Yvonne Rainer celebrated as groundbreaking dancer and artist


My God! Can theater finally come down to the irreducible fact that one group of people is looking at another group?! — Yvonne Rainer, 1969

A groundbreaking artist in the fields of dance, choreography and experimental film, Yvonne Rainer has had a career spanning more than 50 years, encompassing social and political themes and making her a cult figure in avant-garde circles.

A retrospective of Rainer’s dance and film career at the Getty Research Institute (GRI) at the Getty Center features photographs, scores, journals, posters and fliers, and video footage from the 1960s to the present day. It runs through Oct. 12.

Rainer’s mother, Jeannette, was born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrants from Warsaw, Poland, and spoke only Yiddish as a child. Her father, Joseph, was from northern Italy and was raised Catholic but abandoned the church. The couple met in a vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco, the city where Rainer was born. She remembers growing up in a very secular household, and learned more about Judaism after she dropped out of UC Berkeley and moved to the East Coast.

“I came to New York when I was 21,” Rainer, now 79, said in a phone interview after wrapping up a dance rehearsal, “and you know, you absorb Yiddishisms and something of the culture, Jewish humor — and the food.”

In the early 1960s, Rainer studied dance with avant-garde choreographers and artists. “I came under the influence, early on, of Merce Cunningham and John Cage,” she said. “Of course, their aesthetic was very anti-narrative, anti-drama and anti-the-idea-of-genius.”

Rainer developed a style that rejected conventional dance, said  exhibition curator Glenn Phillips, who is acting head of the GRI’s department of architecture and contemporary art. “Instead of doing an explicit movement-by-movement choreography, you’re creating a score. You’re creating a set of rules that the dancers can follow, and there’s a little bit of chance that’s involved as well.”

Rainer studied under choreographer and musician Robert Dunn, an acolyte of Cage, and began presenting her shows at the Judson Memorial Church in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1962. She and her colleagues formed a loose collective known as the Judson Dance Theater. One of their intentions was to take everyday pedestrian movements and infuse them with more virtuosic dancing. The dancers chose to wear street clothes rather than costumes and didn’t use makeup or dramatic lighting.

“One of my peers, Steve Paxton, and I used to joke around,” Rainer recalled. “He’d claimed to have invented walking, and I claimed to have invented running. He’d made a walking dance, and I’d made a running dance.”

In 1965, Rainer penned the “No Manifesto,” which became an infamous summation of the Judson dancers’ anti-theatrical mentality. It began: 

“No to spectacle. 

No to virtuosity. 

No to transformations and magic and make-believe.”

Looking back at the “No Manifesto,” Rainer now laughs at her youthful impetuousness. “It was never meant to be prescriptive,” she said. “It was meant as a provocation.” In 2008, she wrote “A Manifesto Reconsidered,” in which she directly responds to her earlier statements: 

“Avoid if at all possible. 

Acceptable in limited quantity. 

Magic is out; the other two are sometimes tolerable.”

The Getty’s relationship with Rainer dates back a decade, when Rainer staged an evening of performances there in 2004. She was named an artist-in-residence and developed a new dance piece in 2005; the GRI acquired her archive in 2006.

Phillips combed through 50 years of Rainer’s journals, in which she recounts her dreams and makes observations about the artists around her. In the exhibition, visitors can pick up headphones placed below open notebooks and hear Rainer read excerpts from those journals.

The main prop on stage for “Parts of Some Sextets” (1965) is a pile of mattresses. It references the sexual revolution that was then in full swing. But it also refers to the hospital bed where she had been laid up for weeks because of illness.

“The mattress is a very evocative object,” Rainer said. “I mean, it can be used for athleticism — we ran and jumped on them, and we hauled them around. But, you know, they are evocative of illness and death and sex. So it was very useful in that way. I didn’t have to deal with issues of sex and death specifically, in pantomimic terms or dramatic terms. It was inherent in the object itself.”

Rainer took an extended break from choreography and dance in 1975 to focus on filmmaking. For the next 25 years, she made a series of radically experimental films — all of which are being screened at the GRI — that explored a wide range of topics, including aging, gay rights, terrorism, breast cancer, economic inequality, psychoanalysis and pollution caused by oil tankers.

In 1990, she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. But Rainer’s dance career was revived in 2000 by none other than Russian ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov, who had defected to New York and often went downtown to see modern dance. 

“He was very adventurous,” she said. “He commissioned a dance from me, at a point where I didn’t think I could raise the money.”

The resulting work, “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan,” was performed by Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project. “It was like coming home. I love working with dancers. I mean, that’s my true — what do they call it? — métier, where I feel comfortable,” she said.

The Getty has commissioned a new work from Rainer, “The Concept of Dust, or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move?” that looks at the issue of aging, and specifically, she said, “the aging body in dance.” It will be performed at the Getty Oct. 3 and 4 with “Assisted Living: Do You Have Any Money” (2013). At the age of 79, she’s working with dancers ages 40 to 66. “They’re very skillful dancers, and can still get their legs up in the air and can still jump around,” Rainer said.

“She’s really an intellectual and has always been at the forefront of ideas,” Phillips said. “It makes her a difficult figure for your standard museum-going public, because, in a way, she’s a philosopher. But it’s also what has made her such a powerful and influential thinker.”

“Yvonne Rainer: Dances and Films” continues through Oct. 12 at The Getty Research Institute Galleries. 

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