New Dance U.S.A. Festival Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The largest celebration of experimental dance ever staged in the United States took place when twenty-seven postmodern choreographers presented their work as part of a weeklong festival.

Summary of Event

The New Dance U.S.A. Festival, a seven-day celebration of experimental and postmodern dance, opened at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on the evening of Sunday, October 4, 1981. A total of twenty-seven choreographers convened to exhibit their work in three different theaters, making the event the largest concentration of postmodern dance the nation had seen. Dance;experimental New Dance U.S.A. Festival Choreography;experimental [kw]New Dance U.S.A. Festival (Oct. 4-10, 1981) [kw]Dance U.S.A. Festival, New (Oct. 4-10, 1981) [kw]Festival, New Dance U.S.A. (Oct. 4-10, 1981) Dance;experimental New Dance U.S.A. Festival Choreography;experimental [g]North America;Oct. 4-10, 1981: New Dance U.S.A. Festival[04670] [g]United States;Oct. 4-10, 1981: New Dance U.S.A. Festival[04670] [c]Dance;Oct. 4-10, 1981: New Dance U.S.A. Festival[04670] Moulton, Charles Brown, Trisha Gordon, David Takei, Kei Newman, Rosalind Self, Jim Dunn, Douglas Armitage, Karole Reitz, Dana Childs, Lucinda Kisselgoff, Anna

Dancers, choreographers, and dance critics gathered at the festival to view, lecture, and discuss the burgeoning field of “new dance.” The assemblage was international in scope and included representatives from the United States, West Germany, and New Zealand. The festival was made up of three distinct programs, each featuring a trio of choreographers, all renowned exponents of postmodern dance. In addition to the nightly dance performances, the festival offered panel discussions and lectures on future trends in dance.

The origin of postmodern dance is generally traced to the Judson Dance Theater Judson Dance Theater of the early 1960’s. Regarded as a seminal group in the development of contemporary dance, the Judson Dance Theater included dancers, visual artists, and musicians who worked at the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square in New York City. The Judson group experimented with many nontraditional concepts such as minimalism and pedestrian movement in its choreography and used nondancers as well as professionals.

Three of the early members of Judson Dance Theater, Trisha Brown, David Gordon, and Lucinda Childs, were featured as part of the New Dance U.S.A. Festival. During the first program, Brown offered a solo that was a combination of two separate pieces from her repertoire: Accumulation and With Talking. Brown had originally choreographed these dances in the 1970’s and now presented them in a different configuration in order to endow the movement with new context. This deliberate change of perspective is an integral part of the postmodern movement.

In Accumulation, Brown gradually added motions together until she created an entire sequence of movement. Beginning with a simple movement motif in which the dancer pronated the forearms from a “thumbs-up” to a “thumbs-down” position, Brown expanded the dance sequence until an entire piece was “accumulated.” With Talking included a verbalization of the choreographer’s creative process recited while the dancer performed a short, virtuosic solo. Critics hailed Brown as combining humor with a formalistic approach to dance.

The blending of humor with an exposition of formal concerns was also achieved by postmodern choreographer David Gordon. In Close Up, performed by Gordon and his wife, Valda Setterfield, Setterfield, Valda the couple executed a duet that was juxtaposed with slides of themselves wearing both dance tights and conservative apparel. The duet acquired new meaning when seen in conjunction with the slides. In another duet, Dorothy and Eileen, Setterfield and dancer Margaret Hoeffel Hoeffel, Margaret simultaneously danced and discussed their individual relationships with their mothers. Gordon’s dance Double Identity Part I was a work in which the choreographer also experimented with movement and speech.

The work of Charles Moulton, a former dancer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, was also featured on the first program of the Minneapolis festival. Moulton, who was born in Minneapolis, premiered a pure-movement piece titled Arch Extract. Whereas most of the other dances presented in the festival’s first program combined speech with movement, Moulton’s work consisted of a rhythmic athleticism. Hand-clapping, foot-stomping, and head-rolling motifs enriched the theme and structure of the dance. Moulton’s choreography was representative of the postmodern tendency to accentuate athletic prowess through the exploration of movement possibilities and problems. In contrast to the early postmodern work of the 1960’s, postmodern dance in the 1980’s and 1990’s began to accentuate technical skill and bravura. During the New Dance U.S.A. Festival, the work of choreographers such as Moulton, Jim Self, and Dana Reitz exemplified this new emphasis on virtuosity.

Included in the second and third programs of the festival were postmodern choreographers such as Kei Takei, Rosalind Newman, Douglas Dunn, and Karole Armitage. Most of the festival’s choreographers were based in New York, although a few worked in other regions of the country. A large number of the choreographers had studied or danced with Merce Cunningham: Moulton, Newman, Self, Dunn, Armitage, and Childs had all worked at some point with the experimental choreographer.

On the second program of the series, Newman premiered a dance titled Shifting Divides/Inside Out that consisted of a trio of dancers manipulating three ropes. The ropes were used to create diverse configurations within the stage space. Newman’s choreography involved complex spatial patterns and movement sequences that illustrated her concern with form and visual design. Although critics lauded the dancers’ performances, the choreography itself did not win praise. Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times remarked that Newman seemed to utilize postmodern ideas as formulas for the choreography rather than as integrated elements of the dance.

Choreographer Jim Self also presented a trio on the second program. Marking Time was a piece in which the three dancers performed individual movement sequences. Self achieved a humorous effect when the different movement phrases were seen in juxtaposition to one another. The element of humor evident in the choreography was similar to that found in the work of both Brown and Gordon. Self received very favorable reviews from the dance critics who attended the festival.

Other choreographers trained in the Cunningham School presented dances that were not as favorably received. Douglas Dunn, for example, staged a dance titled Skid as part of the festival’s third program. Although the work included a duet for Dunn and dancer Susan Blankensop that steadily increased in tempo and dynamic, the overall effect did not elicit much response from critics. Karole Armitage, who recapitulated her dance titled Drastic Classicism, collaborated with the composer Rhys Chatham. Only the first section of the work was presented, and although Armitage’s choreography had been well received in New York, the Minneapolis audience remained reserved.


The New Dance U.S.A. Festival was significant in its presentation of innovative and experimental approaches to modern dance choreography. Never before had so many choreographers congregated in order to present new works, thereby offering the viewer an opportunity to observe the prominent figures of postmodern dance in a single festival. The presentation of so much modern dance in one event helped to give some definition to the term “new dance” and pioneered new trends in modern and postmodern choreography.

At least six different elements of postmodern dance emerged as part of the New Dance U.S.A. Festival. The avant-garde mode that was derived from the era of the Judson Dance Theater evolved into new compositional techniques. Whereas the postmodern dance of the 1960’s was largely concerned with pedestrian and nondance movement often performed by untrained dancers, the “new dance” of the 1981 festival exhibited much technical virtuosity. This emphasis on technical skill resulted directly from the explorations of choreographers; the dancers’ training became specific to each choreographer’s style. Although a certain amount of minimalism remained, such as the use of repetition and diverse manipulations of simple movement phrases, the choreographers at the 1981 festival relied more on athletic dance sequences.

New trends in movement exploration and the solving of choreographic problems resulted from the New Dance U.S.A. Festival. An element of humor was evident in many of the dances. Choreographers such as Childs and Reitz presented complex structures of movement that were in contrast to the simpler configurations of the 1960’s. Also in contrast to the work of the 1960’s was the anonymity of the dancers. Whereas the postmodern dancers of the 1960’s were all individually recognizable, the dancers of the 1981 festival remained largely anonymous.

The influence of visual art and music was evident in the festival and invested the work of several choreographers. For example, the visual art manifestos of the 1960’s and 1970’s influenced the work of Lucinda Childs and Yvonne Rainer. Postmodern trends developed by visual artists such as Marcel Duchamp and composers such as John Cage permeated the work of postmodern choreographers. A renewed focus on interdisciplinary collaboration evolved from both the New Dance U.S.A. Festival and resultant dance festivals patterned after it. For example, Lucinda Childs collaborated with lighting designers, composers, and visual artists in the creation of her work. This collaborative process was reminiscent of the work of modern dance choreographer Merce Cunningham Cunningham, Merce during the 1960’s and 1970’s.

The success of the New Dance U.S.A. Festival inspired the sponsorship of other modern dance festivals. One major dance event spawned by the New Dance U.S.A. Festival was the Next Wave Festival Next Wave Festival hosted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Choreographer Lucinda Childs, who had appeared in the New Dance U.S.A. Festival, premiered her work titled Relative Calm Relative Calm (dance) as part of the series. The piece, presented on December 18, 1981, was an evening-length work danced by Childs and her nine-member company. As part of her creative process, Childs collaborated with set designer Robert Wilson Wilson, Robert (theatrical artist) and composer Jon Gibson. Gibson, Jon The result was a quintessential example of postmodern dance.

Childs, who was labeled a minimalist during the 1970’s, continued to pursue formalist concerns in Relative Calm. She constructed simple, repetitive movement phrases that gradually evolved in complexity. Childs manipulated movements and phrases by incorporating changes in direction, tempo, and dynamics, thus varying the original dance phrase. Critics such as Kisselgoff and The New York Times contributor Jennifer Dunning responded favorably to the piece. As part of the Next Wave Festival, Childs’s choreography was chosen to bring the avant-garde dance series to a close.

Relative Calm exemplified several different aspects of postmodern dance. Childs utilized complex movement structures that originated from simple, repetitive dance phrases. Elements of humor were evident in the work. The choreographer also incorporated ideas from the visual arts and music within her dance. The interdisciplinary collaboration of visual art, music, and dance yielded a work representative of postmodern dance. As a result of events such as the Next Wave Festival and its progenitor, the New Dance U.S.A. Festival, postmodern dance flourished during the early 1980’s. Dance;experimental New Dance U.S.A. Festival Choreography;experimental

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Jack. Choreography Observed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987. Expounds on the phenomenon of new dance by presenting a collection of the author’s dance reviews from 1967 to 1985. Discusses choreographers such as Kei Takei, Trisha Brown, and Dana Reitz. Judson Dance Theater is discussed in chapter 5. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Banes, Sally. Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-modern Dance. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980. Definitive book on postmodern dance and aesthetics includes extensive accounts dealing with the work of Trisha Brown, David Gordon, Lucinda Childs, and Douglas Dunn. Includes excellent black-and-white photographs, chronology of choreography, and index. Bibliography is conveniently arranged according to sources that deal with each individual choreographer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. Reinventing Dance in the 1960’s: Everything Was Possible. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. Collection of essays examining the revolutionary choreographers and companies of the 1960’s. Useful for understanding the origins of postmodern dance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bremser, Martha, and Deborah Jowitt, eds. Fifty Contemporary Choreographers: A Reference Guide. New York: Routledge, 1999. Broad reference guide covers choreographers from ballet, contemporary, and postmodern dance. Includes information on Armitage, Dunn, and Takei.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jowitt, Deborah. The Dance in Mind. Boston: David R. Godine, 1985. Collection of dance reviews includes significant information on the choreographers involved in the 1981 New Dance U.S.A. Festival. Discusses the choreography of Karole Armitage, Lucinda Childs, Dana Reitz, Douglas Dunn, and Trisha Brown, among others. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Matheson, Katy. “Breaking Boundaries.” In Dance as a Theatre Art, edited by Selma Jeanne Cohen. 2d ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Book Company, 1992. Overview of the new generation of modern dance choreographers. Includes interviews with such choreographers as Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris, and Steve Paxton. Matheson includes some discussion of the choreographic process. Limited photographs. Excellent bibliography of sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Siegel, Marcia B. The Tail of the Dragon: New Dance, 1976-1982. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991. A compilation of Siegel’s dance reviews and observations. Provides information on new dance and the aesthetics of the avant-garde. All major choreographers involved in the New Dance U.S.A. Festival are included. Extensive information on the dances of Trisha Brown, David Gordon, and Douglas Dunn. Siegel includes a selected filmography of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Excellent photographs. Index.

Tharp Stages Deuce Coupe for the Joffrey Ballet

Multiculturalism Dominates the Dance World

Baryshnikov Becomes Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre

Festivals Mark a Peak in the Dance Created by Black Artists

Debut of Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project

Categories: History