Yvonne Rainer

by Cecilia Thornton-Alson*

Yvonne Rainer

Dia: Beacon Riggio Galleries

October 22-23, 2011

In the vast white expanse of the Riggio Galleries at the Dia Art Center in Beacon, New York, some of the most celebrated contemporary art works from the last century stretch through long, carefully curated rooms. In the basement below the exhibition space, a series of Yvonne Rainer’s choreography was on view October 22nd and 23rd as part of an ongoing project that mixes both her early works with contemporary choreography in performances entitled simply, Yvonne Rainer. Featured work included Three Seascapes (1962), Three Satie Spoons (1961), and Chair/Pillow (1969); along with Trio A Pressured, a contemporary piece developed after Rainer’s return to choreography in 2000 that reprises Trio A (1968).

The setting is remarkably appropriate.  At the outset of her career in the 1960s, Rainer was conceptually linked to the Minimal Art of Dan Flavin and Donald Judd—both on view upstairs—as she bucked the conventions of traditional modern dance and aimed for the reduction of emotion in her choreography. The program recalls what was at stake in her work at the time. It features an excerpt from her article, “A Quasi-Survey of Some ‘Minimalist’ Tendencies in the Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity Midst the Plethora, or an Analysis of Trio A,” from 1968, in which she sets up two lists, the first “Eliminate or Minimize” and the second “Substitute.” Underneath, she elaborates her goals of removing context, mechanizing action, and honing in on the “human scale.”

In the first piece, set to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2, a dancer runs rhythmic laps around the stage, stopping at intervals to perform a perfunctory choreographed movement, and then, without missing a beat, turns in the opposite direction to resume her course. Periodically, the cadence of her step and the beat of the music converge, creating the anticipation of the return to a conventional mode of choreography, but to no avail—it is mere coincidence. In the second piece, moving to sounds rather than music, she contorts and extends her body across the stage.  The ticks and jerks of her muscles propel her forward, resembling something closer to mechanized action than dance: this is truly the “literalness” that Rainer’s work promises.

Yet for all of its still-powerful choreography, her work is trapped in a catch-22. It can never be what it was in the sixties, because, performed today, it creates its own context. Even her contemporary piece, Trio A Pressured, uses elements from the original, which was also used in her first feature-length film, The Lives of the Performers, in 1972. Instead of appearing innovative, the simple back-and-forth arm gestures at the beginning of the sequence now look familiar. Even the music for Chair/Pillow, Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High (which came out in 1966) now plays on the local oldies station. What once was innovative and unseen can never be new again.

However Rainer seems undaunted by this. Rather than move towards some yet uncharted territory in her new work, she incorporates the play of past and present into it, even jumping in spontaneously to play the part of shadow during Facing, and the duet in Trio A Pressured, in a manner both self-reflexive and surprisingly not self-conscious. In addition, many of the “Raindears,” as the program dubs the cast, have danced Rainer’s choreography since the late seventies, and give the work an authenticity that comes with years of practice. In the end, her choreography still bears its signature “literalness,” but its connection to its own context also imbues the pieces with an emotive force which, more effectively than reverting to the past, keeps them grounded in the present.

*Cecilia Thornton-Alson is first year student in the MA in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies program at Columbia University.