Yvonne Rainer, still from Privilege, 1990, 16mm, 103 minutes. © Yvonne Rainer. Courtesy of Video Data Bank, www.vdb.org, School of Chicago.
The following is excerpted from Interviews on Art, a collection of more than sixty interviews by Robert Storr with contemporary artists. Yvonne Rainer is a dancer, choreographer, and filmmaker who has been recognized as one of the leading conceptual artists of the past fifty years. She emerged in the 1960s as a pioneer of the Judson Dance Theater movement, an avant-garde performance style that blended elements of dance and visual art, and later turned to experimental film. This previously unpublished conversation was conducted on April 9, 2009, at the College of Fine Arts, School of Visual Arts, at Boston University.
Let me begin by saying that it is a special pleasure to enter into this conversation. Yvonne and I have known each other over quite a long time. We first met in the early 1980s—in effect, part of the protracted aftermath of the 1970s—which was a very different time from now. What we’ve gone through lately, and are about to go through with the onset of recession resembles the 1970s more so than the boom times of the 1980s and nineties: an art world where the terms of making art takes place against a very unsettled and uncertain background. Considering that we are about to speak in front of a predominantly student audience, I would like to begin by saying that I’ve been struck by the way that for the past twenty years or so, people have talked a great deal about careers as if there was some kind of scripted narrative or a scripted scenario for how one begins in one place and ends up in another ideal place. But it seems to me that art has always been much more about working, than about careers and about the specific work that one chooses. Since then you have done many things. Perhaps our conversation might start with the fact of just this variety of paths forward: how you have chosen to work in this way and chosen to work in that way and how have patterns developed rather than how those were patterns foretold or planned.
Yvonne Rainer, 1964. Photograph Collection Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives, New York
In a nutshell, I kind of fell into dance in the late 1950s and I feel very privileged to have come into the field at a very crucial moment when everything in visual art, music, and dance was about to explode in different directions and reinvent the terms and the boundaries of artmaking. By 1960 I was studying with Merce Cunningham, the long-time collaborator of John Cage, who redefined or, better, threw out the rules about what constituted music, and I began to use chance procedures, which came directly from John Cage’s methods for organizing sounds. By 1965 I was thinking about an evening-length work. I had studied composition with Robert Dunn who was an acolyte of Cage and played the piano for Cunningham’s technique classes. He exposed to us different methods for making dances and organizing movement. For instance, he solicited us to look at other sources of movements than one’s own body. So, by 1965 I was thinking about a long dance called The Mind Is a Muscle and the first section of that dance was called “Trio A,” which has become my signature dance partly because it is one of the few surviving records of my work from a fifteen-year career. It’s a five-minute piece, originally done as a trio. The piece is not meant to be in perfect unison: three people perform it in and out of phase. A film of me performing it was made in 1978. It was originally filmed in 16 mm. I still teach it and a large number of people have learned it in various situations and it continues to be taught. One of the main characteristics of this dance is that the gaze of the performer never looks directly out at the audience.
At the time, I began to question my own enjoyment and what I term a kind of narcissism and pleasure in being looked at as a performer. The symbiotic relation of being looked at, and looking, seemed to reinforce this kind of exhibitionism, as I termed it at the time. So I refused to look at the audience. Rather, the gaze becomes inward. I’m either looking at my own body or anticipating where a part of my body is going to go or, if my body faces the audience, I give special movements for my head like rolling around as the body moves sideways across the space. Or, after having just done a backward somersault, I come up with my eyes closed. Another aspect is that I give equal attention to every movement. No one movement is more important than any other, which requires a certain kind of distribution of energy. Very simple things and very difficult things are given the same weight and unmodulated dynamic. The piece was originally done to the accompaniment of 3 ft-long slats that were thrown down from a choir loft at Judson [Memorial] Church and they piled up at one side of the space. It was also performed [in 1969] to the accompaniment of the Chambers Brothers’ “In the Midnight Hour” at the Billy Rose Theater in New York. Now it’s usually done in silence. By the way, everything is pre-set and there is no improvisation at all in the movements.
Could you talk a little bit about the context in which this piece was made and where the movements themselves came from? Did they have specific references or did they emanate from previous exercises?
I played with various sources. Mainly, I was just inventing out of my training—they are not specific exercises. I was in a dialog with ballet and so there are three arabesques in it. People think it’s easy to do, but it’s, in fact, a very technical dance. There’s a lot of one-leg balances, a lot of patting-your-head and rubbing-your-belly kinds of coordination. So it was about a sort of accretion of simple tasks, like rolling the head, but then at the same time there was a traveling pattern for the feet. I just kept trying to make things either very simple or complicated. As I progressed—it’s danced in the order in which I made the moves—I realized I was into something that was about an even dynamic: no attack, no hierarchy of movements, and that I pursued. I worked on it for six months and just five minutes came out of that, so I was pretty particular about the choices I made. But it’s hard to remember exactly where each movement came from. I mean, there are ordinary things like somersaults; or, when looking down, the idea is to get your nose on your toe. When I was teaching it to the original performers of it, I remember David Gordon doing something in a way that seemed very mannered to me and I asked him, “What’s your image?” He said, “I’m thinking of myself as a faun, the mythical character” and I said, “Well, try thinking of yourself as a barrel!” I had in mind more material and inanimate things. Another performer was doing a move like a bird and I said, “No, think of an airplane.” So, it went like that.
You said the first performance was done by a group of three dancers and each started at a different time.
No, we started more or less at the same time.
I left the pace up to each one.
But given those parameters, can you talk about what you were pushing off from to do things where you didn’t have things like a crescendo, dramatic affects or accents, and so on. What were you thinking about doing and what were you thinking about not doing?
I was not going to repeat. The only repetition in the piece is the walking, which is an element employed to connect things. I guess that registration or modulation came out of La Monte Young, and out of some of the things that were being done in music. It came out of Cage’s notion of silence. It came out of the element of unpredictability. One of the first things Steve Paxton, a colleague choreographer, said to me was, “You can’t predict what is going to happen next.” So it didn’t come out of a sense of organic continuity that much modern dance had, as seen in the rediscovery of Doris Humphrey and the various techniques that had animated previous modern dance. I definitely had a dialog with my predecessors as well as with ballet.
At that time you were in the context and really part of the Judson Dance Theater project in New York, and at that time the Judson Theater had collaborating artists, chief among them Robert Morris and Robert Rauschenberg. What was your relationship to the visual artists who were entering, as performers, into the world that had previously been dance?
It was a time of great cross-fertilization. Painters were making happenings and dancers were in music in the sense that they were performing in musical compositions. Everyone was crossing the boundaries. Everyone went to see the latest things. Judson [Memorial] Church had a gallery where Allan Kaprow and Claes Oldenburg first showed their work, and there was the Rubin Gallery where the happenings of Jim Dine and Oldenburg took place. There was also the 92nd Street Y where Cage presented his work. It was a much smaller audience and it came from different fields. Everyone went to see everything. There was a very heightened sense of expectation in the air.
One specific performance you did was in relation to the People’s Flag Show at the Judson Theater in 1970, a show using the American flag which was very controversial because using the national symbol in any, but reverential, ways was taboo. Each of the dancers wore a flag and otherwise wore nothing. The eroticism of some of the choreography that you did is very striking, and it is also striking in contrast to the de-eroticization of other performances. In as much as you were thinking about being looked at and being a performer, could you talk about the sexual politics of your work and also your politics generally?
I think there were some contradictions in that I was taking off my clothes and performing nude, when I had just made a dance that removed me from the gaze of the audience in a certain way. But the Judson [People’s] Flag Show was about a protest against censorship and so I was thinking about the censorship of the body. My normal proclivities about exhibitionism were trumped by the political implications of the flag and nudity, combining those two elements.
Did you then go through a process of gradual disenchantment with performing and being a performer, of being looked at? How did that come about?
Well, we’re now getting into my transition to film. I guess I began to deal with the limitations of the kind of movement I was capable of, and was interested in, which was not about storytelling and it was not about metaphor—I mean, it was very much influenced by Minimalism. Feminism was coming along and I was reading all these essays about patriarchy and I began to think about narrative and film. I had followed experimental film from the 1950s when I was in San Francisco as a very young person. I had seen the films of Maya Deren at the San Francisco Museum of Art as early as 1953. When I came to New York in 1956, I was still following experimental film. By the mid-1960s and early 70s Warhol was making films and there was a movement called “The New American Cinema”, including Hollis Frampton and Michael Snow, among others. I began to see the possibilities for combining some of these experimental techniques in 16 mm film with narrative fragments, which bring us to my first feature film Lives of Performers (1972). In it, a lot of things happen: you have my dance background of utmost simplicity that becomes the embodiment of the spoken story about a man who can’t make up his mind between two women. And you have a kind of disingenuousness. I came to this material with a consciousness of Hollywood melodrama, but also of a kind of absurdity—maybe from my background in theater looking at [Eugène] Ionesco and certainly from looking at [Jean Luc] Godard’s films. Throughout the film there’s no sync sound. The performers went by their own names—Shirley, Valda, and Fernando. I gave them pages from the script, which was very disjunctive, and I said, “Oh, this passage I really like the way I’ve written it, so just read it or improvise.” So, in a close-up of Valda [Setterfield], with her voice over, she improvises a story about going to John’s house, making it up as she goes along. There was a performance that preceded the film. It was concurrent with my editing of the film and a rough cut of the film was shown as part of this performance. We sat in front of it and read, or improvised from the script and that was recorded and became the soundtrack for it. You also hear the audience’s response—you hear them laugh, for instance. I could have put in a laugh track, but it’s the actual audience at the dance concert that you hear and also us laughing at certain moments. For instance, there was a previous sound taping as the performers watched themselves for the first time in a private screening. We recorded their responses and in the film, at a certain point, there’s a big close-up of Shirley where she says, “Oh, I look like an old-fashioned movie star!” She had never seen herself on film before. So I incorporated those spontaneous things into the soundtrack.
One of the principle things that happens in film and on stage is the coming together of the framing of time and the framing of space, two elements that you seem to have been working with all along. In theater the framework is however big the room is, and an important factor is also whether it has seating or not—at Judson Theater, for instance, people walked through the dance space to get to it—but the framing within the frame of the film is a different thing entirely.
Yes, you’re right. One of the things that drew me to film was framing the possibilities for a very exact framing of the body.
The framing of sound or the deframing of sound respond to the same artistic strategy. Breaking synchronization is another way of deframing sound.
Right. You can’t do that in live theater.
That brings me to other formal devices that occur in your work a good deal; namely doubling and splitting. For example, you seem to split personalities and also double them. As a result, one is never watching a fully integrating character doing a fully consistent thing. One always sees variations. How did that come about? What kind of concept, inclination or impulse led you to that?
I wasn’t interested in illusionistic conventions of narrative cinema as practiced in Hollywood, or any kind of narrative film—where sound corresponds to the lips and to what actually comes out of the actor’s mouth. When I started out, I didn’t want to use actors: they gave me either too much or too little. And I didn’t know how to direct—I still don’t know how to direct. By the time I was through, in 1996, I was using professional actors, but at this earlier time I used the people who had worked with me in dance. Some of them were trained dancers, some of them were not—for example, Valda Setterfield was dancing with Merce Cunningham at the time. I had to think about devices for telling a story and since I wasn’t interested in a plot—with exposition, development, climax, and dénouement according to traditional classical theater, I had to find ways to keep this thing within ninety minutes, with all these fragments of my experience, fragments of things I’d read, quotes and so on. I began to explore new devices and strategies. All my films—all seven of them—deal with some kind of performance or time-based activity. Sometimes the main character is a video artist, or a choreographer, or a dancer. So there are all these performances within the thread or the body of the film. In Film About a Woman Who … (1974), there are two men and two women and they refer only to “he” or “she” so you never know which one is being referred to. I kept mixing it up to create these ambiguities in terms of plot and yet the language had an air of authenticity about it. For instance, the little story in Lives of Performers is autobiographical. There’s a great deal of revamped autobiography in all my films.
Yvonne Rainer, Still from Film About A Woman Who…, 1974, 16mm, 105 minutes. © Yvonne Rainer. Courtesy of Video Data Bank, www.vdb.org, School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In Film About a Woman Who …, which is your second feature-length film, the text of a letter that you narrate reads: “This is the poetically licensed story of a woman who finds it difficult to reconcile certain external facts with her image of her own perfection. It is also the same woman’s story if we say she cannot reconcile these facts with her image of her own deformity.” So you have, again, the split personality. It is almost the archetype of the narcissistic dream of perfection.
Yeah, it’s called ambivalence.
How consciously did you structure this according to psychological or psychoanalytical models, or how much of this was organically coming out of your own?
It came out of my own development and therapy. A lot of it came out of psychotherapy, just learning about myself.
Yvonne Rainer, Still from The Man Who Envied Women, 1985, 16mm, 125 minutes. © Yvonne Rainer. Courtesy of Video Data Bank, www.vdb.org, School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Your film The Man Who Envied Women (1985) is very much about the theorization of sexuality, of identity. It is about a man who becomes a theoretical feminist and yet treats women in a way that suggests he hadn’t studied his own books. At what point does theory become a tool and when is it also a means of expression?
Well, Laura Mulvey’s famous essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” was a kind of lodestone for me in the mid 1970s and the film that came out of that was The Man Who Envied Women playing on the penis envy that Freud propagated in relation to women’s sexuality or men’s sexuality—castration and all that. The theories about certain genres of Hollywood film affected women filmmakers and theorists of the next ten years or so. It was a critique of the way women are objectified in the Hollywood movies from the forties and fifties. So I began collecting clips from Hollywood movies in which women were complicit in being demeaned or objectified by men. These clips became the backdrop for the main character, who was in some kind of therapy, and they became his cultural unconscious. For instance, I included clips of Bette Davis in Dark Victory (1939) saying to her doctor, “I have been a good girl” and acting like a little girl. In my film Privilege (1990), I dealt with race and female menopause in the same vehicle, which was a very difficult thing to pull off. So much so that I nearly gave it up. In it, there is a white middle-class woman dealing with characters of color who are also working class. There are a lot of quotations from writers in this work of mine—a lot of printed material is read.
Maybe you can talk a little bit about the importance of text in your work. In Film About a Woman Who … there’s a scene where the camera comes in on your face and there are words being spoken that seem to have an entirely independent existence. Objectified language is an important element with which you often play.
Yes, that’s true. I’ve been compared to Woody Allen for the way in which my characters often talk—they are educated, liberal. The Night of the Living Dead (1968), George Romero’s horror movie, is one of the clips playing in the background in The Man Who Envied Women. I had gone to a midnight screening of that film and at the end of it, the lights came up in the theater and two guys were going at each other in the front row. The power of that kind of horror stayed in my mind. Romero’s film is about a black man defending people from monsters who have returned from the dead. They are the undead. In my piece, two actors play the same character and I ended up calling him Jack Deller. Then there’s the female character, Tricia, who has split up with him. (I should mention that, at the beginning, I chose to include a clip of Tricia Brown dancing.) In my piece I take her physical presence out of the picture. I was influenced by critiques of the oversexualization of women in Hollywood movies and so I said to myself, “Okay, I’ll take her out totally, and she’ll be a controlling voice,” since very often in film noir a man’s voice is the controlling voice. So there’s a telephone conversation she has with her brother and her sister-in-law who she doesn’t get along with—which is not my case, since I get along fine with my sister-in-law. I do have a brother and I had had this conversation with him after seeing the French film The Mother and the Whore which I found very powerful. So you hear a conversation about one film and you see another film, The Night of the Living Dead, and you see the whole audience for that film getting very riled up and fighting in the theater.
Your film Privilege is political in a different dimension. Can you talk about it?
In it, an African American documentary filmmaker, Yvonne Washington, is making a documentary about menopause in female aging. One of her interviewees is a woman by the name of Jenny. It seems they knew each other many years before. They get into this whole dialog. Jenny doesn’t really want to talk about menopause, finding it a boring subject. She wants to tell Yvonne about an incident that happened when she was a young dancer in New York.
It refers to something that actually happened to me: I lived in an all-white building on a Puerto Rican block in Manhattan and the guy from next door climbed through my downstairs neighbor’s window. He was drunk and I don’t know whether he really wanted to rape her, but she started screaming, and I ran down and the cops came. I was a witness and I was called in by the DA [District Attorney]. After the trial was over I had an affair, a very short affair, with this DA. So it’s about this relationship and it’s also about the lesbian neighbor downstairs. In a scene, she talks and instead of saying “he”, she says “you, you!” It’s all mixed up in the pronouns. Then she tells a story about seduction with a female lover and that’s when he burns out his cigarette—he’s burnt, so to speak, by the story. Then you see them in bed. So it’s all broken up. There are flashbacks where Jenny plays her younger self as a middle-aged woman. It’s a mix-up, going against the grain of conventions. A younger actress plays the character. Moreover the Puerto Rican guy is given language of Frantz Fanon, which is a very Godardian thing to do. I chose to have a working-class guy who speaks Marx the way Godard would put Marx in the mouth of children. Hence the long monologs about race and the subjectivity of an oppressed black subject. There are all different kinds of source material in this film of mine. For instance, I conducted real interviews with a menopausal woman, and there is documentary footage of doctors on the subject.
In this film you’re essentially putting together all different kinds of otherness—sexual otherness, racial otherness, age-based otherness, and so on. In what ways are you trying to equate them or in what ways are you trying to differentiate them?
I do both. The story of the encounter on the bus is all about race. Then the interviews are all about female aging. In a clip, the DA and Jenny come to climax in bed and she rises up from her reclining position and, facing the camera, she says, “The hardest part about reaching middle age was the realization that the linchpin of my identity was being desired by men.” In my own experience, and in that of other women of my generation, it was something pretty hard to confront when men stopped whistling at you and you had been an attractive woman. I had to face that on some extent. I wouldn’t have phrased it like that, but the extreme of that struggle is voiced by Jenny to the camera. It’s a very powerful moment. So the race issue and the feminist issue are kept separate, but then they come together at various points. I guess I leave it to the audience to keep them on track. There is also a reference to the fact that this was before hormone replacement therapy was discredited as not being the best thing a woman could do and, of course, there was an earlier generation of doctors who were pushing it on women.
Can you explain the circumstances of your going back to choreographing dance in recent years?
Yes. My last feature film was done in 1996. I had gotten a lot of big grants—each film cost twice as much as the previous one. I realized that unless I made a crossover into more conventional documentary or narrative filmmaking I wouldn’t be able to go on like this. I was also getting kind of fed up with raising money. I felt I was the dog being wagged by the tail, and I found film production very difficult. I felt not in control. I wrote poetry for a year, did various things, and around the end of 1999 Mikhail Baryshnikov invited me to make a dance for his company. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I hadn’t choreographed for twenty-five years, but with the help of a dancer who continues to work with me, Pat Catterson, who had studied with me in the late 1960s and was still going strong, I went back to my notebooks and I pulled together a half-hour work for him.
Following that, there was a succession of opportunities and invitations that allowed me to have three more dancers for my own group. Working with them I created my 45-minute work RoS Indexical (2007) based on [Vaslav] Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913) and culled from the BBC film Riot at the Rite (2005), a dramatization of the making of The Rite of Spring. As we all know, it was a scandal in Paris when Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes premiered the Nijinsky-Stravinsky collaboration at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The original dance was reconstructed by dance historian and choreographer Millicent Hodson in the late 1980s for the Joffrey Ballet and it was taught to the Finnish National Ballet that performs it in the BBC film. Toward the end, I used the soundtrack from a section of the BBC production in my version of “The Rite of Spring” that features a fictionalized riot by the audience protesting in the background.
I asked you earlier about origins of motions. In the last section of RoS Indexical, there is a scene where a dancer makes a movement that is straight out of the show Robin Williams Live: on Broadway [aired by HBO]. In your piece, it’s a woman who performs it, while in Williams’ case it’s a man. It’s an image of masturbation, but you’ve flipped the genders. Built into this there are all kinds of subtext and all other kinds of things going on. The blend in this case is not just random. Actually it’s quite deliberately problematic. Could you talk about the way in which you now think about making a dance, and the way in which you introduce subtexts using verbal language?
Well, it’s all quotation now. It’s not coming out of my body invention, although some of it could. For example, a dance in this piece uses movements of Pat Catterson’s senile mother, who is in an assisted living situation. She used to be a professional ballroom dancer and we put on a 1940s Dean Martin record and she can still do her moves, so that’s in the dance. There’s a lot of Robin Williams, as you said, and there’s Steve Martin too. I also use quotations from the Millicent Hodson’s reconstruction of Nijinsky’s piece. So a lot of the ecstatic, desperate movements from the dance of the virgin are in my piece, in reference to the story of the Slavic tribal ritual that required a virgin to dance herself to death to bring on spring and the crops.
As you said, at the outset, one of your early dances was titled The Mind is a Muscle (1968), which reminds me of a phrase by the French art historian Henri Focillon who talked about the “mind in the hand”, the things that the body knows. In 2006 you wrote an autobiography, or memoir, titled Feelings are Facts, in which you essentially say, “That which is subjective is also objective.” It seems to me that throughout your work, there is a desire not to collapse oppositions, but to bring them so close to each other that they throw sparks. Are those tensions inherent in the overall design of what you’ve done?
Yes. Throwing off sparks, yeah. Susan Sontag put it very acutely, I think. She speaks of radical juxtaposition. And the theories of Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein also explore a collision of opposites. The notion of third meaning elaborated by Roland Barthes in relation to Eisenstein also comes to my mind: Barthes speaks of a meaning at once persistent and fugitive, apparent and evasive. He calls this “the obtuse meaning”, the third meaning that opens the field of meaning totally, infinitely.
I would add that one can reasonably say that most things in art are unclear and that they are as unclear to the viewer as they are unclear to the author. To be articulate as an author is to address those complexities in the viewer with a kind of trust and involvement that viewers are not accustomed to be given. What you have done, to an amazing degree, has been being articulate about some things that are not clear, while being able to blend unresolved realities that are psychosexual, political, formal, and purely physical. All of these things are articulate, each in its own way, and, to the degree that they are simultaneous, they can be perceived in their own right but always in connection.
Thank you, Rob.
 Presented as The Mind Is a Muscle, Part I, “Trio A” was first performed on 10 January 1966 by Yvonne Rainer, David Gordon and Steve Paxton at Judson Memorial Church, Washington Square Park, New York.
 At the height of protests against the Vietnam War, the People’s Flag Show was organized by Jon Hendricks, Faith Ringgold, and Jean Toche in protest against the arrest of various individuals accused of “desecrating” the American flag. During the opening of the show, Yvonne Rainer, Lincoln Scott, Steve Paxton, David Gordon, Nancy Green, and Barbara Dilley performed with 5 ft American flags tied around their necks at Judson Memorial Church, November 1970. This incarnation of “Trio A” is known as “Trio A with Flags”.
 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1973) (Screen, Oxford Journals, Autumn 1975), issue 16, no.3, pp.6–18.
 La maman et la putain (1973), directed by Jean Eustache. The film focuses on the relationships between the characters in a love triangle.
 Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Several Eisenstein Stills” (1970) in Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, Stephen Heath (trans.) (Hill and Wang, New York, 1977).
Robert Storr (born 1949) is an American art critic, curator, and artist. Trained as a painter, he served as curator and then senior curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art for more than a decade. Storr also led the Yale University School of Art as Dean from 2006 to 2016.
Extracted from Robert Storr Interviews on Art, published by HENI Publishing, London, 2017. © HENI Publishing
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