For Performa’s blog, Charles Aubin interviews the inimitable Yvonne Rainer. The interview in partial below, [in full via Performa.]
CA: Let’s start with the beginning. The title of your new piece was initially The Concept of Dust, to which you added or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move? Would you please explain what’s behind this title?
YR: The Concept of Dust, of course, refers to mortality and aging, which has been, though not exactly a theme, perhaps a subtext of my recent work now that I’m 80 years old. The second part of the title is a riff on Ad Reinhardt’s title for a series of drawings called How do you look when there’s nothing left to see? In his case it’s not at all ambiguous. I mean because it’s clear who and what are being referred to: the person who’s looking and the work itself, the paintings which are so dark and difficult to see. But when that gets transposed to the context of performance, it’s much more ambiguous. How do you look when there’s nothing left to move? refers to the body of the aging dancer and also to the audience. Not only how does a spectator look at such work but what do “you” as a dancer look like.
CA: I’d like to hear more about this “subtext,” perhaps in regards to your beautiful text The Aching Body in Dance. In it you write: “I love to exist on stage. I no longer dance.” Could you elaborate a bit on it?
YR: Well, that again has a double meaning in so far as the post modern dance context assumes every action, every move on the stage or in the performing area can be called dance. Walking, running, etc… standing still. But in a strict sense I no longer make much movement from my own body. I mostly read from printed texts. I do a lot of reading.
CA: You also do some crawling on all fours in this work.
YR: Yes, I crawl on all fours. I even attempt, sometimes, to do what the other dancers are doing but usually give it up halfway through. I like performing, I like being looked at in this situation where spectators are looking at my work and my work includes me doing whatever I am able to do now.
CA: And what about the other part in the text in which you talk about attending farewells to dance as a young dancer in 1950s New York, it’s not time for a farewell to dance, right?
YR: No, no. I’m still making dances, one way or another. I think you are referring to Isadora Duncan’s last foster daughter’s “Farewell to Dance,” which she performed 5 or 6 years running. I do not know how close I am to that, although I certainly think about it. Meanwhile this current dance is getting invited here and there, so I go with the flow.
CA: How would you describe this return to dance?
YR: Well. I’ve been immersed in it for the last 15 years. When I returned after 25 years of filmmaking it felt as though I was “coming home” because I am so much more comfortable working with dancers than working with film people, cinematographers and laboratories, production assistants and the whole paraphernalia that goes with making feature films. I was never comfortable in that situation. I call myself a “techno dummy.” I never mastered the subtleties of lighting and exposure and all that stuff.
CA: Do you think about these subtleties when you produce dance, for instance light?
YR: No. I don’t. I work with a lighting designer, Les Dickert. I leave it up to him. He knows my taste, that I don’t like much atmosphere, I like a fairly bright stage and so he designs accordingly. In this particular dance, I have jettisoned props pretty much. For instance, even a few years ago, with ROS Indexical, which was an homage to The Rite of Spring, I had signs with words on them descending from the flies. It was horrendous to travel around with these big tubes of material. So I pretty much eliminated accouterments like sets and décor and all that. All I need is three chairs and one pillow for this dance.
CA: And music! More precisely, The Sinking of the Titanic by Gavin Bryars is played during the performance and it’s poignant, which surprised me. I felt that what you were looking for with Bryars’s piece was pure emotion transmitted to the audience, whereas to me, your use of music previously had a more contradictory role. For instance with We Shall Run (1963), which was restaged at Danspace Project: in it, your use of Berlioz’s requiem had a clear sense of irony. Am I right?
YR: Yes. My use of music in the past had to do with, as you say, contradiction and irony. In We Shall Run the contrast between the grandiosity of the music and the simplicity of the movement is the principal idea. “Dust” is unusual for me in that its music has so much resonance and emotionality, also reference to a specific event. We recognize the electronically altered theme as Nearer My God To Thee, which is supposedly what the musicians played on the deck of the Titanic as the ship was going down. So, yes, I accepted that this piece of music would color the whole dance because the dance itself is so fragmented and unpredictable with the dancers having options about what they do, being able to stand aside, to make spontaneous decisions. So there’s that contrast, the consistency and integrity, let’s say, of the music and the constant breaking up of the movement. You’re right, there’s no irony here.
CA: It also made me think of your A Manifesto Reconsidered from 2008 in which to the statement “No to moving or being moved” you answered with “unavoidable.” I thought of Beckett’s Krapps’ Last Tape and this idea of talking to a previous self. Do you talk to the Yvonne from the 60s? Is that something that is in your mind when you produce new works?
YR: Constantly! You know, when you make work for so many years, in a way you’re always testing what you used to do and being critical of it at the same time. The past carries a kind of baggage that sometimes is useful to me. I call it “raiding my icebox.” It means going into your closet of old knickknacks and discovering little things that have new potential. The icebox contains notebooks, descriptions of movement, drawings, and photos, mostly from the 60s. Much of the work back then was not recorded or filmed. We were not thinking of the future. Trio A is an exception, one of the few survivors from that time. One’s baggage is both lodestone and potential resource. Depending on the particular components and needs of the moment, it’s useful or not.
CA: The night I attended the performance you provided us with handouts featuring a text on “value” and live performances in museums. I’d love to hear you elaborate on this especially with your 1970 Continuous Project – Altered Daily, which was presented at the Whitney in a gallery setting. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts about that now that we see a renewal of choreographers being invited to present their works in exhibition spaces.
YR: There are two parts to that: the history of museums and performance, especially dance, and the back-story of my use of a painting from the museum collection. In 1970-71 Steve Weil, a curator at the Whitney Museum, organized a series of music and dance events. Meredith Monk, Trisha Brown, Phil Glass, Deborah Hay, and others were participants. My Continuous Project – Altered Daily was part of that series. It was no big deal. I mean, it just seemed like a natural place to present work, with its big galleries and moveable walls. I don’t even remember what we were paid, if at all! MoMA was also presenting dance in its garden. And then, for some reason, it all stopped. I could be wrong, but after Weil left, no one took up the baton at the Whitney. Now we have an entirely different situation, with curators of performance and media and the attendant awakening of performance and dance artists to an awareness of rights and demands replacing their previous feelings of being flattered to be included in the art world. Dancers need sprung floors, for instance, and a nearby dressing room would be nice! Despite Roberta Smith’s dismissive reference in the New York Times to the “performance besotted MoMA,” I have to congratulate the efforts of the institutions in the last ten years to accommodate the needs of choreographers. Things aren’t perfect, but they’re moving along.
For my recent MoMA show I borrowed Henri Rousseau’s Sleeping Gipsy. The back-story to that is that Ralph Lemon invited me to do something as part of his yearlong series of exhibitions, talks, and performances around the theme of value. I suggested going to sleep under the Sleeping Gipsy in the gallery in which it was shown. I intended to take a sleeping pill and sleep for 6 hours on a mat. Unbeknownst to me – because I had been living in California – I was not aware that Tilda Swinton had done exactly that, not under a painting but in a glass cage. The curators and I began to discuss whether this might not be the right thing to do at this time, that my performance might be compared in a negative way with hers. I had also decided to have a handout available that would deal with the relative value of this priceless object and my aging dancer’s body. I wanted this one page statement to be on a music stand besides the painting and my sleeping figure. Meanwhile I googled Tilda Swinton at MoMA and discovered an image of her asleep in a glass cage with spectators pressing their noses up against the glass. And I thought “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Who is going to read my handout? My “act” would just be another exhibitionistic stunt, subject to the voyeurism of the passing crowd. And so we agreed to withdraw it. Then Ana Janevski, a curator of performance at MoMA, suggested that I find a way to include the painting in The Concept of Dust, which was already being planned. And so that’s how the painting got into the dance. Rather than me sleeping under a painting, the painting became a moving object that is ever so slowly rolled by two professional art handlers across the upstage space, finally to disappear. So that’s one story, my most recent experience of dancing in a museum.
*Image: Yvonne Rainer, “At my Body’s House,” 1963