How do you move with innate wisdom? That was Michelle Boulé’s question to a group of 30 students in a contemporary dance class last week. They could rest, be in motion or land somewhere in between. The important thing was, as Ms. Boulé put it, “to experience your body as it is now, with no agenda.”
And that, to her, takes courage. “We constantly distract ourselves from being in our bodies,” she said. “Being in a body is a radical act.”
But something else about this experience was radical: holding a contemporary dance class in the busy atrium of the Museum of Modern Art. Thirty minutes before MoMA’s official opening last Thursday, participants began a two-hour class in which they meditated; integrated their actual brains with their “heart brains” and “gut brains” (that involved finger tapping on their heads and chests); and eventually moved on to spell-casting, or using the length of their limbs and the torque of their spirals to cast spells by responding to the architecture of the room. (It was probably more felt than visible.)
“This is like, bring your witch out,” Ms. Boulé said, encouragingly.
At that point, it seemed as though Movement Research, the daring downtown organization that investigates dance and movement-based forms, had officially infiltrated MoMA. As part of the exhibition, “Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done,” Movement Research has been holding classes, workshops and discussions in the museum, and will continue through Friday.
The exhibition pays homage to the experimental collective of choreographers, visual artists, composers and filmmakers who assembled at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. By inviting Movement Research, Ana Janevski, who organized the show along with Thomas J. Lax, was considering the contemporary face of Judson Dance Theater: Where does its spirit continue?
“We are living it while it’s happening,” Ms. Janevski said. “I really hope it will leave traces and bring some of the anarchic spirit that Movement Research has into the space.”
In those first few days, at least, it did feel as though dance artists were honoring history, but pulling it into the present. At one of the afternoon classes — these explore specific techniques — Shelley Senter instructed students in the Alexander Technique, which focuses on the ease and freedom of movement.
Ms. Senter, a former dancer with the Trisha Brown Dance Company, ended the class by teaching a section of Ms. Brown’s “Locus.” She then called on a participant, Irène Hultman — another former Brown company dancer — to join her in the front. As Ms. Hultman followed along, remembering more steps, she frequently burst into laughter: “Oh! I love this part.”
It lasted only a couple of minutes, but it was an astonishing convergence of skill, muscle memory and movement integrity. Not to mention a rare chance to witness the bond that dancers forge over days and hours in the studio.
By letting the artists of Movement Research — a more diverse group than that of Judson, but no less experimental — take over a substantial area of the museum, MoMA is showing a side of dance and performance that is usually hidden from view.
Barbara Bryan, Movement Research’s executive director, says its inclusion in the Judson show reveals “what we do day in and day out.”
“What is this experiment of taking this work that’s so process-oriented and so investigatory and often private into this really public scenario?” Ms. Bryan said. “Our approach is: Let’s just see what we learn from this.”
Created in 1978 as the School for Movement Research and Construction, Movement Research was formed by several artists, including Wendell Beavers, Mary Overlie and Cynthia Hedstrom. It was a way to promote new teaching practices, what Ms. Bryan described as “kind of an open concept of school.”
“All those guys were the second generation to the Judson Dance Theater artists,” Ms. Bryan said. “A lot of them were developing their own techniques through studio practice and not through presentation practice. That’s what really distinguishes them from the generation before.”
Now, Movement Research, which has held in-process performances and workshops at Judson Memorial Church since 1991, is an important incubator for the art form. Museums are enthusiastic about dance and performance. But without organizations like Movement Research to support artists at all stages, how could a retrospective like the Judson exhibition even be possible?
At the moment, Movement Research is in a good place: It has a home. Before 2018, it led a nomadic existence; Ms. Bryan estimates that the organization has worked out of nine office spaces in 40 years. “This is our 10th move,” she said.
Now part of the 122 Community Center in the East Village, the organization shares a building with the Alliance for Positive Change, Mabou Mines, Painting Space 122 and Performance Space New York. Along with office space, Movement Research has two studios where classes, like the ones at MoMA, are regularly taught. (The weekly Judson performances continue full force, too.)
“We don’t just perform — we work every day to do these weird little things that may fall apart,” said Jimena Paz, who taught a class at MoMA. “It’s the process of studying movement.”
And while, so far, classes have been dominated by dancers, they are open to all. (They’re free and mainly full, but standby is available.) Bryn Hlava, a dancer who took part in Ms. Boulé’s class, said it was an amazing experience. “This space is so wild and huge,” she said, adding that she was aware of the presence of ordinary museum-goers, “but it felt like they were just a part of the experience.”
For John Hoobyar, another contemporary dancer, it was more complicated. “Even though class is free,” he said, “we’re still performing for the museum, increasing the value proposition of the visit for the visitor. And we’re not getting paid for it.”
But for Jane Kornbluh, who said she was in the process of returning to dance after a 25-year hiatus, participating has been a kind of a gift to herself. “My friends are like, ‘You just spent the day at MoMA dancing?’ ” she said with a laugh.
At first she had a hard time shutting out the public. “I was a little annoyed, especially of the way people took photographs,” she said. “I’m not on Facebook or anything. I wanted to be like, ‘What are you doing with my photograph?’ ”
But she was able to tune it out. Ms. Kornbluh gestured to the ceiling, where part of the sky was visible. “At one point, I was like, ‘Wow, what’s a helicopter doing up there?’” she said. “When am I ever going to be doing this in a museum? I didn’t feel like I was on display. I was just like, this is fun.”