Yvonne Rainer (b. 1934, San Francisco, California) is a dancer, choreographer, writer and filmmaker. She moved to New York to study acting in 1956, but was soon drawn to dance and its physicality. Soon Rainer studied dance with Martha Graham and James Waring, and for eight years in Merce Cunningham Studio. However, she was not a technically strong dancer and decided to devote herself to choreography.
At the Graham School, Rainer became acquainted with both Nancy Meehan and Simone Forti, who had a significant influence on Rainer’s thinking about choreography and improvisation. In 1960, the trio began improvising together and travelled to Anna Halprin’s summer course in California, where they also met Trisha Brown. In the same year, Rainer attended Robert Dunn’s composition classes, which gave birth to the Judson Dance Theater in 1962. Dunn drew on John Cage’s methods of composition and applied them to ways of organising movement into dance. In a way he broke the rules of making a choreography and suggested finding movement from sources outside the body (see Multidisciplinary Dance Collective – Judson Dance Theater 1962–1964)
Rainer was an active member of the Judson collective and performed her first choreographies at its dance concerts, such as the solo Ordinary Dance (1962), which was a step towards Rainer’s minimalist aesthetic of everyday movement. In We Shall Run (1963) 12 running dancers formed different patterns and performed tasks without a leading figure. Within Judson Dance Theater, each choreographer had their own relationship to dance technique and challenged the movement language learned from ballet or modern dance. Steve Paxton expanded the idea of what movement within dance could be. He made a choreography where sitting on a bench eating a sandwich was the dance, or improvised in a movement language that could not be related to any dance technique. Rainer, in contrast, used all kinds of movement, combining everyday gestures with a highly virtuosic dance vocabulary.
Canonical and Transforming Trio A
Combining movements from a variety of sources, Rainer created Trio A (1966), her best-known choreography and one of the milestones of postmodern dance. The choreography lasts only about 4.5 minutes, depending on the dancer’s tempo, but Rainer worked on it for almost six months. She sequentially arranged very simple everyday movements (walking), more complex movements (somersault, balances on one leg, sections requiring coordination) and vocabulary of dance technique (arabesque). In 1966, the piece premiered at Judson Church as The Mind is a Muscle, Part 1. Three dancers, Rainer, Paxton and David Gordon, were doing the choreography simultaneously in space, but the movement was not simultaneous or synchronised.
Trio A deconstructs the conventions of Western dance art, especially American white modern dance, from many different perspectives. Central to Rainer’s approach was the use of energy in a movement phrase, as she sought alternatives to movement phrases with flashy beginnings, culminating around slow sections. How to avoid the habit of dances building the drama by using extremes of energy and time, in order to create highlights and structurally a beginning, middle and end? In Trio A, this hierarchy between sections does not exist, as there are no pauses or accents between different movements. Nor is any movement repeated: repetition or variation does not create structure in the choreography. It is as if the movement flows as a continuous stream in which no part is more important than the other. The movement phrase, danced with the same energy from start to finish, is like a soft, effortless and uniform surface, from which the variations in dynamics – that are inherent even in everyday movement and that reflect the rhythm of the breath – have been removed. The movement material is non-hierarchical action, but at the same time full of precise movement details.
In her 1966 written article “A Quasi Survey of Some ‘Minimalist’ Tendencies in the Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity Midst the Plethora, or an Analysis of Trio A” Rainer relates Trio A’s movement to minimalist sculpture:
eliminate or minimize
|1 role of artist’s hand||phrasing|
|2 hierarchical relationship of parts||development and climax|
|3 texture||variation: rhythm, shape, dynamics|
|4 figure reference||character|
|6 complexity and detail||variety: phrases and the spatial field|
|7 monumentality||the virtuosic movement feat and the fully-extended body|
|1 factory fabrication||energy equality and “found” movement|
|2 unitary forms, modules||equality of parts|
|3 uninterrupted surface||repetition or discrete events|
|4 nonreferential forms||neutral performance|
|5 literalness||task or tasklike activity|
|6 simplicity||singular action, event, or tone|
|7 human scale||human scale |
In Trio A, the dancer does not play the role of a character, emerge in the choreography through their personality or appear as virtuoso or heroic, but strives to be a neutral mover. The dance is more important than the performer. The dancer often turns the face away from the audience or looks at the floor while facing the front. In constructing the choreography, Rainer considered the dancer’s presence as the object of the gaze and the pleasure that this brings. To avoid narcissism, the gaze is turned inwards, as it were. In a way, the body is treated as an (art) object whose found movement or neutral presence is compared to the factory fabricated minimalist sculpture, or to forms that do not refer to anything external. Trio A reflects an aesthetic of serial production and simplicity, with an ethos close to that of working: “It’s not a meditative event; it’s task-like, work-like, matter-of-fact. The pace and ‘look’ of it are determined by expediency and weightiness, not by introspection.” The work’s varied and rich but stylistically independent use of the body exudes bodily intelligence.
The Mind is a Muscle, afull-evening work that grew out of Trio A, was performed as a nearly two-hour set at the Anderson Theater in 1968. Rainer did a lot of choreography for a group of performers, and like Terrain (1963) or Parts of Some Sextets (1965), The Mind is a Muscle was collage-like and incorporated various elements, including Rainer’s short film Volleyball (1967). Many of its sections varied in different ways Trio A’s material. Lecture was a section in which Rainer danced Trio A wearing tap shoes. Convalescent Dance, whichRainer premiered at the anti-Vietnam War Angry Arts Week in 1967, having just come out of hospital in a weakened condition, brought to the fore a fragile body. Trio B, on the other hand, varied the movement material and Rainer also placed a rubber mat and bubble wrap on the floor that changed the soundscape of the space when stepped on. Theseven dancers of The Mind is a Muscle remained in the space throughout the event, watching each other dance. The piece was mostly performed in silence. There was music only in between parts of the piece, as a kind of interlude, when Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther played, apornographic poem by John Giorno was read, or Lucinda Childs and William Davis discussed. These elements of entertainment, as well as the magic tricks performed by the magician Harry De Dio in a section of the work called Act, brought elements of popular culture into the postmodern frame of reference and gave rise to ideas of dance and art as entertainment. Rainer had also inquired about the possibility of having refreshment vendors in the theatre corridors during the intermissions.
Trio A is best known for the recording Rainer made in 1978 as a solo dance, but it has been widely taught and performed over the years in various formations, both solo and in groups. Trio A with Flags (1970) was danced naked and with the American flag hanging around the performers’ neck, and was part of the demonstrations calling for the release of artists imprisoned for using the flag. In 1999, Rainer performed Trio A danced backwards, from end to beginning, while in constant eye contact with a dancer running around her. In 2010, at the age of 75, Rainer performed a version of Trio A under the subtitle Geriatric With Talking, in which she commented on her own restricted movement and the relationship with her ageing body. The dance of different bodies and the ageing body among them continues the train of thought of postmodern dance in the 1960s, which sought to replace the monumental heroism of dance with alternative ways of doing things. Rainer made visible the dance of the weak and vulnerable body in a similar way to her 1967 work Convalescent Dance.
Writing, Process, Film
Writing is an important part of Yvonne Rainer’s artistic practice, and the texts often reflect, extend or advance the choreographic work. Sometimes a text, such as “Statement” for Mind is a Muscle, is included in the programme, but reading it was not a prerequisite for viewing the work. In 1965 Rainer published an essay on her choreography Parts of Some Sextets, the last part of which is known as the “No Manifesto.” The manifesto was, in Rainer’s words, a momentary whim, a kind of provocation and a way of thinking about the themes of the work even further. However, it has become almost mythical in terms of the aspirations of postmodern dance, despite being the personal statement of one choreographer. An updated version of the manifesto, entitled “A Manifesto Reconsidered,” was created for the 2008 exhibition of manifestos at the Serpentine Gallery in London.
|NO to spectacle||Avoid if at all possible|
|Not to virtuosity||Acceptable in limited quantity|
|No to transformations and magic and make-believe||Magic is out; the other two are sometimes tolerable|
|Not to the glamour and transcendence of the star image||Acceptable only as quotation|
|No to the heroic||Dancers are ipso facto heroic|
|No to the anti-heroic||Don’t agree with that one|
|No trash imagery||Don’t understand that one|
|No to involvement of performer or spectator||Spectators: stay in your seats|
|No to style||Style is unavoidable|
|No to camp||A little goes a long way|
|No seduction of the spectator by the wiles of the performer||Unavoidable|
|No to eccentricity||If you mean “unpredictable,” that’s the name of the game|
|No moving or being moved||Unavoidable |
According to Sally Banes, the manifesto is a kind of “strategy of denial” that helps to remove the mystery from dance: it makes dance more objective and helps dance to return to its central elements.
Another key area of interest for Rainer was the presence of process in the performance itself. In the early 1970s, Rainer’s work Continuous Project-Altered Daily played animportant role in the development of the improvisation group The Grand Union. Rainer was interested in a piece that would change form both during and between performances. It included a variety of materials, including spontaneous but also pre-choreographed movement, the physicality of professional dancers but also the everyday movement of non-dancers, and activities related to sports and games. Continuous Project-Altered Daily combined different levels of performance from rehearsing movement to its precise execution. The dancers decided when to use the ready-made materials, but also planned the piece by discussing it during the performance.
In the early 1970s, Rainer moved from choreography to film. She had been following Maya Deren’s experimental cinema since the 1950s. In addition, feminism was an important influence on her artistic work, and film allowed her to work with the (female) body in a different way. She made seven films, including Lives of Performers (1972), Film About a Woman Who… (1974), Kristina Talking Pictures (1976), Privilege (1990) and MUDER and murder (1996). Many of her films deal with a wide range of themes concerning the body, the performer, sexuality and the gaze. (see Yvonne Rainer in article Dance film
One of the key artists of the postmodern..)
Works and Themes of the 21st Century
Speech has played an important role in Rainer’s choreographies since 1963. In Terrain, texts by Spencer Holst were read and the dancers used speech to break the role of the modern dancer as a silent and speechless body. In the 21st century, words are increasingly taking up space in the works.
The Concept of Dust, or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move? (2015) contains both speech and movement, and the performers can decide during the performance which of the choreographed materials to use. When a microphone and a text hammer appear in front of the dancers, carried by Rainer, the dancers begin to read aloud very different texts, for example about fossil discoveries in 2014 or the founding of the city of Baghdad in 762 CE. Speech is one way of being present. What’s So Funny? Laughter and Anger in the Time of the Assassins (2016) is both an essay written by Rainer and a lecture performance in which the choreographer reads the text aloud. It is an outburst of outrage at US politics and the state of the world under Donald Trump, but at the same time Rainer reflects on the relationship of laughter and humour to anger.
In the dance works of the 21st century, Rainer does not feel that choreography is related to inventive or new movement, but that the movement material can be found in everyday life, in the movement language of ballet or in the movement of stand-up comedy or black and white films. The recycling of choreographic materials, such as the multiple forms of Trio A’s movement phrase, or the use of the same objects in different works and contexts is also typical of Rainer. After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (2000) uses many materials from works from the 1960s and 1970s and rethinks them in relation to ageing, death and politics. The choreography was a commissioned work for the White Oak Dance Project, directed by Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Works also use the history of dance as their material: AG Indexical (2006) approaches George Balanchine’s Agon (1957), while RoS Indexical (2007) refers to Vaslav Nijinsky’s 1913 The Rite of Spring. Rainer sees these choreographies as a kind of re-visions rather than as versions or reconstructions. In both cases, Rainer is dealing with modernist milestones in dance history and their cult status. At the same time, the choreographies comment on the relationship of dance to Stravinsky’s music, and Rainer returns to consider the relationship between movement and sound, which was present, for example, in her early work Three Seascapes (1961). The scandalous The Rite of Spring is approached through the imagined process of the work in the BBC documentary Riot at the Rite (2005), and the film’s cacophonous soundtrack is the soundscape of the choreography. Other materials include the theatrical gestures of Robin Williams and Sarah Bernhard. A plush sofa at the back of the stage is used for some of the choreography, but also serves as a resting place for the dancers.
Both works feature the same four dancers: aged between 30 and 60, with different styles and techniques – one from ballet and three from postmodern dance – so that dancing and dancer’s embodiment also appear as themes in the work. Rainer continues to work on the conceptual aspect of dance, always looking for new alternatives to virtuosic dance, now with the ageing body and “doing nothing” as elements of dance.
1 Podcast Son[i]a #259: “Yvonne Rainer”. 2.5.2018. Parts of Rainer’s early works Terrain and We Shall Run and Trio A with Flags recorded at MoMA in 2018: https://www.moma.org/magazine/articles/32 Accessed 5.1.2022.
2 In the first versions of the work, the soundscape was the sound of boards falling from the balcony of Judson Church. Later, it was performed mainly in silence.
4 Rainer 1968/2014.
5 Banes 1987, 45.
6 Rainer 1968/2014, 382–383; Wood 2007, 51.
7 Rainer 1968/2014, 383–384.
8 Storr 2017.
9 Rainer 2017c, 21. See also Wood 2007, 76–89.
10 Wood 2007, 1–5. For a detailed description of Mind is a Muscle, see pages 6–9.
11 Rainer’s work and the first evening of one choreographer at Judson Church.
12 Wood 2007, 24–25. On Rainer and elements of vaudeville, see also Crimp 2017.
13 Rainer does not consider this version to be a significant documentation of Trio A, as one does not understand the spatial scale of the choreography. By the time she danced for the camera in 1978, Rainer had already retired from choreography and devoted herself to filmmaking. Podcast Son[i]a #259: “Yvonne Rainer”. 2.5.2018.
14 Rainer 2017b, 123. The article opens Rainer’s dance philosophy in relation to age.
15 Wood 2007, 40.
16 Rainer’s manifesto has received several “counter-manifestos,” such as Mette Ingvartsen’s 2005 “Yes Manifesto” https://www.taraleeburns.com/419-2/ (accessed 4.5.2022.) and Bruno Freire’s 2011 “Maybe Manifesto.” See more in Lepecki, André, ed. 2012. Dance. Cambridge & London: The MIT Press. Other dance-related manifestos include Isadora Duncan’s “The Dancer of the Future” (1902) and Mårten Spångberg’s “Seventeen Points for the Future of Dance” (2012) https://spangbergianism.wordpress.com/tag/manifesto/ Accessed 4.5.2022.
17 Moreover, since the 1970s, Rainer has often been singled out as a leading figure in postmodern dance, even though postmodern dance encompasses a wide range of methods, interests and aesthetics. Banes 1987, 41. Rainer’s “No Manifesto” was part of Julian Rosefeldt’s film installation Manifesto (2015), which dealt with the tradition of artist manifestos and the desire to change the world through art. The installation was shown in Helsinki Art Hall from 19 August to 15 October 2017 as part of the Helsinki Festival. The work can be viewed on Rosefeldt’s website: https://www.julianrosefeldt.com/film-and-video-works/manifesto-_2014-2015/ Accessed 4.1.2022.
18 Rainer 2017d, 30–31.
19 Banes 1987, 43–44.
20 Banes 1987, 203–207.
21 Joseph 2018, 156.
22 Recording of the presentation at MoMA in 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAp9S4D27V0 Accessed 11.12.2021. The Concept of Dust: Continuous Project-Altered Annually was also produced in 2016 and 2017.
23 The text is published in the book Yvonne Rainer. Moving and Being Moved (2017). It is available as a reading by Rainer on Carrie Schneider’s website (2016): http://carrieschneider.net/work/yvonnerainer.html and a recording of a Brown University event (2017): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BZt6p95puJU. Accessed 4.1.2022.
24 Rainer 2017a, 122.
25 For a detailed analysis of the work’s relationship to Rainer’s choreographic history, see Crimp 2017.
26 Crimp 2017, 91.
27 Rainer 2017b, 6–13.
28 More in Rainer’s text “DOING NOTHING / NOTHIN’ DOIN’: Revisiting a Minimal Approach to Performance.” In Yvonne Rainer. Moving and Being Moved (2017).
Banes, Sally. 1987. Terpsichore in Sneakers. Post-Modern Dance. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Crimp, Douglas. 2017. “Pedagogical Vaudevillian.” In Yvonne Rainer, ed. Yvonne Rainer. Moving and Being Moved. Amsterdam: Roma Publications, 85–69.
Joseph, Martha. 2018. “Yvonne Rainer, Terrain 1963; We Shall Run 1963; Parts of Some Sextets 1965.” In Ana Janevski & Thomas J. Lax, eds. Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done. New York: MoMA Publications, 156–157.
Rainer, Yvonne. 1968/2014. “A Quasi Survey of Some ‘Minimalist’ Tendencies in the Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity Midst the Plethora, or an Analysis of Trio A.” In Teresa Brayshaw & Noel Witts, eds. The Twentieth-Century Performance Reader. London & New York: Routledge, 381–387.
Rainer, Yvonne. 2017a. “One day when I was coming to my senses in 1960…” In Yvonne Rainer, ed. Yvonne Rainer. Moving and Being Moved. Amsterdam: Roma Publications, 6–13.
Rainer, Yvonne. 2017b. “The Aching Body in Dance.” In Yvonne Rainer, ed. Yvonne Rainer. Moving and Being Moved. Amsterdam: Roma Publications, 119–123.
Rainer, Yvonne. 2017c. “Where’s the passion? Where’s the Politics?” In Yvonne Rainer, ed. Yvonne Rainer. Moving and Being Moved. Amsterdam: Roma Publications, 15–28.
Rainer, Yvonne. 2017d. “A Manifiesto Reconsidered.” In Yvonne Rainer, ed. Yvonne Rainer. Moving and Being Moved. Amsterdam: Roma Publications, 30–32.
Son[i]a #259: “Yvonne Rainer.” 02.05.2018. Radio WEB MACBA. Podcast. https://rwm.macba.cat/es/sonia/sonia-259-yvonne-rainer Accessed 4.5.2022.
Storr, Robert, 2017. “Narcissism and Pleasure: An Interview with Yvonne Rainer.” (9 April 2009, Boston University). Published 17.11.2017. The Paris Review. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/11/17/narcissism-pleasure-interview-yvonne-rainer/#_ftnref2 Accessed 6.1.2022.
Wood, Catherine. 2007. Yvonne Rainer. The Mind is a Muscle. London: Afterall Books.
Riikka Laakso works in the field of dance as a writer, lecturer and dramaturg. She holds a PhD in performing arts from the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona (2016) and teaches theatre analysis and dance history at the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona. Laakso has collaborated with Zodiak – Centre for New Dance, the Theatre Academy, Helsinki and choreographer Sanna Kekäläinen, and is responsible for the dramaturgy of works by choreographer Marina Mascarelli.