The temptation of neat intelligibility:
An Interview with Yvonne Rainer

By Wendy Tronrud

Yvonne Rainer Wendy Tronrud

Yvonne Rainer’s dance piece entitled “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan” was performed as a part of an evening of performance with Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on June 7, 9 10 and 11, 2000 As a dancer and choreographer working with the Judson Dance Theatre [1962-1966] and then with Grand Union [1970-1972] Rainer made the transition from dance to filmmaking, stating her involvement with narrative as one of the major factors for this shift. In the “Profile” pamphlet series interview (v.4, n.6, June 1984), done with Lyn Blumenthal, Rainer said that the “conventions of cinematic narratives seemed to offer more possibilities, were more interesting to me to operate both within and against than were the conventions of dramatic theatrical narrative, i.e., the play dialogue and monologue format. In fact, I didn't even question it. There was no decision to make. I was already thinking in terms of framing and voiceover” (69).

Now, seven films and almost thirty years later, she has again staged a dance performance. For the purposes of this interview I chose to focus on the acts or moments of repetition and return.

WT: In the interview “Rainer Talking Pictures” you state that your “access to film was through rationalizing my autobiography (259, A Woman Who).” Personal experience has provided both motivation and significant subject matter for issues explored in your films —including breast cancer, lesbianism, menopause, political violence and suicide. Did any of these issues again return—intentionally or not—to inspire you to return to choreography after thirty years of filmmaking?

YR: Last fall Mikhail Baryshnikov approached me about teaching an early dance to the members of his company, the White Oak Dance Project, and, almost in an aside, suggested that I might be interested in also choreographing something new. Several days later he renewed his offer, now with specific show dates at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was an offer I couldn't refuse. I immediately started to think about what I might do, and began to work on a weekly basis with an assistant, Pat Catterson. Pat had studied with me thirty years earlier, is still dancing and choreographing, and proved to be an invaluable asset in helping me retrieve material from old notes and photos. It became a 35-minute dance for six people, including Baryshnikov, titled “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan.”

WT: Before you made the move towards film, you were using film in some of your dance performances. How did your films inform your newest choreography as your dance performances informed your filmmaking thirty years ago?

YR: The organization of the materials in “Swan” bears some relation to that of my early films. It seems that the polar structuring principles of narrative and collage have driven my work in both film and dance. “Swan” is a collage insofar as it is composed of disconnected units, some of them performed simultaneously. My first film, “Lives of Performers” had a similar, though sequential, structure. (Unless you split the screen, use superimposition, or treat the filmic frame like a stage, it is hard to achieve simultaneity in film.)

Both “Swan” and “Lives” can be characterized by fragmentation and disjuncture. A section of Swan revives a solo from a group work of 1963 (also for six dancers), called “Terrain.” In the original, the dancer executed a series of unrelated movements connected by a static and recurrent pose of body facing the audience with hands on hips, all the while reciting without pause a story by the writer Spencer Holst. In the revival, Michael Lomeka recites a narrative by Nabokov about the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly while performing the same disjunctive movements.

This dance very neatly encapsulates my two interests, or should I say one interest: How to have my narrative and collage at one and the same time! How to simultaneously construct and deconstruct. How to create a site of contention/contradiction/distillation via the body and language, a place of struggle-for-meaning.

WT: I am wondering if you could talk more specifically about what sort of body is operating in this piece. I am thinking of the collage of revival that “Swan” is working with as well as the language of the title and the two quotations that preface the dance piece in the program. It seems that the body in Swan is somehow a site of conflict and exposure that is particular to a certain vantage point of looking back. How are you situating this body in relation to time and the space of the stage?

YR: Looked at simplistically, Swan can be construed as a meditation on aging. The title, which already declares this theme, is also embodied literally in the presence of Mikhail Baryshnikov — visibly older than the rest of the ensemble, also separated by his celebrity — at the same time referring to his classical ballet training and virtuosity. I think any use of classically trained dancers that leans toward quotidian movement involves a certain degree of “contention”, though this may not always be obvious. Where the dancers, as in the case of White Oak, have exceptional technical range (which had already been amply demonstrated in the dances preceding mine on the BAM program), the “contentiousness” lies in the projections of the audience, a kind of reflexive apprehension: “They're not using what they have been trained to do.” At the end of the dress rehearsal at BAM, I was surprised to find myself thinking aloud “There are no balances in this piece.” Not entirely true, as there are many one-legged balances in the Nabokov solos, but for the most part, an accurate description.

But contention, is also implicit in other aspects of Swan: in the disjuncture of its parts, in the unexpected cessation of music or abrupt changes in volume of music, in the non-sequitur eruption of spoken texts, in the mismatch of speech and speaker, as when a young dancer asks, “Why must the culture pound out these incessant promises of infinite self-improvement while so many of us are looking for ways to reckon with our inevitable decline.”

The program note—“I must constantly remind myself of the importance of mistakes, failures, interruptions, breakdowns, 'inappropriate' interventions, accidents, muddles, mix-ups... and chance occurrences”—is a fairly accurate description of my modus operandi as I was putting the disparate materials together (though not necessarily a description of the original creation of them). I had, indeed, to keep reminding myself to avoid certain kinds of symmetries. For instance, at one point I had ended the piece with everyone running in a circle to the Grieg piano sonata—a mirror of the opening solo running by Emmanuele Phuon. Another ending had Rosalynde LeBlanc saying, “So here it is at last, the distinguished thing.” The temptation of neat intelligibility accosted me at every turn. In some instances I succumbed to conventional theatrical bombast, as when the pounding intro of “River Deep, Mountain High” punctuates the descent of the ball in the final moment of Misha's attenuated solo. I am not averse to shameless invoking of familiar effects, but they must be deployed judiciously.

Which brings me to the second quote in the BAM program: “I am by no means sure that I should prefer a continuation of my work by others to a change in the way people live which would make all these questions superfluous.” Written by the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, it encapsulates a doubt that sometimes wafts through my mind about the efficacy or value of art. All these questions, all these “contentions”: If there were major “change[s] in the way people live”, would art become superfluous? I think not, but it still seems a worthwhile idea to entertain now and then.

WT: Can you talk about this transition to dance and what this means for you at this point in your artistic career to return to the medium in which you began as an artist?

YR: When looking for a producer (unsuccessfully) for my last script — “MURDER and murder” — I was told on several occasions that it lacked “narrative drive.” From where I stood — at the end of a snail-paced twenty-year trajectory that had taken me from performer to persona, from parataxicity to plot, from collage to story — I had veered as far as I wanted to go in the balance of this particular scale. After “MURDER and murder” I was ready to pull back, start over, rethink my options.

Before the White Oak offer I had been writing poetry, I also had been teaching a course called “Approaches to Performance” in various institutions which would culminate in a live performance consisting of fragments of material contributed by the students and staged by me. The sources of materials ranged from readings, film and video screenings, and writing by the students in response to assignments. I had been thinking about how I might come up with results similar to these “Pedagogical Vaudevilles” without the arduous process of teaching. And then the White Oak opportunity came along. I didn't need to rent a studio, assemble dancers, raise money, find a venue, or do any of that stuff that choreographers traditionally do. I found myself in a very privileged situation with ideal working conditions.

WT: You mention that you are writing poetry. In terms of your language practices, where does writing poetry situate itself for you? Do you find words carry any particular kind of information for you that visual images do not? Are you exploring similar narrative and collage issues on the page space that you have with your other work?

YR: Last year I wrote about thirty poems. So far this year I have not written one. My dances often combined language with body activities. In filmmaking, language superceded the body. Poetry offered a site of pure contemplation, with no necessity for the mediating gaze of an audience. I have had no urge to publish my poems (although several are included in “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan”). The act of being in the moment with language — forget the tsurras of characters, mis-en-scene, bodies, actors, crew, fund-raising, technological apparatus, film festivals, production values — provided an all too sufficient pleasure. The poems are mostly short, everyday, non-rhyming but rhythmic. The one that ends Swan is not uncharacteristic:

Southbound on the R platform
the Chinese baritone
plays his Yamaha keyboard
and sings “O Sole Mio”

WT: Although you frame the act of writing poetry as a process that is decidedly different from that of choreographing dances and making films, do you see your language practices with poetry as performative? Do you consider your poetry functioning within a choreographic format, one that is, in fact, playing with an apparatus, in a specific interaction between words, the page, space and the body?

YR: While writing poetry I do not think about performance at all. That is what is so liberating about it. As for “a specific interaction between words, the page space and the body,” I would say there is an implicit interaction in that words denote, are never far from physicality, and the rhythms of poetry, though originating in imagined vocalization, are always delineated spatially on the page.

When choreographing “Swan” I worked through a lot of ideas around combining language and movement and selected the spoken material from a number of sources, including my thirty-odd poems, ultimately using only three of them. Most of my poems were either too personal or too long for use in this dance.

WT: You have previously stated that financially producing/directing another film that is not commercially viable at this point in your career is difficult.  Do you envision working with film or video in a context that is not specifically filmic? Either in performance or in conjunction with your poetry?

YR: I am planning a “faux documentary” about my work, also a video installation dealing with documentation of rehearsals for “Swan”, both of which will be part of an exhibition in Philadelphia next year. The art gallery space has, till now, always appeared inimical to my concerns, but insofar as that kind of situation seems to be the current source of opportunity, I'm trying to rise to the challenge.

BIO: Yvonne Rainer was born in San Francisco in 1934 and has lived in New York City since 1956. As a dancer and choreographer, she was one of the founders of the Judson Dance Theater in 1962, the genesis of a movement that proved to be a vital force in modern dance in the following decades. In 1972, Rainer completed her first feature-length film and has in all written, produced and directed seven features. She is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships as well as four Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts Degrees. Five books dealing with her work have been published, most recently, A Woman Who…:Essays, Interviews, Scripts (John Hopkins University Press, 1999) In June of 2000 Rainer returned to dance with the 35 minute "After Many a Summer Dies the Swan," commissioned by the White Oak Dance Project and performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

BIO: Wendy Tronrud graduated from Barnard College in 1998 and now lives in New York City.

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