Dance Commentary: Trust Art, Not Theory

By Debra Cash

A retrospective chronicles the four-decade career of radical dance giant Yvonne Rainer.

Yvonne Rainer: Radical Juxtapositions 1961-2002  at the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts in Cambridge, MA

What Rainer has been doing isn’t hard to see, as long as it isn’t theorized into academic incomprehensibility. Over time she has been called a poster girl for postmodern dance, experimental film, queer identity politics, and feminist studies, inspiring scholarly appreciation and balderdash. Both are in evidence in the exhibit “Yvonne Rainer: Radical Juxtapositions 1961-2002” at Harvard’s Carpenter Center. The curator is Sid Sachs of Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where the show debuted in 2002.

Along with Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, David Gordon, Lucinda Childs and others, Rainer argued that artists could just be themselves; it was the audience’s attention, which made a performance. An audience paying attention made an event into art because the experience generated more alert human beings. All her working life, Rainer has remained a creative disciple of experimental artist John Cage. How you approached life and art, and what you considered the salient differences between them, was the point. A woman vacuuming was as “artistic” as the soap operatic text flashing behind her figure. The juxtaposition of the two made the “art work” broader than either action in isolation.

The exhibition at Harvard is a profoundly black and white affair, made up of snapshots, grainy film, sketches torn from small-grid notebooks, cheap, handmade posters, and mimeographed programs. At the Carpenter Center, it as if the LeCorbusier cement is draining color and energy out of her oeuvre. A recording of Schonberg’s “Verklarte Nacht” ricochets its hyperbole off every corner of the gallery. When Rainer uses the music as the score for “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid,” a video installation about the Austro-Hungarian empire before WWI whose split-frame images are projected along the circumference of a white, two-person “isolation booth,” it is suitably over the top. It is not, however, an apt theme song for Rainer’s career.

But Rainer probably wouldn’t care a fig. She and her comrades were creating conceptual works in an accommodating wood-floored sanctuary at the Judson Memorial Church in New York City . What they knew back in the ’60s — and we have lost — was a sense that a certain kind of art was deemed to be “legitimate” modernism. Their “radicalism” lay in refusing to play by rules that had been made up by the dance world’s modernists just a generation or two earlier.

For example, the first photographs of Rainer dancing, from 1962 and 1963, show a thin woman crouching into an elegantly balanced oval and another of her standing with one bent leg raised to the side. These are images that could have easily been shot at a Merce Cunningham performance. That’s not surprising, as Rainer and many of the other Judson folks met at the Cunningham studio in a composition workshop led by Merce’s accompanist, Robert Dunn. Other images require wall tag translations, such as the one that explains that during the performance of “Terrain,” 50 red rubber balls were thrown, one at a time, from the church balcony.

Rainer had her oracular moments — excuse me, her “explicatory discourse.” For example, here’s how she explains the vacuum cleaner dance, 1972’s “Inner Appearances,”: “Emotions are the repressed detritus of life in the public sphere… we have become accustomed to experiencing vicariously the extremities of phatic expression.” Yeah, right. Has she ever been in a traffic jam on Rte. 93? I’ll take her word that emotional life was “the underbelly of high U.S. minimalism” — I wasn’t there. But, as Mikhail Barynikov’s reverent and illuminating reconstructions of highlights from the Judson repertoire, 2000’s “Past Forward,” demonstrated, emotion is never completely out of the picture when you’re dealing with human figures. Why else would she have responded to the comment “we can see you thinking” by cutting out little rectangles of text and pasting them on her cheeks and forehead like wayward thought balloons?

Rainer left dance and live performance in the early 1970s, saying that her political and social concerns demanded the verisimilitude of film and the familiarity of language. There are clips of her strenuously anti-narrative, anti-commercial films at the exhibit, starting with her 1972 “Lives of Performers,” which cuts its images into easily digestible bits. Rainer’s heavy duty polemics and Warholian experiments are much easier to swallow in small doses.

But what the films, and especially the 2002 “Rainer Variations” faux documentary that veteran filmmaker Charles Atlas cobbled together from interviews and raw footage from her personal archive, show is that Rainer’s mordant wit gets better as she ages. Rainer’s humor takes the form of cutting the feet out from under certainty: every expression of feeling or opinion is unreliable and equivocal. A statement may be “true,” somehow, but it may also belong to someone other than the person who seems to be speaking it. In Atlas’ film, actress Kathleen Chalfant and drag queen Richard Move complete Rainer’s “autobiographical” sentences. While Rainer has explained that she needed film images and language to make her points, she cherishes them as oil and water.

Rainer, like Cage, believed that audiences construct their own experience. The best experience I had at “Radical Juxtapositions” was watching the footage of her trying to teach her 1966 “Trio A” from “The Mind Is a Muscle” to Richard Move, who specializes in portraying Martha Graham. As Rainer, wizened and efficient in a gray sweatsuit, teaches the steps, Move-as-Martha, wearing extravagant false eyelashes and a hairstyle topped with a bun the size and shape of a bowling ball, makes each ordinary step bigger than life. When Rainer shows the other dancer a simple flung arm, Move-as Martha turns it into a heroic salute spanning the entire American frontier. It’s very, very funny, charmingly intimate, and a fabulous demonstration of the “break with previous modernism” that the Judson choreographers were attempting.

Then I walked over to watch Rainer circa 1978, in her little black cotton Chinese shoes, performing “Trio A” again. Her easy, uninflected awkwardness is revelatory. She seems to change her mind about where she’s going mid-step, balancing on one foot while the focus is on the hands finning at her sides. I’ve seen different versions of “Trio A” dozens of times, perhaps the best by Boston dancer Janet Slifka, and have seen this film, produced by the Judson era’s great historian Sally Banes, before. But in the context of “Radical Juxtapositions,” Rainer isn’t the queer intellectual some of her fans need her to be. She’s Picasso, trying to learn how to draw like a six-year-old again.

The exhibit Yvonne Rainer: Radical Juxtapositions continues at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts in Cambridge, MA through April 22, 2005. The book “Yvonne Rainer: Radical Juxtapositions, 1961-2002” serves as the exhibition catalog. Some of Rainer’s film projects are available through

Debra Cash, a Founding Contributing Writer and member of the Arts Fuse Board, is finishing The Bumblebee’s Diwan: Poems Along the Path of Spain’s Golden Age, where this poem will appear.

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