Moves that Bear Repeating
Raven Row, London
July 11–August 10, 2014
It’s a summer day. I’m in London, sitting on a gallery bench, with a few minutes to spare before one of four scheduled daily performances of Yvonne Rainer’s Dance Works. People are tentatively hanging out, not quite committing to the benches, which form a few rows on one side of the gallery. The rest of the large space is empty. There’s quite a bit of movement as people adopt positions leaning on the stair rails down into the gallery (so they can make a quick exit, if they wish), or scoot up on the benches to make more room for the indecisive. It’s a polite negotiation of the politics of the space. From this press a few people extricate themselves and make their way out in front of the audience. These are the dancers.
Yvonne Rainer’s choreographic style eschews virtuosity, spectacle, or narrative. So, as the dancers emerge from the clusters of people in the gallery, nothing marks them as performers. No make-up. Definitely no ballet tights. No dance shoes. Flat street shoes—trainers and Doc Martens. A mix of baggy pants, tight jeans, floral shorts, strappy vests, and t-shirts form the costumes. Young people with chin-length, tied-up, under-cut, short, and long hair. As scruffy a mix of style and clothes as you’ll find if you hang out with college students anywhere.
The first dance, Diagonal (1963), commences without me really noticing. There’s no music, and it takes a little while to make sense of it. The dancers transition diagonally back and forth across the gallery. In unison, they set off each time using a different mode of movement, for example, walking, running, walking on hands and feet. Before they set off, one performer calls out a word—a number or letter or combination of the two. As I watch, it becomes clear this word is the name of a movement. The styles of movement expand to include elaborate or playful gestures: run-run-leap, lifting up the central dancer into the air, scratching an ear or puffing cheeks up while walking with stiff legs wide apart, and a kind of back-clutching stagger. (I later hear that this last gesture is a quotation from Godard’s film Breathless, when Jean-Luc Belmondo is shot in the back and staggers down the street, dying.) It’s like watching a game and trying to work out the rules. The patterns change around: not all the dancers make it across the space and some dancers peel off, creating new patterns in the diagonal movement. They break up, unify, disperse, all to the rhythm of the dancers’ own verbal instructions.
Diagonal dissolves into three dancers performing Trio A (1966). This most famous of Rainer’s choreographic pieces is considered a pioneering post-modern dance work. A video on the Internet shows a single dancer, Rainer herself, performing a series of non-narrative movements and making no eye contact with the audience. I’ve watched it several times, but, of course, there’s an enormous difference between seeing the work as a grainy black-and-white video and experiencing it in the midst of live bodies.1 The immediacy of the live performance allowed me to perceive more clearly Rainer’s formal rebellions against dance conventions such as motifs (repeated actions). In traditional choreography, movements or gestures may repeat or be linked together to make a distinctive pattern within a movement phrase, and repetition of movement is often paired with repetition in music, mirroring the chorus or verse structure. If we think of the structural repetition in dance as akin to poetry, then Trio A is prose.
Performed in silence, Trio A offers no sense of crescendo or dynamic shift in tempo. Because of this uniformity of movement and energy over the course of the dance, one cannot distinguish one movement as more significant than another, because none is highlighted by the intensity of the action. Arms sway with bent knees, arms lift out to the sides and circle, the movement morphs into a run, which becomes a leg lift, into floor touch. Can you see? Like a recital of a shopping lists or car registrations, the movements feel like non-sequiturs. Action follows action.
I sense the disavowal of conventions in almost an uncanny way. It is as though I do not consciously recognise them but rather intuit what’s missing by feeling the affect of not being looked at by the performers. The dancers are autonomous. They move without music, and without seeking our approval. It feels strange to be ignored, particularly in the front row, in close proximity to the action. I typically enjoy seeing dancers look out at the audience, reassuring me of their subjectivities. In Trio A, that affirming connection is refused—these bodies are not moving around in ways I expect or for my benefit. Recalling the piece later, I wonder if, by withholding the returned gaze, the dancers become art objects. A question permeated my experience of the Dance Works: Is this Art without the qualifier “Dance”?
Foot pads, head twirls, bend down, curl, stand-up, tip-toe taps, jutting head, swirling arms, flick out kick, controlled fall, pull up to standing, hop-jump, hands flip up, flip down, run-run, wobble from side to side. My clunky attempts to articulate movement in language illustrate the disconnect between the two. Words struggle to carry the meaning of the body: the body has its own language. Body and spoken language run parallel in Talking Solo (1963). A single performer, a young man, speaks and moves at the same time, without the words or actions relating to one another. He recites in first person a nonsensical remembrance of a grandfather who is presented as grand or is remembered grandly, though from this recollection it sounds as though he was a fraud. While I watched, I was trying to work out if it was the performer’s or Rainer’s memory. It took some digging around later to find out the story was written by Spencer Holst. The words are accompanied by body movements that include isolated actions, such as sitting down, lying down, getting up, balancing on one leg. An absurd juxtaposition occurs when a head-jutting motion is paired with the incongruous family fable; an outburst of audience laughter results.
Rainer began her career as a dancer and, in the early sixties, was a key collaborator in the Judson Dance Theatre. This group included artists, sculptors, and non-dancers and is famous for seeding a generation of original practitioners. Rainer in particular began to use writing to extend the scope of her movement works. In an essay entitled “A Quasi Survey of Some ‘Minimalist’ Tendencies in the Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity midst the Plethora, or an Analysis of Trio A,” she analyzes her own work and positions it more broadly, beyond dance, in an expanded field of visual arts practices.2 In an examination of minimalist sculpture in relation to dance works, Rainer lists equivalents between “objects” and “dances,” for example “monumentality/the virtuosic movement feat and the fully extended body.”3 As Rainer’s words from the same essay, quoted in the Dance Works pamphlet, remind me, “Dance is hard to see.”4 Dance is ephemeral and fleeting. It challenges any historicizing fixity. As I watch the dances at Raven Row, it’s difficult to remember that these are historical, ground-shifting works that belong to another time. The kinetic action, the bodies in front of me, dislocate me from their inception in the sixties. Diagonal and Talking Solo are from Terrain (1963); Trio A and Chair Pillow date to 1966 and 1969, respectively. In the seventies, Rainer transitioned into filmmaking, and she has only recently returned to dance. In Talking Solo I notice a foreshadowing of film techniques: the performer embodies the voiceover, causing me to speculate about interiority and narrative while the movement’s arbitrary sequences and juxtapositions evoke ideas of montage and editing. Rainer’s dances require an audience in front of the action, to sit in one position. The camera lens and the film screen have similar demands.
The final dance presented in the program is Chair Pillow. The room fills with dancers, each with a folding chair and a pillow. And music! The piece is accompanied by Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High.” On the beat, the dancers perform a sequence of movements, somewhat like a physical tongue-twister. They sit on the pillow on the chair, swing out their legs, get up, lift up and drop the pillow, lunge out, turn, plié, stretch up, bend over with pillows pressed between chest and thighs, stand up dropping the pillow, sit on the chair, bend over pressing the tops of their heads into the pillow, bring the pillow up, throw to the side, jump down onto the pillow, lean onto the chair, clap one hand onto the other, clap the floor, sit back onto the chair, clap their thighs and hands, bend over spreading their hands between their legs, step over the pillow holding the chair and back again, walk around the chair, and step up onto the chair. Or something approximating this sequence. It’s repeated three times in unison save one lone dancer, who sits the sequence out until another dancer enters the gallery space and becomes the lone still dancer. The gestures of Chair Pillow do not interpret or intersect with the lyrics of the song; the words and actions pursue their own trajectories, in effect abstracting each other. Watching it is joyful and hilarious. Although Rainer has explicitly written “no to virtuosity” in her No Manifesto,5 this dance relies on honed dance-memory to produce the necessary synchronicity, hence virtuosity.
Archival material in other rooms in Raven Row’s townhouse gallery complemented the dance program. Photographs, film documentation, notes, and an audio recording of an early performative lecture provided context by showing Rainer’s process of making and reflecting on dance works. Included were drafts of “objects and dances,” which opens her essay “A Quasi Survey of Some ‘Minimalist’ Tendencies.” After watching the performances, I was not drawn to these collateral materials, because their historicizing argument paled in comparison to my experience of the live dances.
Crucially, this show, in particular the live dance program, poses questions about the passage of time. Rainer’s moves are being repeated more than fifty years after they were created. The re-performance of choreographed dances is necessarily connected to repetition, even if the dances internally refuse conventionally repetitive motifs. What does historical repetition do to the radicality of these dances. Why now? And why here, in a gallery?
Dance Works joins three major museum exhibitions of Rainer’s work in recent years: the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, in 2014; Museum Ludwig, Cologne, in 2012; and Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria, 2012. But Raven Row alone presented live performances. If recent museum shows canonize Rainer, the London show positions Rainer’s work as contemporary and relevant, and as “art” without qualification. In part this is because of the work’s context. The non-profit Raven Row, which opened in 2009, has established a track record of shows that challenge and extend the contemporary art conversation. This framing in the contemporary moment echoes and reinforces Rainer’s own earlier positioning of her work within the discourse of visual art practices. Additionally, the live performances of Dance Works locate Rainer outside of a dance-historical continuum, just as synchronic speech operates beyond diachronic language. In the live encounter, the rebellion and resistance of convention endure and are palpable, for example, the device of the dancers performing without looking at the audience is incredibly powerful. If Rainer was, in the sixties, resisting balletic beauty, amongst other things, then today the device speaks even louder in our media-saturated context, which inundates us with beautiful bodies on display for our consumption.
Seeing the work within a gallery prompted me to understand these works as something more than dance. The performers’ bodies become abstract artworks that demand critical thought and negotiation on the part of the audience. What kind of agency do bodies as art objects have? Bodies as art objects can resist the imperatives of other bodies; in the case of Rainer’s works, they do not have to be compliant and do not have to acquiesce to audience desires. Crucially, these artworks did not offer a relational component. As I watched, not only did these bodies in action not accommodate me, I was ignored. The dancers negotiated the performance with each other, but they did not facilitate the audience experience. This felt like an exciting rupture from our everyday experiences within a consumer economy where needs and desires are commonly fulfilled and administered to us, the paying customer. Today, the virtuosity that Rainer earlier eschewed feels like an important mechanism in understanding these bodies as autonomous, not here to service our desires.
Dance Works presented powerful, autonomous, abstract, virtuoso, body artwork objects. Doesn’t that sound like radical art?
Alison J Carr is an artist based in England. She completed her MFA at CalArts and her PhD at Sheffield Hallam University.
- Yvonne Rainer, Trio A (The Mind Is a Muscle, Part I), 1966; viewable at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDHy_nh2Cno.↵
- Yvonne Rainer, “A Quasi Survey of Some ‘Minimalist’ Tendencies in the Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity midst the Plethora, or and Analysis of Trio A” (1966), in Minimal Art: A Critical Survey, ed. Gregory Battock (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996 ), 263–73.↵
- Ibid., 263.↵
- Ibid., 271.↵
- Yvonne Rainer, “Some Retrospective Notes on a Dance for 10 People and 12 Mattresses Called ‘Parts of Some Sextets,’ Performed at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, and Judson Memorial Church, New York in March 1965,” The Tulane Drama Review 10, no. 2 (1965); extract printed in Documents in Contemporary Art: Dance, ed. by André Lepecki (London: Whitechapel and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 48.↵