One of the key figures of American postmodern dance speaks about her separation from and her re-entering the field of choreography, comments her recent work, gives her view on contemporary dance and talks about her encounters with European artists, who re-visited her avant-garde work of the 1960s and 1970s, and about her writings and her memoir. An interview by Helmut Ploebst.
corpus: What motivated you to return on stage to make stage work and to perform again after thirty years of abstinence?
Rainer: Yes, I officially quit dance and choreography in 1975 and made seven feature-length films. Then several things conspired to bring me back to choreography. One was a benefit for the organization "Movement Research" at Judson Church. They invited me to recreate "Trio A With Flags" which was basically my seminal dance piece called "Trio A" that was part of the project "The Mind Is A Muscle" from 1965-68. And there was a flag version in 1970 at Judson Church. It was a huge flag show to protest the US-Cambodian invasion during the Vietnam war. Five of us performed "Trio A" nude with flags around our necks at the opening of the show. So to recreate this event, Clarinda MacLow would learn "Trio A", and I taught it to a group of 12 people. I got 12 flags and they performed it for this benefit for "Movement Research". Mikhail Baryshnikov was at that performance, and he already was thinking about asking me to make a new dance for his "White Oak Dance Project". So he subsequently commissioned a half-hour piece, which I called "After Many a Summer Dies the Swan," for his company of six people at that time. And this kind of got me re-interested in choreography.
corpus: Weren't you interested in making films any more?
Rainer: It was getting too difficult to make films. It was becoming harder and harder to raise the money, and costs kept escalating. And then, in 2005, Dance Theater Workshop in New York was planning a program called "Sourcing Stravinsky". They invited some choreographers to do something around Stravinsky. I immediately thought of "Agon", the Balanchine-Stravinsky collaboration from 1957, which I had seen in the late 50s in New York with the original cast. It's always been one of my favorite Balanchine dances. I invited four women; one of them, Emily Coates, had danced with the White Oak Company and with the New York City Ballet, and we did what I call a "re-vision" of "Agon". We took most of the music and learned some of the steps - Emily Coates does it en pointe and the other three in sneakers ...
corpus: With a little help ...
Rainer: ... from HM, Henry Mancini, yes.
corpus: But you continue working. There is a commission to work for RoseLee Goldberg this year?
Rainer: Yes, I'm doing a version of "Rite of Spring" for documenta and for Tanz im August in Berlin. It's half done, and this summer I'll complete it. With the same four women who are dancing in "AG indexical, with a little help from H.M." which has also been performed in Vienna and Helsinki.
corpus: You're moving in interesting ways - working as choreographer until the 70s, then shifting towards film - and then, around 2000, you went back - and forward - to choreography: in the USA but also in Europe. What is different for you now working in the field of dance?
Rainer: What brought me out of dance is wanting to work with narrative and the specifics of political and social issues. But my films were always about performers and performance. And the narrative there is framed literally to refer to performance. Sometimes it's ambiguous whether the characters are choreographers or video makers, but there is always some indication within the frame itself and within the narrative of people watching things they've made. So performance itself has never been far from my process, from my methods and strategies for making narratives. It's just that my emphasis in dance before film and after making films is on movement itself. My dances were never narratives. They are athletic, they are about dance history, but they are not narrative fictions in the way that my filmmaking is. So it wasn't that difficult to move from one to the other although of course the technicalities, the technology is totally different. History is a narrative, so dance history is my concern in making dances; it always was, but now I'm forging much more specifically into particular dances, like Balanchine, and historic moments of the avant-garde, like 1913 and 1957. Which also parallels my teaching. Since the early 90s I have taught, and it's a teaching based on avant-garde practice. Now I'm teaching full time on a permanent basis at the University of California. It's basically a performance workshop and laboratory.
corpus: There is a saying by William Forsythe: "Choreography is organizing things in time." - With a reference to film and montage.
Rainer: Well, film is a time-based art. One way of thinking about that is, in my case, I took the floor, the deep space, and tilted it up for the screen basically dealing with a two-dimensional space which gives the illusion of three-dimensionality. And from the very beginning I was very conscious of the frame as being able to dissect the body. There is a lot that happens on the edge of the frame. And my latest video work ("After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid") which came out of working with Baryshnikov, is very much about the edge of the frame and bodies seen in fragments. It's very difficult to do that in actual space. It's a much more controlled way of focusing the attention of the spectator. And that's what appealed to me when I went into film.
corpus: You decided to continue with videos which you're integrating in installation works.
Rainer: Yes. In this examination concerned with previous avant-gardes which I consider my work an extension of. I began to look at 1900 Vienna when the Austro-Hungarian empire was about to deconstruct. So I took the rehearsal footage from "After Many a Summer Dies the Swan". I had the rehearsals videotaped in anticipation that I would use this material for a video...
corpus: ... this was Charles Atlas?
Rainer: Yes. And I took this material and combined it with printed texts about the role of art and politics at that time. A lot of this material came from the book "Fin de siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture" by Karl Schorske. That was interesting to do: to make the dancers stand not only for the avant-garde of that period. My own avant-garde practice is superimposed on that history. But also they literally stand in, I think, for the various historical personae, the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie . The half-hour duration of the videotape is determined by the length of the accompanying music, "Verklärte Nacht" by Schönberg. There also are some clips in it from the performance itself at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in June 2000. "After Many a Summer Dies the Swan" in itself was a montage, a pastiche of 15 years of choreographic work: rearranged, and added to. So my own history became a trunk that I could forage around in, digging out memories, photos, film clips. I was also very dependent on the memory of Pat Catterson, who is one of my performers. She studied with me 30 years ago and has a memory like a steel trap and has been invaluable in this process of my re-entry into dance.
corpus: You started learning with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, then you were involved in the dynamics of Judson Dance Theater and the Grand Union. Now, after you've re-entered choreography, you take a step dealing with early avant-garde but in the frame of ballet, with Balanchine. Ballet is something you didn't work on at your beginnings but now you're going to do research in it?
Rainer: It's odd. My choreographic practice had much to do with challenge and opposition to ballet and previous modern dance, and now I come full circle in looking at Balanchine. Yet Agon is very unorthodox in relation to classical tradition - I mean, imagine: looking at your own feet while you are dancing, you know, that was unheard of in ballet. Not that such unorthodox challenges hadn't happened before: Nijinsky's Rite of Spring was an even earlier challenge to ballet tradition. So one sees these interventions in the classical tradition all along the way in 20th century choreography. It became interesting to me to combine my own postmodern material with steps from these boundary breaking ballets, and especially interesting that my postmodern dancers could do the steps in flat shoes while the classically trained ballerina would dance in classical style --
But there is another coming full circle: that is the work I did with Richard Move. For about five years Richard, who had studied modern dance and who is about 6 foot 5 tall, had a show in a funky little club on the West Side in Manhattan in which he impersonated in full regalia Martha Graham. He changed his voice, and played the Mistress of Ceremonies of a variety show, introducing modern dancers and interviewing them. He also used ex-Graham dancers on the tiny little stage to do his versions of the Graham classics. So he invited me - this also was around 2000 - and we scripted a dialogue in which he, as Graham, has a debate with me about my practice. Several years later I took this further and taught Martha Graham/Richard Move "Trio A", and Charlie Atlas edited a film portrait of me which includes my teaching "Trio A" to Graham/Move. It's very funny and it includes lines that Martha Graham herself had spoken to me around 1960. In fact Richard Move's whole thing is based on Graham's notebooks, but in our dialogue with each other I would have a fit trying to do the Graham floorwork and saying that I never had a turnout, and she - with great hauteur - would reply: "My dear Miss Rainer, when you accept yourself as a woman, you will have turnout." Which is what she actually said to me in 1959 when I studied with her. So, you know - everything comes around again.
corpus: You've always been so political in your work; I would be surprised if there were no political dimension to this new phase of your work. But your strategy has changed, I suppose, dealing with and co-developing postmodernity in dance, as opposed to very explicitly dealing with political issues in your film work. Now there seems to be another approach compared with what your work was about in the 60s and 70s. Back then you employed subversive and very oppositional strategies. Now you move to strategies of irony, of erosion ...
Rainer: ... and quotation of myself, and of Balanchine, of Nijinsky, etcetera, yes!
corpus: But is it still motivated by political resistance?
Rainer: Yeah, sure! For instance "AG indexical, with a little help from H.M.". Someone asked me at a talk I gave: "Is your dance work political in the way your films were?" And I said "No", but then a friend reminded me that to have four women do the dance of four men - as in the opening of "Agon" - I guess that's a political act. You also might say my "AG Indexical" is an analysis, a parody, and an homage all at the same time.
corpus: In both works you put your finger on indexicality.
Rainer: The word is used a lot in art writing. It comes from semiology, referring to traces of an original. And so I think this would describe my current practice of using traces of Sacre, traces of Agon. If you're familiar with the constructions of the originals, then you'll recognize these traces. The newest project for documenta 07 is called "RoS Indexical" ("Rite of Spring Indexical").
corpus: If you compare the choreographical developments during the 60s and 70s in the USA with what was proposed in Europe during the 90s by people like Xavier Le Roy, Jérôme Bel or, e.g., by the group Le Quatuor Albrecht Knust: what comes to your mind?
Rainer: I'm not very good at that, because I haven't kept that close watch on what has been happening since I left dance - especially in Europe. I know Xavier's work, though. He has come to New York, so I saw him performing there. And he and I did a kind of improvisatory performance in Berlin at Tanz im August several years ago. Further, I've seen one of Boris Charmatz' works, I've seen some of the big French groups. But I haven't seen Jérôme Bel's work. I'm more familiar with the work of my peers, Deborah Hay, David Gordon, Steve Paxton, Simone Forti and some younger people like Miguel Gutierrez. It's only recently that I started to attend dance concerts. Oh, and I also saw Alain Buffard's "Good Boys". All of this work seems much more organized, less fly-by-night, than a lot of Judson stuff, much of which was influenced by John Cage's notions of chance and randomness.
corpus: But at the end of the 90s one couldn't find much any more in New York from the heritage of Judson Dance Theater.
Rainer: Yes, the scene has become very technical and production oriented.
corpus: What happened to the body discourse which was so vivid in the 60s?
Rainer: I think it was diffused a bit and then disappeared in a return to high technique. The use of pedestrian movement, the idea that untrained people can dance, all that has been lost. I think the Judson influence is much more apparent in Europe, wouldn't you say?
corpus: In a way, yes, but there is also a longing for virtuosity again. By the way, what is the connection like now between you and Europe? The first contact was made by the French group Le Quatuor Albrecht Knust. They asked if it would be possible to redo "Continuous Project - Altered Daily". How was that for you?
Rainer: My first contact with them was in Montpellier in the late 90s. I was amazed at how much they could reconstruct just from my notes in my first book. I sent them a lot of photos, and they had the book. When I arrived, I made some corrections. And in the performance itself I started to remember things, and I entered the performance and taught a fragment that I remembered. And then in Stockholm a couple of years later, there was a conference where I performed with them. Now it's even further removed from the original, because my memory fades. So I accept that it's a hybrid, or a copy of a copy, or something else. In Vienna, Pat Catterson was appalled because she has such vivid memories of the 1969 original. But I don't make that comparison.
corpus: You did "Continuous Project - Altered Daily" in 1970 in a very specific context. Now it's more than 25 years later, and the context has changed. How do you feel about the revision of your work in the contexts of the present?
Rainer: The only dance of mine that I feel a very rigorous attachment to is "Trio A". One, because it was documented in film in 1978; two, because I remember it so well. So I would like it not to change. Both "Trio A" from "The Mind is a Muscle" and "Chair Pillow" from the original "Continuous Project - Altered Daily" have been labanotated. So they exist as very specific and precise documentations. But everything else is up for grabs. Call it a degeneration, a regeneration, a hybrid, whatever you want, I accept whatever comes out of the process of a particular group. Although the "Knusties" are the only ones who have attempted this. The descriptions of my early dances in that first book ... I can't decipher a lot of those notes any more. Students have come to me and asked if they can make dances from these notes - yes of course, use it as a score for something new!. I don't feel purist about these things.
corpus: You use the word hybrid, a term which one can also find in the title of your installation. Hybridization of approaches, aesthetics, social conditions and strategies of thinking - would that be a word for your strategy in the development of your artworks?
Rainer: Probably yes, everything I do now is somewhat hybrid, appropriated ... I mean, all these words apply to my process.
corpus: When you refer to your NO-manifesto from 1965, where you asked for a lot of clarification, do you think this need for clarification asks for hybridization after a while?
Rainer: The NO-manifesto is brought up over and over again. I wish it could be buried ... I came to it at the end of an essay about a particular work, "Parts of Some Sextets", which was a piece for ten people and twelve mattresses in 1965, I never meant for the manifesto to be prescriptive. Manifestos are meant to clear the air and challenge, and then their usefulness is over. I myself haven't abided by that manifesto, and I don't expect anyone else to, either. But it's always brought up, I don't know ... It's no longer useful - or maybe it is. Someone else should write a manifesto about what's going on now.
corpus: A young Danish choreographer, Mette Ingvartsen, wrote a YES-manifesto about two years ago.
Rainer: O yeah? (laughs) That NO-manifesto I guess is the opposite of hybridity, which is very inclusive, and the manifesto was very exclusive.
corpus: But that's what I meant before: when you go for clarification, you're liable to dissolve very quickly in hybridization.
Rainer: Of course there is a great need now for screaming out "No!" to things like genocide, or ethnic cleansing, and imperialism, and corruption. These moments in art history and cultural history pale beside the larger political issues.
corpus: The American artist Sharon Hayes ...
Rainer: ... is re-enacting political protest from the past, right?
corpus: In a talk in Vienna last year someone asked her: Why don't you refer to more recent political issues? And she answered: It is art, it's not protest. So this means that artists are politically informed but it does not make them political activists nowadays. Art might not be in the reference system of activism any more ...
Rainer: Why not, time is calling for it! In the Vietnam War in the States there was a lot of specific political art.
corpus: In the 70s, the positions seemed to be clearer. Today everything appears to be very soft and hard to grasp.
Rainer: Yes, sometimes it seems the idea of art as political act has congealed ... Well, following the Iraq invasion people got disillusioned after millions of people all over the world had demonstrated against what turned out to be a fait accompli. It takes time to build an organization and excite people to get out in the streets. Now in the States perhaps political energy is building again to show that the Bush criminals are wanted out. Fear of terrorism has been used by politicians to intimidate people, and it's a very effective weapon by the right wing. In the 60s there were all kinds of new movements, gay liberation, the feminist movement, the anti-war movement, they all came together. All these movements have kind of lost their impetus, although the need for them is just as urgent as it was in the 60's. Abortion rights are still in jeopardy in the States. In the early 80's I belonged to a group that took to the streets with big banners, went to Washington with "No more forced labor" on our banners. And there was the "People's Flag Show" at Judson Church to protest censorship; the Artworker's Coalition was very active during the Vietnam War. These were movements that had very specific aims and were very effective in their way, joined to the larger anti-war movement. It seems energies, as I said, are much more diffused now.
corpus: And what happened with the body discourses?
Rainer: The work at Judson was the predecessor of so-called "body art", Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman and this kind of minimal performative questioning of body ideals. My current work is doing something of the same thing. I'm again working with people of varying ages and technical abilities. The range is from the virtuosity of the ballerina to Sally Silvers, who has never had a ballet class in her life. But she manages to do the same things, and you see the difference in age, experience, and approach in terms of discipline and training. And yes, I'm very engaged in confronting the body ideals of current dance practice in relation to virtuosic technique. So that still applies, even though I don't make running dances or mattress dances, but three women lifting a ballerina is a statement about traditional dance practices both in modern dance and ballet. So I guess I'm still involved with the same things; it's just taking a different form than it did 30, 40 years ago.
corpus: One important dimension of your work is your writing. You've been writing continuously for more than 40 years ...
Rainer: ... Yes, I have a memoir out now ...
corpus: ... published by MIT Press in 2006. How did you approach the revision of your artistic and intellectual life in the project of an autobiography?
Rainer: The title is "Feelings Are Facts: a Life." It's a very intimate memoir, starting with before my birth, my parents etcetera. But it also contains very detailed description of coming to New York in the 50s, the art world I was exposed to, becoming a dancer, and then in the last chapter, in the epilogue, I talk a little bit about film making. There is one chapter called "Feelings Are Facts" which is about the transition from dance to film, and deals with the specificities of narrative and emotional life that drew me into film making. So it's all kinds of narratives about my life but also about the social surroundings that attended this particular life in New York.
corpus: What can you say about the communication between the writing and the creation of artworks ...?
Rainer: On the one hand, writing was a way of clarifying for myself what I had just made, like the mattress dance with the NO manifesto at the end. Then when I started to make films, it was an essential part of the process in terms of scripts. More recently, writing even supplanted other kinds of art-making, like the year in which I did nothing but write poetry, which followed on the heels of my last film, "MURDER and murder." Then when I re-entered dance at the invitation of Baryshnikov in 2000, I stopped writing poetry. It seems to be one or the other, working with the body or writing. Right now it's about working with the body - and teaching.
corpus: Why an autobiography?
Rainer: It came out of being invited by Steve Anker, who is the head of the Film Department at the California Institute of Arts and used to be director of the San Francisco Cinematheque. He was editing an anthology of essays by filmmakers who were affected by growing up in San Francisco. And I wrote this one chapter, that is I think is Chapter five in my memoir, about memories of cultural events I was exposed to in San Francisco before leaving for New York in 1956. I came from a family of anarchists and was very early privy to this intermix of poetry and painting and political life in San Francisco bohemia ... For instance I attended the first reading of "Howl" [by Allen Ginsberg] at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955. So after I wrote that essay - that anthology has not come out yet, they've been very slow to publish it - I thought, Oh, there's more here! I was at a place where I didn't know what I was going to do next. It was after working with Baryshnikov and his White Oak Dance Project, and I had some time, and so for the next two years I worked on this book, while doing various teaching gigs ...
corpus: Do you have a wish, an aim for the future?
Rainer: Yes. That the imperial maneuvers of the present U.S. government be turned around by a more rational and democratic regime.