Sleeper Hit

Catherine Damman on Yvonne Rainer’s The Concept of Dust at MoMA

Yvonne Rainer, The Concept of Dust, or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move?, 2015. Performance view, The Werner and Elaine Dannheisser Lobby Gallery, fourth floor, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, June 10, 2015. Yvonne Rainer, Pat Catterson, Patricia Hoffbauer, and Keith Sabado. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

THE FLOOR, like the walls, is bright white. Rectangular floodlights line its perimeter on three sides, angled upward in the manner of expectant faces. This eagerness is mirrored by the audience; tickets sold out quickly and seats filled up fast.

None of this surprises me. Neither am I surprised that we are given a reading assignment of sorts (typeface Cambria, the default for Microsoft Office), handed out alongside the “official” programs. I read dutifully.

We are here to see Yvonne Rainer, after all. She holds court in a chair on stage right: wiry glasses, hair in a modest French twist, striped socks peeking out from below the cuff of her pants. After a brief solo, the pianist, Vincent Izzo, misses his cue to exit and Rainer waves him off with an impatient, affectionate tsk. This too, feels familiar.

I did not expect, however, that Rainer’s favorite work in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, at least when she first arrived in New York in 1956, was Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897. It has been de-installed from the fifth-floor galleries and placed behind the performers, guarded by two art handlers who will slowly roll it out of view over the course of the dance.

Against the bleached setting, the dancers are punctuation: red sneakers, an apricot tank top, blue athletic pants with a satisfying sheen. Though I can’t help but try to make them into an image, they dart too quickly in and out of frame. There are snippets of Rainer’s iconic choreography, such as paths of pedestrian jogging. During the warm-up, a dancer stands in quiet profile with bent knees and arms swinging from side to side (the opening movement from Rainer’s Trio A, 1966). Muscle memory gives way to more showy phrases: Hips roll and chests contract; we are given jazz hands, a few snaps, even a fan kick. The juxtapositions throw into high relief just how attuned Rainer has always been to choreographic tradition and technique even when she is abandoning it. A turned-out waddle takes them off the dance floor upstage, followed by an aggrieved wiggle of an imaginary doorknob, and an earnest wave of greeting that brings them back to center. Then, on a sharp diagonal, the group fights to cut in front of each other on line.

They take turns leaving and returning to one another, interrupted by Rainer’s narration, which includes ruminations on a hedgehog’s ancient fossil and the history of Islam and the Middle East. Rainer leaves her post to chase individual dancers around the floor, pushing the microphone into their face, prompting them to read from her script (and at least once, correcting their pronunciation). It’s an exaggeration of the directorial mode.

All this is done to Gavin Bryar’s atmospheric The Sinking of the Titanic, 1969. First recorded in 1975 on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records, its title is a reminder that America—as both an idea and a real place to which one might take a boat journey—is mostly a catastrophe. Rainer’s citational texts reinforce this notion (quoting Frederic Jameson, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”) Later, I learn that Bryar’s composition draws from a Christian hymn played by the RMS Titanic’s band. They refused to quit as the ship went down.

Yvonne Rainer, The Concept of Dust, or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move?, 2015. Performance view, The Werner and Elaine Dannheisser Lobby Gallery, fourth floor, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, June 10, 2015. David Thomson, Keith Sabado, Patricia Hoffbauer, and Yvonne Rainer. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Performers occasionally hold a pillow in their outstretched hands, an offering pressed under a fellow’s dancer’s elbow, or hip, or neck. The moment of contact initiates a slow sink to the floor. The prop recalls a moment from Rainer’s Continuous Project–Altered Daily, performed in March 1970 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Borrowing its title from another Robert Morris piece at the Whitney, the work was indeterminate, making visible the intimate labor of making dances: teaching, rehearsing, and performing. Within that framework, any dancer could initiate the section, Chair/Pillow, 1969, simply by asking the sound technician to play its score (Ike & Tina Turner’s ecstatic “River Deep Mountain High,” linked to another decline, that of its producer, Phil Spector). The rule was, everyone had to join in.

Some of that logic organizes the present work; within a predetermined structure, the dancers are deputized to make spontaneous choices, stopping or starting phrases at will. The dancers—Pat Catterson, Patricia Hoffbauer, Emmanuèle Phuon, Keith Sabado, and David Thomson—do so magnificently, moving expertly and making decisions with polished tenacity. Glimpses of their personalities emerge like Rainer’s striped socks: a flash of focused determination here, a wobbly insouciance there.

Those socks are encased within Rainer’s all-black Nikes, matched by Sauconys, Asics, and three pair of Keds (for some, a particular squeak is that of basketball players pivoting on the court; for this audience, I imagine the association is always sneaker-wearing dancers). Later, Rainer will make a shooting-hoops “swoosh” gesture with crooked elbow and bent wrist. This too is a delicious surprise, like the childhood scandal of seeing a teacher in the grocery store or the friend of a parent who lets you in on a dirty joke.

Her gesture emerges out of a forcible huddle. The throng has been initiated at Rainer’s imperative: “crush!” It’s a violence that is also a kind of caress. Pressing together, they shove and stutter-step, then recalibrate, beginning again.

The final shock: Rainer has never before performed at MoMA. Afterward, several people express incredulity at this fact: We still believe in the museum as a maker of canons, a legitimizing force, and Rainer’s work has mattered to so many. Our reading assignment, titled “Some Random Ruminations on Value,” has anticipated these questions. Prompted by Ralph Lemon’s 2013–14 series of talks and performances (“On Value”) hosted by MoMA, her essay was to accompany a never-realized performance, Value Talk #5. Rainer was to sleep beneath Rousseau’s painting in the galleries during public hours. In some ways, both the “postponed” performance and the text are addressed to all the ink spilled about dance in the white cube.

But they are also about more. Rainer asks, “But in this age of chronically frustrated desires do we want to see more than a painting of a sleeping gypsy? Do you want to see more than the body of a sleeping dancer? Do you want to touch her? Do you want to test her, feel her?”

I sense that we do. Both rapt and rapacious, we want more from the woman who has wrestled with the authority that authorship implies (and can now make jokes about it), and with representation, the threat and mangle of it. We want her to tell us what it is to watch bodies in a room, and to disclose everything she knows about desire—both the chronically frustrated and the inadequately fulfilled—and renunciation. Rainer is most famous for saying “no,” but it’s our most unforgivable amnesia that we forget how often she has also said yes. It is worth so much.

Yvonne Rainer’s The Concept of Dust, or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move? was organized by Ana Janevski, with Giampaolo Bianconi and ran June 9–10, 13–14 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.