Posted on October 28, 2011
In watching re-performances of ballets and modern dance pieces, it occurred to me how simple it is for the viewer to detach themselves from the original performance, without losing sight of the original choreographer behind the concept of the incorporated movements. However, in viewing re-performance in the context of a museum, it is more difficult for the viewer to recognize that what they are seeing is not the original (perhaps because the museum is so intent on capturing the experience of the original performance). Does this stem from a fear of losing sight of the artist, which the museum has distinctly restricted to a label description?
Dance, as a practice, has room to grow and be reinterpreted, since the artist is the original choreographer and the reference from which future participants interpret a work. However, with performance art acquired by a museum, there is a set date, time, and author, and thereby a definite “original.” It is this ephemeral and momentous physicality of a performance that is given so much more lenience in the dance world, while the original concept is allowed to be sustained, and breathe.
In literature, much like in performance, as soon as a concept is written, it already becomes detached from its original idea, an idea expressed by Roland Barthes in his essay “The Death of the Author” (1977). Therefore, the physical incarnation of an idea cannot truly represent its conceptual counterpart. Our culture, he says, is “so tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism” equalizes the author to his failures, and it is then that the author becomes “the past of his own [work].” Perhaps it is this pressure of living up to one’s past work that can be applied to performance artists, resulting in little room to grow.
Yvonne Rainer (born San Francisco, 1934), credited with launching the post modern dance movement and helping start Judson Church and Dance Theater, has been able to escape this aforementioned artist’s fate. Her work poses a unique case study since it is fluid, and appreciated by, audiences both in the dance world and the art world. One of her most well known pieces, Trio A, was first performed in 1966 and received unenthusiastic and very poor reviews. On January 11, 1966, New York Times critic Clive Barnes reported “the evening was nothing but the exercise of puerile egocentric minds in the futile quest of shocking the already unshockable. Poor little darlings!” According to Barnes, the whole evening was a “TOTAL disaster…Correction: Total nothingness.”
Despite unimpressive reviews, Trio A has undergone numerous re-performances and transformations since its conceptual birth in 1965, but its importance as a piece of Yvonne Rainer’s has only solidified since. It has been performed in both traditional dance spaces and traditional art spaces, like museums. Trio A, specifically, proves true iteration and continued relevance through repeated, but varied, performances since 1966.
In 1965, Rainer began to work on Trio A, constructed originally as a solo. The piece itself consists of a series of movements that appear to be fluid from one motion to the next, without any climax or predictability as in traditional dance. Rainer’s purpose in creating the piece was in accord with her drive to break from any repetition she saw common in her previous work. After six months of preparation, she taught it to dancers David Gordon and Steve Paxton. The three of them performed it as work-in-progress THE MIND IS A MUSCLE, Part I for the first time officially on January 10, 11, and 12 of 1966 in a program at the Judson Church.
Since then, Trio A has been performed under numerous names by both dancers and non-dancers alike in a variety of spaces: the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, outdoors, the Museum of Modern Art, and more. Documentation of the piece is abundant, spanning critic reviews after its first performance, video interviews with Rainer, a 1978 video recording directed by Sally Banes, and more.
An example used in William A. Real’s “Toward Guidelines for Practice in the Preservation and Documentation of Technology-Based Installation Art” (2001) serves as a good metaphor for Trio A and performance in general. He mentions the reconstruction of the Japanese Shinto temple every 20 years, a practice that allows for the “essential characteristics” of the piece to be “understood and experienced by more people.” Real also makes the claim that “aside from documentation, ‘repeat performances’ of installations are perhaps the best guarantee for survival.” The abundant re-performances of Trio A over the course of its lifetime have served as the true documentation of this piece. Rainer, having taught Trio A to both dancers and non-dancers has broadened the number of persons who are able to experience the piece first hand, whether they are a performer or a viewer. Therefore, we can see how memory has played such an important part in carrying on Trio A’s legacy.
Applying the trajectory of Rainer’s Trio A to other pieces in the art world may help elucidate the trajectory of performance art we have seen in the museum context. For example, in acquiring Tino Sehgal’s The Kiss, MoMA was not allowed to have any written or photographic documentation or contractual agreement. Perhaps Sehgal is testing the importance of the drive of memory and experience from generation to generation. An artform can only truly survive by re-performing it, i.e., through repetition.
It is hard to imagine Trio A any other way. It’s trajectory as one of Rainer’s most important pieces would be so different had it been purchased by a museum, a fate that only seems unnatural. Expressed by Tate Modern curator of contemporary art Catherine Wood, Trio A can be considered an “editioned artwork ‘taught person-to-person’ as a kind of code. Although it has been captured on video and in numerous photographs, its real transmission has been as a form of a living archive.” Despite Rainer’s drive to avoid repetition in any movements within Trio A, it is through re-performance that the piece has been able to remain relevant and reinvented from one generation to the next. Trio A has forever been, and will continue to be, a “work-in-progress.”
In many respects, Yvonne Rainer’s career from the mid ’60s to the mid ’70s can be taken as a microcosm of the major trends and preoccupations of the American avant-garde, post-WW II. In Rainer’s dance and performance work of that period can be seen the influences of the then reigning artistic doctrines, in particular the aesthetics of minimalism and the performance ideas of John Cage. And like many of her contemporaries, Rainer branched out from dance into multi-media performance in the late ’60s incorporating short, minimalist-influenced films into these performances. This aligned Rainer with the general tendency toward artistic mixing that characterized happenings, new theater, expanded cinema, and conceptual art of the late ’60s. By the early ’70s, however, it became apparent that, for Rainer, this period of multi-media performance was only a brief interlude between a career as a choreographer and a career as a filmmaker. Like so many other avant-garde artists of the period (including Andy Warhol, Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, Tony Conrad, and Carolee Schneeman), Rainer found in film a means to expand the artistic interests she had developed in another medium.
In 1972, Rainer made her first feature-length film, Lives of Performers, in which elements from several of her earlier dance pieces and performances were taken up and reworked. Since then, Rainer increasingly became known primarily as a filmmaker, even though her film work continued to explore issues that first emerged in her dances and performances of the ’60s and early ’70s.
Her film work saw a development away from an explicitly minimalist performance aesthetic to explorations of character and social relations in a narrative form. Specifically, Rainer’s body of film work is an ongoing examination of the politics of the personal—identity, physical and emotional health, and interpersonal relationships both platonic and romantic—and the possibility of representing these concerns in narrative form. This development toward narrative is seen as representative of a broader shift in the history of avant-garde cinema, from which a new form of experimental film, dubbed “the New Talkie” by Annette Michelson, emerged. Noël Carroll argues that the narrative turn evident in Lives of Performers
…prophesizes a shift from the dominance of structural film, with its commitment to minimalist aesthetics, to a re-engagement with life – the lives of performers – which, perforce, involves a return to narrative and emotion, subjects excluded from the minimalist program in favor of pure artistic, formal, and perceptual research. (Carroll, 3)
The New Talkie, the story goes, is not merely the return of narrative to experimental film but an interrogation of narrative informed by post-structuralist, psychoanalytic, and feminist theory that had come to prominence in the humanities at the time. While experimental filmmaking during the ’60s had been informed by developments in the avant-garde art world (particularly minimalist and conceptual art), in the ’70s, the key source became politically-engaged post-structuralist and psychoanalytic theory. That body of theory in turn provided the vocabulary for the interpretation of the New Talkies.
Rainer’s feature films, particularly her most famous work, Film About a Woman Who… (1974), have been read as examples of a feminist film practice informed by theoretical writings like Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” By this interpretation, Rainer’s films explore gender relationships while simultaneously interrogating the ways that those relationships have been represented in commercial narrative film, thus critiquing patriarchal society’s oppression of women and a formal structure (narrative) implicated in that oppression, as according to feminist theory. Scott MacDonald, for instance, claims that Film About a Woman Who… “confronts the cinematic oppression represented by the male gaze.” (MacDonald, 157)
Here, then, is the reigning account of Rainer’s transition from minimalist performance to narrative film, and her renewed interest in what might be called the “human element”: that it was part of a general shift in experimental film during that period, the rise of the New Talkie. Which leads to the notion that her film work can be ‘read’ according to that body of theory – continental literary and film theory – which informed these new experimental films.
My sense, however, is that this account does not adequately address the complicated tangle of issues involved in Rainer’s transition from minimalist dance to New Talkie film. By the same token, they oversimplify the narrative turn in avant-garde film in general. Like Carroll’s, these previous accounts suggest a rupture in avant-garde film history where they ought to look for continuity. The standard story sees the era of structural film fading out as a new era, characterized by completely different concerns and entirely new influences, “takes over.” I hope to nuance this broad and highly schematic view of experimental film history, taking Rainer as a case study of an artist whose work as a New Talkie filmmaker was directly influenced by the artistic milieu of the ’60s. In order to do this, I will look at the transitional period in Rainer’s career, during which she moved toward both film and narrative. It is during this period that we can see most clearly how the ideals of the ’60s avant-garde provided the ground upon which Rainer explored new concerns. These new concerns would be taken up by other artists—contemporaries of Rainer—and by the continental theorists.
Although Rainer’s career as a feature filmmaker began in 1972 with Lives of Performers, that film, and her subsequent films, cannot be properly understood without also examining the live multi-media performances she was making around the same time. From 1970 to ’74, Rainer’s film and performance endeavors overlapped, and each subsequent work referred to and recycled material from the previous ones. These include the performances Continuous Project – Altered Daily (1970), Grand Union Dreams (1971), Performance at the Whitney (also 1971), and This is the story of a woman who… (1973), and the films Lives of Performers and Film About a Woman Who… (dated 1972-74).
As Peggy Phelan has recently noted, much existing scholarship on Rainer addresses either her minimalist dance of the mid-’60s or her post-1972 filmmaking career. (Phelan, 3) The result is that the complexities of Rainer’s transitional period have remained under-researched. What many other accounts of Rainer’s work do not address is that Rainer’s interest in narrative and her transition to filmmaking developed dialectically, as responses to crises she perceived in her work as a performer/choreographer within the context of the ’60s avant-garde. Rainer’s increasing interest in the representation of social concerns, human relationships, and emotions, as explored through narrative, developed out of her dance and performance work and against the major artistic preoccupations of the decade. The issues involved in this development attended her move into film. Through this work, she intuited a number of the major ideas of post-structuralist and feminist theory. This theory, which she seems to have discovered in the mid-’70s, provided her with a vocabulary that allowed her to express many of the concerns she had already been dealing with for nearly a decade.
Thus, while it is right to claim a connection between continental theory and Rainer’s practice, it is important to recognize the extent to which that theory articulated ideas that had already emerged in Rainer’s dances, multi-media performances, and early feature films. Moreover, we should realize that in many cases the feminist interpretations of Rainer’s films as critiques of patriarchy fail to recognize some of the complexities of Rainer’s approach to social issues such as gender relations, a shortcoming that results from a lack of attention to the transitional period under review here.
* * *
Rainer’s dances and multi-media performances of the ’60s and early ’70s are understood by critics, and Rainer herself, to have been informed by two major contexts: the minimalist aesthetic developed by artists like Robert Morris and Frank Stella, and the performance aesthetic pioneered by John Cage and Merce Cunningham (among others), and exemplified by the happenings of artists like Allan Kaprow, and the performance- or event-based works of Claes Oldenburg and the Fluxus artists. (It would probably be better to refer to these two contexts not as “aesthetics” but as clusters of artistic preoccupations—dominants perhaps—but for the sake of consistency I will refer to them here as the “minimalist aesthetic” and the “Cagean approach”). These two paradigms dominated the international avant-garde of the ’60s and early ’70s, informing work across all mediums. While Rainer was closely associated with both of these artistic dominants, she did not sit comfortably with either. Rather, she strained against the minimalist aesthetic and the Cagean approach, discovering problems within each which in turn suggested new directions for her work, and the ultimate shift into narrative.
The first problem stemmed from a contradiction inherent in the creation of a minimalist dance aesthetic: namely, between the notion of objecthood that was central to minimalism in the visual arts on the one hand, and the personhood of the live performer on the other. Rainer had initially sought to eliminate the human qualities that earlier modern dance – that of Martha Graham especially – had amplified. In the place of these, Rainer’s choreography emphasized the object qualities of her dancers, and at times she claimed to see little difference between the dancers and the objects she incorporated into her dances. Rainer found in minimalism an antidote to the high emotion and expressivity of modern dance, and adapted minimalism’s ideals into a new dance vocabulary.
She expressed her position regarding what might generally be called the “human element” of dance, those qualities given intense expressive force in Graham’s work, in her “NO Manifesto” of 1965:
No to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make believe no to glamour and transcendency of the star image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved. (Rainer, 1995a, 166)
If the “NO manifesto” outlined Rainer’s minimalist dance aesthetic, it also pointed to the problem she faced in attempting to realize that aesthetic. The basic material of dance, the human body, the person, was resistant to the goals of minimalism in ways the materials of painting or sculpture were not. The minimalist painters and sculptors sought to emphasize the status of their works as objects, rejecting not only representational content but also time-honored aesthetic ideals of abstract art like compositional balance (exemplified by the paintings of Kandinsky and Mondrian, for example). Simple shapes, flat, primary colors, serial patterns, and the use of industrial materials were strategies the minimalists used to achieve this effect of objecthood, the purpose of which was to heighten the sense in the viewer of the work’s literal time and space. The work shared this time and space with the viewer, thereby acknowledging its relationship with the viewer, one that unfolded in time and changed as the viewer moved through the space of the gallery. In his excellent summary of minimalism in the visual arts, David Batchelor explains this dimension of the minimalist ethic this way;
To the extent that Minimalist works alert the viewer – through their shape, surfaces and positioning – to the contingencies of site and the variability of perspective, they begin to imply a different kind of viewer. At least, in relation to a theory which understands the perception of art as instantaneous and disembodied, this work implies a different kind of viewer: one who is embodied and whose experience exists through time and space. (Batchelor, 24-25)
Following the original minimalists, Rainer attempted to emphasize the object-qualities of the human body in her dances, simultaneously de-emphasizing their human qualities. In 1970, shortly after the performance of Continuous Project – Altered Daily at the Whitney, she wrote,
I love the duality of props, or objects: their usefulness and obstructiveness in relation to the human body. Also the duality of the body: the body as a moving, thinking, decision-making entity and the body as an inert entity, object-like… oddly, the body can become object-like; the human being can be treated as an object, dealt with as an entity without feeling or desire. The body itself can be handled and manipulated as though lacking in the capacity for self-propulsion. (Rainer, 1974, 134)
But while it did not require much of a leap to regard a painting or sculpture as simply an object, making such a leap in the case of a living performer was another story. Rainer encountered problems in attempting to translate the “literalness” attributed to painterly and sculptural minimalism to live performance. A conception of the human body as an object necessarily ignored important characteristics that differentiate that body from the material of other artistic media, characteristics Rainer apparently found impossible to ignore. Despite her resistance to the human element of dance and her attempts to present dance and dancer as objects, many of her pieces (and the written statements that accompanied them) still spoke to very human problems. And so Rainer’s work of the mid to late ’60s, though noted for its commitment to minimalist aesthetic purism and its rejection of “messy” human concerns, nevertheless consistently raised issues relating to the personhood of her dancers, such as their physical and emotional health. For example, a 1967 performance of “Mat,” part of Rainer’s acclaimed piece The Mind is a Muscle, began with a tape recording of Rainer reading a letter from her doctor regarding a gastrointestinal illness that had caused Rainer to be hospitalized and had prevented her from attending the performance.
Rainer’s work of this period also problematized the conception of the relationship between viewer and artwork that was at the core of the minimalist aesthetic. Once again, this arose from the fact that the material of dance was the person. A minimalist painting or sculpture was thought to frankly address the viewer and the space of the gallery, to rely upon the viewer for its completion. To seek such a relationship between a live performer and an audience, however, was to risk opening up the dance to all of those things that Rainer had rallied against in her “NO manifesto,” since in dance, the performer/spectator relationship is a human one, in which emotion, empathy, and relations of power are present. Again, one of the basic tenets of minimalism posed a unique problem for live performance. In a way, Rainer can be said to have inverted a key principle of minimalist art by attempting to cut off any kind of human connection between her performers and the audience. For instance, Rainer often instructed her dancers to refuse eye contact with the audience, either by keeping their heads cocked away from the spectators or by looking over and beyond their heads. Ironically, then, Rainer’s performances seem to have initially aspired to the condition Michael Fried called “absorption,” a condition characterized by the work’s refusal to address the viewer, an almost metaphysical detachment of the work from the viewer’s time and space. Fried criticized the minimalist sculptors for their refusal to do this – for the ways their work acknowledged the viewer and depended on him or her for their completion. (Fried, 125-27) Rainer, concerned about the “seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer,” and troubled by the ramifications of the display of the dancers’ bodies for crowds of onlookers, resisted this dimension of minimalist art. In her analysis of her dance Trio A, she wrote;
…the “problem” of performance was dealt with by never permitting the performers to confront the audience. Either the gaze was averted or the head was engaged in movement. The desired effect was a worklike rather than exhibitionlike presentation. (Rainer, 1995b, 271)
“Tasklike” (or, in the above quote, “worklike”) activity was Rainer’s version of minimalism’s “literalness” (the condition of objecthood). The difference, however, was that while literalness in minimalist painting or sculpture was what allowed for a new, more direct relationship between art work and viewer, for Rainer it was a means to keep the work from addressing the viewer—to prevent the heightened sense of co-presence that Fried and others found in minimalist art. This was a key decision, and it reveals that Rainer was concerned about the political consequences of the spectatorial gaze in art well before that gaze became one of the central concerns of psychoanalytic feminist film theory.
* * *
The other major context for Rainer’s performances was the work of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, and although Rainer saw herself as part of the tradition they had initiated, she also challenged and revised this tradition. Cage’s contributions to the art world are incredibly varied and wide-ranging, but for my purposes here, the Cagean tradition refers to the idea of the art work as a collaborative, democratic social event or experience, an idea that had much to do with Cage’s early experiences as a teacher and performer at the Black Mountain School of Art in North Carolina. As part of the Judson Church dance group, Rainer and a number of artists influenced by Cage experienced artmaking as an essentially democratic affair, in which the genius of the individual artist gave way to group work and chance-driven choreographic procedures. Reflecting on this democratic atmosphere around the time she made Film About a Woman Who…, Rainer noted both the benefits and drawbacks. Regarding Continuous Project – Altered Daily, she wrote:
…at the time it seemed that once one allowed people’s spontaneous expression and responses and opinions to affect one’s own creative process…then the die was cast; there was no “turning back” to the old conventions of directorship. It then seemed a moral imperative to form a democratic social structure. What happened was both fascinating and painful, and not only for me, as I vacillated between opening up options and closing them down. Since that time I have reconnected with my own “moral imperative” to realize my on-going obsessions, some of which have been decidedly influenced by those earlier brushes with “real” behavior, i.e., rehearsal behavior transposed to performance (italics mine). (Rainer, 1974, 128)
What Rainer is referring to here is her growing concern with the relations of power in performance, not between spectator and performer in this case, but between choreographer and dancers. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Cage-inspired renunciation of authorship and the reliance upon collaboration and chance techniques in both composition and performance raised problems of their own, as Rainer sought a compromise between forming a “democratic social structure” and obeying the “moral imperative to realize [her] on-going obsessions.”
Rainer may have felt this problem more acutely because many of her dancers were also her good friends. In a series of letters to performers Barbara Lloyd and Steve Paxton regarding Continuous Project – Altered Daily, Rainer struggled with the conflicting roles of choreographer, collaborator, and friend. In Continuous Project… Rainer had included the creation and rehearsal of new material, invented more or less on the spot, in the performance. Moreover, she had begun to relinquish a degree of control over what the dancers did with her instructions. At the same time, however, Rainer wished to maintain ultimate control over the material, to remain in the position of director or, in her own words, “boss-lady.” This oscillation between director and collaborator, between renouncing authorial control and accepting it, eventually led Rainer to a compromise that is evident in her first film, Lives of Performers, in which rough improvised rehearsal material becomes part of the finished product. Rainer’s move into narrative cinema begins with an example of what she had called “rehearsal behavior transposed to performance,” in the aforementioned quote. Film, perhaps, provided her with the ability to better integrate chance events and collaboration on the one hand and authorial control on the other, since film, unlike live performance, has a post-production stage.
* * *
Thus, one can see in Rainer’s performances during this transitional period an ongoing struggle between the dictates of minimalism and the Cagean tradition, and the uniquely human problems Rainer encountered as a choreographer and performer. During this period, she created a series of performances that manifested a growing concern with the body, the personal, and with relations of power in performance. Rainer’s move into narrative was predicated, then, upon the contradictions and limitations she had to deal with as a performer working in the wake of minimalist art and John Cage. Specifically, it stemmed from the complexities of human interaction in performance-based artforms, complexities that were often at odds with the dictates of the dominant artistic paradigms of the ’60s, even as those paradigms informed theater and dance at the time.
Rainer’s transition to narrative performance and then filmmaking solved some of these problems, but simultaneously raised others. Narrative form offered its own limitations, particularly where the representation of complicated social relations and emotions were concerned. The central theme of her work from about 1970 on is the failure, or at least the severely limited potential, of narrative. If her dance work of the ’60s inspired her to explore more human concerns—what Carroll simply calls “real life”—through narrative, her performance and film work of the ’70s demonstrates the problems involved in attempting to represent “real life.”
But Carroll’s dichotomy, cited at the beginning of this essay, which sees Rainer’s films as taking on human concerns that had been excluded by minimalism needs to be reexamined in light of Rainer’s transitional period and her grappling with both the minimalist aesthetic and the Cagean approach. Minimalist aesthetics and Cagean ideals shared the goal of a more direct, unmediated, authentic art experience that transgressed the boundary between art and life. This goal set them in opposition to the ideals of “Greenbergian” modernism, which rigorously defended that boundary, privileging the pictorial over the experiential. Fried expressed this most directly when he argued that the goal of modern art in the ’60s was to “defeat theater,” which he saw as corrupting the advanced art of the time, including that of the minimalists. (Fried, 139) Cage and the minimalists, then, can be said to have already re-engaged art with life, rejecting the notion of the high-modernist critics that “good” art (especially painting and sculpture) had to be abstract and thereby disconnected from real life—“absorbed” as Fried put it. Minimalism’s insistence on objecthood and literal time and space, like Cage’s emphasis on collaboration and chance, was part of a strategy for creating an art that re-engaged its surroundings, and especially its viewers, and might be called “authentic,” “experiential,” or even “phenomenological.” (1) At the same time, these artists de-emphasized the importance of the artist, placing greater emphasis on the role of the viewer and, in theory at least, making the experience of art a more democratic one, free of hierarchies of power in which the artists ideas and intentions reigned supreme. It was precisely these aspects of minimalist and Cagean art with which Rainer struggled and which lead her to explore the political dimensions of personal relations through narrative performance and film. What Rainer may have found appealing about continental literary and film theory was a shared cynicism about the ideal of an art of real life, since that art did not seem to take into account the power dynamics that characterized real life. In other words, while Cage and the minimalists sought a democratic and unmediated art (e.g. a more direct art experience in which the participation of the viewer was as important as that of the artist), Rainer, like the continental theorists, explored the ways in which art was undemocratic, ideological, fraught with problems related to power and authority, and decidedly mediated. Thus, Rainer developed ideas about art that resonated with, and in fact pre-dated, many of the major theoretical texts that were subsequently employed to explain her films.
Rainer’s early feature films clearly manifest this suspicion both of a direct, unmediated experience in art and narrative’s ability to represent the social dynamics that made this kind of experience impossible (at least in Rainer’s mind) in the first place. An analysis of her films is not within the scope of this essay, but an example from Lives of Performers is worth examining briefly.
The film begins with a series of silent images of Rainer and her dancers in a studio rehearsing “Walk, She Said,” one of Rainer’s minimalist dance pieces. With the exception of some Warholian meanderings of the camera, the scene is shot in the unornamented style of direct cinema (another movement concerned with an authentic, unmediated art). We do not get the sense of a developing narrative, or even of the personalities of the dancers, who will shortly become the characters of a fictional romance. They simply go about the rehearsal in a businesslike fashion, marking the dance, repeating certain movements, and stopping to ask questions and listen to Rainer’s instructions. After about two minutes of this, we are allowed to hear the sounds of the rehearsal, of Rainer’s instructions and the dancers’ questions and comments. Because the camera is aimed at the dancers’ feet when the sound begins, it takes a few moments to realize that the sound is not synchronized. When the camera tilts up to the dancers’ upper bodies it reveals that the words we hear Rainer speaking do not match up to the movements of her lips. The sound is from another portion of the rehearsal, or perhaps from another rehearsal altogether.
After another two or three minutes, Rainer misspeaks while giving her instructions, then makes a joke about her slip of the tongue, to which the dancers respond with laughter. The image is then replaced by an intertitle: “All at once our tensions vanished.” The laughter fades out and the next scene begins.
The scene functions as a key, laying out the problematic around which much of the rest of the film will be organized—namely, the disjunction or mismatch between narrative and real life, and the implications of this for an artist who wishes to address real life in her work. Lives of Performers dramatizes this theme of disjunction by establishing a complicated and contradictory relationship among the three registers of image, text (the intertitles) and sound. The intertitle, “All at once our tensions vanished,” grafts a narrative onto the images and sounds that immediately precede it, suggesting that what had appeared to be purely documentary footage of a dance rehearsal actually contained something more—tensions, including perhaps romantic ones, among the dancers that Rainer’s joke helped ease. But there is nothing in the image or sound to suggest that this is the case, and for this reason the intertitle is surprising, especially on first viewing. The narrative of backstage tensions that must nevertheless be put aside for the good of the performance does not match up with the rehearsal image we see at first.
Thus, the indication of a narrative in what had appeared to be a moment of pure, non-narrative documentation feels unnatural, as if the intertitle is trying to superimpose its narrative onto a scene that is not receptive to it. This disjunction between the registers of text, image, and sound mirrors the initial disjunction between image and sound; the fact that the sound was not in sync with the image foreshadows the deeper asynchronicity between narrative and real life.
Having laid out this problematic, Rainer proceeds to complicate it, calling into question an easy distinction between narrative fiction and “real life” the very distinction that seems to have been the theme of the opening scene. This is one of the most interesting aspects of Rainer’s films, that they persistently challenge and complicate what at first appear to be their own underlying presuppositions.
The first scene is a rehearsal, but it is also part of the finished product—the fictional film Lives of Performers. Furthermore, we can assume that the rehearsal was recorded for the purpose of being included in this film, meaning that, to some extent, it was staged for the camera, another instance of Rainer’s “rehearsal behavior transposed to performance.” This fact calls its apparently pure, unmediated documentary quality into question. Its status is somewhere between purely documentary and purely fictional, much like the rehearsals of new material that took place in Rainer’s earlier dance pieces such as Continuous Project – Altered Daily. Here again, rehearsal behavior does not happen naturally, but instead is performed, a strategy that troubles any easy categorization of that behavior as either totally spontaneous or totally predetermined. We might wonder, then, to what extent the opening scene of the film was already a scripted performance, designed with the film’s narrative in mind. The simple dichotomy of “real life” and fictional narrative is muddied, to the extent that we might begin to question the ability of any film—documentary, narrative, experimental, and so on—to truly reveal the real lives of the people in them. The scene can also be viewed as a critique of the ideal that the distinction between art and life could be broken down. I would argue that in moving from live performance to film, Rainer chose the art form that allowed her to more effectively examine the numerous contradictions and disjunctions that she had been faced with in her work both before and after her narrative turn.
Batchelor, David, Minimalism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997
Carroll, Noël, “Moving and Moving: From Minimalism to Lives of Performers,” Millennium Film Journal, Nos. 35/36 (Fall 2000)
Fried, Michael, “Art and Objecthood,” in Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1968
MacDonald, Scott, “Journeys From Berlin/1971,” in Avant-Garde Film: Motion Studies, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993
Phelan, Peggy, “Yvonne Rainer: From Dance to Film,” in Yvonne Rainer, A Woman Who… Essays, Interviews, Scripts, Johns Hopklins University Press, Baltimore, 1999
Rainer, Yvonne, Works 1961-73, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, New York, New York University Press, 1974
Rainer, Yvonne, “Some Retrospective Notes on a Dance for 10 People and 12 Matresses Called Parts of Some Sextets,” in Mariellen R. Sandford, ed., Happenings and Other Acts, London, Routledge, 1995a
Rainer, Yvonne, “A Quasi Survey of Some ‘Minimalist’ Tendencies in the Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity Midst the Plethora, or An Analysis of Trio A,” in Battcock, Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, 1995b
- A number of critics applied the concepts of phenomenology to minimalist art, particularly during the ’60s. See, for example, John Perrault, “Minimal Abstracts,” in Battcock, Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, p. 256-62, and Allen Leepa, “Minimal Art and Primary Meanings,” in Battcock, Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, pp. 200-208.