists, and it's fitting that younger artists take center stage in this tribute to Judson House, where so many future greats developed their craft. "For this project, that approach seemed like a natural way to look forward and encompass aspects of Judson's legacy," Porter explains. "It seemed like a natural way to look forward while looking back."
Audience members in groups of 15 will be led on a tour of all the sites (there are seven tours each evening. In Den of Vice, conceived by Lewis, dancers and actors pay tribute to a few notorious elements of Judson history, including its famous cast parties and its sewing circle, know as the Stitch and Bitch club. As part of the Den of Vice, choreographer Nicole Cavaliere presents a short work for four dancers based on the sewing club. It even incorporates fabric.
"I actually started with an angry approach, which was wrong," Cavaliere admits. "I learned, from a former member, that the sewing circle was more about gossip than bitching. It eventually grew to 20 or 30 members. The rumor was that women who didn't know how to sew joined just to keep the others from talking about them. So the dance will be less angry to reflect that playfulness."
The artists, including Chris Burney, Funkopolis, Steven Dean and Renee Philippi, present their works in multiple small rooms, linked by connecting doorways. In What Happened, Burney teams with choreographer Fran Kirmser to create seven installations in Judson House's attic based on events from the 60s. Two of the installations are devoted to dance: The "Shoe Room" features a mound of dance footwear; "Carnation" is based on Lucinda Childs's work of the same name.
"She sat very still on a stool wearing a headpiece with many foam objects that were released one by one," Kirmser says. "When she finished, it became a carnation. It was fabulous. Our piece is an abstract take on that -- we have floor fans that blow carnation pieces and petals, which will create a rise, fall and swirl."
When choreographer Yanira Castro was invited to participate in the Peculiar Works event, she discovered she didn't know as much about the Judson dance scene as she imagined. She chose one artist as a source of inspiration -- Yvonne Rainer. Castro's longtime dancer, Pamela Vail, who wrote a thesis on the choreographer and filmmaker, provided essential research. "I learned that choreographing wasn't something that came naturally to her," Castro says. "There's a sense that when you're choreographing material is just supposed to flow out of you. But I find that it's a lot about my will -- forcing things to happen. It was so good to discover that it was the same for her."
In Duet Exercising, Castro pairs Vail with Jeff Janisheski; since space is tight, the piece begins with a simple arm sequence in which the couple is linked like a pair of Siamese twins. For Castro, the duet examines what happens with wo worlds come together.
Unlike many of the artists involved, who find the impending destruction of Judson House a horrifying act. Castro is more philosophical, "I do feel a sadness about how Americans don't acknowledge their own history, how it's the history of other cultures that is more respected than the cultures that's still here," she says. "But dance is so ephemeral. There is another part of me that is like, You know what? There will be something else. It's just another moment in history."
The Judson House Project will be performed in Judson House Thursday 27 through Sunday 30.