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. 

7 Days In Arts


More More. Celebrity Staged Play Reading producer-director Alexandra More presents another installment in the series tonight and tomorrow. “The Floating Lightbulb” is a bittersweet coming-of-age comedy penned by Woody Allen that revolves around a Canarsie family in 1945. The title references the older son’s dream of becoming a magician as a way out of his depressed surroundings. Alan Blumenfeld, Richard Fancy and Katherine James star.$10-$14. Nov. 22, 7:30 p.m., Valley Cities JCC, 13164 Burbank Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 786-6310.Nov. 23, 2 p.m., Westside JCC, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 938-2531, ext. 2225.


The Skirball shows the accordion due respect this evening as they present Grammy Award-winning accordionist Flaco Jimenez in concert. Jimenez and his ensemble perform traditional South Texas conjunto and Tejano music as part of the cultural center’s ongoing American Dream Music Series, which coincides with its exhibit, “The Photograph and the American Dream.”7 p.m. $10-$18. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 655-8587.


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In the aptly titled “Timekeeper” exhibition, Stephen Cohen Gallery displays a retrospective of photographs by Anthony Friedkin. His 30 years as a fine-art photographer, film unit still photographer and photojournalist (Newsweek and Rolling Stone) are all represented in the collection. There are images from projects including The Gay Essay, The “Le Mer” Series and The Beverly Hills Essay. Tony Friedkin’s art also hangs in LACMA, George Eastman House and the J. Paul Getty Museum, but Cohen Gallery features a considerable selection through Dec. 31.11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Tuesday-Saturday). 7358 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 937-5525.


Chanukah comes early this year for choral Yiddish musiclovers. Thank Mark Zuckerman and the Goldene Keyt Singers for this miracle. TheCD is titled “The Year in Yiddish Song,” because, Zuckerman writes, “thesequence of the songs reflects the calendar (more or less) of the EasternEuropean Jewish immigrants to America.” It includes old faves like “Ikh bin akleyner dreydl” (that’s “I am a Little Dreydl,”) and “Bay mir bistu sheyn.” $15.www.centaurrecords.com



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For those predisposed to road rage or parking lot paroxysms, may we suggest avoiding the malls in favor of a second look at one of LACMA’s collections. “Revisiting the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection of Photographic Self-Portraits” runs through Jan. 11, and gives you the opportunity to do just as the title suggests. Divided into thematic sections, the exhibit illustrates the ways in which artists have explored ideas of “identity, culture and art-making itself.”Noon-9 p.m. (Friday), noon-8 p.m. (Monday, Tuesday and Thursday), 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (Saturday and Sunday). Free (children 17 and under), $5-$9 (general). 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 857-6000.

Her Life as a Montage

Hannah Hoch’s first major U.S. retrospective has arrived at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; it’s been a long time coming.

The photomontage artist, who lived from 1889 to 1978, was considered one of the foremost media artists of her time. Her work long has gleaned attention in Europe but was virtually unknown in the United States until the current exhibit brought 170 of her works to New York, Minneapolis and Los Angeles.

Actually, she is best known as the only woman to belong to the bad-boy club of Berlin Dada, that radical group of anti-art subversives who held court in the late 1910s and early 1920s. With scissors and glue, through two world wars and beyond, Hoch, who was dubbed a “degenerate artist” by the Nazis, moved from political parody to surrealist fantasy to outright abstraction. She chronicled the century and unflinchingly explored the lives of women.

A small-town girl from a bourgeois family and the daughter of an insurance-agency official, Hoch took up the typically feminine pursuit of fabric and embroidery design at an early age. But, by her late teens, she had become what the Germans called a “New Woman”: free-spirited, independent. She carried on an affair with a married man, Raoul Hausmann, with whom she conceived two children (both aborted), and she joined the flamboyant Dada circle. With the monocled Dadaists, she pioneered the art of photomontage, a collage technique using printed photographs from the popular press.

It was a boisterous, political medium, and Hoch’s most famous work has the wicked Dada bite. The title says it all: “Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany.” (The piece, alas, is too fragile to travel to Los Angeles.)

“Dada Panorama” ridicules Weimar Republic leaders as comic, ineffectual and, yes, beer-bellied: They appear middle-aged, pudgy, with flowers stuck into their sagging swimsuits. Just under the president’s immaculate military boots (he’s wearing them with the swimsuit) is a slogan used to advertise a popular foot antiperspirant. The powers-that-be impotently float amid more silly slogans and soldiers standing stiffly at attention.

Around this time, Hoch was also becoming preoccupied with women’s issues, perhaps because she was encountering some of her own. Publicly, the Dadaists clamored for the rights of the “New Woman”; privately, they belittled Hoch’s work, which was wry and more whimsical than theirs. George Grosz and John Heartfield opposed her participation in the First International Dada Fair of 1920; Hans Richter condescendingly referred to her as the “good girl”; and even her lover, Hausmann, barely mentioned her in his memoirs. Rather, he asserted that she should support him because he was the artist; Hoch often hid her work from him when he visited her studio.

It was a period of considerable anguish for the photomontage artist, who, nevertheless, still was able to produce an impressive body of work. She achieves a not-so-subtle revenge in “Da Dandy” (1919), where several bob-haired “New Women” exist merely as fragments of the Da(daist)’s male fantasies. They are literally contained inside his head, which is a silhouette outlined in red.

The exploration of gender issues continues in pieces such as “The Coquette I” and “The Coquette II,” where grinning, doll-like women are objectified by men-beasts who place them on pedestals.

Hoch dared overt political satire, however, only in the earliest years of the Nazi era. She parodied their racial politics in “German Girl” and “Peasant Wedding Couple” (1931) — the groom wears storm-trooper boots and the bride, blond braids, though their features are ape-like and African. A silhouette of Max Schmeling, the champion boxer and Nazi Aryan superhero, looms over “The Strong Men” (1931).

Just before World War II, however, Hoch realized that she was in danger. She was a bisexual, an ex-Communist, and an ex-Dadaist besides. The Reich had blacklisted her as a “degenerate artist” and “cultural Bolshevist” and had canceled her show at the Dessau Bauhaus.

Actually, the Bauhaus itself had been shut down. Hoch’s avant-garde friends were being ridiculed in the infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibit, and most had left the country.

Hoch could not leave, due to poor finances and ill health — a thyroid condition had nearly killed her. And, so, she bought an old guardhouse on an abandoned World War I airfield in a distant Berlin suburb and retreated there to escape the watchful eyes of the Gestapo.

She survived the war by making herself as obscure as possible, by raising chickens and vegetables in her beloved garden (where, legend has it, she buried her Dada art and artifacts) and by limiting much of her work to escapist fantasy. A typical piece, “On the Nile II,” is a magical dreamscape awash with bright colors and strange, hybrid creatures.

Other works describe Hoch’s Hitler-anxiety in oblique fashion. In “Never Keep Both Feet on the Ground,” disembodied ballerinas’ legs dangle lifelessly from an amorphous, winged cloud. One cannot help but recall the image of Hitler descending through the clouds at the opening of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi epic, “Triumph of the Will.”

All in all, Hoch described the Nazi years as the time of her “great loneliness.”

In the end, she rode out the war in her hideaway guardhouse; there, she continued to live and to quietly paint until her death, at the age of 88, in 1978. By that time, she had attained a modicum of acclaim in Europe.

What riled her all her life, however, was that she was usually associated only with the Dada movement. “I’m sick and tired of Dada,” she said, not long before her death. “Everything else that has developed goes unnoticed.”

The Photomontages of Hannah Hoch, through Sept. 14, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 WIlshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 857-6000.