BY Chrissie Iles in Interviews | 07 JUN 06
Featured in
Issue 100

Life Class

An interview with Yvonne Rainer, one of the most influential artists of the past 40 years.

BY Chrissie Iles in Interviews | 07 JUN 06

Dancer, choreographer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer was one of the founders of Judson Dance Theatre in 1962. In the early 1960s she trained with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham and collaborated with dancers Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, David Gordon and Lucinda Childs. Seminal works include Trio A (1966) and Continuous Project – Altered Daily (1970). Rainer has also completed seven films including Lives of Performers (1972), Film About a Woman Who … (1974), The Man Who Envied Women (1985) and Privilege (1990). She returned to dance after a 25 year break with After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (2002). Her memoir Feelings Are Facts: A Life is published in June 2006 by MIT Press.

Chrissie Iles: Yvonne, you were brought up in San Francisco by anarchist parents. How did the atmosphere of radicalism that characterized San Francisco since the 19th century affect the development of your approach to dance and art?

Yvonne Rainer: My father was Italian. At 20 he came to San Francisco where he met my mother in a raw food dining room; they were drawn to each other by their radicalism. By the time my brother and I came along in the early 1930s there were annual picnics in the Italian anarchist community and by the 1950s a mix of New York anarchists, poets and artists had gravitated to San Francisco. In my teens I was indoctrinated in anarchist thought and had no aspiration to be an artist until my early 20s. I met Al Held, followed him to New York and studied acting. Then I stumbled into a dance class and that was it.

CI Who did you study with in New York?

YR I started studying dance with Edith Stephen and then for a year with Martha Graham and Anna Halprin but between 1960 and 1968 I studied with Merce Cunningham, although I was never in his company. I also studied and performed with James Wearing who did very abstract austere dances, a la Cunningham, and also very campy vaudevillian type extravaganzas.

CI You also attended performances in Yoko Ono’s loft of the group she and La Monte Young put together. Were the cross-disciplinary events that were going on outside dance, such as happenings in the late 1950s and early 1960s important to you?

YR The early 1960s was a very fertile time for intermingling of avant-garde activity in all the arts, primarily through the influence of John Cage; his writings about chance and Zen and silence affected painting, sculpture, dance and performance. Some of this activity took place in Yoko Ono’s loft between 1960 and ‘61. Also at the Ruben Gallery and the Judson Church Gallery artists like Robert Whitman, Claes Oldenburg and Allan Kaprow presented their work.

CI Anna Halprin seems to be a crucial figure at this point.

YR She was very conscious of what Cage was doing in music and was using some of these ideas in her teaching. I attended a workshop in the summer of 1960, which was partly taught by La Monte Young. I composed a score for screen door, flashlight and dancer. Anna’s teaching and performances were radical but she always had a theatrical flair and in her workshops you might run around carrying an object; she was very influential on me. On the West Coast she was a pivotal figure and still is. Her own dancing is quite phenomenal; at the age of 83 she’s still running around.

CI So poetry, text and experimental film were influential in your performance and film work later on?

YR There weren’t specific film influences, although I certainly followed avant-garde film from the early 1950s when I first saw Maya Deren’s films. I wasn’t so interested in narrative as a dancer, although at first I told stories while I danced but one of the reasons I began to think about making films was that narrative via Hollywood had been under-utilized in avant-garde film; I also wanted to deal with my own ageing body, autobiography and specific emotional content.

CI In New York in the early 1960s a cross-over emerged between dance, sculpture, film, performance and happenings. In this environment, did you think of yourself as a dancer or as something else?

YR I thought of myself as a dancer who was challenging the boundaries that had been established by Martha Graham and other American matriarchs who had been so innovative in the previous half of the century. I thought of myself much more as a dancer than, say, Simone Forti, whose use of pedestrian movement was a big influence on me. In May 1961 she presented an evening of dance constructions at Yoko Ono’s loft that involved simple actions with constructions like a slanted platform, tilted at 45 degrees, attached to the wall; the dancers navigated on it by use of ropes. Bob Morris and I performed on a seesaw; there was a wooden box that she lay under, bouncing a ball.

CI Was that the first time you met Simone Forti?

YR I met her at the Graham School through a friend from San Francisco, Nancy Meehan, who is still dancing and choreographing. CI And when did you meet Trisha Brown? YR In the Halprin Workshop in 1960 in San Francisco, in Marin County where Anna still lives and conducts her workshops.

CI At that time, breakthroughs were occurring in art. Were you aware of the parallel developments taking place in the work of Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin in New York?

YR Absolutely, I went to all the openings at the Green gallery and Minimalism was the rising aesthetic of course. But even before that in 1957 or ‘58 I saw Robert Rauschenberg’s show where the goat with the tyre was first exhibited and I all but rolled on the floor with the revelation of it. I was very attuned to all of these breakthroughs; I like to say there was ground to be broken and we were standing on it.

CI And those artists were, likewise, very influenced by you. Judd even named his daughter Rainer after you.

YR Yeah; it was a very febrile, exhilarating time for everyone.

CI How did you come to make the important book, Work 1961- 73, which was published in 1974 by the Nova Scotia Press?

YR This book and others in the series were the brain children of Kasper König who was the editor of the series.

CI König is now the director of the Ludwig Museum in Cologne. Was he working in Nova Scotia then?

YR Yes. I first met him in New York and he proposed this series of books by and about artists like Dan Graham, Claus Oldenburg and Steve Reich. Simone Forti’s Handbook in Motion (1974) was another. I went up to Nova Scotia in 1973 and assembled writings and met with König every day. It was really a collaboration.

CI The relationship between art and dance at this time is epitomized in your text ‘The Mind is a Muscle’ (1966), which was published in Minimalism: A Critical Anthology which was edited by Gregory Battcock and first published in 1968.

YR I wanted to show parallels and differences in thinking about objects and time and space, or time and activity. A key is the idea that the artist’s hand has been replaced by factory fabrication. The phrasing in dance suggests that in terms of tradition, musical phrasing, accents and dealing with a given set of movements or a development of movement in time are substituted by energy, equality and found movement. In traditional ballet no one ever walks as they walk in the street; in my early performances, I was criticized for doing this. What came to be known as reductivism and minimalism were simply a way of challenging all these notions of what constituted art. Cage was key here. In his piece 4’33” where David Tudor sat at the piano for that length of time and you started listening to what was going on around it introduced a whole new way of teaching and of looking at the world. As Cage says, it was so beautiful if you just paid attention to it.

CI I’ve watched you teach an NYU workshop where a group of young dancers sit in a chair and perform everyday actions. None of the students had your fluidity and naturalness.

YR The paradox is that it’s impossible to behave in an everyday fashion when 100 eyes are upon you. In 1962 a critic said of us ‘why are they so hell bent on just being themselves?’ I am discovering this all over again in this present dance, AG Indexical, With a Little Help from H.M. (2005) which is based on George Balanchine’s Agon of 1957. It has three post-modern choreographers, two of them have studied ballet, one has not. The ballet trained dancer performs my dance entirely en pointe. There is a point where the others have to circle around her before a big partnering section, originally performed by one man and one woman and now performed by three partnering women who manipulate the limbs of the ballerina. I said ‘behave as you do in the subway when you want to look at someone, but you have to look out the corner of your eye, and then you avert your glance as soon as their gaze meets yours’. This kind of studied behaviour is best exemplified in a classic postmodern dance by Steve Paxton, first performed in 1967, called Satisfying Lover that involves him feeding 42 people who came on in ones, two and threes with specific instructions about how far to walk and to stand for a certain amount of counts and then they exited. It was at though you had never seen ordinary people walk across a space. It was a highly revelatory.

CI You have described your work as post-Minimalist to counter Minimalism’s anti-metaphorical strategies.

YR I never wanted to be confined to a single aesthetic. In my early solos I was drawing on many different resources and references from the pedestrian to idiosyncratic choreographed movement.

CI Were you working from a Feminist perspective?

YR The re-emergence of the woman’s movement didn’t occur till the late 1960s and it wasn’t until 1971 that I picked up on this. As I wasn’t politically active I didn’t feel entitled to call myself a Feminist. This gave people the impression I was anti-Feminist which was not true.

CI At one point in Parts of Some Sextets (1965) you sat on a pile of mattresses and in Discreteness (1966) you used panels and pieces of wood that looks like a large installation. Could you talk about how your use of props veered between almost formalist protest based sculpture and props?

YR I was interested in finding ways in which effort could be made evident or not. I assembled various objects and among them was a mattress from the previous year. Parts of Some Sextets is a dance with ten people and 12 mattresses. The act of lugging these objects around interested me. I also included different kinds of objects, from plywood panels to beams to Carl Andre’s Styrofoam beams to a piece of paper, to a 50 pound Otis elevator weight.

CI Could we talk about this specific Peter Moore photograph on page 304 of Work 1961–73. What stage of the performance are we at?

YR This must be halfway through because you can see Steve Paxton on a swing that goes up 50ft and his instructions were to let it complete its arc. At some point he is front of a close-up of Jimmy Cagney in a film called Come Fill the Cup (1951) and Cagney is crying. There was another screen composed of wooden blocks at another side of the space on which was projected a clip from a WC Fields’ film where he juggles cigar boxes. Different electronically controlled events took place while a dozen people moved objects around on the floor.

CI Carl Andre performed in this piece, didn’t he?

YR Yes, he wanted to be a part of it. All kinds of people took part.

CI Did he have an influence on the way the pieces were placed?

YR Not at all.

CI What did you think of artists such as Rauschenberg, Robert Myers, Bruce Nauman and Joan Jonas who came from different disciplines and incorporated dance into their work?

YR There was a cross-fertilisation process going on. In one happening in 1960 Patti Oldenburg did this little dance in a purple leotard with a pole and some material draped from it. It was wonderful and she certainly was not trained as a dancer. It was clear that untrained people could dance and choreograph. Alex Hay did wonderful stuff, and Carolee Schneemann and Bob Morris got into the act. I think one of his first pieces was a collaboration with Judith Dunn.

CI Was there any documentation of how everything was placed from beginning to end and how everything looked at the end?

YR Peter Moore documented it, and before he died, Billy Kluver worked for ten years on editing film footage of all the events that took place in that two week; Julie Martin, his widow, has continued this. Trio A is my best known work because it’s the only one that has survived as a film of me actually doing it. Although it was devised in 1965, it was first performed in January 1966 by Steve Paxton, David Gordon and me; the film was produced in 1978 by Sally Baines.

CI What was the evolution of Trio A?

YR Trio A is a series of moves that can be done as a solo or as a trio. Each person finds the pace that suits their anatomy and sensibility. It’s been performed by skilled and untrained people; 50 people learned it at a session at Connecticut College in 1969, it’s been done to the song ‘In the Midnight Hour’ by the Chambers Brothers, and in the nude with American flags to protest the Vietnam War. For a version at the Getty Museum, a spectator ran around trying to keep the primary dancers’ gaze in view, or meet the gaze of the dancer.

CI When was the first time film appears in your work?

YR Hand Film was made in 1966 when I had surgery. This foreshadowed my exit from dancing over the next few years. I had a friend film my fingers moving seductively in bed. This became a projection in The Mind is a Muscle. For The Mind is a Muscle, none of the dance team is accompanied by music and the lecture at the end was me doing Trio A in tap shoes. So it was the reprise of Trio A with all the sounds that the tap shoes made and with a solid wooden type grid descending for 30 seconds and ascending into the flies. You could hear the tap shoes and the sound of the slats and then the wide grid descended, from which you could see the performers and me dancing. A lot of my moves were based on the relation between the décor and music. We didn’t wear costumes or have artist-designed décor. The only flamboyant décor that appeared came down for 30 seconds and then went away again.

CI Could you talk about the use of Hollywood soundtracks and popular music in your films?

YR It was anti-Minimalism. We were all listening to rock and roll. I used stills from the shower scene in Psycho in a film about a woman in 1974. I was very conscious of Hollywood and by the time I got into film I was able more fully to make these references.

CI How did Continuous Project – Altered Daily (1970), come about?

YR I began to work on a new dance and had seen Robert Morris’ Continuous Project – Altered Daily (1969), which comprised a pile of dirt and objects such as an electrical cord, pieces of metal, grass and rope. Everyday Morris rearranged the objects and dirt, so I conceived of a dance that would also metamorphose.

CI How did Annette Michelson, whose is involved in film and writing, Hollis Frampton, who is also from film, and Richard Foreman, who is from theatre become involved in Continuous Project?

YR They were friends of mine. They read excerpts from early film actresses and directors about their work, and from the book by Kevin Brownlow on silent film, The Parade’s Gone By (1968).

CI Your growing interest in films started to emerge even more clearly in This is the Story of a Woman Who … (1973) which prefigured Film About a Woman Who … (1974).

YR That was following my first film, Lives of Performers in 1972. I made a performance called Performance that same year and some of the material from that went into Lives of Performers. I’m always recycling or destroying work and reconstituting it in new ways. A recent example is the dance I made for Mikhail Baryshnikov in 2000. I had the rehearsals and performance videotaped and then cut it all up to make a video that had a totally different subject matter and the dance portions functioned as historical avant-garde and fictional characters. I was already thinking about a new work as I was making the dance.

CI Your film Line (1969) reminds me of Richard Serra’s film Three Frame Studies (1969).

YR Line was shown at the Paula Cooper Gallery around 1970 and then it wasn’t shown again until you showed it. A round object travels in the lower left corner to the upper right, very slowly, and a blond woman dressed in white comes in and makes some rather seductive moves towards the camera and writes and smiles. I first saw it at a private screening at Deborah Hayes’ loft on Greene Street, but I was stoned and sitting next to Richard Serra and we laughed our heads off. I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen.

CI Your first full-length feature, Lives of Performers from 1972 is a series of 35 tableaux vivants that are re-enactments of production stills from the Louise Brooks’ film, Pandora’s Box including Lulu’s roles as vaudeville star, fugitive and victim of Jack the Ripper.

YR Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box was one inspiration. I created a solo work for Valda Setterfield, who was one of Cunningham’s dancers, that was meant to go into this film. It was shot during a rehearsal of the dance concert at the Whitney Museum. The other performers in the film had all studied with me. I taught dance in my loft to dancers and non-dancers from about 1968. Valda was the only professional. I was interested in dealing with melodramatic subject matter and romantic narrative without using professional actors. I kept all narrative elements separate from each other. What is most unorthodox about the film from a mainstream point of view, is that there is no sync sound – it was all dubbed and assigned pages of the script to the performers themselves, who refer to each other in the third person.

CI And did that lead directly to This is a Story of a Woman Who …

YR Yes. I remember telling Babette Mangolte I wanted to make a film about a woman, which was This is the Story of a Woman Who …, which led to Film about a Woman Who … . This is the Story … was live. Babette had already shot the sequence of the girl in bed, which went into the final film in 1974. It took a while to write and raise money so meanwhile I assembled the mixed media, performance projected text, projected images and some of my old solos. Trio A was performed and Three Satie Spoons (1961) which was my first solo to the music of Eric Satie. Shirley Soffer, the other performer in Lives of Performers, was the narrator. It dealt with emotional, sexual and autobiographical material and began with a vacuum cleaner dance called Inner Appearances in which these projected texts appeared while I vacuumed.

CI Certain techniques that you used result in a kind of discontinuity and disjunction that is translated into film.

YR In the live performance the dance is introduced by projected text which reads ‘He Looks at Her Dance’. Urdman sits in the audience and watches me dance. In the film, there’s also an inter-title: ‘Fernando watches Valda’s solo’. Suddenly she’s dancing in a totally different space and there’s no audience. Then’s there’s a cut to Fernando leaning against the wall of my loft and Valda talking to him.

CI How did narrative text come to be so important in your work?

YR It was an expedient alternative to using actors. The narrative and psychology was in the printed text or in the voice-over; my performers didn’t have to pretend to be anybody but who they were.

CI Did you write the texts that are not specifically quotes from, for example, WC Fields?

YR Yes, I wrote pretty much all of it, in those early films.

CI After Film About a Woman Who … you really made the transition into narrative film.

YR In the mid 1970s I was interested in dealing with social and political issues, which included Feminism and ecological concerns. But it took me until 1985 to use professional actors. In Journeys from Berlin/1971 (1980), the main character is Annette Michelson who is not a professional actor.

CI How did you come to make Journeys from Berlin/1971?

YR I had a DAAD Fellowship from 1976 to ’77. I was living in West Berlin for a year during the Baader-Meinhof commotions. In 1976 Ulrike Meinhof was found hanging in her cell and the following year Andreas Baader and his cohorts were found dead. So I began to research it. I assembled a montage of scenes relating to the history of political violence, beginning with the pre-Russian Revolutionary women anarchists, nihilists, and culminating in the Baader-Meinhof.

CI What was the reaction to it when it was screened at the Berlin Film Festival in 1981?

YR Some people found my relation to Baader-Meinhof ambiguous, because there was a debate about whether they were murdered or not. I think they committed suicide as a political act but I don’t come down on one side or the other. Some people took me to task for that. Maoists called me a combat liberal. I was very careful; it was not a proselytising, rabble-rousing film. I could have examined US groups like the Weathermen but I was focused on German postwar politics and my own anarchist past, Russian nihilists and women.

CI The radicality and political violence that occurred in Germany at that time was part of the anxiety that fascism could return. Didn’t Baader-Meinhof first target a right-wing ex-Nazi businessman?

YR Yes. The impetus for the rise of that movement was the fact that ex-Nazis were in the Government and that is made clear in the film.

CI Could you talk about your transition to longer films such as The Man Who Envied Women in 1985 when you returned from Berlin?

YR It came out of the contradictions I perceived between the politics and personal lives of many left-wing intellectuals. I created a character of a Marxist academic who is also a philanderer played by two different actors. Another influence was the 1975 essay by Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema’, in which she examines how women are portrayed in a certain period of Hollywood films. I took her thesis literally and removed the physical presence of the main female character so there was no possibility of relating to her as a sexual object.

CI What were your specific influences at this time? 

YR Hollis Frampton’s use of text in Poetic Justice (1972), Michael Snow, Warhol’s use of the long take and static camera; Robert Bresson I also related to but I didn’t appreciate Jean Luc Godard, except for Two or Three Things I Know about Her (1966) and Contempt (1963). I couldn’t watch his early films – I find his sexism objectionable.

CI And Privilege in 1990 was another shift …

YR Privilege has two points of departure. One is the discussion at the end of The Man Who Envied Women where the characters quote extensively from Michel Foucault and the Australian feminist, Meghan Morris. Also, I put unexpected language in the mouth of, for instance, the femme fatale who, in Hollywood films was never allowed a voice, to analyse her predicament, and in the mouths of Puerto Rican and black workers. I am indebted to Godard for that. Privilege was based on an experience I had in 1959 when I lived in a building on a Puerto Rican block which was mainly inhabited by whites. I had a lesbian neighbour who was assaulted by a Puerto Rican guy. I called the police and subsequently had an affair with the Assistant DA. I wrote a script based on this, about a middle-aged woman who is the subject of a documentary about menopause and has a flash back about an experience she had when she was in her 20s. It allowed me to explore issues of ageing, menopause, sexual identity and race.

CI How did you your last feature film, Murder and Murder in 1996 come about?

YR Through getting involved with a female lover and fictionalising it in a script. I knew from the beginning that it would probably be my last film, partly because I had gotten all the big grants that I would ever get. Also, I felt the personas were now as complete as I wanted them to be. The next film would have been a Spike Lee film or something, and I’m just not interested in that route.

CI What relationship do you have to documentation of your work?

YR It is essential to me, especially when I was making After Many Summers Dies the Swan in 2000. I was assisted by Pat Catterson; we pieced together a dance from fragments of documentation, mainly from Work 1961–73. So I am indebted to these documentations.

CI What do you think when you see representations of your early pieces that are taking place now? There’s Talking Solo, The Chair Pillow from Continuous Project - Altered Daily in 2001, Inner Appearances, Slide and Pop Installation, Trio A and The Baroque Party.

YR The most successful revival was at the Getty several years ago where 12 dancers from the UCLA Dance Department did Resale 1, Patricia Hoffbauer did The Seascapes and Sally Silver learned Three Satie Spoons. And Pat Catterson still knows Trio A backwards and forwards. These are the pieces that can be reconstructed with exactitude so that is very gratifying to me.

CI What about your most recent piece that’s currently on at the Dance Theatre Workshop?

YR It’s a reworking, of the Balanchine/Stravinsky Add-on of 1957 but I insert my own stuff from early solos into it. So you can recognise my work or Balanchine’s work at any point.

CI In this new piece we think about you and Simone Forti, Tricia Brown, Lucinda Childs and, of course, Steve Paxton. How do you feel about this group who has sustained your practices over such a long period and created a completely new language for dance?

YR David Gordon as well. There is something so powerful about that period that launched all of us into working and continuing working. I’m the only one of them who left dance for so long. Deborah Hay is another one who’s doing amazing work now. I don’t entirely understand why so many people could be launched so far and then regenerate themselves in all kinds of ways quite different from each other. It’s quite remarkable and I’m very proud of all of them. Chrissie Iles is Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Curator, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Chrissie Iles is Anne & Joel and Ehrenkranz Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.