Yvonne Rainer talks about her newest dance and Judson

Judson legend Yvonne Rainer talks about her Danspace Project engagement

Photograph: Mathieu Malouf
Yvonne Rainer

Legend Yvonne Rainer talks about her latest dance Assisted Living: Do You Have Any Money?, which mixes Laurel and Hardy, Keynesian economics and vaudeville, as well as her history with Judson Dance Theater. Because Danspace Project has no electricity, the show has been cancelled, but Yvonne Rainer and Group will perform a free community performance of Assisted Living: Good Sports 2 at Danspace Project on Nov 3 at 1pm.

Editor's note: Danspace Project has no electricity, and the show has been cancelled; also cancelled is a Nov 3 community performance of Assisted Living: Good Sports 2. The company has been rescheduled to perform at Danspace Project Jan 24, 25, and 26, 2013. 

What will Yvonne Rainer look like as a carnival barker? How will her dancers recite the meaning behind Keynesian economics while performing a ballet pas de deux? And what does Laurel and Hardy have to do with any of this? In Assisted Living: Do You Have Any Money?, Rainer pushes her method of juxtaposing elements to the limit, mixing vaudeville and physical comedy with commentary about the current socioeconomic crisis. It’s what she calls “pedagogical vaudevilles.” (Included are texts by John Meynard Keynes, Emma Goldman and Adam Gopnik.) Rainer’s evening of work, which is part of Judson Now, also includes last year’s Assisted Living: Good Sports 2 and We Shall Run, a Judson work from 1963 featuring dancers from Sarah Lawrence College. In a phone interview from California where she is on faculty at UC Irvine, Rainer spoke about her work.

Time Out New York: What was your reaction when Danspace Project contacted you about Judson Now?
Yvonne Rainer:
I was immediately grabbed for it because I had this new dance that I wanted to show. The timing was very serendipitous.

Time Out New York: How does Do You Have Any Money? relate to the first Assisted Living piece?
Yvonne Rainer:
It doesn’t repeat any of the material; it has the same dancers. It has a more carnivalesque mood to it and some of it revolves around aging, but mainly it’s more coherent in its subject matter, which is about money and economics.

Time Out New York: What was the process?
Yvonne Rainer:
I asked the dancers to bring in texts of various kinds about their experiences or newspaper events; I had these ideas about combining dance movements from Laurel and Hardy. Most of the dancing is not of my invention. There’s one core movement sequence that I made with the dancers that comes from an early piece of choreography called At My Body’s House, and it’s very detailed footwork that is done in unison. This reappears throughout the dance. The dance is set up with me reading from a text as though I’m a carnival barker: “Ladies and gents, step up, see the freaks!” So that sets a tone and then there are some actual pratfalls and monkey business from these Laurel and Hardy shorts. As usual, it’s an eclectic mélange, but it combines these pratfalls with very serious readings about recent events and Wall Street. There are some bad jokes, but the challenge for the dancers is that they do steps while speaking, and this was totally new for them.

Time Out New York: Why Laurel and Hardy?
Yvonne Rainer:
I’ve always been interested in Buster Keaton and early comics. I’ve used Robin Williams earlier in RoS Indexical and in Spiraling Down, Steve Martin. This kind of movement by kinetic geniuses has always fascinated me.

Time Out New York: How did you choose the Laurel and Hardy dances?
Yvonne Rainer:
I combed this package of about 50 shorts for movement. And both of them can dance. There’s one where Stan does a soft-shoe, and it’s beautiful; Oliver was no slouch himself in dancing. Another resource is [dancer] Pat Catterson, who used to teach tap dancing. I appropriated the end of the movie The Artist; there’s a tap routine, and Pat studied it, learned it and taught it to the rest of the group. I use that also. She’s 66 years old, not exactly going strong, but still in there.

Time Out New York: She looks great in your work.
Yvonne Rainer:
She is the most precise, I would say, of all the dancers. My eyes still go to her in a group situation.

Time Out New York: Would you talk about your other dancers, too? You’ve worked with Patricia Hoffbauer for a long time, right?
Yvonne Rainer:
Patricia goes way back. She learned my Three Seascapes in the late ’90s. She is very dynamic; she’s a powerful presence, no matter what she does. I’m teaching something called RoS Indexical Indexical; we’re using some of the Millicent Hodson material from the previous RoS Indexical, but again raiding my icebox, so I find that I have six dancers and I assign them various people: “You do what Patricia is doing here and you do Emily [Coates].” They’re learning movement from the DVD. I was looking at Patricia the other day, and she is really a force. Sally Silvers has departed [the group]. Emily and Keith [Sabado] and Manu [Emmanuélle Phuon] I know from White Oak Dance Project. Emily is this very classical presence and she’s the youngest, so she has a whole different affect.

Time Out New York: She was in the New York City Ballet before joining White Oak.
Yvonne Rainer:
She and Keith do a ballet adagio in Do You Have Any Money? It’s an academic adagio that Keith uses when he warms up the dancers with a ballet class. So I just appropriated that adagio he uses in the warm-up, and he answers the question in his recitation: What is Keynesian economics? I use Emily and Keith’s ballet expertise and prowess to good advantage. My methodology is not that much different from what it was in the ’60s. [Laughs] I’m using whatever is at hand. In the ’60s, it was more about what was at hand in my own body because I was still studying with Merce and taking ballet classes and Afro-Cuban classes. In my very first dance class with Edith Stephen around 1957, she said to the class, “Yvonne uses whatever she has learned” and I’m continuing to do that. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: How long have you worked with Pat Catterson?
Yvonne Rainer:
Pat Catterson studied with me in 1969 at Connecticut College, and she learned Trio A. She’s the only one in the world who does it backwards. [Laughs] She taught it to herself. She just came back from London where she fine-tuned some Trio A-ers who did it at the Tate Modern. She is my right hand. She is the most musical. In RoS, she studied the Stravinsky score and was able to decipher the diabolical counts.

Time Out New York: What is your relationship like to Trio A?
Yvonne Rainer:
I no longer teach it. I last taught it last winter to some of my students at UC Irvine. It’s getting too hard for me, but it’s my signature dance. It’s the only intact survivor from the ’60s, really. I keep recruiting new people to teach it. There are now about five authorized transmitters of it. Two of them are on the West Coast. Emily teaches it at Yale and Pat goes around the world teaching it. She taught it most recently to a group of Sarah Lawrence students. She also taught We Shall Run from 1963 and Chair/Pillow [1969] at Dia last May—these 12 students came and did all three dances.

Time Out New York: What does it make you feel like to watch it?
Yvonne Rainer:
The version of it that I’ve found most interesting occurred out here at UCI a few years ago. I had taught it to a class—three people from the advanced dance department and three non-dancers, and, in fact, a visual artist, an art historian and an undergraduate painter. I found that interesting: the amateurs and the highly polished dancers performing it in the same space. It’s kind of touching. You see the movement on the non-dancers; you see that contrast and it’s all there.

Time Out New York: What is the genesis of  We Shall Run
Yvonne Paxton:
To quote Steve Paxton, at one point we were joking and he said that he invented walking and I invented running. It was one of those early so-called pedestrian movement dances. I guess my attitude always was that my use of pedestrian movement was always in contrast to something else, either more polished movement, or, in that case, I used a very dramatic section from Berlioz’s Requiem that has 300 voices, and this monotonal trotting around is dramatized by this unexpected music. So I was never a purist about using ordinary movements.

Time Out New York: Right—you mix things up: radical juxtaposition. What does that mean to you?
Yvonne Rainer:
That comes from a Susan Sontag essay, who wrote about happenings and the collision of different kinds of images and movement and events without a narrative continuity. For instance, in the previous Assisted Living: Good Sports 2, I have people lying on the floor laughing, and I’m telling this very morbid joke about Steve Jobs and a Chinese factory worker with half his face blown off going into a bar. So that’s a very extreme version of radical juxtaposition—inappropriate collisions of material.

Time Out New York: What was the process for that dance? What did you ask the dancers to do?
Yvonne Rainer:
First I brought in hundreds of sports photos from The New York Times that I’d been collecting for a couple of years. I had them just start picking them at random and putting these photos together on their bodies, and they learned different numbers depending on their skills. At a certain point I made some movement, which evolved or devolved into this trotting with these hand gestures—we call it “paw-paw.” And that became the core of that dance and out of that came various still configurations from additional photos and the juxtaposition of the dancers with the movers, the set designer Joel Reynolds and the lighting designer Les Dickert and I were in the background. I, as a reader of text, sometimes moving things—all these bits of furniture. A mat, free weights, chairs, those get moved around to sides of the performing space ending with a wine barrel downstage left, so there was that kind of juxtaposition of moving, which comes from very early work where I moved mattresses around.

Time Out New York: You were referring to earlier pieces, too.
Yvonne Rainer:
Yeah. I’m always dragging out things from earlier works.

Time Out New York: What are you dragging out in the new piece?
Yvonne Rainer:
I think just those steps and a piece of furniture. There’s an overstuffed chair on wheels that gets wheeled around. That refers to the sofa in RoS, and previously in my revision of Agon—there’s an overstuffed footstool that they sit on and again, it’s kind of inappropriate. I prefer chintz in these pieces of furniture. The current one is gray faux leather that I got at the Salvation Army, so it’s kind of a comical piece of furniture and it gets integrated into Laurel and Hardy pratfalls.

Time Out New York: What is your relationship to Judson Dance Theater now?
Yvonne Rainer:
It’s imprinted in my body what I did there and what I saw there and maybe more than a lot of the participants, it was the proving ground for me and an incubation period. I have very acute memories of it.

Time Out New York: What do you think of Judson Now and all the interest in that period?
Yvonne Rainer:
I think it’s important. I hope it will disabuse a lot of people who think that Judson was all about minimalism and pedestrian movement. It was not! Even though there were nondancers who participated, it was full of trained dancers like Trisha [Brown] and Steve who were avoiding what their brilliant bodies could do, yet they were surrounded by people who were dancing. Elaine Summers and Ruth Emerson. All kinds of people were engaged in movement that required training, and although pedestrian movement was the innovation, I would say it was on an equal footing with movement and dances that required some degree of training.

Time Out New York: And maybe it’s also disabusing the idea that it was completely serious—there was humor as well.
Yvonne Rainer:
Oh, right! There were some great comic dances, like Alex Hay on this big trapezoid of aluminum pipes and Charles Ross had contributed—he had pillows wrapped in rope tied around his waist and he got up on this top bar and tried to find a comfortable position and kept falling off, clinging to the bar, getting back on and saying, “Oh, this is comfortable, this isn’t very comfortable.” It was hilarious.

Time Out New York: What was your favorite experience performing there? Do you have one?
Yvonne Rainer:
I think that one of my favorites is the performance in the gymnasium in 1963 when I premiered We Shall Run and Steve and I had a dance called Word Words where we were almost nude. I also did Three Seascapes. That was one of my favorites in terms of my own performance. But the series of concerts that used Charles Ross’s sculptural constructions—that was a favorite also. All kinds of work emerged out of that for the whole group. I did one piece, Room Service.

Time Out New York: What does it mean to have so much Judson-related work everywhere?
Yvonne Rainer:
I don’t know! We’ll find out. I haven’t been able to attend anything. I’m heartbroken. I’ll see Deborah Hay at MoMA but that’s about it. I missed Steve. I’m missing Patricia’s [Hoffbauer] production [“Lineage, Legacy, Leitmotif” at Danspace Project on November 17.]

Time Out New York: What do you think about putting dance in museums once again?
Yvonne Rainer:
I have mixed feelings about it. Unless the dance is made for a particular space, and audience considerations are taken into account for viewing, I don’t know—they still are strangely oblivious to the needs of dancers and choreography. A curator who I won’t name wanted people to walk through Trio A while it was being performed. Someone who saw it told me that the audience was standing six, seven deep, and you couldn’t see over their heads. I mean this kind of thing…I don’t know. These installations and performances are still to be worked out. And also there are no sprung floors so you’re always dancing on concrete.

Time Out New York: Do you find it different from what happened in your day in terms of dance and museums?
Yvonne Rainer:
We danced at the Whitney; it was one of the first to instigate live performance—music and dance, and I didn’t feel it was a problem. I did Continuous Project–Altered Daily, and there was a big open space and the audience sat in the round. It was an evening devoted just to that. I guess institutions are doing that kind of thing.

Time Out New York: Yes and no. MoMA is different—performances are held in the atrium.
Yvonne Rainer:
Ah! So there will be people—crowds—just randomly walking around. I hate that! [Laughs] I like undivided attention. I have my limits.

Yvonne Rainer and Group perform a free community performance of Assisted Living: Good Sports 2 at Danspace Project on Nov 3 at 1pm.

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