Yvonne Rainer on Reviving an Iconic Work of the 1960s for Performa 19

Speaking to frieze editor Andrew Durbin, Rainer discusses the way she resists the myths of the 1960s

Yvonne Rainer, Parts of Some Sextets, 2019, Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center. Performa commission. Courtesy: Performa; photograph: © Paula Court

On a recent autumn morning, I spoke with Yvonne Rainer at a small diner near the George Washington Bridge, in uptown Manhattan. She was on her way to rehearsals for a revival of Parts of Some Sextets, a dance she premiered in 1965 at the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, USA, with a cast of ten performers. In that original run, which later travelled to Judson Memorial Church in New York, Lucinda Childs, Judith Dunn, Sally Gross, Deborah Hay, Tony Holder, Robert Morris, Steve Paxton, Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Schlichter and Rainer herself danced among stacks of mattresses, while performing a set number of 31 ‘pedestrian movements’: ‘sitting’, ‘standing’, ‘running through’, ‘race walk’. For their pre-recorded soundtrack, Rainer read excerpts from an early American diary by a pastor from Salem, Massachusetts. Now, for Performa 19, Rainer has reconstructed Parts – in collaboration with dancer and choreographer Emily Coates – at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center in Brooklyn, USA. We discussed the way she resists the myths of the 1960s, and the necessary interventions to ready a nearly 50-year-old work for 2019.

Yvonne Rainer, 2014. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Daniel Assayag

Yvonne Rainer, 2014. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Daniel Assayag

Andrew Durbin: You’re reviving Parts of Some Sextets (1965/2019). Why did you choose this particular dance to revisit?

Yvonne Rainer: I didn’t choose it. The choreographer Emily Coates, who dances with me, saw a photograph of the final moment of Parts in ‘Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, last year. In it, the whole cast of ten people is perched on a stack of mattresses. She asked her three-year-old daughter, Eula, ‘Which one is Yvonne?’ Eula pointed to me, from 50 years earlier. Of course, Emily knew about the piece, and she got me to agree to reconstruct it with her. She went to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, where my archive is housed, and dug up traces of the original performance. There wasn’t much documentation of it – only my notebooks, a few photographs and a short essay by me. I remembered very little, but there’s half of a score, with a timeline and the initials of the people who originally danced, as well as descriptions of what they do at 30-second intervals, for about 45 minutes. In 1965, it took more than two months with people meeting two to three times a week. That would be impossible today. But things were different then.

AD: We’re living in a moment when so many museums, writers and artists are thinking about New York dance in the 1960s. What’s been your experience of reflecting on your own role in that period, through a piece like Parts?

YR: Originally, I was a performer in it, and I never stood outside to direct it. The performers consulted the score. But as a director, it’s been quite revelatory to me. ‘Oh, is this what we did?’ [laughs] I’ve been making lots of tweaks – the score is not sacred.

Yvonne Rainer, Parts of Some Sextets, 2019, Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center. Performa commission. Courtesy: Performa; photograph: © Paula Court

AD: Did making films change the way you direct dance?

YR: Not really. There are strategies and attitudes that I carried into film, and then back into dance again. It might be encapsulated by Susan Sontag’s term ‘radical juxtaposition’, from her 1962 essay ‘Happenings’. Seemingly incommensurate things clashing in language or actions. For instance, I’m very interested in unison movement, but unison applied to idiosyncratic gestures so that a sequence doesn’t become individualistic; rather, it’s formalized. This is a consistent ploy. In my films, a subtitle will appear with an image that doesn’t go with it. As a spectator, you’re always dealing with simultaneous – even contradictory – elements at the same time. In this dance, the field changes while you listen to me reading excerpts from The Diary of William Bentley (1962). Bentley was a minister who recorded life in Salem, Massachusetts, USA, from the late 18th century to the early 19th. I recently found the original recording of my voice-overs, actually. It had been stored in Robert Rauschenberg’s basement. Two days before the last rehearsal, someone called me and said they found this box labelled with my name on it. Sure enough, the quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape was in there.

AD: What attracted you to the mattresses, which the performers use throughout Parts?

YR: The mattress is unwieldy and at the same time laden with references to sleep, dreams, illness, death, birth. It was redolent with so much meaning. When I was working on dance in the early ’60s, I was very interested in daily tasks and effort – visible effort. Ballet tries to eradicate effort; everything should look as if the dancer is at ease. But in Parts of Some Sextets, a woman – or even two women – lifting a mattress is a whole other spectacle.

Yvonne Rainer, Parts of Some Sextets, 2019, Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center. Courtesy: Performa; photograph: © Paula Court

Yvonne Rainer, Parts of Some Sextets, 2019, Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center. Performa commission. Courtesy: Performa; photograph: © Paula Court

AD: I know that Alain Robbe-Grillet’s ideas about the ‘new novel’ were on your mind as you worked on the dance in ’65.

YR: He was on a lot of people’s minds. He challenged 19th-century romanticism and narrative conventions; dry description interested him.

AD: There’s a misconception that the new novel is only interested in objectivity and exacting depictions of reality. He complained about this in The Paris Review in 1986, arguing that his work’s ‘scientific eye’ looks more at imagination than reality. I’m thinking about his clarification in relation to your own use of pedestrian movements, and maybe some misconceptions around your ‘realism’. Dance – your dance – is a space of imagination; gestures from daily life are a starting point.

YR: I was never a purist. There are the mattresses, with all those associations, and pedestrian movement, but also dance movements that require technique and training. Combining all these elements, I found myself in a very rich groove. And Parts reflects all these influences: Robbe-Grillet, John Cage, ’60s sculpture.

Yvonne Rainer, Parts of Some Sextets, 2019, Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center. Performa commission. Courtesy: Performa; photograph: © Paula Court

AD: I think of you as someone who resists myths while also being interested in how they are constructed. How do you resist mythmaking now, when there’s so much romance about New York in the ’60s and Judson Dance Theater?

YR: I’ve spent two years working on a rant in which I impersonate Apollo. He comes down to earth and tries to change things but runs into a welter of impasses, especially in this country. Even in my current dance work, even in this ‘mattress monster’ reconstruction, I interpolate my current frustrations into the recording of the diary. I revile our president in a series of ad hominem attacks. ‘Fucking moron, unhinged dipshit’, etc. There are about ten of them. It’s out of nowhere, and out of context – another radical juxtaposition. I have to admit that stuff like that is always on the brink of not working, but especially these days, you have to take risks.

Parts of Some Sextets is a Performa Commission for the Performa 19 Biennial and runs 15 November to 17 November at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center, 29 Jay Street, Brooklyn, New York, USA. Tickets are available for purchase here: http://performa19.org


Andrew Durbin is senior editor of frieze, based in New York, USA. His novella Skyland is forthcoming from Nightboat Books in 2020. 

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