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Robert Rauschenberg, Pelican and the Judson Dance Theater

Robert Rauschenberg's first performance of the dance piece, Pelican, took place at America on Wheels, a roller skating rink at Kalorama and Seventeenth Streets in Washington, D.C. on May 9, 1963 in conjunction with "The Popular Image" exhibition (April 18 - June 2, 1963) at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art. Andy Warhol was one of the artists whose work was included in the exhibition. (JD120)

Performed as one of the dances of the fifth Concert of Dance by the Judson Dance Theater group (billed as an 'extension' of their dance series at the Judson Memorial Church in New York), Pelican consisted of two men (Robert Rauschenberg and Per Olof Ultvedt) in roller skates and a female dancer - Carolyn Brown. Rauschenberg was also listed on the Judson Dance Theater's program for their third and fourth Concerts of Dance (performed at the Judson Church) under the title "advisory." (JD82) He had allowed the group to rehearse in his loft and he lived with Steve Paxton who was one of the group's choreographers. (JD89/215-6) At the fifth Concert of Dance by the Judson group - the performances at the skating rink - the audience were asked to remove all the chairs from the rink during the intermission prior to the beginning of Pelican which lasted, according to one account, twelve minutes and twenty to thirty minutes according to another account. (JD126)

From Rauschenberg: Art and Life by Mary Lynn Kotz:

"Much of Rauschenberg's expanded theater activities were with the Judson Dance Theater... They wanted to explore the structure of movement, including everyday movements that were not 'dancing,' and to eliminate dance's dependence on fixed choreography, trained dancers, and expensive production. In these endeavors they were influenced by Rauschenberg, who served as stage manager, lighting director, performer, and - when he sold a painting - patron...

Pelican... marked Rauschenberg's unexpected debut as a choreographer. At the Pop Art Festival in Washington, D.C... Rauschenberg mistakenly was listed in the program as 'choreographer' rather than as stage manager of the Judson group. When he read the program, he decided to take on the challenge. Discovering that the performances were to take place in a roller-skating rink called America on Wheels, he designed costumes, learned to roller-skate, and prepared a dance routine for himself and two dancers.

At that moment, Rauschenberg's career was soaring. His work was on exhibition at the Jewish Museum, in group shows at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and in the Corcoran Biennial in Washington, as well as in various exhibitions touring Europe. He wanted his choreography to soar as well. In his light-filled studio at 809 Broadway, he moved his paintings off the floor, where he worked, to practice roller-skating with his friends, racing with his Samoyed puppy, Laika, and his two kinkajous.

The principal action of Pelican consisted of Rauschenberg and Swedish painter Per Olof Ultvedt, with open parachutes attached to their backs, skating about the arena. Around and between them, Carolyn Brown, the Cunningham company's most elegant dancer, danced on point, dressed in a sweat suit and toe shoes. 'The soaring motion of Brown's classical ballet vocabulary juxtaposed to and amplified by the rapid birdlike swooping of the men on skates' made Pelican Rauschenberg's most memorable performance art, wrote curator Nina Sundell in her catalogue for an exhibition called 'Rauschenberg/Performance.'

The artistic success of Pelican, which Rauschenberg dedicated to his heroes, the Wright brothers, seemed to confirm one of his favorite theories of art. He had indeed, as Sundell points out, 'used the limitation of materials [roller skates] as a freedom that would eventually establish form.'

Rauschenberg, again sailing about in the open parachute, performed the dance a second time in New York in 1965, at the First New York Theater Rally, organized by Steve Paxton and Alan Solomon at a television studio on Broadway at Eighty-first Street." (122/23)

Yvonne Rainer, a regular participant/choreographer in the Judson Dance Theater later recalled that when Rauschenberg's involvement with the dance group extended to choreography, "through no error is his behaviour but simply due to his stature in the art world - the balance was tipped, and those of us who appeared with him became the tail of his comet." (JD166)


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