BY Andrew Durbin in Interviews | 12 NOV 19

Yvonne Rainer on Reviving an Iconic Work of the 1960s for Performa 19

Speaking to frieze editor Andrew Durbin, Rainer discusses the way she resists the myths of the 1960s

BY Andrew Durbin in Interviews | 12 NOV 19

On a recent autumn morning, I spoke with Yvonne Rainer at a small diner near the George Washington Bridge, in uptown Manhattan. She was on her way to rehearsals for a revival of Parts of Some Sextets, a dance she premiered in 1965 at the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, USA, with a cast of ten performers. In that original run, which later travelled to Judson Memorial Church in New York, Lucinda Childs, Judith Dunn, Sally Gross, Deborah Hay, Tony Holder, Robert Morris, Steve Paxton, Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Schlichter and Rainer herself danced among stacks of mattresses, while performing a set number of 31 ‘pedestrian movements’: ‘sitting’, ‘standing’, ‘running through’, ‘race walk’. For their pre-recorded soundtrack, Rainer read excerpts from an early American diary by a pastor from Salem, Massachusetts. Now, for Performa 19, Rainer has reconstructed Parts – in collaboration with dancer and choreographer Emily Coates – at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center in Brooklyn, USA. We discussed the way she resists the myths of the 1960s, and the necessary interventions to ready a nearly 50-year-old work for 2019.

Yvonne Rainer, 2014. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Daniel Assayag

Andrew Durbin: You’re reviving Parts of Some Sextets (1965/2019). Why did you choose this particular dance to revisit?

Yvonne Rainer: I didn’t choose it. The choreographer Emily Coates, who dances with me, saw a photograph of the final moment of Parts in ‘Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, last year. In it, a few of us are perched on a mattress. She asked her three-year-old daughter, Eula, ‘Which one is Yvonne?’ Eula pointed to me, from 50 years earlier. Of course, Emily knew about the piece, and she got me to agree to reconstruct it with her. She went to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, where my archive is housed, and dug up traces of the original performance. There wasn’t much documentation of it – only my notebooks, a few photographs and a short essay by me. I remembered very little, but there’s half of a score, with a timeline and the initials of the people who originally danced, as well as descriptions of what they do at 30-second intervals, for about 45 minutes. In 1965, it took more than two months with people meeting two to three times a week. That would be impossible today. But things were different then.

AD: We’re living in a moment when so many museums, writers and artists are thinking about New York dance in the 1960s. What’s been your experience of reflecting on your own role in that period, through a piece like Parts?

YR: Originally, I was a performer in it, and I never stood outside to direct it. The performers consulted the score. But as a director, it’s been quite revelatory to me. ‘Oh, is this what we did?’ [laughs] I’m tweaking it, even where we have the score.

Yvonne Rainer, Parts of Some Sextets, 2019, Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center. Performa commission. Courtesy: Performa; photograph: © Paula Court

AD: Did making films change the way you direct dance?

YR: Not really. There are strategies and attitudes that I carried into film, and then back into dance again. It might be encapsulated by Susan Sontag’s term ‘radical juxtaposition’, from her 1962 essay ‘Happenings’. Seemingly incommensurate things clashing in language or actions. For instance, I’m very interested in unison movement, but unison applied to idiosyncratic gestures. So that they don’t become individualistic or merely eccentric, they are formalized through unison – this is a a consistent ploy. In my films, a subtitle will appear with an image that doesn’t go with it. You’re always dealing with separate things at the same time. In this dance, the field changes while you listen to me reading excerpts from The Diary of William Bentley (1793 – 1802), a minister who recorded life in Salem, Massachusetts. I recently found the original recording of me, actually. It had been stored in Robert Rauschenberg’s basement. Two days before the last rehearsal, someone called me and said they found this box labeled with my name on it. Sure enough, the tape was in there.

AD: What attracted you to the mattresses, which the performers use throughout Parts?

YR: The mattress is unwieldy and at the same time laden with references to sleep, dreams, illness, death, birth. It was redolent with so much meaning. When I was working on dance in the early ’60s, I was very interested in daily tasks and effort – visible effort. Ballet eradicates effort; everything should look as if the dancer is at ease. But in Parts a dancer lifting or crawling under a mattress is a whole other spectacle, especially if a woman is involved.

Yvonne Rainer, Parts of Some Sextets, 2019, Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center. Performa commission. Courtesy: Performa; photograph: © Paula Court

AD: I know that Alain Robbe-Grillet’s ideas about the ‘new novel’ were on your mind as you worked on the dance in ’65.

YR: He was on a lot of people’s minds. He challenged 19th-century romanticism and narrative conventions; dry description interested him.

AD: There’s a misconception that the new novel is only interested in objectivity and exacting depictions of reality. He complained about this in The Paris Review in 1986, arguing that his work’s ‘scientific eye’ looks more at imagination than reality. I’m thinking about his clarification in relation to your own use of pedestrian movements, and maybe some misconceptions around your ‘realism’. Dance – your dance – is a space of imagination; gestures from daily life are a starting point.

YR: I was never a purist. There are the mattresses, with all those meanings and associations, and pedestrian and trained movement, all of which require varying degrees of strength, technique, and finesse. Combining all these elements, I entered a very rich groove. And Parts incorporates these other influences – Robbe-Grillet, John Cage, sculpture. 

Yvonne Rainer, Parts of Some Sextets, 2019, Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center. Performa commission. Courtesy: Performa; photograph: © Paula Court

AD: I think of you as someone who resists myths while also being interested in how they are constructed. How do you resist mythmaking now, where there’s so much romance about New York in the ’60s and Judson Dance Theater?

YR: I’ve spent two years working on a rant, where I impersonate Apollo. He comes down to earth and tries to change things but runs into the social and political messes in this country. Even in my current dance work, even in this ‘mattress monster’, I have inserted my current concerns into the recording of the diary. Using my current voice, I revile our president in a series of ad hominem attacks. “Fucking asshole”, “spineless schmuck”, etc. There are about ten of them. They’re out of nowhere, and out of context – another radical juxtaposition. I know such ploys are always on the brink of not working, but by this late stage of my career, they are a kind of trademark.

Parts of Some Sextets is a Performa Commission for the Performa 19 Biennial and runs 15 November to 17 November at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center, 29 Jay Street, Brooklyn, New York, USA. Tickets are available for purchase here:

Main image: Yvonne Rainer, Parts of Some Sextets, 2019, Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center. Performa commission. Courtesy: Performa; photograph: © Paula Court

Andrew Durbin is the editor-in-chief of frieze. His book The Wonderful World That Almost Was is forthcoming from FSG in 2025.