State of the union: the woman keeping postmodern dance on its toes
Yvonne Rainer’s choreography moved through ballet into a feminist way of thinking, establishing new fundamentals along the way
Yvonne Rainer: ‘In a way, dance reinvents the wheel. Each new generation that comes up is revelling in their own physicality and has to explore it all over again’
Rainer’s studio: ‘I feel very fortunate that I came into dancing right at the end of the 1950s and into the 1960s when all kinds of rebellions were going on, socially, aesthetically’
Yvonne Rainer is at her “office away from home”, Vicki’s Diner on West 187th Street in Hudson Heights in Manhattan, towards Fort George. It’s impossible not to start with smalltalk about the neon New Yorker presiding over the nation. She opens the conversation stating, “Every day is a new disaster.”
Born in San Francisco 83 and a half years ago, Rainer moved to New York in 1956 at the age of 21. As the 1960s unfolded, she was part of a small crew that began performing in the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square in Greenwich Village, founding the Judson Dance Theatre. The church had already facilitated gallery space for Robert Rauschenberg and others. It’s not an exaggeration to say that at the Judson, Rainer and others were among the architects of postmodern dance. Out of one of Rainer’s pieces, Continuous Project – Altered Daily, the Grand Union dance group was formed, featuring among others, Trisha Brown (who died last March), Steve Paxton and Barbara Dilley. On the Mount Rushmore of choreography, Rainer’s profile looms.
Rainer’s exploration of dance and the body reverberates seismically today. She is one of the US’s greatest living artists. In person, she is extraordinarily unassuming, yet her influence is so significant, it’s almost hard to conceptualise. It was Rainer who incorporated elements we consider to be fundamentals of contemporary dance, such as repetition, dancers making oral noises, and non-dancers performing “normal” or “regular” movements such as walking or running. It feels almost bizarre to be in the company of someone who explored such foundational aspects of a form at its genesis; like speaking to one of the first visual artists who mused “What about paint?”
She is also a film-maker, with seven features to her name. She published one book of excellent poetry, titled Poems, a volume of which arrives at my house a few days after we meet (“for lunch, for art”, her message reads inside.)
Here is one of those poems.
I dreamed of bodies burning at the edges
When I awoke my belly was cold as an abandoned stove
The streets were cleared, trees bent
The air so still, as though just inhaled
When next I noticed it was spring
Rainer is a minimalist in many ways. We speak for an hour, and she says fewer than 2,500 words (the average length of a 20-minute speech, according to the internet, which is probably wrong.) This month at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, in association with the Dublin Dance Festival, Rainer is the focus of a series including dance, film, and a lecture. Her iconic piece, Trio A, will be performed, as well as Talking Solo from Terrain and Chair/Pillow. Rainer will deliver a lecture on Saturday, May 12th, there are performances on May 12th and 13th, a lecture by Chris Dercon on Rainer’s work on May 18th, and a series of screenings of her films will follow in June.
Right now, she is working on an essay about Apollo and the US, “It’s written in the first person. I’m Apollo who comes down to earth trying to fix things, gets into deep shit everywhere he turns. I mean it’s all about what’s going on now . . . It’s full of anachronisms, goes back and forth through space and time, but it partly came out of this election.”
Before Judson, before Grand Union, it was members of the Black Mountain College gang that had an impact on Rainer and her peers. “My main training was with Merce Cunningham,” Rainer says, “Although all of his dancers studied ballet, and it was clear that influence was still in his work, it was his relation with John Cage that all of us who came up together in this milieu were affected by. So just as Cage explored street sounds, and sounds not made by musical instruments, we were all affected by his writings. And by [Robert] Rauschenberg who was making costumes for the Cunningham company. So these ideas were in the air.”
Rainer’s No Manifesto is still one beloved of minimalist and avant-garde artists: No to spectacle. No to virtuosity. No to transformations and magic and make-believe. No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image. No to the heroic. No to the anti-heroic. No to trash imagery. No to involvement of performer or spectre. No to style. No to camp. No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer. No to eccentricity. No to moving or being moved.
What’s left? When one surveys so much of the work that exploded out of New York in the 1960s and 1970s, the No Manifesto confronts it all and shakes its head.
In assessing her career, she says she sees “an arc. I see a through-line. My current dances reflect some of the same issues that characterised my early work; contrasting pedestrian movement with trained movement, reading text, talking while you’re moving. My current group, they’re all trained, well-trained, mature dancers. In the past I have used a mixture of trained and untrained. Making a running dance – anyone can run. But now I need the technical finesse that training gives. But they also walk and stand and have solos that have a mixture of pedestrian and technical.”
Recently enough, Rainer was talking to a dance historian friend who was putting together a book about the Grand Union: “She reminded me of all of the negative reviews I got in the 1960s when I started out. She said, ‘Were you upset by that?’ I said, ‘No, it was glorious.’ I mean, it was a challenge. Exhilarating. That was the tenor of the times. I feel very fortunate that I came into dancing right at the end of the 1950s and into the 1960s when all kinds of rebellions were going on, socially, aesthetically.”
Looking at the impact of her work now, which permeates through so much material, she must feel somewhat vindicated, “I don’t keep up with the very young, new choreographers. But yeah, even my own group, they’re all choreographers in their own right, and sure, I see things that they might give me credit, but they’ve never seen that work. It wasn’t recorded, it wasn’t filmed. There was no video back then. So, vindication? I don’t know. It’s been so long that I’ve been accepted. I don’t have a battle to fight any more . . . In a way, dance reinvents the wheel. Each new generation that comes up is revelling in their own physicality and has to explore it all over again. I guess there are only so many things the body can do. There have to be new ways of putting things together, of course, with optics, music, but sometimes, I don’t know, when I go to things I’m not really thinking about the sources anymore. I guess I’m thinking, Does this work?, the aesthetic.”
Rainer defied male-led conventions before there was a framework of feminism within which to structure such defiance. “My frame of reference, or one of them, in the 1960s was ballet,” she says, “how the man always lifted the woman, those conventions and clichés. This was of course before the second wave of feminism. But it was clear that two women could lift a man. And so I proceeded to find these alternate ways of getting people into the air, regardless of gender. And I didn’t call myself, then, when I began to read all these feminist theories and theorists were coming along – Laura Mulvey’s famous essay [Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema] – I didn’t feel entitled to call myself a feminist. I thought of feminists as wearing knee breeches or being activists, and I wasn’t. I wasn’t thinking that some of my own moves in choreography bled, so to speak, right into a feminist way of thinking. So my work now – I mean I certainly call myself a feminist and I’ve been at marches and act in small ways – but in terms of the work I’m not sure whether there’s any explicit feminist message in my work. I mean, we’re not trying to be feminine, certainly . . . My films are another story. We’ve been talking about dance. My films followed my own awareness of being a woman in the patriarchy and ageing as a woman.”
The conversation falls into one about film, specifically, Sally Potter’s latest film, The Party. Rainer knows Potter from years back, and asked her a question at recent Q&A about politicians and cynicism. Rainer almost seems more keen to discuss this than her own work, “The complexity of this film is amazing,” she enthuses.
Getting back to her work, I ask the obvious, whether she’s drawn to juxtaposition. “Yeah, sure absolutely . . . I do that automatically from humour and for contrast. That comes from a Susan Sontag essay [Happenings: An Art of Radical Juxtaposition (1962)] “That’s been a very important device, a way of thinking.” Why is it important? “It’s effective.” Does she think it’s effective because it’s disorientating. “Yeah. It keeps you on your toes . . . I always tried to avoid the predictable.”
For more information about the Yvonne Rainer performances, see dublindancefestival.ie and imma.ie