Grand Union was a fleeting phenomenon that emerged from New York’s SoHo arts community, which itself emerged from the Judson Dance Theater of the early Sixties. The group’s performances were entirely improvised—not by design but by last resort. In 1970, when Yvonne Rainer was gradually withdrawing from her dance group as director, she left it undecided how they would proceed. Thus Grand Union was born—on wobbly legs. They tried to choreograph as a collective, but discovered they had absolutely no interest in rehearsing each other’s material. They wanted to continue performing together, but not to rehearse. The solution to this dilemma? Improvise.
It was rare for any performing group to commit to improvisation without any agreed-upon structures. But most of the Grand Union dancers had as a foundation their work with Rainer, specifically Continuous Project—Altered Daily.1 They also shared a sensibility that readily collapsed distinctions between high art (with influences from Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Robert Rauschenberg) and popular art (dancing to songs by Cat Stevens, Harry Nilsson, or the Kinks).
But the group’s longtime members each had a vivid stage personality and a distinctive way of moving. They were stars of the downtown dance world. From 1970 to 1976, their performances veered between anarchy and harmony, euphoria and disarray. They worked together intuitively as an ensemble, yet they were each brilliant dance artists as individuals. The longtime members were Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, David Gordon, Douglas Dunn, Barbara Dilley (previously Lloyd), and Nancy Lewis (previously Green). The first four went on to develop long associations with Walker Art Center.2
The Walker presented Grand Union at two pivotal times in its six-year duration: first, in May 1971, when the group was just beginning to define itself, and second, in October 1975, only months before disbanding. These two residencies had a strong impact on the Twin Cities arts community as well as on Grand Union itself. The first residency, with its extensive community involvement, laid the groundwork for the second, which included numerous educational activities and risk-taking performances. During the group’s 1975 Guthrie performance, for example, Grand Union reached a peak that was exhilarating, uncanny, unexpectedly cogent, gloriously democratic, and totally entertaining: an eight-minute sequence that gave the illusion of emanating from a single choreographic mind.
But let me go back. I will return to this sequence later.
Grand Union in 1971
Although Rainer abdicated leadership in 1970, in 1971 she was still the most well-known member of the group. So, when Suzanne Weil, maverick coordinator for performing arts at the Walker, invited the group in 1971, she thought she was inviting Yvonne Rainer and her dancers—or, as Rainer’s agent referred to them, “Yvonne Rainer and ‘The Grand Union.’” Weil gradually realized that Rainer had withdrawn as director and was now just one member of this leaderless group. Democracy—or, at times, anarchy—prevailed.
One of the aspects that intrigued Weil about Grand Union’s milieu was the web of interdisciplinary relationships between dancers and visual artists. Most had been active at Judson Dance Theater along with Rauschenberg, Robert Morris, and Alex Hay, creating a fertile cross-pollination. “They were sparking off of each other,” said Weil. “It was a very interesting, yeasty time.”3 As she told Philip Bither, the Walker’s senior curator of Performing Arts, she was determined to bring them for the opening of the new Edward Larrabee Barnes–designed building, “because I knew they were breaking all the rules.”
How did Rainer’s name come up in the first place? Weil no doubt had her New York art spies. But Minnesotan Judith Brin Ingber was also in the know. She served on the Walker’s Dance Committee for the Performing Arts, which made recommendations to the curator. While still a student at Sarah Lawrence College in the Sixties, Ingber would travel into New York City to see her classmate Meredith Monk and teacher Judith Dunn perform at Judson Memorial Church. During these trips into the city, she also saw Rainer and suggested her to Weil as an artist to invite to the Walker.4
While in New York in 1970, Weil met with Rainer, Gordon (and perhaps Trisha Brown) in Rainer’s SoHo loft to discuss the residency. She still speaks with awe about the list of objects they requested.
I would sit there with a clipboard and Yvonne would say, “I need a hundred red rubber balls,” and I would say “OK.” And David would say, “I need 14 old men’s raincoats,” and I would say, “OK.” [The requests also included two motorcycles, one raft, 20 kites, six jump ropes, six black umbrellas, and one bicycle.] They thought, “Who is this woman; how’s she gonna do this stuff?” And I did; I killed myself.5
This was the first engagement that sent Grand Union looking for performers from the community. In the Twin Cities, volunteers, dancers and non-dancers alike, signed up to participate in various pieces made by Grand Union members, rehearsed on May 25 and 26, 1971. For the big day of community performances, May 27, a document in the Walker archives outlines the “Dawn to Ten” scheduling. It includes “Tree” by the pond in Loring Park, a “motorcycle duet” in Loring Park, “Sleep Walking” in the Auditorium, “Kites” in Amory Gardens, “Meetings” in the horseshoe pit, a lecture-demonstration at 8:00 in the Walker/Guthrie Area, and a “new piece” at 10 pm. “Sleep Walking,” for instance, was a sketch of David Gordon’s that involved people slouching against walls. (It was for this that he needed the raincoats.) Weil remembers that, “the program started at dawn … with a piece that Barbara performed with her group and ended with a piece of Becky’s at midnight in Loring Park on bicycles with umbrellas.”6
Journalist Irene Parsons, a self-described conservative housewife, embedded herself among the 70 or so volunteers. During this “diverse cultural event,” she reported, “there were concerts, lectures, demonstrations, films and a few happenings not easy to describe.” She did, however, find her fellow volunteers easy to describe:
They wore everything from leotards to granny skirts to African burnooses; knee boots to bare feet, bushels of hair on head and chin, jeans in states of extreme disrepair. Some alternately nursed babies or swung them casually from a sling. And they were friendly and open and warmly tolerant of a motherly type in polyester slacks.7
In addition to these community events, Grand Union presented a lecture-demonstration in which, according to writer Scott Bartell, dancers drifted around the stage talking to each other. At certain moments the audience was invited onto the stage. (Apparently a three-year-old felt comfortable romping around.8) Bartell described a near confrontation that led to a breakthrough in audience understanding:
People had expectations about the dancing that weren’t being met—”Why don’t you all do something together?” one woman asked; “When are you going to begin?” asked another—and the performers became a little defensive. “This is what we do; we’re doing it already!” Yvonne Rainer replied.
Gradually, as they began to talk less and move more, the desires of the audience members and performers came closer together and the distinctions between them melted under the warmth of enjoying what was actually happening.
The audience was willing, it seemed, to allow their preconceptions about art to be redefined.”9
That redefining gave people a lot to think about. At the same time, though, there was an element that was very uncomplicated about Grand Union’s work: pleasure. During the same lecture-demonstration, Gordon said to the audience, “If I can show you what a good time I’m having, that seems like a good way of giving you a good time, too.”10
That strategy certainly worked for two future Trisha Brown dancers who were in the audience: Elizabeth Garren and Judith Ragir, both members of the Twin Cities’s premier modern dance troupe, the Nancy Hauser Dance Company. Garren said, “We were blown away.”11 For Ragir, it was a “life changing experience.”12 She remembers that Grand Union rehearsed in the Hauser company’s studio in Minneapolis’s West Bank and ended up having a joint improvisation session with Hauser’s dancers. Ragir was struck by Rainer’s ability to be still for a long time. But what really caught her was the sense of freedom. When watching the lobby performance, she remembers the rush of adrenaline: “Trisha, Barbara Dilley, and maybe Yvonne, were holding hands skipping around the room to ‘You’ve Got a Friend,’ and my heart went out of my chest seeing those three women skipping around to Carole King.”13
A Home Away from New York
Ingber describes Grand Union’s 1971 performance in the Walker’s outer lobby:
I remember them constructing, with hammer and nails and wood, an amazing structure in the entrance to the museum, which at this point was a shared entrance between the Guthrie Theater to your right and the museum theater to your left. They had this common foyer and that’s where they built this incredible structure. The performance was them building this and hanging on it, under it, and over it. The audience was on a staircase that came down from the upper level of the Guthrie and would enter in the foyer. People were standing all around; they could have turned and walked into the museum or into the theater, but instead they were transfixed watching.14
Critic Mike Steele, although not entirely positive in his review, caught the wit and playfulness of the group:
The dancers chant and sing and laugh, while a hippopotamus sculpture stands serene in the middle of the floor (until it is tipped and a leg breaks off, prompting Miss Rainer to stick it down her front and play with it inside her blouse, which prompts Gordon to feign a German accent and demand to remove the lump surgically, which causes everyone to break up).15
Writer Peter Altman felt he was witnessing a cracking open of the possibilities to reveal a more human connection:
The sense of shared life was rare and delicious, and suggested powerfully that whether what the Union had been doing was “art” or “beautiful,” the group had forged relationships here that most dance companies in residencies scarcely imagine.16
These relationships allowed the group to create a community outside New York City. This was a contrast to the reception in other tour venues, where Grand Union often met with indifference. Gordon recalls that, in city after city, the audiences thinned out during their performances. “We would just watch the audience disappear.”17 At the Walker, however, Grand Union found a home away from home. Instead of walking out, the audience welcomed them with open arms; they were part of the party.18
Grand Union’s Return: 1975
The 1975 residency, October 5 to 10, held fewer site-specific events but more workshops than the group’s ’71 residency. The performance series included a show in the Guthrie Theater in the beginning of the week, one in the Walker lobby at the end of the week, a solo show by Nancy Lewis, and a lecture demonstration by Barbara Dilley. Audiences were not invited to perform. Instead, anyone could take workshops with Paxton, Dilley, Gordon, and Dunn (Brown left early, right after the Guthrie performance.) Paxton led a three-day video workshop at Minneapolis College of Art and Design that generated video material to be used in the final performance in the lobby—a different form of community involvement.
The Guthrie performance, on October 5, continued the group’s interest in including audience, although in less obvious ways than in ’71. For starters, Paxton asked the lighting person for certain gel colors—lavender, amber—during the performance, so viewers could witness the process of making the lighting “magic.” Later, Gordon and Dunn chatted during a mock TV game show routine, and actually pointed out (possibly fictitious) members of the audience—“the blond woman with glasses” and “the fellow about four rows back.” After this long and hilarious scene, Gordon gave the audience the power to end the evening. “Do you want that to be the end?” he asked them. A resounding “Noooo” came back. (It’s clear from reviews by Steele and critic Jon Bream that they—and surely some others—did want them to stop.19)
Both the Guthrie and lobby performances were videotaped, which, from my point of view as someone writing a book on Grand Union, is pure gold. I was able to see how Grand Union’s collective awareness informed everything they did; how their individual gifts complemented each other; how their restraint as performers bolstered—or tested—the audience’s patience (the Guthrie performance began with 20 minutes of Brown and Gordon slowly inching around the perimeter with occasional dash-throughs by Dunn wafting a silk sail); how they sustained parallel narratives (at times three couples engaged in three completely different tasks or fantasies); their brilliant use of props (sofa, suitcase, lamp, carpet, portable door, parasol, sticks, dollies, fabrics); and the confusing, sometimes disturbingly porous, line between private and public (the animosity between Gordon’s “character” and Dunn’s “character” could well have been rooted in real-life tensions). But most of all, I was able to absorb the legibility that elicited the audience’s giddy pleasure. The earlier disconnection gave way to connection, opaqueness gave way to accessibility.
The scene that seemed to soar, where a single idea sparked a plethora of variations, where inventiveness piled on top of inventiveness, where all players contributed equally, was the bowing sequence at the Guthrie. It all happened in one continuous flow of steadily building energy. Trisha started it. In her clear-as-a-bell voice, she spoke into the microphone: “Why don’t we take a bow and then start from there?” This ignited an eight-minute sequence of rollicking exuberance, in which the audience was with them 100 percent.
At the moment Brown proposes bowing, Gordon’s arm is encircling her waist; as she bows, he is behind her, and that makes a doubling of the bow. The doubling idea ripples through the group. Paxton gestures to Dunn, who comes from behind him as he bows. When Lewis walks forward to curtsy prettily, Dilley gloms onto her from behind. Brown suggests, “prancing into it and out of it.” Gordon bounces gently in place, asking, “Like this?” In response, Brown backs up, then bursts forth, flinging her arms wide, galloping downstage toward the audience. Someone asks for “bow music;” immediately a soundtrack of an insistent tape loop is heard, creating a crazed kind of momentum. (According to a hand-written letter from Paxton to Sue Weil after the residency, music by Terry Riley, John Cale, and Steve Reich was used. 20) Dunn initiates the run-and-slide bow. Gordon shimmies his shoulders in a showgirl bow.
The concept of bowing seamlessly shifts into any action coming downstage and going back upstage. The game has changed and everyone watching catches on. Paxton pushes the sofa forward, with Brown and Gordon joining him. The three pull the sofa back upstage, just in time for Dunn to hop over it to come downstage for a pirouette. Brown slides forward on a sofa cushion as if sledding; Paxton kneels on his cushion in mock triumph. They run back upstage; they tip the sofa over and—surprise—Lewis rolls out of it toward downstage. Dilley climbs on the sofa, prompting the others to form a shifting sculpture for her to walk on toward the audience. She steps on upper backs and shoulders. Where will she step next? Gordon pulls over the couch and other props. Completing her mountainous trek downstage, Dilley somehow ends up upside down, very close to the audience. Wild applause and cheering for a mission accomplished.
They could have ended it right there, on a high—and the critics would have been happier, no doubt. Instead they slipped into a narrative of an unsettling argument between “father” and “son,” as played out by Gordon and Dunn. It was one of those knotty times when they both seemed to be airing long-held hostilities. But the whole group took it in stride and ended up on the sofa in a relaxed moment of togetherness. The small suitcase that had been used earlier—Dunn and Paxton had pulled a bolt of silk out of it; Dilley had somehow gotten stuffed into it—was on the sofa, and Brown tossed it out onto the floor. As the lights faded, Gordon asked Brown, “Why did you throw the suitcase over there?” Brown: “I wanted to be able to get out fast.”
And that’s what she did. The Guthrie show was her penultimate performance with Grand Union. She was getting serious about having her own company. I know because I joined that company a month later, in November 1975. And in November 1976, I made my first trip to Minneapolis to dance with the Trisha Brown Dance Company, sponsored by the Walker Art Center.
1 This is the piece that Rainer was working on when she started asking the dancers to bring in their own material. She introduced different modes that had to do with the process of rehearsing and choosing options. Eventually she felt it was a “moral imperative” to let go of her directorship and give them free reign to participate equally in the making of work. These dancers—Becky Arnold, Barbara Dilley, Douglas Dunn, David Gordon, and Steve Paxton—became the core of Grand Union.
2 Early members who were part of the 1971 residency—Yvonne Rainer, Becky Arnold, and Lincoln Scott (aka Dong)—left after a year or two. Paxton, who had been with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company when it came to Walker in 1964, could not be there for the 1971 residency.
4 Ingber, interview with the author, Dec. 2, 2016.
6 Contemporary Dance: An Anthology of Lectures, Interviews and Essays with Many of the Most Important Contemporary American Choreographers, Scholars and Critics, Anne Livet, ed. (New York: Abbeville Press, in association with Fort Worth Art Museum, 1978), 235.
7 Irene Parsons, Jun. 9, 1971.
8 Elizabeth Garren, email, Jan. 22, 2018.
9 Scott Bartell, “Review,” Minnesota Daily, June 3, 1971..
10 Peter Altman, “Spectators, dance troupe collaborate,” Minneapolis Star, May 28, 1971.
11 Garren, email, June 23, 2017.
12 Ragir, interview, July 17, 2017.
13 Inspired by Grand Union, Ragir and Garren, along with Gail Turner (who later danced with Meredith Monk), formed an improvisational group that performed in homes and other site-specific spots. Attuned to Cage’s permeability of art and life, they engaged in everyday tasks as well as fanciful actions. Writer and choreographer Linda Shapiro gave the trio a favorable review in Many Corners in 1973 or ’74. (And I met these two deliciously creative dancers when I began dancing with Trisha Brown in 1975.) Diana Drake remembers performing in a large outdoor piece by Gail Turner, clearly inspired by Grand Union, call The Rain. By tapping their legs, they made sounds to simulate light rain, a downpour, and a storm. Interview Jan. 30, 2018.
14 Ingber, interview, Dec. 2, 2016; email, Jan. 22, 2018.
15 Mike Steele, “Grand Union Performs at Walker,” Minnesota Daily, May 29, 1971.”
16 Altman, May 28, 1971.
17 Group interview, July 26, 2017.
18 Diana Drake, who was a 17-year-old dance student at the time, remembers the whole week as “incredibly cool.”
19 Mike Steele, “Review,” Minneapolis Tribune, Oct. 7, 1975, and Jon Bream, “Six individuals build disappointing dance in loose collaboration,” Minneapolis Star, Oct. 10, 1975.
20 Box 33, Folder 12, Walker Archives.