by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal
Yvonne Rainer was a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater, a collective enterprise of young artists living in New York City in the 1960s, who together forged a new approach to dance, breaking radically from classical and modern dance traditions that came before them. Rainer’s 1966 dance Trio A, a seminal work from that period, ushered in a new age of “post-modern” dance. Thus it’s fitting that footage of a youthful Rainer performing Trio A opens Feeling Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer, a new documentary film by Jack Walsh. The biopic was screened for Philadelphia audiences at the Christ Church Neighborhood House last week, with both Rainer and Walsh present for the occasion.
Trio A is a kind of choreographic experiment to discover what remains if dance technique, style, and expression are banished from the equation of making a dance. Rainer constructed Trio A using “found” movements rather than recognizable dance steps, and these movements do not require any special training to perform. Crucially, the performer keeps her face averted from the spectator’s gaze throughout the dance. Trio A opened a door to dance as unembellished motion, and choreographers have been streaming through ever since.
Feelings are Facts is an accessible and entertaining look back at Rainer’s life and career. Providing the majority of the commentary herself, Rainer gives a frank and witty recollection of how her life experiences and artistic output intertwined and informed each other. First-hand recollections by her colleagues from the 1960s (Steve Paxton, Simone Forti, Lucinda Childs, Valda Setterfield, and Jennifer Tipton), as well various scholars, add illuminating details and context. Most importantly, the film features extensive footage of Rainer’s choreography, which is a great service and delight for so many of us who know about Rainer but haven’t had the opportunity to see her work.
The film picks up the narrative in the late 1950s, when the 22-year-old Rainer moved from the city of her birth, San Francisco, to New York with painter Al Held. It was an exhilarating time in New York, with abstract impressionism in full swing. Rainer was inspired by the cultural life of the city, and started taking at first acting, and the dancing lessons. She studied at the Martha Graham School, but soon found the style to be “irritating.” Before long, she was taking dance class with Merce Cunningham at his new studio, where she also encountered the ideas of musical composer John Cage.
In the fall of 1960, Cage persuaded fellow musician Robert Dunn to give a workshop at the Cunningham studio focused on working with the Cagean idea of using chance in composition. Among the participants were Rainer, Paxton, and Forti. By the spring of 1962, the workshop included more people and had produced a great amount of work. Rainer, Paxton, and Ruth Emerson auditioned and arranged a concert for the group at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. Rainer recalls that their first concert played to an audience of 300 people jammed into a sweltering, un-airconditioned room – and the response was ecstatic. Allen Hughes covered the event for the NY Times, giving the fledgling Judson Dance Theater instant credibility.
Feelings are Facts chronicles Rainer’s choreography from the 60s and early 70s and her involvement with improvisational group The Grand Union (including memorable footage of 5 dancers performing Trio A nude except for American flags tied around their necks). In 1972, Rainer transitioned from choreography to filmmaking, and spent the next quarter century producing experimental films. Seen in clips, her films wove narratives from her personal life with broader feminist themes. Rainer returned to choreography in the late 90s, however, and was invited by Mikhail Baryshnikov to create a new work form his White Oak Dance Project. Creative to her core and still going strong at age 82, Rainer continues to present work, most recently The Concept of Dust: Continuous Project – Altered Daily.
Feelings are Facts provides colorful insight into the Judson Church days, of which Rainer was a central figure. “She was so charismatic,” remembers colleague Steve Paxton. “She would walk on stage and it was like a jolt. She had a great power.” It was an earth-shaking moment in dance, and the possibilities the Judson group opened up for the art form remain central to the work of many choreographers today. As Rainer sums it up, “There was ground to be broken, and we were standing on it.”
Feeling Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer
Wednesday, October 19 6PM
Philadelphia premiere of new documentary film by Jack Walsh
post screening discussion with Jack Walsh and Yvonne Rainer
presented by Philadelphia Dance Projects
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