Elaine Summers

A pioneer presents dance and film.

For Danspace Project’s Platform series “Back to New York City,” curator Juliette Mapp has assembled a group of choreographers whose age and experience span seven decades. Its undisputed queen is Elaine Summers. A pioneer in dance, film and “intermedia” performance, Summers, 85, moved to New York in the early ’50s and, after taking part in the workshops of Robert Ellis Dunn at the Cunningham studio, became a founding member of Judson Dance Theater. This weekend she presents a program of dances and films. On a recent afternoon in her Soho loft, Summers, joined by Mapp, discussed her life’s work.

How did you meet?
Juliette Mapp:
I heard about Elaine from my Alexander teacher, June Ekman. She incorporates the use of balls, and I really loved that technique. She said, “Well, if you really love it, you should just go find Elaine Summers.”
Elaine Summers: June Ekman was in my first dance company at Judson.
Mapp: I did not know that! I was teaching at Movement Research—which is on the top floor [of Summers’s building]—and I walked past a door that said “Study Kinetic Awareness with Elaine Summers,” and I was like, Oh, okay! [Laughs] The class was Tuesday night, and I showed up, and I was the only student. And Elaine said, “Well, isn’t it the best when you show up for your first class and you’re the only student?” I didn’t know Elaine was a filmmaker and a dance maker. Once I found that out, our relationship grew.
Summers: It’s been such a wave of incredible exploration of dance—coming to New York and thinking, I’d like to have a dance company where the dancers weren’t all the same size.
Mapp: [Laughs] Radical.
Summers: Just to start. This is the 1950s. There were people here: Aileen Passloff and Trisha Brown and the whole group studying at Merce Cunningham’s. Carolyn Brown was in the same class with me at Juilliard.
Mapp: It was kind of an amazing class.
Summers: Oh, it was. Paul Taylor would sit beside me and draw parades of people. I wish I could find them.
Mapp: And didn’t one of your teachers say that only two of you were going to succeed at dance?
Summers: Yes. There was a very beautiful Asian woman and she always wore a skirt and shoes with a little heel. And she sat; she never warmed up with us. One day, she looked out wisely to us and said to all us beaming idiots, “Well, you know only two of you will ever become worth anything as dancers.” Carolyn and I went, “What?”[Laughs]

You also took Dunn’s famous class at the Cunningham studio, which led to Judson Dance Theater. What do you remember about how the Judson performances began?
Yvonne [Rainer] and Steve [Paxton] went to Judson Church to see if they could find a place for us to show our work. They met [associate minister] Al Carmines and he was very open to it. We could rehearse there. It would be very funny sometimes—whole busloads of Southern Baptists walking through and we’d be in the main floor rolling on the floor and carrying on; they would look askance and then they would leave.
Mapp: [Laughs] This is what they do in church in New York.
Summers: Right! And then they moved us down to the basement for our regular meeting. I think we met on Monday night for two years and for those of us who were really into it, it was wonderful. We wouldn’t miss it for anything. We had it New Year’s Day. We made rules. There was a different captain on different nights; it changed our way of talking to each other. It wasn’t about, “You just made a great dance and I hated it,” but, “Say one thing that you actually saw.” That was one of Steve Paxton’s [directives].

You were the captain, of course, sometimes?
Oh, yes, yes. Everybody got a chance, although it got bigger and bigger of course. As long as the group really came there to [work that way] and understood that and didn’t come because of what happened—as soon as we got good reviews everybody wanted to be one of the group, but they didn’t really want to—that made a lot of difficulty.

And you first showed your films at Judson?
Yes! It was good luck. Rightly or wrongly, I feel that if a guy had done all the things I’ve done, there would be no question. And nobody really wanted to talk about film. They didn’t really see what I was doing until I did Fantastic Gardens [a 1964 interdisciplinary work featuring film and live dancers]. It was like going to heaven with all the angels on your side. The dancers and the choreographers really wanted to do each other’s work, and that’s what Judson gave us. It also taught us how to not criticize. It was the difference between looking at what it was that somebody wanted to do rather than trying to find something wrong. It taught you the substance and respect for the person’s kinetic or choreographic imagination. You never went there being scared to death they’d chop your ears off. And there was the excitement of New York. [She makes a little buzzing sound.]
Mapp: I want to tell an Elaine story. I came here once, and Elaine was on her way to visit her son. [To Summers] I don’t know if you remember this, but you asked me to help you pack and to get a taxi, so we went outside into the mayhem of Soho. Elaine was moving at her slow pace, but it was as if she knew exactly how fast everyone around her was going. She was carrying a bag of garbage, and we were crossing the street—everyone’s whizzing, whizzing, whizzing—and Elaine sees the garbage can from across the street and takes the garbage, flings it more than halfway across the street, and it lands in the garbage pail. And I was like, That’s Kinetic Awareness for you. [Laughs]

How does the evening at Danspace Project begin?
With “Absence & Presence,” which is a short. We were watching it, and Elaine said, offhandedly, “Those are my legs.” It just looked like light and shadow, and I don’t even know that I tried to think about what it was. It just seemed like it was this really beautiful visual movement. But then to know that they were Elaine’s legs—when was “Absence & Presence” from?
Summers: Oh, it started in 1968 and I finished editing it in 1987 for the Museum of Modern Art show.
Mapp: So the legs are from ’68, but I still recognized them. [Laughs] All of a sudden, there was this intimacy with it whereas before it just seemed like an experimental film.
Summers: That was so funny. I had a tiny, little apartment and I’m thinking, How to do this? It’s two camera people on different body parts.

Skydance/Skytime/Skyweb, from 1984, will be performed at Danspace Project. It’s related to Skytime, a Web project described as “universal concept artwork” that explores the connection between art and technology. How did you come up with Skytime?
This is a pet project. It started in about 1996. I had gone down to Sarasota [Florida] to get my hip replaced and to be by the seashore, so every morning I got to read The New York Times. I kept reading about the Internet. I thought, Why am I reading about the Internet? And why aren’t I reading about the dance world? [Mapp snorts and Laughs.] My idea was to have a Web piece that is all about what everybody feels about the sky. I don’t care where they’re coming from, and I don’t mean for it to be scientific or anything like that—just a place where people can talk about their feelings about the sky.
Mapp: But this is the thing that is so interesting: Once I began to discover what Skytime was about, I realized that Elaine was interested in the Web in 1996.
Summers: I don’t know how I knew. Isn’t it strange how I did? [Laughs] I don’t feel I have that much control over my mind.

Elaine Summers Film and Dance Company is at Danspace Project Thu 18--Sat 20.

See more Dance