Summers was a founding member of the workshop-group that would form the Judson Dance Theater and significantly contributed to the interaction of film and dance, as well as the expansion of dance into other related disciplines, such as visual art, film, and theater. She furthermore fostered the expansion of performing dance in new, often outdoor locations. Her movement approach Kinetic Awareness offers a comprehensive perspective on human movement and dance.
To Judson Dance Theater
Summers was born in Perth, Australia and grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. She came to New York in the 1950s and became part of the workshop-group originally initiated by Robert Ellis Dunn that would later be referred to as the Judson Dance Theater in its second term 1962, together with a.o. Trisha Brown, Ruth Emerson, Fred Herko, Sally Gross, Edward Bhartonne, Carolee Schneemann, Gretchen MacLane, Deborah Hay, David Gordon, and Valda Setterfield.
At Judson, Summers shared in the ongoing experiments with chance methods and pedestrian movement as part of the interest in expanding the then accepted methods of creating and performing dances. However she also embraced the more theatrical part of the collective (Aileen Passloff, John Herbert McDowell and others). Summers expanded dance into other disciplines, experimental film, visual art, and body work. In the later phase of the Judson Dance Theater she created dances that would to work with the entire environment of the performance space. She also initiated five of the total of 16 concerts of the group, one at Turnau Opera, Woodstock NY (Concert #2) and one series (Concerts #9-#12) at the Gramercy Arts Theater in New York City.
Summers worked intensively with film and its inclusion in live performance. This happened as early as in the first Judson Concert of Dance, when she went out to dance in the projection of her self-initiated chance-film Ouverture which she had made in collaboration with John Herbert McDowell and Eugene Friedman.
Her learning of filmmaking and her experiments at Judson finally led to her own intermedia presentation Fantastic Gardens in 1964, where she used the entire performance space, located the audience in several settings, virtually covered the entire space in film- and slide projections, and combined many works of music and sculpture with her own dances, many of them improvisational scores realised by the dancers.
Starting with her teaching work in the 1950s, Summers developed Kinetic Awareness, a bodymind practice to help the individual find out more about their unique body and its possibilities of movement, as well as make informed choices about their physical well-being. This work was strongly influenced by Summers' study with Charlotte Selver and Carola Speads, both students of Elsa Gindler. Listening to one's body-signals (proprioception) is the key action, whether at rest or in movement. The study is divided into five phases, from very slow, gentle movement of one body part at a time, to increasingly complex coordination, speed, tension, and interaction levels. It is up to the practitioner's individual choice how much they expand their movement options. Hollow rubber balls of different sizes are put underneath body parts to aid multi-directional movement and provide a self-directed massage through their elasticity.
This practice became the dance-technique for the Elaine Summers Dance & Film Co. and has been studied by many professionals and individuals across the world, also through certified teachers of The Kinetic Awareness Center. One close associate in the days around Judson was Trisha Brown who performed with Summers in one of the first performances of Energy Changes at Loeb's Student Center, NYU in 1971 titled From the Still Point (see below). Other students were Meredith Monk, members of The Wooster Group, and many others.
After Judson (1964–present)
Elaine Summers continued to make intermedia-work combining film and dance and started to train dancers in Kinetic Awareness, who would form her own company (a.o. Tedrian Chizik, Edward Bhartonne, Alexandra Ogsbury, Roberta Escamilla Garrison). To facilitate this process financially, she founded the Experimental Intermedia Foundation which is still active in the field of experimental music in New York today.
In 1971 the Elaine Summers Dance & Film Company premiered Energy Changes at Loeb's Student Center of New York University. The piece covers all the five phases of Kinetic Awareness, from slow gentle movement of body parts without active interference from the dancer, to highly energetic group interactions (with titles such as 'Bear Dance' or 'Pile-up'). The piece went into full premiere in 1973 at the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, including an early use of video showing dancers located in other parts of the garden, in collaboration with Davidson Gigliotti, composers Philipp Corner and Carman Moore, recorded on video by Nam June Paik.
The Elaine Summers Dance & Film Company toured extensively in the United States of America as well as abroad, a.o. to Italy, the UK, and Australia. Concerts would regularly have parts where the audience was invited to join in the realisation of dance scores which often created an awareness of basic elements of theatre dance, such as walking, or improvisation. Invitation to Secret Dancers was done in the same spirit on outdoor locations in many countries. (the latest performance was in New York City in 2005) Illuminated Workingman brought the city of Buffalo, NY, and construction work together with dance and intermedia, including several performances on location and workshops given to the public.
In 1980 Summers started to present her involvement with the sky. Skydance was shown during the 2nd Intermedia Art Festival at the University of Iowa (where she also made several film-dances as artist-in-residence) and subsequently at the Guggenheim museum. These events included balloons, planes, and large sky-objects created by Otto Piene.
Today Elaine Summers lives and works in New York City where she teaches Kinetic Awareness and develops Skytime an ongoing project that is centered on the use of the internet. Summers also continues to create new dance pieces, while parallel pursuing the creation of her Archives and the publication of her Improvizational Dance Score Book.
- Banes, Sally, Democracy's body. Judson Dance Theater 1962-64. Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1983
- Green, Jill, The Use of Balls in Kinetic Awareness 1982, JOPERD, Vol. 63 No. 8
- Saltonstall, Ellen Kinetic Awareness: Discovering Your Bodymind 1988, Kinetic Awareness Center / The Publishing Center for Cultural Resources, New York City (out of print)
- Körtvélyessy, Thomas, committed to body choice and intermedia: Elaine Summers. paper dance history, Rotterdamse Dansacademie, 1994
- Körtvélyessy, Thomas, completely coming into moving: Kinetic Awareness for the contemporary dance teacher. paper educational sciences, Rotterdamse Dansacademie, 1996 (written in Dutch)
- Wooster, Anne-Sargent, Elaine Summers. moving to dance. The Drama Review T86, New York NY, December 1980, pp. 59–70