If you’ve been missing live events during these last weeks of summer, here are two dance documentaries to recommend that will help alleviate the dance stage dry spell.
‘August Pace 1989-2019′ | Directed by Daniel Madoff (2023)
Philadelphia-based filmmaker Daniel Madoff was a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for seven years and performed with them during their final tour seasons after the choreographer’s death in 2009. Since then, Madoff has continued to honor Cunningham’s indelible legacy with his documentary ‘August Pace 1989-2019.’
The title refers to a seminal Cunningham work that premiered in 1989. The film opens with archival footage of the original 15 dancers taking bows after the premiere of ‘August Pace’ at its Berkeley performance. Thirty years later, 13 of those original cast members, in collaboration with The Cunningham Trust, have gathered for a revival of the piece to be performed by a new generation of dancers. They had only two weeks to prepare for three performances at the Jerome Robbins Theater at 92Y. This was a daunting prospect for both the veteran dancers and the young cast, many of whom knew little about Cunningham’s feral techniques.
In this case, Cunningham set each part individually, and for each couple, there was the wild card of chance. He gave each partner two sequences of steps to choose from during the performance. The bespoke architecture pushing the boundaries of ‘chance’ elements still required precision and lyrical flow, indeed testing the memories of the elder cast, even with archival footage of their performances. Cunningham structured ‘August Pace’ around seven duets, with chance sequences built in. For instance, partners would come together or not during their dances.
To achieve this level of immediacy during such a short amount of rehearsal time, each new dancer worked with each original performer in body-on-body sessions during the rehearsal cycle. While the elder cast was accustomed to Merce’s unconventional aesthetics, the new cast was navigating new rehearsal techniques.
The other challenge for the new cast was rehearsing without any music or sound score that they would only hear during the public performance. Cunningham’s choreography was not ‘referential’ and had no direct thematic relationship with the music. The dancers describe their experiences then and now of Cunningham’s liberating concepts and the energy that ignites between the dancers. These are elements that can easily be invisible on film, but Madoff’s videography, both in the studio and at the 2019 performances, captures that elusive dance alchemy in this unique documentary.
‘August Pace’ is also on the documentary film circuit and is being screened at dance festivals in Europe and the US. It is also available on Vimeo platforms.
‘Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer’ | Directed by Jack Walsh
In 2022, dancer-choreographer-filmmaker Yvonne Rainer premiered “Hellzapoppin’: What About the Bees?” last fall at New York Live Arts. At 87, she told the New York Times, “Yeah, I feel it’s my last production… I have no more ideas.” She left the stage for 20 years in the 70s to make films and then returned to dance in 2000. So, it’s not a stretch to think that Rainer could change her mind if a new idea occurs to her.
In the early 1960s, Rainer was one of the vanguard dancer-choreographers who broke open the post-modern aesthetic with the Judson Dance Theater collective. Rainer talks about her artistic life in dance and in film, as well as much about her personal life in Jack Walsh’s stylish documentary “Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer,” which premiered on PBS nationwide this summer and screened locally on WHYY as part of their LGBTQ+ Pride month programming.
Walsh opens the film with a shot of Rainer standing on a Manhattan street corner and states, “Statistics show that lesbians are chronic late returners of library books.” Rainer is equally wry, witty, and disarming as she talks about her career and personal life, including her relationships with men and her coming out as a lesbian in her 50s.
Rainer describes her childhood growing up in San Francisco in an Italian-American family, as a shy girl who attended prep school and then Berkeley but realized that it wasn’t for her. She quit after a week, recalling that she “had some sort of a breakdown, I guess.” However, she had other ideas about what her life would be. Rainer came to the nexus of the avant-garde performing arts center. She started taking classes at the Martha Graham School but didn’t like Graham’s “Mystique and the inflated metaphors of her language… were all very irritating to me,” she recalled.
But, “I had a sense of my potential. That I was going to make something of myself with this recalcitrant, undancerly body and I was going to carve my own way.” Rainer was drawn to the experimental performances of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, “both pariahs in their fields,” she recalls.
The first performances at Judson included dancers three other vanguards Steve Paxton, David Gordon, and Trisha Brown. Rainer’s first choreographies at Judson was her solo “Trio A.” As one critic put it, “I didn’t understand what I was looking at, but I sensed it was important.” Rainer’s work was drawing a lot of attention as Judson shifted the balance of power in socially conscious art in the staid high-art performance scene in New York, along with proto-feminist sensibilities. Rainer’s famous 1965 manifesto still reads as a blistering critique of established norms in both ballet and modern dance. It begins with the lines: “NO to spectacle. No to virtuosity. No to transformations and magic and make-believe. No to the glamour and transcendence of the star image. No to the heroic. No to the anti-heroic…”
For the next decade, Rainer continued to expand elements of dance and visual arts collaborative events with works such as ‘The Mind is A Muscle,’ ‘Terrain,’ ‘War,’ and ‘Street Action.’ In 1972, after several years leading the Grand Union troupe, she had an ever-evolving piece ‘Continuous Project-Altered Daily’ with dancers Trisha Brown, Valda Setterfield, David Gordon, Steve Paxton, Barbara Dilly, Nancy Lewis, Douglas Dunn. Rainer eventually invited the dancers to create choreography for the piece, admitting that she had run out of ideas.
Rainer turned her attention to filmmaking. Her first piece ‘Hand Dance’ was already famous for its hypnotic absurdity, but Rainer soon emerged as an important cinematic voice with such early films as ‘Lives of Performers,’ ‘Film About a Woman Who…,’ and ‘Kristina Taking Pictures,’ among others. Later films included ‘The Man Who Envied Women,’ ‘Privilege,’ and ‘MURDER and murder.’ Her work was initially (and predictably) trashed by film critics in the US but embraced as political, pro-feminist statements by the cinema avant-garde and independent artists in the US and Europe.
In the documentary, feminist scholar B. Ruby Rich describes Rainer’s approach, “Her work in the 70s and 80s really traces an intellectual and political history of the period. Feminism is always there … but it’s Yvonne’s feminism. It’s not there as a static picture; it’s there to be fought over and tugged at.”
By the 90s, Rainer became frustrated with the costs and inherent challenges of filmmaking and returned to dance. She revived Trio A with her former Judson dancers at a sold-out premiere attended by Mikhail Baryshnikov, who used the occasion to invite her to present a work at the White Oak Dance Festival, as part of a retrospective of the original Judson choreographers.
Rainer’s drolly titled ‘After many a summer, dies the swan,’ she describes as a ‘pastiche’ of her work, including ‘Mat/Chair/Pillow;’ ‘Nabokov’ and her defining 1966 work ‘Trio A.’ With Baryshnikov performing among a new generation of dancers, he toured the Judson Festival series on an extensive US tour.
Walsh is an expert at editing engaging interview clips of artists, writers, and dance colleagues, without skimping on performance footage that builds a dynamic portrait of the artist and her liberating dance and cinematic achievements. Rainer has received numerous prestigious awards for achievements in both dance and film.
Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer is also streaming on Vimeo platforms.