Afternoon Dust

Yvonne Rainer — Dance Works

The day after seeing Grace Schwindt’s film at Eastside Projects, I took the slow train to London to catch an exhibition devoted to the choreographic work of Yvonne Rainer at Raven Row. As well as a large number of photos, videos, drawings and texts, a daily schedule of live performances in the gallery presented a rare opportunity to see some seminal dance works by the US artist. The exhibition focused on Rainer’s work from the 1960s and early ’70s, when she was most active as a choreographer; at this time, she and her colleagues in the Judson Dance Theater group were preoccupied with much the same radical critique of power as Schwindt’s interlocutor in West Germany. It was interesting for me, then, to compare the approach taken by an artist reflecting back on these struggles from perhaps a slightly different historical moment to that taken by one confronting them head-on, in the present.

The opening work in the performance programme at Raven Row was an excerpt from Terrain (1963). In this dance, a group of dancers hover in the corner of the performance space until one of them utters a number or letter corresponding to a pre-set sequence of movements. The group then performs this sequence together on a path that takes them in a diagonal line to the opposite corner. Repeat. The numbers or letters chosen, and who chooses them, doesn’t appear pre-ordained, but rather arises from decisions made spontaneously by the dancers. At any time, an individual dancer can choose to leave the group mid-path and make their own perpendicular line to one of the other two corners, develop their own more elliptical path, or simply stop moving; they can also bring other dancers into their orbit by touching them, at which point they move together until one of them decides to change paths. In this manner, the dance balances individual freedom and group awareness. The choice to move with the group or forge one’s own path is presumably made simply on the basis that things might be more interesting that way, and indeed some of the movements, such as a lift, are only possible in a group.

Trio A (1966) is different in that individual dancers are not free to make conscious choices about how they or others move, with the choreography being precisely determined in advance. The dance nonetheless manages to disclose something powerful about freedom. Arguably it is a solo rather than a trio, in the sense that there is one routine to be danced singly; however, it is frequently performed by numerous dancers during the same performance (at Raven Row there were seven or eight), with each moving through the choreography at their own pace but without pause. This has the effect of foregrounding the differences inherent to each performer’s body and style of movement. With no requirement to move in unison and no music to synchronise to, the time taken to complete the dance differs from performer to performer; different moves look more or less comfortable or fluid on different bodies, according to differences in physiology, training, and temperament.

What this suggests is that on one level, we cannot be anything other than free: we are defined and situated by differences beyond (or below) our conscious control that can’t be normalised by any externally imposed regime of power (and the choreography of Trio A is pretty regimented). This specificity, which could perhaps be legitimately called material as opposed to ideal, could provide the grounding for a freedom that isn’t based on the reification of the will of the individual. Whereas Schwindt’s work imposes rigid constraints on every aspect of performance, Trio A seems designed to undo its own constraints: between set choreography and specific bodies, freedom arises dialectically.

I’d convinced myself that the show and the works themselves couldn’t possibly live up to the hype that surrounds them in dance (and now art) history circles, but they did so, and then some. However, perhaps Schwindt makes a fair point: while the radical ideas and approaches of the ’60s and ’70s are invaluable for what they can teach and inspire in us, they can’t be repeated; any contemporary resurgence of thoughtful and critically-engaged dancemaking must plot its own paths, and find its own way of moving towards freedom.

Yvonne Rainer: Dance Works continues at Raven Row until 10 August 2014. For further reading on Rainer’s dance works, the exhibition’s curator, Catherine Wood, is also the author of an excellent book in Afterall’s ‘One Work’ series entitled Yvonne Rainer: The Mind Is A Muscle, which includes a detailed discussion of Trio A.