Left: Yvonne Rainer, The Mind Is a Muscle (first version), 1966. Performance view, Judson Church, New York, NY, May 24, 1966. Right: Yvonne Rainer, Parts of Some Sextets, 1965. Performance view, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT, March 6, 1965. Robert Morris, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay, Tony Holder, Sally Gross, Robert Rauschenberg, Judith Dunn, and Joseph Schlichter. Photos: Peter Moore Estate of Peter Moore / VAGA.

The choreographer, dancer, writer, and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer was born in San Francisco in 1934 and moved to New York in the 1950s, where she helped cofound the Judson Dance Theater in 1962. This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first concerts at Judson Church, and to commemorate the occasion, artforum.com is presenting a series of interviews with key participants in the group.

JUDSON’S IN MY GENES! I mean probably more than for the others. It was such a defining period for me. I came to New York in 1956 to study at the Herbert Berghof School of Acting. I studied with Lee Grant, who at that time was blacklisted because of her leftist politics. (Sandy Dennis, then seventeen, was in the same class.) I was in my early twenties, and I was no good. Objectively speaking, I never had a talent for mimesis.

A musician friend of mine was going to a dance class. She said it would be good for my acting, and I went to this class in the Village taught by Edith Stephen. She had studied African dance and Humphrey-Weidman technique, so it was very eclectic. After the first class, I asked her for an evaluation. She said, “Well, you’re not very turned out, but you’re very strong.” I loved it. I loved jumping around. I had a huge amount of energy, strong legs, and I luckily had no idea how structurally ill-adapted I was for traditional dance of any kind. I was ignorant of that until relatively recently.

At that time, Merce Cunningham didn’t have a studio of his own, and he would rent space from Edith. I would go there early and peek through the curtains, and he would be rehearsing by himself. It was like he was on ice. It was so beautiful. So when I began to use running in my early work, I made a comparison to that freedom, that pleasure in movement that I attributed to him when I first saw him—it was like the feeling I had when I ran.

After Edith, I studied for a year with Martha Graham. I slowly gravitated toward John Cage and Cunningham, and I studied with Merce for eight years and took ballet classes. But very early, I knew that I would not be accepted in any professional dance company, and that if I wanted to continue dancing, I’d have to make my own work, despite the fact that, unexpectedly, James Waring, that great choreographer of mismatched dancers, invited me into his company. I worked with him from 1961 to 1963.

In 1960, Robert Dunn, who was a kind of acolyte of Cage, was playing the piano for Merce’s classes. I think Cage induced him to teach some kind of workshop in Merce’s studio. There were five of us in the workshop that first year, including Simone Forti and Steve Paxton—Steve was already dancing with Cunningham. The initial basis of the class was analyzing Cage’s chance procedures for Fontana Mix. We all began to make work. In the following year, four more people came in. Then in 1962, some of us tried out for this annual dance concert that took place at the 92nd Street Y. We auditioned before a jury of three choreographers, and we were all turned down: Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown, Steve, and I. None of us made the grade.

We realized that we had to do something on our own if we wanted to show our work publicly. I was already going down to Judson Church to see productions by the Poet’s Theater there. Judson had an art gallery, too, where Claes Oldenburg and Robert Whitman and Allan Kaprow were showing work. The director was Howard Moody, this ex-marine who was the chief minister of the place—a very progressive guy. Al Carmine was the artistic director. I arranged for some of us to show Al what we were doing, and he invited us in. Later, he would say, “I didn’t quite know what I was looking at, but I sensed that it was important.” That’s how the first concert of dance at Judson took place, on July 6 of 1962. And we were launched!

I think Steve’s work was the most far-out—and kind of arcane—of everything that went on there. His stuff was the most resistant to pleasureful expectations. He was physically so gifted but absolutely refused to exploit these gifts. I can describe a dance that kind of demonstrates this. It was called Afternoon (1963). Six of us rehearsed this very difficult, Cunningham-esque movement. Remember: I had to work very hard against the strictures of my body to master this technique. And I worked my ass off to learn these steps. The dance was to be shown in a forest in New Jersey, and the audience was bused out. It took place after a rain on very mushy ground, so it was impossible to keep your balance and to do the steps as he had taught them in the studio. I was outraged. But of course it was totally deliberate on his part. He knew that the surface would affect the quality of the movement. And that’s what he was interested in, this destruction of virtuosic movement. That was his mentality, and it was very hard for a lot of people to take. Some people might say this was the spirit of Judson, but Steve was definitely in the vanguard of all the multifaceted work that emerged from the Judson cauldron.

— As told to David Velasco