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Fred Herko: Warhol’s First Superstar | Jean-Claude van Itallie, Michael Townsend Smith, Gerard Forde | An Artist Dialogue Series Event


October 29, 2014

FREE - South Court Auditorium doors open at 5:30 p.m.

UPDATE - Billy Name, who was scheduled to take part in this talk, is now unable to attend.

As part of a week long program of events to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Fred Herko, his biographer Gerard Forde talks with Herko's friends Jean-Claude van Itallie and Michael Townsend Smith about Herko's role in Judson Dance Theater, Off-Off-Broadway theater and Warhol's Factory. For details of all the events in this program visit

Herko in James Waring’s Double Concerto, May 1964, photo by Ed Olaksek
Herko in Double Concerto by James Waring , May 1964, photo by Ed Olaksek

Fred Herko (1936-1964) was a central figure in New York’s downtown avant-garde around 1960. A musical prodigy, he studied piano at the Juilliard School of Music before switching to ballet at the age of twenty. In 1956 he won a scholarship to study at American Ballet Theatre School and within a few years was dancing with established choreographers including John Butler, Katherine Litz, Buzz Miller, Glen Tetley and James Waring. He was a founder member of Judson Dance Theater, presenting six of his own works in the group’s concerts between 1962 and 1964 and dancing in works by Al Hansen, Deborah Hay, Arlene Rothlein, and Elaine Summers. He was a co-founder of the New York Poets Theatre, which staged one-act plays by poets and provided a podium for happenings by Ray Johnson, Allan Kaprow and Robert Whitman; dances by Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown; music by La Monte Young, John Herbert McDowell and Philip Corner; and films by Brian De Palma, Stan VanDerBeek and Andy Warhol. Herko starred in seven of Warhol’s earliest cinematic experiments in 1963, including Jill and Freddy Dancing, Rollerskate/Dance Movie, and Salome and Delilah. His untimely death in 1964, at the age of 28, robbed New York’s underground scene of one of its most exuberant and versatile performers, equally at home performing Comb Music by Fluxus composer George Brecht or camping it up in Rosalyn Drexler’s musical comedy Home Movies.

Herko dancing on the roof of ‘The Opulent Tower’, Ridge Street, New York, spring 1964, photo by George Herms
Herko dancing on the roof of The Opulent Tower, Ridge Street,
New York, spring 1964, photo by George Herms

Jean-Claude van Itallie is a playwright and teacher, and a seminal figure in the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway movement, writing plays for La MaMa and the Caffe Cino. His plays include the anti-war trilogy America Hurrah, Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Bag Lady, and acclaimed translations of Genet’s The Balcony and Chekhov’s major plays. He introduced Fred Herko to Alan Marlowe, with whom Herko co-founded the New York Poets Theatre in 1961. 

Michael Townsend Smith is a playwright, director and publisher. He directed early Off-Off-Broadway productions of works by Sam Shepard, Ronald Tavel, and Jean-Claude van Itallie. As theatre critic for The Village Voice, he reviewed several of Herko's performances and performed Peter Hartman's piano music for Herko's 1962 piece Edge – A Work for Dancers and Actors.

Gerard Forde is an independent scholar and curator. He has curated exhibitions at the Design Museum in London and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. Over the past twenty years he has lectured widely on art and design history. He is writing a book about the New York Poets Theatre and a biography of Fred Herko. 

Herko in his ballet The Palace of the Dragon Prince, May 1964, photo by Billy Name
Herko in his ballet The Palace of the Dragon Prince, May 1964,
photo by Billy Name

Initiated and organized by Arezoo Moseni in 2004, Artist Dialogues Series provide an open forum for understanding and appreciation of contemporary art. Artists are paired with critics, curators, gallerists, writers or other artists to converse about art and the potential of exploring new ideas.