In the early 1960s, Yvonne Rainer, David Gordon, Steve Paxton, and Trisha Brown, among others, were making dances unlike anything before. They were meeting at the Judson Church in downtown New York, where the parish offered them space to work. Rejecting the restrictive vocabulary of movements from ballet through Martha Graham, these dancers brought the everyday world of gestures into their work. Walking, crawling, free non-repeated movements, absolute stillness, talking, daily tasks, theater, and improvised collaboration with artists - all these were allowed in the dance.
''I was never taught that there was a particular way to make a dance,'' says Susan Rethorst, a New York dancer and choreographer who studied at Bennington College with Paxton and Judith Dunn, another Judson participant. ''The Judson people showed that movement is pluralistic and that a huge variety of visual elements can make up dance experiences.''
This pluralism is the legacy of the Judson dancers. Twenty years after their vision began, New York's downtown dance scene remains the cradle of innovation in America. Yet the principle of pluralism to include anything that will make a dance more compelling is having some surprising effects. Much new dance is turning the Judson spirit on its head.
At the heart of this change, a full-blown controversy is shaping up. Responsibility to the audience is the issue: If a dance is experimental, how accessible must it be?
For the Judson group, accessibility was not the primary concern. Dances were often about the process of movement itself; about bending or turning or the effect of gravity on the body.
The notion of including everyday movement in the dance might have made it seem more accessible to the viewer. But since people are used to seeing ballet as dance, the striking invasion of walking, sitting, running, or simply picking something up often seemed foreign and inaccessible in the dance context.
In the downtown scene today, David White, director of the Dance Theater Workshop in New York, says: ''What I'm seeing a lot in dancers now is a desire to go beyond the kind of pure research in movement that was important before. The processes of the last two decades are getting used for a new resolution that appears more finished and theatrical.''
Among the dancers now coming into national prominence, there is a great deal of conflict over their commitment to pure and less accessible experiments in movement even while they create works that are praised by a larger public.
Pooh Kaye, a Boston native now living in New York, whose dances are seen internationally, is now a central link in the controversy. Kaye is an innovator influenced by Judson who has in turn affected a younger generation. Her new work , ''Wild Fields,'' was a smash hit last summer at the prestigious American Dance Festival in North Carolina. But some adherents to Judson principles were troubled by her shift from an earlier iconoclastic style to what seems a more publicly oriented choreography.
''It feels good to be accessible,'' Kaye says, ''but I'm aware that the swing toward more popular styles among dancers is raising Judson's questions about integrity and individualism. The austerity of dance about dance, which was the main concern in the 1970s, is giving way in any case.''
Many choreographers feel that the turn toward a more polished dance, often with elaborate theatrical props and pulsating music, is a reflection of contemporary television culture. While the rebellious Judson innovators used theatrical elements to break down the classical limitations of dance, current choreographers are using theater to emulate what attracts them to commercial entertainment.
Rethorst is wary, saying: ''Dancers now being influenced by commercial things like MTV (the producers of slick rock-and-roll videos) envy its appeal. But the fantasy element of this kind of entertainment seems to me a retreat. The emphasis on spectacle reduces the inquiry into dance movement, and that could lead to a new conservatism in dance.''
Kaye elaborates: ''The pressure is also financial. Because it's so expensive to mount dance concerts now, people are trying to gain broader audiences. And the producers may well be attracted to these more accessible productions that fill the house. It's an effect of commercialism, and the methods of commercial entertainment are seductive. But they could have unfortunate results for the quality of dance.''
The newest generation of dancers may not agree. Two steps removed from the Judson ideals and immersed for their adult lives in the force of popular culture , they are less torn by their impulses.
Such young standouts as Stephen Petronio, Sarah Skaggs, and M. J. Becker are creating dances with great sophistication that freely borrow from show dance, modern dance, acrobatics, and popular music.
Becker says: ''I'm not concerned with rebelling the way the Judson people did. I'm making dances out of what's already happening in pop culture, and pop culture isn't as simple as people think. I simply want to add to the visual accessibility of, say, TV dancing, giving it emotional and intellectual depth.''
Yet the pluralism that started 20 years ago continues. As David White says: ''Nobody should define too closely what constitutes dance today. Members of the downtown scene go on growing and contributing to the world dance community. This is extraordinarily fertile ground.''