Possibilities for a Pleasant Outing


A performance commissioned by Siobhan Davies Dance and Independent Dance for What remains… Anatomy of an Artist: a festival of 10 new works.

Read Guardian dance critic, Judith Mackrell’s review here.

Dancer and choreographer Fred Herko (1936-64) appears in many early 1960s New York narratives. As well as being an integral part of the Judson Dance Theater, he appeared in several Warhol films, including the now-lost Roller Skate (1963). Working outwards from this artefact, Atherton has gathered together traces to be retold while himself attempting to roller skate. These are two problematic tasks: as with many queer archives, Herko’s relies on ephemera and anecdote, while the physical act is hindered by inability. The possibility of failure speaks to Herko’s biography, and moreover is proposed as a strategy for engaging an object across time and away from hegemonic historicism.

photo by Al Giese, courtesy of Fales Library, NYU small
photo Al Giese, courtesy Fales Library, NYU

The following essay and bibliography accompanied the performance:

Possibilities for a Pleasant Outing

There’s a bit in the collage of texts spoken in Possibilities for a Pleasant Outing in which Donald McDonagh lists all the roles — the “job descriptions” if you like — that might be attributed to Fred Herko: “…scene designer, underground movie star, ad hoc couturier, textile designer, interior decorator, babysitter, corporation officer…”. It was an attempt, I think, at preserving for posterity the fullness of an artist’s life not quite contained by the labels “dancer” and “choreographer” (as well as to let some light in on one shadowed by the staggering monumentality of its termination).

There is scant biography within the piece — after all a life-story is like a string, bluntly cut at each end, and here we are talking traces: tangled, unravelling messes; full of promise for the forensicist — so a little background… Fred Herko (1936–64) grew up in Ossining, New York. While studying piano at the Juilliard School of Music, he discovered dance and in 1956 won a scholarship to study at American Ballet Theatre School, taking extracurricular classes with Merce Cunningham and James Waring. He was a founding member of both the New York Poets Theatre — with Diane di Prima, LeRoi Jones, James Waring and Alan Marlowe — and the Judson Dance Theatre, where he contributed two original pieces to the inaugural concert alongside Yvonne Rainer and Deborah Hay.

Herko is all over early 1960s New York. At the Factory he could be found among the “mole people” — the subterranean speedfreak superstars burrowing down at the back — and starred in a handful of early Warhol films. So although he left virtually no written records, echoes of him resound widely, so much so that amid nine months of research I came to realise that the piece might exist without significant reference to the part of Herko’s life for which he has become most famous: his death, the moment from which his story is often told. Unsurprisingly so — it is dramatic: in 1964, following a rapid decline in physical and mental health, Herko danced out of a fifth-storey window. Whether this was the staged suicide performance he’d often spoken of, or the unwitting final act of someone who believed he could fly, no one can be certain. Addressing the way in which traces form strata of significance in varying widths prompted me to place my focus elsewhere, on a by-all-accounts more “positive” event: the making of Roller Skate, a now lost Warhol film from 1963.

Working outward from an absence — that of the original artefact — through descriptions of the film, poems, essays, articles, other films, accounts from those who knew Herko intimately and those whose lives brushed his only fleetingly, the process of confronting a queer archive became an integral part of the work. In lieu of an official record, ingrained perceptions, fuzzy memories and fealties come into play, all telling tales that slip around each other, never quite settling; gossip, rumour and speculation take on new value here and omissions reveal greater truths about the shape of queer history more broadly.

For Possibilities for a Pleasant Outing, I collaged fragments pulled from the pile of amassed material to create a text oscillating, I think, between lecture and poem. To make this physical I wanted to attempt something Herko excelled in: roller skating on a single skate. As a non-performer — challenged by tasks requiring dexterity and balance — the possibility of foundering seemed high, but I was interested in an idea that this failure might somehow provide a strategy with which to engage with Freddie, whose transgressions, unprofessionalism and self-destruction might commonly be perceived as failures, creating a sort of transtemporal dialogue. In turn, the texture of the language, the play with gravity and a tuning into phenomenological readings of a space thickly charged with its own traces of professionalism, skill and ability, has opened up my body to another language, one which has required trust, if not understanding.

Jamie Atherton, 2016


The spoken part of Possibilities for a Pleasant Outing consists entirely of text gleaned from a wide array of sources, cut-up, stitched together and occasionally slightly modified.

Douglas Crimp, “Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol, 2012

John Daley, ‘Billy Linich’s Party’, The Floating Bear, issue 27, November, 1963

John Daley, letter published in The Floating Bear, October 1963, quoted in Reva Wolf, Andy Warhol, Poetry, and Gossip in the 1960s, 1997

Samuel R. Delany, ‘Coming/Out’, Shorter Views, 2000

Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren, 1975

Edwin Denby, letter published in The Floating Bear, issue 19, 1962

Diane di Prima, ‘For Freddie, Fucking Again’, December 1959, Freddie Poems, 1974

Diane di Prima, ‘Formal Birthday Poem’, February 1964, Freddie Poems, 1974

Diane di Prima, ‘Freddie’s Monologue’, January 1965, Freddie Poems, 1974

Diane di Prima, ‘Invocation, a Birthday Poem for Freddi-O, February 23, 1957’, Freddie Poems, 1974

Diane di Prima, ‘Pome About Freddie’ 1958, Freddie Poems, 1974

Diane di Prima, Memoirs of my Life as a Woman, 2001

Grace Glueck, ‘Art Notes’, The New York Times, 26 January 1964

Fred Herko, Resume

Jill Johnston quoted in Sally Banes, Democracy’s Body: Judson Dance Theater, 1962-1964, 1983

Ray Johnston, ‘Review by Ray Johnston (In the Style of Floating Bear)’, The Floating Bear, issue 27, November, 1963

Stephen Koch, Stargazer: The Life, World and Films of Andy Warhol, 1991

Rosalind E. Krauss, ‘Mechanical Ballets: Light, Motion Theatre’, 1977, from Dance (Whitechapel: Documents of Contemporary Art), 2012

Gerard Malanga, ‘To Come and Leave Nothing Behind’, poem quoted in full in Donald McDonagh, ‘The Incandescent Innocent’, Film Culture, volume 45, 1967

Donald McDonagh, ‘The Incandescent Innocent’, Film Culture, volume 45, 1967

Frank O’Hara, ‘Dances Before the Wall’, 1959

Steve Paxton, quoted in Sally Banes, Democracy’s Body: Judson Dance Theater, 1962-1964, 1983

Yvonne Rainer, Feelings Are Facts, 2006

Mary Renault, The Bull from the Sea, 1962

Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica, 3rd century BC

Susan Sontag, Notes on “Camp”, 1964

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover, 1992

Amy Taubin quoted in Thomas Waugh, ‘Cockteaser’, from Doyle, Flatley, & Muñoz (editors), Pop Out: Queer Warhol, 1996

Unidentified author, ‘Rollerskate’, poem published in The Floating Bear, issue 29, 1964

Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism, 1980

James Waring, ‘Untitled poem’, c.1960

A selection of other texts — not sourced from directly — that have informed the work:

Paisid Aramphongphan, Real Professionals? Andy Warhol, Fred Herko, and Dance, http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/PAJJ_a_00255

Gavin Butt, Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World, 1948–1963, 2005

Roger Copeland, Seeing without participating: Andy Warhol’s unshakeable determination not to be moved, http://ausdance.org.au/articles/details/seeing-without-participating

Leanne Gilbertson, Theatre Quote Unquote:* The Expansive Gestures of the New York Poets Theatre (American Theatre for Poets, Inc.), http://l.pastelegram.org/features/852

Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, 2011

Joshua Lubin-Levy (editor), Fred Herko: A Course Packet, Part 2, https://issuu.com/lumpen/docs/herko_web_copy_6/1?e=12191703/12434504

José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia, 2009 (Specifically chapter 9, A Jeté Out the Window: Fred Herko’s Incandescent Illumination)

Cameron Williams, Reading Frank O’Hara’s Loves Labor: an eclogue, an elegy for the New York Poets Theatre, http://l.pastelegram.org/features/857

Possibilities for a Pleasant Outing drawing small