Emotional Intelligence

Yvonne Rainer, Lives of Performers, 1972, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 90 minutes. Valda Setterfield.

“BY 1972 my own Sturm and Drang had catapulted me into a new terrain of representation,” Yvonne Rainer writes in her felicitously titled memoir, Feelings Are Facts: A Life (2006). That year marked the completion of Lives of Performers, the first feature film by the choreographer, cofounder of the Judson Dance Theater, and author of 1965’s “No Manifesto.”

In her transition from dance to film, Rainer said yes: “Having survived my various physical and psychic traumas”—including a suicide attempt in 1971—“and emboldened by the women’s movement, I felt entitled to struggle with an entirely new lexicon. The language of specific emotional experience . . . promised all the ambivalent pleasures and terrors of the experiences themselves: seduction, passion, rage, betrayal, grief, and joy.”

Yet that surfeit of emotion is presented austerely and disjunctively in Lives of Performers, parenthetically labeled “a melodrama” by an opening title card. Indeed, the film revolves around a love triangle, a standard setup of the genre, focusing on a man involved with two women. These romantic entanglements, however, are delineated only after a prologue of sorts, featuring Rainer leading a rehearsal of Walk, She Said, a dance that includes the four main “protagonists” in the film: John Erdman, Valda Setterfield, Shirley Soffer, and Fernando Torm. (Of this quartet, only Setterfield, a member of Merce Cunningham’s troupe from 1964 to 1974, had previous professional dance experience.)

Over this footage, we hear Rainer’s directives: “Foot open, gaze goes to the window, gaze goes to closet.” The audio, save for a few instances, is almost entirely offscreen. Though the performers deliver their lines, as Rainer does, without inflection, their voices are distinct, a mix of accents from the UK (Setterfield), Chile (Torm), and Kings County (Soffer); the few sentences in a buttery French intonation are uttered by Babette Mangolte, the redoubtable cinematographer with whom Rainer would make two more films. (The same year that Lives of Performers was made, Mangolte began another important collaboration in New York, shooting Chantal Akerman’s La Chambre and Hotel Monterey.) We hear the pages of the script being turned, further estranging us from this spartan soap opera about a man who “can’t make up his mind”—though this distancing device never dilutes our fascination with the intensely private moments, sourced from dreams, perhaps from letters or diaries, presented on-screen.

“I remember that movie—it’s about all these small betrayals, isn’t it?” reads an intertitle, a device that allows Rainer to interrupt her film further, including quotations from Leo Bersani (whose thoughts on cliché serve as epigraph) and Carl Jung. But Rainer’s use of intertitles, a contrivance of silent films, two of which greatly inform segments in her project, also reveals her fascination with the lives of performers from another era. Alla Nazimova’s notorious 1923 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, particularly the “Dance of the Seven Veils” scene, was the inspiration behind “Valda’s Solo,” featuring a dramatically spotlit Setterfield, in Rainer’s film. G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), his first of two films with Louise Brooks, is recapitulated in the final fifteen minutes of Lives of Performers as a series of thirty-five tableaux vivants. Seen forty-one years later, Rainer’s film also transports us to another indelible epoch, documenting, in the director’s own words, both “shabby loft living” and “the spectacle of a group of people intensely involved in a kind of work, in the task of performing.”

Lives of Performers screens Tuesday, November 19 at Light Industry in Brooklyn. The film will be introduced by Gregg Bordowitz, and a conversation between Yvonne Rainer and Bordowitz will follow the screening.