Thank You for Being a Friend

Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer, Tea for Three, 2016. Performance view, The Box, Los Angeles, November 19, 2016. Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer. Photo: Bruce Hainley.

November 21, 2016 at 8:54 PM EST

Dear Mr. B,

I’ve just come home from an event of much love at the Kitchen, part of the rollout of Douglas [Crimp]’s superb memoir [Before Pictures]. Three exemplary interlocutors from three different dance worlds: Adrian Danchig-Waring (New York City Ballet/Balanchine), Silas Riener (Merce Cunningham), and Yvonne Rainer (Yvonne Rainer). 

A little asymmetrical, I suppose, since Rainer got to play herself, though everyone did a very good job representing. 

Rainer, at the end, was trying to respond to a question from the audience, and failing a bit. She said her mind was all “constipated” because she’d just come back from an event in L.A. that she’d participated in with Steve [Paxton] and Simone [Forti].

“They’re very experienced with improvisation, whereas I haven’t danced on stage since 1972…” she said. But she also reminded us/herself that she lives to be in front of an audience. (Sudden flashback to Warren Beatty on Madonna in Truth or Dare…: “She doesn’t want to live off-camera, much less talk. There’s nothing to say off-camera.”)

Rainer asked Danchig-Waring to help demonstrate this thing she and Paxton had come up with while making dinner one night in the late-’60s, apparently something that made its way into the L.A. performance. It was very moving, and she seemed very moved. 

I remember you saying you went to this.

What happened in L.A.??

(She mentioned some picture frames…?)


Sent from my iPhone

November 21, 2016 at 6:50 PM PST

it was a roast chicken dinner they were having, if i recall that bit of proto-contact-improv—facing each other, arms bent, forearms and hands in front of their torsos, each arm and hand lightly placed on top of the other person’s. it seemed to be about both resisting and giving in to the contact and weight of the other’s forearms on top of yours, letting your arms go slack and your partner’s slide off, falling away into some always nearby oblivion; beginning again, but alternating who’s on top, whose arms fall away. it’s not a bad metaphor for the ebb and flow of friendship, or even of something more intimate.

rainer did cry during this bit of the performance with paxton—i wish i could remember precisely what forti was doing at that point. it might have been when she was crawling slowly on the floor, eventually underneath a large leather jacket, into which she slowly rose, always hidden underneath, turning herself, one arm slipped partially into a sleeve, into a sort of blind elephant. but i might be mistaken.

when i returned home after Friday’s performance, i wrote this to my friend charlie: “i just got back from seeing steve paxton, simone forti and yvonne rainer perform together, i guess, for the first time since the early 1970s. so much history. what’s curious—or it’s my first thought: rainer is the most ambitious and the least interesting performer, or, i should say, her performance is the one most concerned with and driven by ego, with needing attention, with being the star, and she’s instrumentalized this need into a place in history. her place in history has as much to do with her desire for a place in history. forti and paxton just don’t care about that, or don’t care about it in the same way. rainer’s a ham, but i’m not sure a lot of her schtick works in this moment, especially when compared to paxton and forti, who are funnier without the effort of being funny, riveting without any need to be important or fawned over. nevertheless it was wonderful to watch. forti at one point, mid-rolling around on the floor with rainer—forti was teaching her ‘zoo mantras,’ in exchange for, at the start of the perf., rainer teaching forti parts of the solo from trio a. forti: ‘see, yvonne, i told you they wouldn’t mind watching some oldsters roll around on the floor.’

rainer asked paxton if he’d like to learn it (her notorious solo), after she’d finished with forti, and he said he’d just forget it. rainer said, ‘but you already know it.’ paxton: ‘i’d just forget it again.’ ”

yes, rainer did cry, but i’m not sure what to think of this. or, rather, i want to reflect on what triggered the crying, and i’m not sure it was only memory: it was moving, but, and i don’t wish to sound harsh, but it is part of what i’m sorting through: her ambition, or her drive to be seen, however “dance is hard to see,” is tied to a certain hamminess, which encompasses slapstick and politics, but, as performed, engages “slapstick” and “politics.” rainer was the most diligent about wanting a performance to be seen—it started with her teaching, yet again, steps for her most famous work; she seemed invested in reading aloud, stressing the politics of the texts read/performed, rather than the politics put into action by their three bodies going forth. one could read a new york vs. those who leave NYC attitude being played out, if one were so inclined.

at the end of my note to charlie, i added: “i think sturtevant understood that ambition when she did her rainer [Sturtevant’s Study for Yvonne Rainer’s ‘Three Seascapes’, 1967].” and when she (sturt) wrote, in the early ’70s: “to be a Great Artist is the least interesting thing I can think of / to be a Great Artist is the most ego-binding thing I can think of.”

i felt the trunk of the tree that forti, paxton, and rainer helped plant, but now the branches have taken them very different places. 

paxton seemed the most serious and inward, and the most on his own journey. if he enters a certain scene partnered with rauschenberg, he’s had decades to mull over the exigencies of “fame” and “career” and “history”—which tea for three couldn’t help but be, in some way, “about.”

paxton had constructed simple wooden frames, in three sizes (the largest almost as tall as he is, the smallest a foot-and-a-half or so tall) that could be propped up (each had a simple “leg” attached to it), but it took some work to get them to do what they were supposed to do (a metaphor for the dancer’s body?). at times, he would pick up one of them and “frame” a scene, as if taking a picture (not a selfie, twice-over).

forti appears to be the most supple. she’s, what, like shakespeare’s puck? generously she allows those who care to see what puck is like grown old—captivating and nimble, full of wit.

i sent the one picture i took to you, and then to my friend christine, a dancer and translator and sage. her reply: “they look so punk.”

my thought: definition of.

i’ve seen forti dance many times since moving to L.A. 20 years ago, from her first performance at her first show at the box [in 2009], when it was on chung king road, downtown.

does any of this make sense? you saw paxton’s dia beacon perfs. [in 2010]; am i off the mark in my read of his movement?

November 21, 2016 at 11:58 PM EST

Lots of sense. Too much sense to make sense of. (Maybe the only time it’s worth making sense.)

We know what happens to ambitious women, even now. Especially now. But one thing I’ve always enjoyed about Rainer (one of many things), is her interest in lifting others up and giving credit, hogging the spotlight only long enough to grab it and point it at others. (Same with the camera. Become a filmmaker, vibe with the theory maestros. She gets PR.) It’s a collective lifting-up, I like to think. (What would that weird nomenclature “Judson” be without her and her hamminess, and the way it so smartly dovetailed with the sometimes understated grace of her comrades?) In this way, some kinship perhaps with Ms. S.

What a crew. All the right pieces coming together. I hate to idealize their friendship (have to leave room for other friendships down the line). But I do. I remember running into the critic Nancy Dalva at a show at Danspace involving some Judson folks. I remember her turning to me and saying, “One thing that people don’t really talk about is that… they were so hot!”

It was a roast-chicken dinner, in 1968, and apparently they were both stoned. I think this is important, the stoner-scape being a shared mental space that to some extent allows us to move diagonally through history. Paxton says: “You [Rainer] made the chicken. And I asked, ‘What’s in that chicken?’ ” and Rainer replies, “Chicken.” Deadpan-Judson-stoner-hilarity. And while they’re joking they’re making “arm-drop,” which you describe, I think, accurately, so far as I understand it. Though I should add one minor detail: that the goal is for the person whose arms are on top to catch the bottom’s arms as the bottom’s arms fall and the support slips away.

It is proto-contact-improv—this focused negotiation of two bodies supporting each other, allowing one to go slack so that the other can go slack and on and on—though it’s still only the most tentative exploration of gravity. Not the full-on falling that became foundational to contact-improv (exposed in a gymnasium at Oberlin in 1972: Magnesium, it was called). A kitchen in 1968: no physical risk; fun for all ages. Just a simple back-and-forth. This before all the illnesses, attempted suicides, flights from the city. This while they’re both still in New York, intimate, getting stoned, in the years between laying the groundwork for what came to be known as postmodern dance and what came to be known as contact-improv, two of the most moving developments in movement and movement-thinking of the past fifty years.

A little window into that kitchen. 

I’ve only seen Paxton dance a few times. He’s remarkable. Both on stage and in life. Quiet, confident, full of potential and so unconcerned with demonstrating that potential. People say he was both the most virtuosic and the least concerned with virtuosity—the most interested in what other kinds of bodies could do—of that group of punks. Rainer more or less says he was the most punk of all.

I want to know more about what Forti was doing. Always off my radar, off in L.A., not “officially” a part of the Judson crowd, since she laid the groundwork with her Dance Constructions just prior (1961) and then ran off and let Rainer and Paxton and then Lucinda Childs and Trisha Brown et al run with the discoveries. Always a mystery to me.

I wish Trisha B. could have been there.


November 22, 2016 at 11:18 PM PST

oh, friendship is crucial—especially now! but let’s acknowledge that friendships can be tricky—not tricky, but that friendships, however strong, are also friable, fragile, delicate things, and must be tended to be sustained. 

is forti the magnet, really, too often, until recently, drawing things and people together, influencing? so often the shiny (live) wires moved to garner attention, instead of the force that allows them to. i’m mixing metaphors.

let’s go to the source.

paxton, about forti’s dance constructions, 1961, in which both he and rainer, with others, performed, at yoko ono’s loft, stated it all quite clearly: “all i know is that this small, radical group of works by forti was like a pebble tossed into a large, still, and complacent pond. the ripples radiated. most notably, forti’s event happened prior to the first performance at judson memorial church by the choreographers from robert dunn’s composition class, and they took courage from it.”

rainer, about the same forti work, wrote: “it seemed that a vacuum sealed that evening for over a year until her performers could get the judson dance theater up and running. simone was its inspiration and fountainhead. we all owe her.”

the stoner-scape, did it encourage free love?  

in terms of the challenge of relations—friendships, affairs, marriages, divorces, comings-together which defy rote relational systems (what is, say a “company”?)—i wonder about the shift from simone forti and robert morris as husband and wife to yvonne rainer and robert morris as partners. what new textures and moods did it bring to the dancing and the writing and the sculpture, not to mention the friendship? while so much of the biographical challenges easy labanotation, ignoring it helps nothing either, even if it’s put into shadow by her pursuit of her work, its experimentation, its vitality, the force of her spirit: all of it allowed forti to invite rainer and paxton and others to rome, when she was living there in the late 1960s, before she returned to the u.s.—eventually settling in or around L.A. in 1970.

what was put on display last weekend was the élan vital of a particular history, of friendship, friends, conspirators, together again. tea for three allowed for solo actions as well as duets and trios, as if tracing the complex kinds of coordinates—biographical, psychic, aesthetic, political—which make up art. the potential comedy of an aging body and its grace riveted, on full display. i kept thinking of the decades of work, dancing, the audience got to witness in every planned step and every improvisational bit: e.g., big red plastic buckets, almost cauldrons, which, at different points, rainer and forti used to great effect for choreographed activity and for impromptu shenanigans, sinking into them, needing help to get back out. it’s a funny but poignant metaphor for how we can’t do everything alone, or else we risk, like a turtle on its back, going nowhere. friends come to the rescue, dumping or flipping us over, so that the work, life, can proceed.   

November 22, 2016 at 9:58 PM EST

They were barrels! Maybe? 

Another favorite diagonal: Yvonne recalling her rehearsals of Trio A with David Gordon and Paxton just prior to that signal dance’s first performance, January 10, 1966: “At one session something David was doing looked strange to me. I asked him what kind of imagery he was using. He said ‘I’m thinking of myself as a faun.’ I said ‘Try thinking of yourself as a barrel.’ ”

Barrels, mattresses, airplanes—the plodding oof iconography of Judson. As opposed to the soaring (/sinking) romantic-natural ooo of dance “prior.” Fauns and swans and all that. (Not to be confused with the nature of, say, Cunningham’s Beach Birds, 1991—Swan Lake after the falls.)

Now things are so complicated, and we like (anyway I like) the oofs alongside some ooos. 

There’s friendship and then there’s Friendship. The friendship that we all have (I’m being optimistic), and the Friendship that gets picked up and picked apart and that forms history’s macadam. That gets turned into some weird word like “postmodern.” Or something.

Sorry, I’m tipsy (on Manhattans! long live Manhattan dance) and trying to think of this thing called Friendship that goes beyond (or sustains) thinking, and so maybe can’t be “thought.” The passing along of lovers, erotic constellations and accidental affinities emerging from and sometimes if you’re lucky disturbing the quandaries of class, brains, race, attractiveness, location (very important, location, which is inscribed by all these other things but which introduces the politics of performance, i.e. that you had to be there element—even if I never know where there is—or you or had for that matter. Remember FOMO?), education, gender, etc.

“O my friends, there is no friend,” Derrida quotes Montaigne quoting Aristotle quoting some archaic incog who never got credited. Probably a woman.

Foucault: “They have to invent, from A to Z, a relationship that is still formless, which is friendship.” Sounds like what we used to mean by “art.”

We’re going to need a lot of friends and lovers in the coming years. 

Do you think Tea for Three is a good example for us? 

Who or what are your friends?


November 22, 2016 at 8:08 PM PST

i flash on root beer barrels, suckable candy.

i embrace the lowercase to recall jill johnston, her importance and example in so much we’re discussing.  

but, hey, aren’t barrels tall? their red containers were squat, and forti and rainer oofed themselves into them, butt-first. it would take buster keaton, nijinsky, or one of the five moons to leap out—ooo—of a barrel, or into one, gazelle-ish. where did the schtick come from of someone naked in a landscape and finding a barrel to cover himself with?

say hello to my little friend.  

say hello to my little friends.

friend of dorothy.

friends with benefits.

dionne warwick singing “that’s what friends are for”—with elton john, gladys knight, and stevie wonder.

à l’ami qui ne m’a pas suavé la vie.

contact tipsiness from your manhattans, here in tinseltown. 

as a single man, a solo act, i value friendship—for all its formlessness, sometimes difficult sometimes not—more than coupledom, a regime that often fatigues. coupledom is not coupling, which can be a quickie or something more prolonged. i’m wary of those who have no friends, only family. why the president-elect’s (seemingly?) having no friends and only family didn’t unnerve people more dismays me.

a friend is the one you can call in your darkest hour, no matter what, but it’s difficult to maintain friendships over decades, although those that manage to continue become more and more precious, rare. in demonstrating the possibility of maintaining contact, maintaining balance, a sense of humor, and curiosity, tea for three performed an exemplariness the likes of which i’ve almost never before encountered. so many of the soft gestures, quick antics, and quietudes, even quasi-longueurs, shimmered with the possibility and indulgence, simultaneously metaphorical as well as point-blank and actual, that only friendship, as opposed to other forms of relationality, allows. the possibility, the potential, of a cohort that can survive any night, however long. 

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum. David Velasco is editor of

Tea for Three ran Friday, November 18 and Saturday, November 19 at The Box in Los Angeles.