Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

ALL THE WRITE MOVES

Choreographer Yvonne Rainer takes the stage in three new books

Catherine Morris


In 1973, writing in the introduction to her indispensable compendium, Work 1961–73, Yvonne Rainer admits, “I find myself greedy. . . . So here I am, in a sense, trying to ‘replace’ my performances with a book, greedily pushing language to clarify what already was clear in other terms.” In her ambitious drive to dissect the historical conventions of performance over the past four-plus decades, Rainer has utilized a remarkable variety of media. And while dance and film have been her primary concerns, the written word has played a pivotal role, not simply as a means of clarification but as yet another tool in her concentrated practice of redefining performative interactions with the audience.

But just what was clear in those other terms Rainer refers to in the quote above? This question has been taken up by critics, theorists, and historians of art, dance, cinema, and feminism since the artist premiered Satie for Two, her duet with Trisha Brown, in 1962. The recent publication of three significant texts—one by the artist herself (she seems once again greedy to use language) and two by art historians interested in refining the understanding of Rainer’s terms of engagement—speaks to her practice’s continuing resonance for theoretical thinking about feminism, media studies, and issues of spectatorship and visual reception. Carrie Lambert-Beatty’s Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s, Catherine Wood’s Yvonne Rainer: The Mind Is a Muscle, and Rainer’s Feelings Are Facts are a fortuitous grouping, instigating a timely and reasonably revisionist dialogue about our retrospective perceptions of Rainer’s work of the ’60s and early ’70s, in the years before she gave up performance in favor of filmmaking (and well before her 2000 reemergence on the stage at the behest of Mikhail Baryshnikov and his White Oak Dance Project).

The outline of Rainer’s career has been amply documented: Through her relationship with the painter Al Held, she was introduced to downtown New York’s avant-garde community in the waning days of Abstract Expressionism. She came to dance after an unsuccessful stint studying acting, eventually hooking up with a group of dancers and visual artists who would found the Judson Dance Theater in 1962. As part of this ensemble, Rainer was key in bringing about the dynamic intersection of Minimalism and performance. Her transition at the end of the decade to a more collaborative form of performance, instigated in part by the groundswell of political activism and cultural critique, resulted in a practice focused on identity politics and film in the early ’70s.

In Feelings Are Facts, Rainer employs a “mosaic-like construction,” which relates to the structure she favors in her performance and film work: The text is built on a foundation of her previous writings, which are here adapted, excerpted, and often simply transcribed, forming bridges between Rainer’s voice at various points in her life. Beginning with teenage diaries and continuing with letters, journals, and autobiographical statements (she also incorporates other wonderful voices, such as that of fellow dancer Steve Paxton, by excerpting letters from friends and colleagues, as well as reviews and accounts of her work), Rainer lets the historical record speak for itself, as she links these documents to her current thoughts on the events of her life.

Rainer’s tone is dryly humorous, her rhythm staccato (a style that often hews to that of eighteenth-century New England diarist the Reverend William Bentley, whose writings she used in her 1965 performance Parts of Some Sextets). For instance, when describing her first forays into modern-dance training in 1959, Rainer says, “I found myself an ungifted novice. I not only lacked ‘turn-out’ but was also very unmusical, desperately following the person in front of me in order to stay on the beat. One day when Martha [Graham] herself was teaching the class, she came over to me as I was struggling with a floor stretch and said, ‘When you accept yourself as a woman, you will have turn-out.’ Prophetic words. Neither condition has come to pass.” Despite Rainer’s abundant use of detail and her flair for lively description, there exists in her writing a negative emotional space, which remains intentionally vague. For the most part, Rainer supplies the factual particulars, interjects an attendant psychological implication, and leaves it at that. Yet the emotional fallout of her personal dramas, of which there are many, is often left to give itself shape in the reader’s mind.

Rainer delineates her own chronology using concise, spliced anecdotes to reinforce points pertinent to her later work. For example, she neatly joins an early experience of radicality with loser status in tracing post–World War II childhood normalcy: “At the bottom of the pecking order, perhaps at first due to my crossed eyes and pronounced lisp, I was the outsider, the scapegoat, the compensatory clown, the object of ridicule, and the one who supplied her tormentors with the weapons of her own destruction. I told them I had been born in the toilet; I told them I didn’t believe in God; I told them we were anarchists and my parents had been vegetarians; I told them my father was a World War I draft dodger.” The significant structure of this relationship, as Rainer presents it, is one of being observed and judged, while simultaneously assuming a directorial position in regard to her peers. In offering up ammunition for her tormentors/audience to use, she effectively redirects her complicity, making them pawns in her own minidrama.

Another example concerns her youthful exposure to a variety of films, including Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, which she “devoured,” seeing it four times in one week during the summer of 1950, when she was fifteen years old. “This recasting of the Orpheus myth in modern dress,” she recalls, “opened a door to possibilities of imagination that, unbeknownst to me, marked a new chapter in my internal image archive. I was swept away by the dissolving mirrors and abrupt transitions from sun-drenched everyday life to the slow-motion agonizing of the turbid underworld.” The precedent of undermining, circumventing, or collapsing a viewer’s relationship to a historical drama by replacing theatrical costumes with contemporary clothing (or by adapting mundane objects of contemporary urban life, such as Cocteau’s use of a rearview mirror for Orpheus to catch a parting glimpse of Eurydice in the underworld) makes its way into Rainer’s performative work years later.

In Being Watched, Lambert-Beatty’s defines a set of “seeing difficulties” (“When ‘seeing’ is taken as a verb and ‘difficulties’ as its object, the phrase describes not a type of difficulty but a critical approach: the seeing of problems”) against which Rainer’s practice of the ’60s is examined. Lambert-Beatty’s insightful study becomes an extended rumination on what Rainer herself referred to as her “seeing” difficulty in relation to Trio A, the 1966 work that Wood calls “a kind of backbone to Rainer’s dance practice.” (The artist refers to it affectionately as “my old war horse.”) According to Rainer, “Trio A dealt with the ‘seeing’ difficulty by dint of its continual and unremitting revelation of gestural detail that did not repeat itself, thereby focusing on the fact that the material could not easily be encompassed.” And if dealing with material that cannot easily be encompassed is, in some sense, Rainer’s bread and butter, reading Lambert-Beatty in conjunction with Feelings Are Facts allows for an interesting understanding of how the personal and emotional details of Rainer’s life in the period were folded into her work. The artist recalls that “in the 1960s the nuts and bolts of emotional life shaped the unseen (or should I say ‘unseemly’?) underbelly of high U.S. Minimalism. While we aspired to the lofty and cerebral plane of a quotidian materiality, our unconscious lives unraveled with an intensity and melodrama that inversely matched their absence in the boxes, beams, jogging, and standing still of our austere . . . creations.” Such statements by the artist not only resonate in relation to the obvious dichotomy between the personal and the professional but also begin to explain how she uses autobiography as a medium. In other words, the negative emotional space of Rainer’s life is encompassed by her ongoing drive to examine the nuance of the quotidian. She has stated, “Autobiography, as I use it, is a rich source of material, and like all material, can be manipulated: fragmented, redistributed, magnified, analyzed, juxtaposed.”

Wood’s examination of The Mind Is a Muscle, Rainer’s 1968 masterwork of visual, spatial, and temporal layering, takes a broader approach, examining how the artist’s relationship to the cultural and social politics of the mid-to-late-’60s counterculture played a part in the work’s development. The Mind Is a Muscle was an evening-length work composed in eight sections (the first being Trio A), with musical and other auditory interludes; it used a wide variety of props, including mattresses, swings, photographs, and film. As Wood notes, “Coming toward the end of a decade that had witnessed such rich experimentation in dance for Rainer and her peers, it presented perhaps the fullest singular summation of her choreographic project to date.” For Wood, notions of democracy—as it relates to group dynamics, collaborative production, and the impulse toward the improvisational—place The Mind Is a Muscle at the center of the conceptual shift that occurred in the course of the ’60s: from Rainer’s reconsideration of dance’s formal conventions within the context of Minimalist reduction and abstraction to an expansive and dynamic sociopolitical attitude.

Working a more theoretical angle, Lambert-Beatty builds her discussion of “seeing difficulties” on the idea of “problems that might always have been a part of experiencing art, but which at particular times, in particular places, become newly problematic—and thus newly productive for artistic work.” In the case of Rainer and her Judson peers, issues that had always been factors in the production of time-based work—“ephemerality, presence, movement memory, documentation, attention, mediation, durational experience, involvement of the viewer”—took on a particular resonance in the early ’60s. The cultural, social, political, and theoretical concerns that felt most pressing contributed to an environment in which features of the medium that would otherwise have been seen as simply inherent to it—the reduction of dance to a set of formally abstract movements in order to question the value of theatrical posturing, or the suspicion that traditional narrative techniques didn’t work in the newly emerging age of television—were suddenly brought into relief in such a way as to make them significant roads of inquiry in and of themselves. Lambert-Beatty traces the means by which Rainer shifted dance (and sculpture and painting) away from modernism’s emotive theatricality into the inquiry-based, theoretically informed critique that would become the emergent postmodern moment. At the core of these developments, Lambert-Beatty identifies Rainer’s consistently dialectical approach to problems of spectatorship and reception aesthetics. This is the historical moment in which audience reception becomes as important as any initiating intention: “Spectatorial multitasking, submission to particular temporal patterns, objectification of bodies, and above all dialectics of distance and mediation: all of these are aspects of life in a media culture, and all structure Rainer’s work with bodies being watched.”

Lambert-Beatty’s goal is to present Rainer in all her dialectical complexity. In order to do this, she must take into account interpretations by Rainer’s earlier critics, who often characterized the artist’s accomplishments as a set of reductions: taking the theatrical tropes out of dance and codifying a new vocabulary of quotidian movement (running, climbing stairs, moving awkward objects). Working from this body of writing, Lambert-Beatty reincorporates open-ended difficulties, such as form (issues of temporality, including the “problem” of viewing simultaneity), politics (Rainer’s counterintuitive method in Trio A for engaging the audience by diverting the performer’s gaze), and culture (her numerous experiments with disseminating information through photographs and her own and others’ films). This synthesis permits a discussion of the intricate influences and inflections Rainer sought out. As the author states, Rainer’s work “has helped me see problems in art spectatorship as neither reflections of established ways of seeing nor resistant alternatives, but quite something else: as indicators of cultural fault lines, in this case those related to the body in a social field increasingly constituted through the exchange of images.”

According to Lambert-Beatty’s reading, engagement with her audience was always Rainer’s goal, but her terms of engagement included particular directorial boundaries. Rainer did not want the inclusiveness of Happenings; she did not want the audience to have unexpected, psychologically jarring events foisted on them. So although she was altering the rules of observation, she was not interested in changing the essential conditions of the viewer-performer agreement. This, in fact, was a common feature among the Judson group. As Lambert-Beatty asserts, “displaying the moving body for you, without any attempt to seduce or affirm you, does not remove dance from the condition of exhibition, after all. It reduces the performance situation to the fact of display.” This observation identifies a certain pragmatism in Rainer’s method: Rainer was under no illusion that performing everyday tasks in front of an audience was an everyday activity. The performer is always performing. The dancer is always self-conscious. The audience is always watching, conjecturing, and being critical. While Rainer and the Judson group were determined to radically alter viewers’ understanding of the performance medium, they maintained a clear commitment to being the producers of the product under discussion.

And so we come to perhaps the most striking feature of this material: Over the course of almost fifty years, through a lifetime of remarkable experiences, and with an exceptional intellectual intensity, there remains an aspect of Rainer’s approach that relies on an essential pragmatism. By closely examining the basic premises of her crafts—the movement of the body in dance, the construction of narrative in film—Rainer keeps her work grounded in the facts, in what she referred to in a 1972 Artforum interview as “the concrete kind of problem-solving that the word choreography encompasses.” Rainer’s gift, however focused on the tangible, retains a flair for the dramatic, while simultaneously allowing for a particular detached, bemused viewing and a distillation of the intellectual, creative, and political climate of the ’60s.

In a 1972 Village Voice review, the filmmaker Jonas Mekas, while writing about the opposing tensions that suffuse and define Rainer’s work, insightfully describes the artist’s gift. Rather than looking for balance, she strives for flexibility: “The evening, for me, became a meditation on the cliché, on melodrama, on memory, on feelings, on language. . . . Yes, it was a very personal piece about certain areas of experience that are not touched too often by artists because they are very difficult to tackle, formally. This content can be caught only by a certain kind of form, a form that is very very dangerous, a form that can collapse on you any moment, leaving you with a pile of nothing. A form that needs a certain kind of fusion of the utmost rigidity and the utmost openness, and this kind of openness has always been one of the peculiar gifts of Yvonne’s genius.”

Catherine Morris is an independent curator and adjunct curator of contemporary art at the Philbrook Museum, Tulsa, OK. She most recently organized “Decoys, Complexes, and Triggers: Feminism and Land Art in the 1970s” for SculptureCenter, New York, and “9 Evenings Reconsidered: Art, Theatre, and Engineering, 1966” for the MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, MA.

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