June 24, 2012

yvonne Rainer at dia:beacon

I dreamed of bodies burning at the edges
When I awoke my belly was cold as an abandoned stove
The streets were cleared, trees bent
The air so still, as though just inhaled
When I noticed it was spring
Yvonne Rainer, 1977
I often wonder what Rainer thinks of the arts establishment. Her work historically juts against the very notion of concert dance. As someone who began studying dance at a later age than most (she was in her 20’s when she found herself at the Graham and Cunningham studios), her determination to dissect the conventionality within theatrical presentation has always intrigued me. Her early experiments in form combined elements of loosely structured improvisations as well as variations on themes involving props and mixed media which always challenged a multiplex of sensory experiences for the spectator. Yet, at Ms. Rainer’s concert at Dia:Becon on May 13 2012, the rather traditional presentation raised an important question for me: since her conventional use of the proscenium stage planted in the middle of an avant-garde museum was obviously an intentional decision, how did this effect the content presented and why did she use the space so conventionally? 

The program consisted of several reconstructed works: We Shall Run (1963), Trio A (1966), and Chair/Pillow (1969). She also presented a newer work, Assisted Living: Good Sports 2 (2011). Each piece contained motifs that recur in Ms. Rainer’s work: walking/running/jogging steps in simple geometrical patterns, the cluster or group of dancers that appear stuck in a grid-like spatial structure, the questioning of ego within dance and performance through the actions (or non-actions) of the dancers. As I watched each dance, these motifs represented Yvonne’s observations of social human nature.

    In We Shall Run, the dancers walk onto the stage and assemble into a vertical line. Facing the center, they stand readily. They are breathing, waiting, anticipating, getting ready for nearly half of the dance. And then--- they jog. Rainer, known for her subtle traces of wit, uses the blank disposition of her dancers faces to simulate the stoic modern dance aesthetic. The dance is a perfect example of her use of simple movement (jogging) and spatial patterns which seem to explore the nature of the herd. Humans are animals, it is sometimes easy to forget that. As the dancers jog as a tightly organized group, they appear as sheep; all blank faced and apathetic but certainly ready. They do not exude any particular emotion; they just fuel the hamster wheel. Occasionally, a dancer will break away but always returns. The nature of the hamster wheel, dancers running, on display for our enjoyment in the center of the museum space, seemed highly charged. In a body of work that is traditionally anti-bourgeois, it seems so silly to have such a dance on the proscenium stage; however, I think that is the point. The context of the dance is changed from spatial construction to social implications. Did the audience seek pleasure in watching the dancers stuck on the conveyor belt?

Trio A contains the language that perhaps codifies the heart of her artistic vision. I think of this dance, originally performed as a solo within the larger work, The Mind is a Muscle (1968), as the grail within her body of work. Trio A has been performed in a myriad of styles, contexts, and variations over the past thirty-four years. The choices made for this performance were a bit hard for me to follow as a viewer. The cast included students from Sarah Lawrence College. While they all performed the material well, the subtle gestural patterns were lost. The most notable thing Rainer did here was use the canon to create some performative tension within the piece. I did not connect to this dance within this space. It was not radical as it was when presented throughout the first few decades of its existence. Ultimately, the structural composition felt incongruent with the simplicity of the phrase work. 

Her work generally loses its potency when it is presented as classical modern dances. This is not to imply that Ms. Rainer’s work is not deserving of such presentation but rather that her work is most interesting when presented alternatively. I wanted to see dancers spread throughout the museum, underneath the beautiful frosted windows that overlook the Hudson; I wanted to hear their tennis shoes and barefeet brushing against the wood-floor. Because Yvonne’s movement is so strikingly pedestrian, so strikingly Yvonne, I wanted to feel the intimacy and connection to the dancers within that space.It would have been a very different concert if there was no marley, no lighting, no designated performance space. If the dancers entered and exited almost undetectably, wearing plain clothes and sneakers (as they did), with the audience standing around them, that would have made so much more sense within the work. It would have felt like 1966 (not that we have to replicate that feeling but I imagine seeing the work then possessed a kinetic charge that was not present at this performance). Much of Trio A got lost in the context of this formal presentation. 

So why, then, did she fail to provide us with the intimacy and connection? Why did she stick to the conventionality she so inherently breaks away from? Her work, which always appears honest and questioning even in the most subtlest of ways, is inevitably highly conscious work. I cannot possibly for a second imagine that she did not question the use of the space she was presenting. Could it be that Ms. Rainer was suggesting the audience consider our roles in this production? As a passive viewer sitting on the risers, watching the presentation as though a movie screen, how active of a view was I? Was I the same as the dancers in the hamster wheel running in We Shall Run and later replicated in Assisted Living: Good Sports 2

As I meditated on the lawn after the performance, I thought of the archival footage of Trio A I have watched on many occasions. The beautiful agency of Ms. Rainer’s simple body moving on the studio wood floor. That simple poetry, while lost in this production, is so inherent in her work that I felt it on the grass above the Hudson.

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