On the occasion of the European tour of Yvonne Rainer's latest performance The Concept of Dust, or How do you look when there's nothing left to move? Performa curator Charles Aubin sat down with the choreographer to discuss the work and hear more about her thoughts on the pervasive presence of dance in museums. The interview is published in parts in the French magazine Art Press; you will find it here in its entirety.
CA: Let’s start with the beginning. The title of your new piece was initially The Concept of Dust, to which you added or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move? Would you please explain what’s behind this title?
YR: The Concept of Dust, of course, refers to mortality and aging, which has been, though not exactly a theme, perhaps a subtext of my recent work now that I’m 80 years old. The second part of the title is a riff on Ad Reinhardt’s title for a series of drawings called How do you look when there’s nothing left to see? In his case it’s not at all ambiguous. I mean because it’s clear who and what are being referred to: the person who’s looking and the work itself, the paintings which are so dark and difficult to see. But when that gets transposed to the context of performance, it’s much more ambiguous. How do you look when there’s nothing left to move? refers to the body of the aging dancer and also to the audience. Not only how does a spectator look at such work but what do “you” as a dancer look like.
CA: I’d like to hear more about this “subtext,” perhaps in regards to your beautiful text The Aching Body in Dance . In it you write: “I love to exist on stage. I no longer dance.” Could you elaborate a bit on it?
YR: Well, that again has a double meaning in so far as the post modern dance context assumes every action, every move on the stage or in the performing area can be called dance. Walking, running, etc… standing still. But in a strict sense I no longer make much movement from my own body. I mostly read from printed texts. I do a lot of reading.
CA: You also do some crawling on all fours in this work.
YR: Yes, I crawl on all fours. I even attempt, sometimes, to do what the other dancers are doing but usually give it up halfway through. I like performing, I like being looked at in this situation where spectators are looking at my work and my work includes me doing whatever I am able to do now.
CA: And what about the other part in the text in which you talk about attending farewells to dance as a young dancer in 1950s New York, it’s not time for a farewell to dance, right?
YR: No, no. I’m still making dances, one way or another. I think you are referring to Isadora Duncan’s last foster daughter’s “Farewell to Dance,” which she performed 5 or 6 years running. I do not know how close I am to that, although I certainly think about it. Meanwhile this current dance is getting invited here and there, so I go with the flow.
CA: How would you describe this return to dance?
YR: Well. I’ve been immersed in it for the last 15 years. When I returned after 25 years of filmmaking it felt as though I was “coming home” because I am so much more comfortable working with dancers than working with film people, cinematographers and laboratories, production assistants and the whole paraphernalia that goes with making feature films. I was never comfortable in that situation. I call myself a “techno dummy.” I never mastered the subtleties of lighting and exposure and all that stuff.
CA: Do you think about these subtleties when you produce dance, for instance light?
YR: No. I don’t. I work with a lighting designer, Les Dickert. I leave it up to him. He knows my taste, that I don’t like much atmosphere, I like a fairly bright stage and so he designs accordingly. In this particular dance, I have jettisoned props pretty much. For instance, even a few years ago, with ROS Indexical, which was an homage to The Rite of Spring, I had signs with words on them descending from the flies. It was horrendous to travel around with these big tubes of material. So I pretty much eliminated accouterments like sets and décor and all that. All I need is three chairs and one pillow for this dance.
CA: And music! More precisely, The Sinking of the Titanic by Gavin Bryars is played during the performance and it’s poignant, which surprised me. I felt that what you were looking for with Bryars’s piece was pure emotion transmitted to the audience, whereas to me, your use of music previously had a more contradictory role. For instance with We Shall Run (1963), which was restaged at Danspace Project: in it, your use of Berlioz’s requiem had a clear sense of irony. Am I right?
YR: Yes. My use of music in the past had to do with, as you say, contradiction and irony. In We Shall Run the contrast between the grandiosity of the music and the simplicity of the movement is the principal idea. “Dust” is unusual for me in that its music has so much resonance and emotionality, also reference to a specific event. We recognize the electronically altered theme as Nearer My God To Thee, which is supposedly what the musicians played on the deck of the Titanic as the ship was going down. So, yes, I accepted that this piece of music would color the whole dance because the dance itself is so fragmented and unpredictable with the dancers having options about what they do, being able to stand aside, to make spontaneous decisions. So there’s that contrast, the consistency and integrity, let’s say, of the music and the constant breaking up of the movement. You’re right, there’s no irony here.
CA: It also made me think of your A Manifesto Reconsidered from 2008 in which to the statement “No to moving or being moved” you answered with “unavoidable.” I thought of Beckett’s Krapps’ Last Tape and this idea of talking to a previous self. Do you talk to the Yvonne from the 60s? Is that something that is in your mind when you produce new works?
YR: Constantly! You know, when you make work for so many years, in a way you’re always testing what you used to do and being critical of it at the same time. The past carries a kind of baggage that sometimes is useful to me. I call it “raiding my icebox.” It means going into your closet of old knickknacks and discovering little things that have new potential. The icebox contains notebooks, descriptions of movement, drawings, and photos, mostly from the 60s. Much of the work back then was not recorded or filmed. We were not thinking of the future. Trio A is an exception, one of the few survivors from that time. One’s baggage is both lodestone and potential resource. Depending on the particular components and needs of the moment, it’s useful or not.
CA: The night I attended the performance you provided us with handouts featuring a text on “value” and live performances in museums. I’d love to hear you elaborate on this especially with your 1970 Continuous Project – Altered Daily, which was presented at the Whitney in a gallery setting. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts about that now that we see a renewal of choreographers being invited to present their works in exhibition spaces.
YR: There are two parts to that: the history of museums and performance, especially dance, and the back-story of my use of a painting from the museum collection. In 1970-71 Steve Weil, a curator at the Whitney Museum, organized a series of music and dance events. Meredith Monk, Trisha Brown, Phil Glass, Deborah Hay, and others were participants. My Continuous Project – Altered Daily was part of that series. It was no big deal. I mean, it just seemed like a natural place to present work, with its big galleries and moveable walls. I don’t even remember what we were paid, if at all! MoMA was also presenting dance in its garden. And then, for some reason, it all stopped. I could be wrong, but after Weil left, no one took up the baton at the Whitney. Now we have an entirely different situation, with curators of performance and media and the attendant awakening of performance and dance artists to an awareness of rights and demands replacing their previous feelings of being flattered to be included in the art world. Dancers need sprung floors, for instance, and a nearby dressing room would be nice! Despite Roberta Smith’s dismissive reference in the New York Times to the “performance besotted MoMA,” I have to congratulate the efforts of the institutions in the last ten years to accommodate the needs of choreographers. Things aren’t perfect, but they’re moving along.
For my recent MoMA show I borrowed Henri Rousseau’s Sleeping Gipsy. The back-story to that is that Ralph Lemon invited me to do something as part of his yearlong series of exhibitions, talks, and performances around the theme of value. I suggested going to sleep under the Sleeping Gipsy in the gallery in which it was shown. I intended to take a sleeping pill and sleep for 6 hours on a mat. Unbeknownst to me – because I had been living in California – I was not aware that Tilda Swinton had done exactly that, not under a painting but in a glass cage. The curators and I began to discuss whether this might not be the right thing to do at this time, that my performance might be compared in a negative way with hers. I had also decided to have a handout available that would deal with the relative value of this priceless object and my aging dancer’s body. I wanted this one page statement to be on a music stand besides the painting and my sleeping figure. Meanwhile I googled Tilda Swinton at MoMA and discovered an image of her asleep in a glass cage with spectators pressing their noses up against the glass. And I thought “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Who is going to read my handout? My “act” would just be another exhibitionistic stunt, subject to the voyeurism of the passing crowd. And so we agreed to withdraw it. Then Ana Janevski, a curator of performance at MoMA, suggested that I find a way to include the painting in The Concept of Dust, which was already being planned. And so that’s how the painting got into the dance. Rather than me sleeping under a painting, the painting became a moving object that is ever so slowly rolled by two professional art handlers across the upstage space, finally to disappear. So that’s one story, my most recent experience of dancing in a museum.
CA: In the early correspondence we had about this new performance you talked a lot about the Metropolitan Museum and its Islamic wing as a possible destination for the piece or at least something in your mind when you started conceiving the work? Then you premiered it at MoMA with a work dear to you, Rousseau’s painting, and now the performance will be presented at the Louvre. What does it mean for you to be operating in a museum?
YR: There are two considerations. The actual painting and the reading of wall inscriptions from the Islamic Wing at the Met were two totally separate ideas for me and came into the work at different times. But then I realized that that figure in Rousseau’s painting is probably a Muslim and was painted at the height of French expansionism in Africa. Furthermore, though it may be dangerous to compare them to current struggles in the Middle East, the readings dealing with ancient Islamic dynasties, upheavals, cultures, and power struggles, etc. are timely in reminding us that these histories are absent from most western education. The venue of the museum as an educational institution, then, is very appropriate.
CA: More specifically regarding your use of “radical juxtapositions,” a system in which arbitrary combinations are sought between text and dance, what do you look for with this chance process?
YR: Well, this comes directly from John Cage and Merce Cunningham’s use of various aleatory methods for creating unpredictable continuities or discontinuities. I am an heir to these ideas. In fact, my very first dances, Three Satie Spoons and Satie For Two, used chance operations. After applying these methods I had absorbed the idea of discontinuity to such an extent that I no longer needed an actual chance procedure, like throwing dice or coins or overlaying charts and drawings. So continuity versus discontinuity continues to be an intuitive operating principle. I mean it comes from urban life: walking down the street and the sounds that you hear… discordant and loud, homeless people, clothing, signs, shopping, – you’re assaulted by all kinds of visual and aural phenomena, including conversations in your own head. I think “radical juxtaposition,” a Susan Sontag term, is much more apparent in my films than in my dances and is one reason I made the transition in the mid 70s. Film offered a wealth of narrative conventions waiting to be subverted and undermined. Strategies for producing identification and alienation in the same shot; filmic editing methods for drawing the audience in and then pushing them away; changing the point of view unexpectedly. In dance one would have to work very hard to achieve comparable effects. Not that I try, necessarily, to achieve such effects, but the tendency and desire are still lurking in my approach to choreography.
CA: And what about the system you created for your dancers, which allows them to start or stop dance phrases and even leave them, can you tell us more about it?
YR: Yes, I can describe the overall method in The Concept of Dust. There is what we call “the Core:” the first 7 to 8 minutes consists of a unison configuration that contains almost all the movements in the dance and at the end of that they disperse to either do solos – they have been assigned solos that are derived from different sources, some from the limits of my current ways of moving in an improvisatory way – or initiate one of five segments of the Core hoping that others will join. The Core contains bits of dance from all kinds of sources, from Jacques Tati to Buster Keaton to movie actors to fragments from my 60s dances to descriptions of dance by the likes of Alistair Macaulay in the New York Times. So the Core is divided into five separate parts. Each of these sections can be initiated by any dancer at any time, but if no one joins her or him, then they have to go on to something else. In other words the core segments can only be done in unison by a minimum of two people. And if you’re tired or you don’t know what to do next there are various ways to travel that are in the Core or in their solos. You go to the side and observe. I’m asking them to make choreographic decisions in terms of space and time. Is the playing field too busy? Is nothing happening? Sometimes hardly anything is happening. Then I’m another infiltrator or initiator, I go to one of them with a microphone and a text and have them read. I interrupt what they’re doing… or they can intervene by lowering someone on a pillow or let’s say one person has initiated one core segment and another has initiated another. They can infiltrate – do them at the same time. I’m surprised there aren’t more collisions.
CA: How did it go over in the course of the several performances?
YR: I didn’t notice any collisions.. You can sit in one of the three chairs when you’re tired. You might say it’s a vehicle for aging dancers who maybe can’t sustain the kind of energy they once did. And I move in and out. I run or walk; I give myself permission. I hope I’m not upstaging anybody. I sometimes crawl on all fours.
CA: I imagine it also comes from your dancers and their awareness of each other. You’ve been working with them for a while now, you created a strong cohesion within the group, there’s a sense of a family, or of special relationships between them?
YR: Can you see that it’s different from other dance companies you’ve observed?
CA: Well, I feel like you give more space to them to be themselves and to express their various personalities and aptitudes. As opposed to…if we want to be radical: Cunningham, for instance. Although his dancers had been dancing with him for years the work mostly dealt with a kind of evenness between the dancers.
YR: You know this was not the case in his early company, where they were very very different in terms of personality. It seems that individual differences have become more uniform, as the work became more difficult toward the end of Merce’s career, with his use of the Life Forms program, the online program by means of which he made devilishly difficult movement. There was this sense of urgency and technical mastery that kind of smoothed away individual differences. Now, in The Concept of Dust at MoMA one thing that set up this feeling of both differences and, as you say, maybe “family” is when the audience is coming in and I allow them to warm up, talk, behave in an utterly casual manner in the performance area. So you see them talking… I am wandering around, I’m talking to the pianist. So there is an introduction into the dynamics within the group.
CA: How did you gather this group?
YR: Pat Catterson, the oldest, took a workshop with me in 1969 and she does her own work. She performed in some of my early work in the 60s and early 70s. The newest one is David (Thomson) – the big tall guy; Emily Coates has been with me since 2002. I met her while working with Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project after she had danced with the New York City Ballet. She delivered her baby on one of our performance nights so I anticipated that and hired David. Let’s see, Keith (Sabado) and Manou (Emmanuèle Phuon) also came from White Oak. I met them in 2000-2002. Patricia Hoffbauer learned a solo of mine – Three Seascapes – in the late 90s and has been with me ever since. She also is active as a choreographer. In fact, Emily, Manou, and David also make dances. So, that’s the story. I feel very fortunate to be able to work with such a talented and devoted group.
Born in 1934 in San Francisco, Yvonne Rainer grew up in a family immersed in radical politics. Age 21, she moved to New York City where she was introduced to modern dance at the Martha Graham School. Rainer choreographed her first piece, Three Satie Spoons (1960-61), while attending a workshop at the Merce Cunningham Studio, combining the musical structure of Satie’s Gymnopédies No. 3 and John Cage’s aleatory score for Fontana Mix. Between 1962 and 64, she was a key member of the informal group known as the Judson Dance Theater along with dancers and visual artists Trisha Brown, Robert Morris, Steve Paxton, and Robert Rauschenberg. There, she explored the use of banal, everyday actions in order to expand or challenge the conventions of dance and draw attention to the material properties of the body in motion, devoid of psychological and narrative attributes. Her 1965 No Manifesto, urging for a stripped-down, anti-spectacular aesthetics, was epitomized in the most visible signature of her career, Trio A (1966). In 1970 Rainer formed The Grand Union with Brown and Paxton, along with Douglas Dunn and David Gordon. Established on an egalitarian basis, the collective explored immediacy in dance and challenged conventional notions of authorship by foregrounding improvisation. At the same time, Rainer gradually transitioned to film. In her cinematographic work (7 feature films between 1972 and 1996), she played with disjunctions and montage, incorporating past dance performances, narrative content, texts, and photographs. In 2000, upon an invitation from Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rainer returned to dance, devising her first new piece in 25 years. In her 6 productions since then, Rainer has combined postures and movements from performance history (Sarah Bernhardt, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring), popular culture (Groucho Marx, Robin Williams), sporting events, and Keynesian economics to create fast-paced, witty, and thought-provoking dances.
Charles Aubin is a curator at Performa, New York, and Fondation Galeries Lafayette, Paris.