The Mind Is a Muscle
WORK 1961-1973 By Yvonne Rainer The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, $11.95, 338 pp.
WORK 1961-1973, a well-organized compilation of notes, essays and scripts by performer/choreographer Yvonne Rainer, is an extraordinary book. Piecing together the remains of 12 years of dance-making, Rainer tells the story of aSan Francisco woman who headed on a whim to New York at age 22 and took her first dance class there a year later. In 1961 Rainer presented her first pieces with the Judson Dance Theater, and became one of the prime movers behind that avant-garde set of dancers, painters and sculptors. The movement broke apart in 1964; Rainer continued to work on her own, and by 1968 had charted a new aesthetic that took up where Judson had left off.
Rainer presents this essential chronology in the opening essay of Work 1961-73. The remainder of the book documents 16 of her works through detailed descriptive "overviews," scripts of spoken texts, pages of old notebooks, old photographs, and manifestos published in connection with two of the earliest works. It's one of the only books on dance that lets the reader respond to the work as though he had seen it. The hefty volume The Notebooks of Martha Graham, brought out three years ago by Harcourt-Brace-Jovanovitch, certainly does not, and that high-priced publication is the nearest thing to Work 1961-73.
In fact, reading Rainer's book may be more exciting than having seen the 12 years of performances, if only for the sense you acquire of Rainer's oeuvre--the first heady obsessions followed by a period of drift, and then a strong, clear push in a new direction. Rainer never directly analyzes the transformation from her early to late work, stating only that she hopes the changed tone of her writing demonstrates "my uneven development from intransigent artist-as-an-outraged-young-woman."
IN THE EARLY '60s Rainer began her dance-making career with a catalog of negatives. Her 1965 manifesto declares:
NO to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to the glamour and transcendency of the star image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved.
In the place of these "obsolete" ideas Rainer suggested "neutral performance," "task-like activity," and "singular action," concepts, embodied in Terrain (1963), Part of Some Sextets (1965), and The Mind is a Muscle (1966). At this time Rainer aimed at a movement style combining "the coordination of a pro and the non-definition of an amateur." She put together large, rambling structures, often according to random game rules, and relying on repetition and interruption. She considered a viewer's comment, "But she walks as though she's in the street," a compliment.
The sub-text for this intellectual manipulation of movement, people and objects was Rainer's preoccupation with perception and her attempt to shock her audience into seeing the "essentials" of dance. Rainer describes her tactics variously:
The easiest way for me to think about character is from my own point of view. One result of this is that all the performers become extensions of this point of view, sometimes interchangeably.
After 1968 Rainer became less concerned with perception and, relinquishing her earlier disregard, more concerned with performance. She experimented with displaying the rehearsal process performance and began to use untrained dancers in her company. Then, abandoning these initiatives in the early seventies, she turned her focus to, in her words, "autobiography, fiction, media."
The work which pulled these concern together, This is the Story of Woman Who... (1973), presented changing tableaus of a man and woman in domestic settings. A third observer and projected slides with printed text supplied narration. Alternating with the script were stills from Hitch-cock's Psycho, photos from the performers' family albums, and snaps of familiar landmarks. Rainer included "Trio A" from The Mind is a Muscle along with references from other earlier works--a red ball, books, a gift, mattresses. (She conveniently schematizes these motifs in an appendix, "Etymology of objects, configurations and characters.")
AS RAINER DESCRIBES IT, she had stumbled onto a new sort of content her old forms could not accomodate--"private experience and the problem of projecting and transforming it." The persona of the performer, rather than the medium of the body, became her starting point. Indeterminate structures gave way to melodramatic narrative. The issue of perception broadened into a concern with media: how to "warp" an audience's view of situations on stage through the choice of medium (printed text, spoken text, film); how to distance blatantly private experience through the interjection of cliche or pop cuture. Work 1961-73 itself comes out of the same sort of questioning: in what form to cast the fiction of the self?
In some ways Rainer executed an about-face, doubling back to the art of Martha Graham, the domineering matriarch that modern dance rebelled against for 20 years. Like Graham, Rainer settled on emotion as the content of her work, and on her own persona as its driving force. She writes:
Simple, undistinctive activities made momentous thru their inaccessibility....Something completely visible at all times, but also very difficult to follow and get involved with....Dance is hard to see. It must either be made less fancy, or the fact of that intrinsic difficulty must be emphasized to the point that it becomes almost impossible to see.
It is grand irony that this viewpoint calls to mind late works of Graham in which the aging star regally held centerstage while her followers danced out various aspects of her character.
This is not to imply that Rainer is a sell-out. The works documented in this book have an unmistakable Rainer style even on the page: range of association and depth of sub-text; a touch of the banal; irony sometimes ridiculous, often disorienting. That Rainer in Work 1961-73 could recreate this style through her writing--there are no words for it.