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Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Overcast
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'60s spirit
New York dancer Judith Moss returns to Madison to give students a dose of old-time idealism
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‘I want dancers to be open to risk and possibility and to question authority.’
‘I want dancers to be open to risk and possibility and to question authority.’

I have this quintessential Madison memory of New York-based modern dancer/teacher/choreographer Judith Moss. It's a hot, early summer day in 1968, when we were undergrads in the UW Dance Program. Sebastian Moon, a local hippie R&B band, is playing a love-in on Picnic Point (Moss' husband, Michael Moss, is Sebastian Moon's sax player). Soul singer extraordinaire Otis Redding died some six months back - Dec. 10, 1967 - in that famous plane crash on Lake Monona. On this grassy, sunny spit surrounded by Lake Mendota, Sebastian Moon plays Redding's great hit, "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay." There's not a dry eye in the crowd, but we're all dancing and singing along - Moss and me and a hundred or two more souls from the old days.

Moss graduated in '69, went on to dance with major companies and then to become a prominent teacher and choreographer in her own right. She returns to Madison to teach her legendary annual dance classes through the UW Division of Continuing Education in June and July (see sidebar). Many of Mad City's modern dance pillars have attended over the years, including Kanopy Dance artistic director Lisa Thurrell and UW Dance Program instructor Karen McShane Hellenbrand.

Maybe you've seen Moss' choreography (in April she presented her work "Surge," commissioned by Hofstra University, at the Dance Program's 80th anniversary concert). You might have taken her class. But you may not realize the depth of her impact on Madison dance.

Moss, who turns 60 this summer, was born in Teaneck, N.J. She started taking class as a kid with Donya Feuer, a former Martha Graham dancer who, with fellow second-wave modern dancer Paul Sanasardo, opened the Studio for Dance in New York. Moss' talent was evident early on, and from her Teaneck class Feuer picked the 11-year-old dancer for a children's company she and Sanasardo were starting up. This junior troupe performed professionally, at important Manhattan dance venues like the 92nd Street Y and Henry Street Playhouse on the Lower East Side.

The Studio for Dance was huge, Moss says. Prominent postmodernists like Sara Rudner and Pina Bausch (you saw her in Pedro Almodovar's Talk to Her) were in the adult company. At a time when most modern dancers were still hung up on Graham's anti-ballet philosophy, the fabled Maggie Black was the Studio's ballet mistress.

"So I grew up with both Graham-based modern and ballet," Moss says. "I never wanted to be a bun-head. Modern dance always made more sense to me. But ballet gave me strength and discipline. I take ballet class to this day, for that reason."

In high school Moss joined the adult company, commuting from Teaneck to Manhattan's dance world. By senior year, she says, she was starved for a break. Unlike most of her peers in dance, she chose college. "I picked the University of Wisconsin out of a hat. I had no idea what it would be like when I arrived as a freshman in the fall of '65."

Those were the magnificent days of political unrest and cultural openness, of draft deferments, demonstrating on Bascom Hill and making the Miffland party scene. They were also the days of government support for the arts.

"The National Endowment for the Arts had money in the late '60s," Moss says. "They ran a dance touring program that funded comprehensive residencies on campus by major companies, with lecture-dems, master classes, performances and outreach activities."

The summer of '69, right before Moss graduated, Viola Farber, a former member of Merce Cunningham's company, taught the dreaded 7:30 a.m. summer intensive class in Lathrop Hall's airy fifth-floor studio. Cunningham, like Graham an original founder of American modern dance, created a style more athletic and more abstract than Graham's.

"The first morning, demonstrating a pattern, Farber put her arms straight out," Moss says. "I thought 'Wow, I don't have to hold my arms in a formal, rounded position!' It was a revelation. I couldn't wait to get up in the morning and take class. It was my introduction to Cunningham technique. I felt totally at home with the style, the lack of drama, the abstract, non-narrative approach."

After graduation Moss moved back to New York and headed straight for Farber's class. Dan Wagoner, formerly one of Paul Taylor's dancers, had put his own troupe together by then and was sharing Farber's studio. Immediately, Moss found herself in his new company.

"I was more of an adagio dancer, but because everyone else in the company was taller than me, Dan typecast me as a fast mover. For that I'm grateful, since I learned how to move quickly and expand my range. Working with him allowed me to grow and mature as a performer. His choreography is still part of what I do, artistically."

Moss spent seven years with Dan Wagoner and Dancers, touring the States and abroad. The company performed in Madison several times during those years, and in '75, as UW Dance Program artists in residence, Moss and Wagoner found themselves teaching the famous 7:30 a.m. summer class.

In '76 Moss went solo. She was on the New York University dance faculty for the next seven years. She danced freelance with several choreographers including Cunningham alum Mel Wong and Rosalind Newman, another highly successful UW dance major who was at that long-ago love-in on Picnic Point.

In the late '70s, while working freelance with other companies and taking teaching residencies at universities and dance studios across the globe, Moss started choreographing her own works. The pieces she made for Judith Moss and Dancers were commissioned by venues like the Columbia College Dance Center in Chicago and New York's Riverside Church. This path took a twist in the summer of '85, when Moss was back in Lathrop doing a three-week guest residency.

"Madison was beautiful. The UW Dance Program looked great, and we had a 4-year-old daughter. We were out on Lake Mendota in a canoe with [Dance Program professor emerita] Buff Brennan when my husband Michael and I started asking ourselves if it was time to leave New York for Madison again, and whether he should go back to school for his doctorate."

Moss' daughter, Shira, likes to say that canoe ride kicked off her parents' midlife crisis, which precipitated the move back to Madison. As a result, Michael Moss went for his Ph.D. in counseling psychology. Moss' son, Ari, was born here in 1987. Moss taught on the UW Dance Program faculty from 1986 to 1990. During that period she also choreographed a lot of work for local and regional companies, including the dance numbers for CTM's production of Oklahoma!; "Thread-Clay-Glass," a work for UW Dance prof Claudia Melrose's company; and "Tangle, Dive, Catch, Slide," a piece from her New York repertory, reworked and set on Kanopy Dance.

"When we moved back east I kept those connections. Karen Cowan, then director of the UW Division of Continuing Studies dance program, invited me to start teaching noncredit courses under those auspices in '86. I've been doing that ever since."

It's a fairly advanced class, Moss says. It's loosely Cunningham-based, exploring the dynamics of rhythm, weight and the juxtaposition of different tempos and levels. It draws dancers who've been taking it for many years, as well as members of newer generations. Moss is leaving her mark on Madison's future, but looking back, how's the dance world changed?

"In the '60s, we dared to become dancers, not to make money but to fulfill ourselves creatively. Today's culture is very different. For one thing, government support dried up years ago. In the UW Dance Program, those huge residencies with major companies are long gone. Everything's quicker, too - it's like future shock. When we went to school people put in long apprenticeships with established companies before they became choreographers in their own right. Fewer dancers can afford to make the economic sacrifice it takes to get that kind of training now. Sometimes it's more about fame and money than art."

Happily, Moss' classes bring some '60s spirit back to the table. "In a way," she says, "given what funding allows, they're like reviving the summer residencies I loved as a student."

The multifaceted way she works with dancers, too, rings boomer bells. "I have a holistic, intuitive, nonlinear approach. In the classroom, and also in my choreography, I want dancers to be open to risk and possibility, to try new things, to make mistakes, to work together, to not accept the status quo and to question authority."

It's an approach that's firmly rooted in '60s Madison. "The values from my student days formed the core of who I am. I still have that '60s sense of hope and idealism. It permeates my work. And I'm still nomadic - a gypsy freelance artist traveling to where the work is. I keep on keepin' on. I'm still crazy after all these years."

Adventures in movement

There's a Judith Moss dance class for everyone in this summer's bag. She's on the staff for Dance Millennium, a Division of Continuing Studies summer dance camp intensive for students 14-20 (June 17-23). She teaches "Adventures in Movement" for the UW School of Education's College for Kids (July 2-13). And her famous intermediate/advanced modern dance technique class (through Continuing Studies) meets Mondays through Thursdays, 4:30-6 p.m., in the third floor studio of the State Street Center, 122 State (June 25-July 25).
For more info contact Continuing Education dance coordinator Maureen Janson at 263-8927 or mjanson@dcs.wisc.edu.

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