RoseLee Goldberg: For more than 25 years, from 1975 to 2000, you worked almost exclusively as a filmmaker, producing seminal works such as The Man Who Envied Women (1985) and MURDER and murder (1996). It seemed that during that period you were not choreographing or dancing at all. What changed your mind in 2000 and made you decide to return to choreography with After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (2000)?
Yvonne Rainer: Mikhail Baryshnikov called me up and invited me to make a dance for his White Oak Dance Project. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
How were the new pieces influenced by years of making film?
The new pieces were not so much influenced by my film work as by my earlier choreography. Ideas around juxtaposition of pedestrian and technical movement, incongruous use of familiar music, collage, etc.
Throughout Judson and Grand Union, you never had a company per se. Yet, in 2000 you formed a company of sorts, with four dancers, Pat Catterson, Emily Coates, Patricia Hoffbauer, and Sally Silvers who are now affectionately called “the Raindears.” How did this come about?
Pat Catterson had performed with me in the late '60s and early '70s and offered to help me assemble the White Oak piece in 1999. Sally Silvers had already learned Mat, a section of The Mind Is a Muscle, from published notes and performed it in the late '90s. I subsequently taught her Three Satie Spoons. Patricia Hoffbauer had learned and performed Three Seascapes, and I worked with Emily Coates at White Oak. All four were available and willing when Annie-B Parson invited me to make something for her Sourcing Stravinsky program at Dance Theater Workshop in 2006. In 2010 Keith Sabado and Emmanuèlle Phuon, whom I had met at White Oak, joined the group for Assisted Living: Good Sports 2.
The group functions almost as a quartet, with each performer a different instrument contributing to the overall tone and measure of your new works. Do you consider the Raindears an extension of your overall choreographic vision? Do you choreograph for each of them individually?
From the standpoint of my last dance, Assisted Living, it looks like I think of them as a single unit out of which individual limbs, gestures, tableaux and characters emerge. These days everyone learns everything, which I then tweak in various ways to create unpredictable “events.” Someone remarked that my work looks like “a wash.” I take that to mean there is no development, or climactic moments, like extended solos. It’s certainly non-narrative. No one ever leaves the performance area. If you’re not dancing you go sit on a sofa or stand in the middle and watch. And if you have a cold, you blow your nose. The magic “nowhere” of the wings is something that was excised early on in my work.
You have also recently performed in a few of your own pieces, which has been thrilling for us to watch. How does it feel for you?
I think my dancing days are over, but I love to perform, to read aloud, to watch, to exist onstage. If not actually dancing, I can still haul a mattress with the best of them. I performed Trio A for the last time a year or so ago. I could justify the inadequacy of my technique by grunting and groaning and talking about my incompetence as “a new avant-garde art form,” which of course made the audience laugh. But making a laughing stock of myself has its limits. When will I be transformed into an object of pity? I’m not waiting for that day. By the way, I saw Maria Theresa, the last surviving Isadorable, perform in the late '50s. A real curiosity.
When I invited you to do a Performa Commission for Performa 07, you utterly floored me by saying you wanted to choreograph a work for a proscenium stage. The dancers wore costumes and there was lighting and other staging design elements that I would never have associated with you or your work. Why did you decide to take such a marked departure, and what do you think the effect has been?
I was already thinking about RoS Indexical. I wanted to replicate as much of Millicent Hodson’s reconstruction of Rite of Spring – or as it was filmed in the BBC production, Riot At the Rite -- as I could, at least the trappings of theatrical presentation that characterized the original. We looked at a number of venues, and the Hudson Theater, with its red velvet curtains and proscenium arch, seemed the ideal place. I should point out that not all my early dances were performed in gymnasiums and church meeting halls. The Mind Is a Muscle was presented at the Anderson Theater on Second Avenue. I needed a way to fly swings, a grid and a reflective backdrop. A proscenium theater could provide those mechanisms.
In the '60s and '70s, with the political and social upheavals of civil rights, feminism and Vietnam raging, there was an urgency in the downtown community to make work that had a moral undertow, and that left viewers thinking hard about what they had seen. How would you describe working today as an artist, compared to that period?
Until the early '70s I pretty much kept my political activism out of my dances.
However, when Jon Hendricks, Michelle Wallace, and Faith Ringgold invited me to do something at the opening of the People’s Flag Show, a huge exhibition at Judson Church that was a protest against the prosecution of gallerist Stephen Radich for showing art that “desecrated” the American flag – I and five others performed Trio A in the nude with five-foot American flags tied around our necks. In the next few years I was active in the Art Workers’ Coalition and occasionally incorporated references to the anti-war movement into my work via slides or street actions. Today, whatever politics appears in my dances usually takes the form of texts that are read aloud, either by me or by the dancers. For me, dance per se is still about bodily abstraction, in the Cunningham tradition, even when I use source material as unlikely as Robin Williams or Steve Martin or Sarah Bernhardt. The context is always a dialogue or argument with the aesthetics and history of dance.
In the '90s, your manifestos on dance from the 1960s were picked up by a French contingency of highly intellectual dancers and critics and reframed in relation to deconstructivism. What was your response to the work of Christophe Wavelet and the Quattuor Albrecht Knust?
My first live encounter with "the Knusties" was at the Montpellier Danse Festival in the late '90s. Christophe and I had already had an extensive email exchange about Continuous Project-Altered Daily, which was the dance they wanted to reconstruct. I had also sent him many photos. In as much as the structure of "CP-AD" was very open ended -- that is, the segments of material were set, but the sequencing of the segments was indeterminate -- I was open to their playing around in their revival. Furthermore, many of the movement configurations were exactly notated in my first book, Work 1961-73. Upon arriving in Montpellier I immediately began tweaking and fine-tuning some of the combinations and was pleasantly surprised that some of the more complicated figures had been precisely reconstructed. Much was lost to memory. However, in the first performance I entered the stage to teach something that I had just recalled and even enlisted the help of Steve Paxton, who was sitting in the first row, to help me. After all, "teaching" was one of the components that had been used in the original performance at the Whitney Museum in 1971. The Knusties went on to perform the work internationally in the next ten years, with different numbers of performers. When my dancers [the Raindears] saw a version of it in Vienna a few years ago, Pat Catterson, who saw the original, was appalled, but the others were delighted. By that time I was very accepting of whatever they came up with.
In many ways your writing had as much influence as your performances. Are you working on new texts that might provide a guide to your current thinking about dance?
I haven't had time lately, but I've been thinking about the different ways in which inflated meaning is imposed on dance by the spectator or critic and by the choreographer herself. I've always thought that dance cannot sustain the weight of global, metaphysical, social, psychological meanings or fulfill the expectations of such. Other means are necessary, like language, or language as subtext or counterpoint. Dance will always baffle interpretation. This is old Sontag news, but I believe still relevant today.
RoseLee Goldberg, art historian, critic, curator and author whose book Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, first published in 1979, pioneered the study of performance art. She is the Founding Director and Curator of Performa.