On Monday, September 17, the Performa Institute and NYU Steinhardt present Why Dance in the Art World?, an exciting evening where we will explore the history and future of the visual arts’ relationship to and interest in dance. The panel discussion will include historian and author of Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet Jennifer Homans; choreographer, writer, and visual artist Ralph Lemon; MoMA PS1 curator Jenny Schlenzka; and Artforum.com editor and Artforum contributor David Velasco, moderated by Performa founding director and curator RoseLee Goldberg.
As we count down the days to this groundbreaking event, we will look back through Performa’s archives as we search for the answer to “Why Dance in the Art World?”
Today, we have Performa artist Yvonne Rainer discussing her seminal work RoS Indexical:
One day when I was growing up in the early ’60s and studying with Merce Cunningham, the late Judith Dunn—then dancing with the Cunningham Company and married to Robert Dunn, the musician and dance educator who conducted the workshop that led to the Judson Dance Theater in 1962—exclaimed, “I’m not interested in history!” I was aghast. How could an artist not be interested in history?! Everything Cunningham was doing bore the cumulative marks of his relation to modernism. Everything I had done or thought about thus far had a particular connection to some aspect of Western dance or art history, most immediately to composer John Cage’s ideas about silence, which themselves drew a direct line back to Futurist Luigi Russolo’s Art of Noise. But strangely enough, Judith’s work didn’t seem to relate to the past. Her choreography—to my eyes, at least—eluded historical references in its seemingly arbitrary originality and ingrown perversity. I perceived elements in my own choreography to be perverse in the tradition of Duchamp and Dada, hence reflective of a historical link. But Judith’s low amble with a stuffed bird in her mouth, or the motorcycle used as inscrutable décor, in her dance of the same name, seemed too private, too hermetic, while my screaming fit at the end of Three Seascapes, on the other hand, referred back to Munch, or the “syntesi” of the Futurists, or was a sock in the eye to previous modern dance proprieties. Come to think of it, maybe that motorcycle was too.
Now I find myself “embedded” (please excuse the sinister association with the U.S. invasion of Iraq) even more implacably in history—in 2006 with Balanchine’s 1957 Agon and in 2007 with Nijinsky’s scandal of 1913, The Rite of Spring. About two years ago I was in London visiting my friend Ilona Halberstadt, who, quite fortuitously, had recorded a 2005 BBC dramatization called Riot at the Rite, a fictionalization of the making of Rite of Spring. All the characters in the historical event are on view, foremost among them Igor Stravinsky, Vaslav Nijinsky, Nicholas Roerich, and Serge Diaghilev. The film culminates on that infamous night, May 29, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, with a performance by the Finnish National Ballet standing in for the Ballets Russes. The perspective cuts back and forth between the stage and the riotous audience, which is fictional here, of course, but attempting nonetheless to recreate the tumult that ensued when people first heard the music and saw the very unexpected dancing. In the cutaways from the stage, we are shown the wildly booing, hooting, catcalling spectators, dressed to the nines, fainting from the heat, and venting their outrage with the likes of “You’re taking a piss on us, Diaghilev” and “Go back to Russia!” In an otherwise corny and badly cast movie, this climactic episode is astonishing.
It was while watching this BBC film that I got the idea to make a dance using its soundtrack, with all the cacophony that intermittently engulfs the music. As it happened, RoseLee Goldberg had previously approached me about contributing to Performa 07, hoping I might present an evening-length work from 1973 called This is the story of a woman who . . . Reviving this piece was clearly impossible; in spite of the existence of a published scenario, too many things in the original evening had simply disappeared—like some of the improvisational material performed by John Erdman and me. Furthermore, I had already obtained a DVD of the BBC program from Ilona, and the four dancers with whom I’d worked the year before on a re-vision of Agon—Pat Catterson, Emily Coates, Patricia Hoffbauer, and Sally Silvers—were available and eager. With RoseLee agreeing to produce a new piece, I began to work on what would become a forty-minute dance called RoS Indexical.
Mikhail Baryshnikov, who commissioned a dance from me some years ago, recently teased me mercilessly, “What kind of avant-gardist are you? You’re dancing on the music!” In my salad days I used music—or “muciz,” as I preferred to disparage it early in my career—to accompany dance only to send it up. I once had twelve people jogging in formalized floor patterns to a grandiose section of Berlioz’s Requiem—and I’ve even called myself a “music hater” in an essay written over forty years ago. And if I did dance “on the music,” as in Chair/Pillow to Ike and Tina Turner’s River "Deep Mountain High", the simple moves were an ironic comment on the pounding beat.
So now I have to ask myself why I’m aping the serious musicality of previous choreographers whose relation to music was interdependent and predictable. And what do I think I’m doing immersing myself in these cultural glories from a bygone era at the risk of courting nostalgia and sentimentality?
Perhaps “glories” is a key word here, to be preceded by “disruptive.” Disruptive glories. Works that outraged or stunned their audiences when first performed; works that assaulted preceding notions of connoisseurship and taste; works that stepped beyond tradition and marked their creators as “deviant, outside the bounds of society”; works that have become part of a modernist canon. All of these descriptions are pertinent to Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring and, to a lesser extent, Balanchine’s Agon. To rework these dances under the aegis of my own disruptive and disjunctive sensibility is both a tribute to their historical significance and a challenge to their canonical status. My mission—which I prefer to describe as re-vision rather than reconstruction or spin-off or re-make—is complex, ambivalent at best.
“Reconstruction” was the term Millicent Hodson used for her exhaustively researched Rite of Spring that was first mounted on the Joffrey Ballet in 1987 at City Center for forty-six dancers. The question is: How do we know exactly what Nijinsky’s dance was like? In Hodson’s words: “There were undeniably curious circumstances involved in the making of Le Sacre du Printemps and the way it disappeared. . . . What happened . . . invite[s] analogy with cloak and dagger tales. Its creation was fraught with secrets—covert agreements, deceptions, reversals of fate. Its premiere was surrounded with a degree of suspense and violence never associated with ballet, before or since.” Furthermore, it wasn’t filmed. Relying on photos, drawings, and hearsay, we can be grateful for whatever legacy has survived. Given these circumstances, I must pay tribute to Hodson’s diligence and tenacity. She worked on Rite for seven years. Some of the participants originally involved were still alive. She was able to interview Marie Rambert, Nijinsky’s assistant, and study her notations. When I saw the Joffrey’s Rite in 1987, it certainly had an air of authenticity. The costumes had been carefully replicated, and the surging power of the dance matched what we have come to imagine when we listen to the music. The costumes, the turned-in feet and hunched backs all resembled photos of the original. Even after seventy-four years one could intuit what all the fuss had been about at Rite’s initial unveiling. The time-honored ethereality of the ballerina and the air-borne prowess of the classical male dancer, the tutus and white tights, had all been erased in one fell swoop, or should I say, in a relentless series of surging stoops, the dancers’ bodies bowed and invisible under baggy wooly tunics. Added to the outrage of the choreography and costumes, the Stravinsky score, with its dissonances and irregular rhythms, had been another insult to the refined tastes of the Parisian culturati.
Hodson’s Rite is a remarkable invocation, if not an exact reconstruction. Still, the questions persist. Historical memory disintegrates and reconfigures just when we think we are drawing near to the object of our scrutiny. To incorporate this instability and skepticism was part of my project here, and it was part of the fun—after all, even the Finnish National Ballet’s performance in the BBC film is mediated, modeled as it is on Hodson’s Rite while still differing in many details from the Joffrey version. So I have settled on re-vision to describe what I’m doing: a looking again, but at a long deflected remove from the 1913 original—as well as from the Hodson—bringing all these shifty matters of re-creation, remaking, reconstruction, history, and faulty memory overtly (and covertly!) into play.
Pushing Misha’s caveat to the back of my mind, I continued to work. In the first half of RoS Indexical the dancers sporadically dance on the beat, moving in and out—in a fragmented fashion—of some of the configurations from the BBC production. Where we were unable to see the stage during cutaways to the audience, I inserted my own stuff or had the dancers retreat to an overstuffed sofa that plays a larger role in the second half. In rehearsals, rather than turning to a Stravinsky orchestration available on any number of CDs, I used the BBC video for both sound and image reference. Every recording being different as to tempi and nuance, it was important that we share the same hearing difficulties as the original dancers when the unruly spectators drowned out the music. The BBC soundtrack also contained cues for my dancers in the form of specific remarks by audience members and Diaghilev. The four performers, radically different in age (early thirties to early sixties), technical finesse, and formal training, offer a challenge to dance conventions of physical uniformity and standards of virtuosity. They dance in unison like the pros that they are, but their varying degrees of difficulty and ease are at every point apparent. This disparity results from the outset in a kind of distanciation, you might say, from any notions of unity and harmony. They are not the traditional ensemble, rather a quartet of individuals who have come together to take on the formidable task of conjuring, but not assuming or appearing to reproduce, a legendary work.
RoS Indexical begins with the four dancers sitting at a small table downstage right. Three of them wear headphones. It becomes apparent that they are listening to an orchestration of Rite of Spring as they begin to hum the famous opening melody of the oboe solo (daa, da-da-da da daa, etc.). In rehearsal it was necessary for me to calm their apprehension at exposing their untrained voices to possible ridicule by telling them that being off-key was the point. In fact, I had anticipated that they would be off-key, and after hearing them I thought they were not sufficiently off-key!
The opportunity to present Stravinsky’s Rite as failed performance was also what intrigued me about using the BBC soundtrack with the audience interruptions, not only the possibility of re-seeing the work in terms of its effect on the Parisian audience, but also of retrieving Stravinsky’s masterpiece from the pantheon to which it has been relegated. As I’ve indicated above, I’ve been very aware of how my work is in a continuum of modernist and postmodernist moments of rupture. And certainly, Rite of Spring was one of those moments where the conventions of ballet and Western harmony were challenged, turned upside down. Today Nijinsky’s Rite, in any number of salvage operations, both written and staged, is a star in the pantheon of dance history, and Stravinsky’s score—partly through the notoriety of its infamous premiere—glows with the same aura of swollen myth. Bringing both dance and music down to earth from those Olympian heights seemed the right way to proceed. It is this earthiness, you might say, of both the dancing and the soundtrack of RoS that hopefully makes you deal more critically with ideas of authenticity and beauty, while the moments of untrammeled Stravinsky still create an homage. (I always like to have my cake and eat it.)
In the second half of RoS Indexical sixteen double-sided banners designed by Joel Reynolds, imprinted with thirty-two words, having dropped from the flies, dangle and twist. The words range from the emotionally charged to the banal—from “suffer,” “terror,” and “glories” to “lunch,” “sofa,” “Who? Me?” and “aargh.” My choices followed a process of elimination. I wanted to avoid the academic “history,” “tribe,” “sacrifice,” etc., with their explicit references to the pagan rituals imagined by archeologist/artist Nikolai Roerich in his collaboration with Nijinsky and Stravinsky for the original Rite. A more oblique strategy seemed called for, an ambiguous move forward and backward in time, from the emotional topicality of “terror” to the banality of “lunch,” with “decay” and “struggle” and “if not now, when?” thrown in for good measure.
The second half of RoS sends authenticity to the dogs as the choreography falls off the “muciz” bandwagon altogether and erupts with entirely new source material. The dancers enact the flamboyant gestures of Robin Williams and Sarah Bernhardt (his gleaned from an HBO special, hers from two 1911 silent films) while the cacophonous soundtrack of Riot at the Rite plays on and the central theme of Rite of Spring—the sacrifice of the virgin—is ignored. I was ecstatic to find that my dancers could so skillfully and accurately—and hilariously—embody the personae of Williams’s kinetic obscene genius and the great diva’s demonstrations of pathos and despair, enactments that depart radically from what we might think Rite of Spring was about, as displayed in the more decorous moments of the first half of RoS.
Finally, I have come to think of RoS Indexical as both pedagogy and entertainment, a kind of pedagogical vaudeville that integrates traces, analysis, and tribute. A knowledgeable spectator may have a very complex experience with the piece. It may evoke flashes of your imaginary 1913, or memories of other versions of the dance. At the least you may come away with the realization of the impossibility of an authentic template. Insofar as history is something we can neither escape nor replicate, it remains an act of imagination and will to negotiate the past. RoS Indexical may make Nijinsky and Stravinsky turn over in their graves. But then again, they may just giggle in spite of themselves.
1. Yvonne Rainer, Work 1961–73 (Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, with New York University, 1974), 110–12.
2. Millicent Hodson, Nijinsky’s Crime Against Grace (Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1996), xix.
3. Ibid., xiv.
This text was first published in the catalogue for Documenta 12 (2007).
All photos by Paula Court, courtesy of Performa.
Why Dance in the Art World? takes place tonight, Monday, September 17, at Judson Memorial Church. Join us.