Yvonne Rainer, Part Two: “Lives of Performers”

THE IMMEDIATE CONSEQUENCE OF Yvonne Rainer’s Indian voyage was Grand Union Dreams, performed in the very large and featureless gymnasium space of the Emmanuel Midtown YMHA in May, 1971. It seemed then and seems still her most problematic work, but it will interest us particularly as the generative source of future efforts and as a point of departure for that particular work which now mainly concerns us: Lives of Performers.

In Grand Union Dreams, Rainer begins the use of something like fictional “characters,” and it is that use which will eventually solicit a space and structure of narrative. The characters of Dreams are called into being by designation. Remembering, with more than a touch of wistful envy, no doubt, the mythic conventions and certitudes of Kathakali dance, Rainer had divided her dancers into “Gods,” “Heroes,” and “Mortals,” but the notion of character stopped at designation. Dancers were assigned specific functions, movements, and these revived the use of props: a suitcase to be carried, a long plexiglass box to be crawled through, a wooden box or cabin, twice the size of a telephone booth and placed against the far wall, its nearer end open to us and filled by bodies of performers in a frozen choreography of accommodation, or “plastic poses.” The tension between designation and function, reinforced by the recitation of text from Jung and Hesse, was extreme—so extreme, in fact, that it made for a malaise of puzzlement, suggesting for each movement a hidden symbolic function that qualified one’s attention to any given movement in time. A performer, when individualized, was presented as performer. Thus, Valda Setterfield, of the Cunningham Company, beginning now to work with Rainer, was used – and would continue to be so—in a very special way. Her theatrical presence, her humor and chic, her narrow, sloping shoulders, her balletic port de bras, all emphasized by the cut of her black velvet evening dress, were injected as it were, as a reference to performance style—another set of conventions and lost certitudes. It is Setterfield who performs a slow dance, tracing great arcs as she grasps, at arm’s length, the ball to which she steadily attends. Pursued, as in a conventional theatrical performance, by a spotlight which encloses and discloses her, she remains, like the dancer of Trio A, without direct visual contact with her audience. This dance will, like a number of other elements in Dreams, be used in the film to come.

Meanwhile, one could say of such Heroes and of such Gods that they were more like homeless Dancers or that, like the earlier Dancers, they were at one with their physical and spatial functions, and this in a manner we do not normally associate with even mortal “characters.” Trisha Brown,

descending from Olympus and poling her way toward a group of mortals who are putting the squeeze on the heroes, especially on Epp Kotkas, who is squeezing the red ball, says to Epp: “You will soon see things of which you have never heard and which you have never seen. Then you will understand things that I can never tell you. But you must stay awake. You may see them only once.”

Trisha Brown, then, to distinguish only one among the Olympian set, performed, or embodied as one will a task of utterance and of movement; one saw her as a composite of assignments, tasks, designation, rather than as performer of a role or character. The disjunction between the physical particularities of her tasks and her mythic reference was absolute. Grand Union Dreams kept coming apart, as you watched it: this disjunction wrenched it apart. The sense of reference, the constant promise of symbolic disclosure, the tension of the thrust toward that disclosure, were both more and less than frustrating. It was as if the scene of action was not the space in which movement was being performed, but some undefined, undisclosed space in which the designations might have some meaning, and its characters some life: an elsewhere that might indeed be fictive. Grand Union Dreams, then, spelled out, in its irresolution, the symptoms of a variety of “culture shock”: the crisis produced in the secular consciousness of a modernist artist by the discovery of the continuity of belief and narrative. One assumes it was the consciousness of the problematic and tentative character of the attempt to resolve that crisis which impelled Rainer to declare, in the program sheet distributed on the occasion of that performance, that “this is the first in a series of versions.”

The problem now at hand was that of locating new terms for the composition of fictional structures consistent with that secular, modernist consciousness. How, indeed, was one to compose a narrative work without succumbing to the temptations of fictional illusionism and mythical reference? The response was intelligent, if not immediately exalting. First, by falling back, as it were, to the terrain of the private, personal experience in the feeling that one’s own life is as viable as any other material (more accessible, more usable at least). Next came the location of one’s fictional resources through the recognition that the forms and rhetoric of those psychological situations which compose the repertory of domestic drama, constitute a material which has at least the authenticity of one’s own somewhat desperate investment of emotional energy. Finally, the conviction that one’s analytic culture provides the point of departure for a series of formal variations upon disjunction (between sound and image, between present and past, between character and voice, between reading and speaking) that will render the fragmented Self which stands at the center of that fiction.

Following these decisions, elements from Dreams will become usable again. Among them, and in addition to Setterfield’s solo, will be the Box, some specific movements for a group in a rehearsal, and these will animate the next major performance at the Whitney Museum, in 1972. From this point on, indeed, live performances and work for film will be increasingly fused, so that elements from the performance at Hofstra University, reworked for another at the Whitney Museum, given in open rehearsal at Hunter College, performed, in a somewhat altered version, in the Paris Autumn Festival of 1972, and presented at the Theatre for A New City in New York (in the spring of 1973) will prepare work for her second film, currently in progress: This is a film about a woman who . . . . Material from Dreams was retained, but it is above all the preoccupation with fictional modes and with the tactics of disjunction which will preside over her newer work. It is in this work, then, that “The Plot Thickens,” producing Lives of Performers.

This is Rainer’s first film, completed in the early summer of 1972. Its feature-length or running time is 120 minutes. It constitutes, of course, the decisive move back and away from the abandonment of directorial and compositional modes of work which had animated her two years of association with The Grand Union. Work on Lives, however, presented Rainer with a new modality of collaborative effort, and a gratification intensified by the production of a work which, though temporal, is remanent. Her principal, nonperforming collaborator for Lives was Babette Mangolte, whose exceptional skill as camerawoman is inseparable from the interest and success of this work on film. Lives departs from a rather long and complex “scenario” composed of material Rainer had been collecting for about a year. The tact of Mangolte’s camera movement, her editing, evoke another subtly articulated presence, steady and graceful. Her lighting, moreover, endows the bare loft space, its paper screens, the props, the nakedness of things with a singular, reserved elegance.

The film is composted of parts, sequences or pieces which give it the total, compositional aspect of a “recital.” And it cannot with any justice be described as an integral whole; its parts, while not wholly disjunct from one another, function as variations upon a number of given themes and strategies. Rainer’s first use of disjunction is for the creation of a semblance of fictional continuity out of situations which are, nevertheless, experienced as largely discrete with respect to the notion of an enveloping fictional whole. The film then begins to project a series of variations upon its themes and strategies. The text, partly projected in titles, partly read off-screen, chronicles the complex interrelationships developing among performers during a period of rehearsal. One must remember that fragments of this scenario had been performed “live” together with commentary at the Whitney Museum, and that evidence of or reference to these presentations is present in the film—largely through the recorded laughter of a knowing and appreciative audience, recorded at performance time. The result is a very complex temporality. One has the retelling, by off-screen voices of past events, fictive in nature involving fictive versions, as it were, of the real performers who in recalling, under their own names, the events of that fictive past, make reference, from time to time, to real performances (that of Grand Union Dreams, or of Inner Appearances). The temporal complexity of this sort of superimposition will on occasion be intensified by the sharing or shifting of roles. A dialogue begins between Yvonne and two performers, Fernando and Shirley, later joined by Valda and John. Yvonne, the director, provides certain information, while Fernando and his fellow-performers discuss the nuances in shifts of feeling and of commitment which animate their complex interrelationship. These, while constantly being explicated, in that idiom of somewhat manic autoanalysis which characterizes life and love in a therapeutically oriented culture, are not always clear. John’s role is particularly shadowy, and Yvonne announces at one point that she is going to assume his role. Although literary texts and cultural heroes are from time to time quoted and evoked, there is really one single mode of intellectual discourse which informs the “action” of this film and its “characters”: that of psychoanalysis, in its latter-day, revisionist modes. Much of the material presented, then, in Lives is the stuff of bourgeois drama—and comedy—the succession of tiny crises and realignments, the small agonies and apperceptions of a milieu existing wholly within the area of performance and rehearsal, its cross analysis of motives and intentions expanding to fill its entire psychic space.

I have, in the first part of this study (published last month), referred to the reflexive character of the New Dance; and the manner in which its consumingly autoanalytical character is to some extent contingent upon the intense restrictedness of the social space in which it flourishes. Rainer, in this first film—as in the performances which preceded it—plays on psychological ambiguity as if, venturing for the first time to create characters, she wishes to preserve their concrete point of origin in a nonfictional esthetic context. Performers, then, preserve their names in the tangle of purely invented interrelationships. Lives of Performers is, among other things, the construction of a series of rather joyless marivaudages, in which protocols and autoanalytic exchanges are invested with the high-minded austerity of Sohoesque life. These ambiguities obviously spoke to a small though growing circle of enthusiasts with the trivial seduction of a roman à clef. Filled with allusions to private and not-so-private problems and agonies—some of these articulated, one suspects, through quotations from private journals and/or psychotherapeutic revelations, and apperceptions—the film’s structure proposes, far more interestingly, the uses of such material, how they can be distanced, the extraction of the formal potential of these constraints and ambiguities. Lives begins, then, with a quotation from the writings of Leo Bersani on the nature and value of cliché, as a principle of intelligibility. One will not feel, as the film progresses, the full and clear deployment of this principle, but one will feel its intermittent presence, as the formalizing agent which replaces that of myth.

The first sequence of Lives of Performers is, however, not a performance, but a rehearsal by Rainer and her colleagues-characters for a future performance at the Whitney Museum. The repetitive character, a formal constituent, of the particular movement being rehearsed is echoed or confirmed by the camera’s movement, perhaps the most active and sustained of the entire film. This movement describes, in a steady series of pans and tilts, a repeated quadrilateral form, discrete, but steady and relentless. The sound track is not audible until part of the way into this sequence, and it is slowly evident that the dialogue is extracted from another, quite different moment in rehearsal. It is as though Rainer is giving instructions (1, 2, 3, 4 . . . the beginning), setting the pattern for camera movement.

In this opening sequence, Rainer and Mangolte establish a series of variations upon a factor that is, of course, particularly interesting—central, in fact,—to dance film: the synechdocal mode of movement articulation through the ratio obtaining between close, medium, and long shots. Rainer and Mangolte are, on the whole, quite free and varied in their handling of group dance movement. One can isolate shots, for example, in which the total screen space is framed by a close-up of head and torso with extended arms, or by feet, at the bottom right or left of frame. The range of shot sizes from this end of the spectrum to that of long shot is full and complete. And there would seem to be a sense in which this variety is particularly appropriate to New Dance. One knows that Nureyev, in supervising the recent film and television versions of major works by Petipa, insisted upon the steady maintenance of the long shot. And there is a way in which the qualities of poise, of presence, ballon, fullness of gesture which characterize the balletic style in general and Nureyev’s in particular, require the use of the long shot and the long take. That dance demands the spatio-temporal continuity of mise-en-scène to manifest itself in its completeness. For it is quite evidently not the fictions of The Sleeping Beauty or of Don Quixote which solicit, indeed impose, an integrity of cinematic illusionism. It is rather the representation of the balletic reality of the dancer moving in theatrical space which insists upon it.

Yvonne Rainer, in an early notebook entry, had proposed the following sequence of movements: “Turn head from side to side while hands flap ears like semaphores. Speak softly—mention a part of the body, move that part. Mention another part, etc. Make it continuous.” It is in the filmic synechdoche that she now performs that analytic and ostensive work upon the body in movement; the assertive cut provides for the cinematic intensification of its continuity.

The rehearsal ends (“dissolves”) in laughter. A title, “all at once our attention is vanished,” provides the transition to the next sequence. Titles will be extensively, variously used. They have been signaled in previous performance by use of extensive program notes, by presentation of lists, nomenclature, and also by the growingly extensive use of slides, the occasional use of blackboard inscriptions. Titles will comment upon the film’s actions, upon characters’ motives. They will speak for characters, directly, or enclosed by quotation marks. They will present literary quotations, the rhetoric of cliché. They will permit a personal utterance which is not weighted with mimetic expressiveness. It is as if Rainer is rediscovering the multiple function of titles in silent American and Soviet film. [One thinks of De Milles Male and Female (1918), a film in which the narrative is reinforced by the titles’ constant introduction of verbal metaphors.]

The title is followed by the second major sequence of Grand Union Dreams, in which a number of the film’s major strategies are established as originating in Grand Union Dreams. We see a succession of eight still photographs from that performance. They are seen, however, upon a background of typescript, the script, in fact, of Lives of Performers. The off-screen dialogue, spoken by Yvonne, Shirley, and Fernando, initiates the reading of those photographs addressed, presumably, to the spectator. A descriptive analysis of the nature of the performance is offered. Thus:

In this first photo Epp and James are engaged in a duet. David and Yvonne have just finished dragging them on the fake grass in a small arc. When they stand they undulate their upper bodies in unison while passing the red ball back and forth. They are about to pick up the grass and involve it in their undulations. Valda waits. My question is “What does it mean?” Are they celebrating something? Yes, that sounds good: Epp and James are doing a dance of pleasure at the advent of spring.

And now begins the dialogue between Shirley and Fernando (whose Spanish accent, extremely heavy, is somewhat at variance with the easy idiom of his text): “It actually was spring when you began working on this piece—and I first met you, Fernando. I think some people went over to your house after that first rehearsal.” The exchange of reminiscences of two characters presumed now to be lovers is occasionally interrupted by Yvonne, who will say, before examining still number four, “This one is out of proper order.” They are joined on the sound track by Valda, and the dialogue shades into discussion of the iconographic and textual sources of Grand Union Dreams. As that shift slowly occurs, Yvonne’s discourse, addressing Shirley, shades into both an explanation of her strategy and the inflections of direct speech, or its mimesis. A disagreement about the qualities of a given Jung text, used in Dreams, elicits from Yvonne the avowal of her present rejection of a

Weakness for the sweeping revelations of great men and her intention of pursuing the coming concert (Whitney, 1972) so different, of simply doing another form of story-telling, more intimate, less epic, and in further explaining, elicits from Valda the query “Were you saying that or reading it?”

In this section, then, still pictures are presented as the documents of a past performance. A superimposed fictional past is presented as generating a future performance, is the recorded performance of the first sequence. And the sequence ends with Rainer’s specific warning to us that she is moving from the temptation of the mythic (the sweeping revelations of great men) from temptations of the epic into some other more intimate form.

Yvonne, when asked whether she is reading or telling her account of things, has replied, “I’m remembering it from Hofstra.” This is a reference to a past performance at Hofstra University, in which the photographic documentation of Dreams was first used, and the laughter which greets the answer informs us that we are listening to a soundtrack which records the use, during a performance at the Whitney Museum, of that same material and the amused reaction of the rather knowing Whitney audience. The recitals and fictions which have now accompanied the images on the screen encapsulate, then, three distinct past temporal points. This somewhat disjunct and multiple present filmic moment will erupt again from recorded audience laughter at another exchange between Shirley and Fernando which spells out the terms of Shirley’s ambivalence and vulnerability. The rather intensively introspective mood of Shirley is interrupted by Valda’s entrance, in her evening dress, announcing she’s seen a film. The response is, “I remember that movie. It’s about all those small betrayals, isn’t it?” (in a title), and we now witness the formalized enactment of another fictional (cliché) situation.

Valda, replying, “You might describe it that way,” begins to extract the full archetypal force from this particular fictional convention and recounts, in an off-screen recital, the three subjectively conditioned, possible versions of a domestic triangle which is “also about a man who loves a woman and can’t leave her when he falls in love with another woman. I mean he can’t seem to make up his mind.” This small drama of ambivalence and guilt is played as we see Valda, Fernando, and Shirley head-on in long shot, aligned before us, pivoting about to and from each other in an elementary choreography which objectifies the terms of the triangle, in extreme formalization of a dramatic situation. And it is this formalization which introduces a further extension and complication of the relationships which have until this point been established as the film’s fictional core. It is now that John is introduced, and it is now that John and Valda begin to be involved in the drama developing between Shirley and Fernando.

The camera has been presenting that drama in a very intimate sort of way, through close-ups which examine the floor, the bed of the bare chamber. Yvonne and Shirley comment: “He’s tired of indecisiveness. She doesn’t know what to do.” And there follows the revelation that “she has always worked in a form which disappears as soon as it reveals itself.” This reflection, loaded with implications as to the dynamics of Shirley’s emotional ambivalence, is accompanied by an embrace during which the camera travels slowly up the joined bodies of Fernando and Shirley, descending, once again, down those bodies now separated.

The chamber in which these dramas are being played out is, of course, not really a room, but rather, as the paper screen which defines its furthermost limit indicates, a playing space. The intrusion of objects (Fernando’s suitcase, for example) is therefore momentous, and the spareness of décor endows them with a particular weight and intensity of presence: those of a prop.

In this playing space, characters do make entrances and exits in a somewhat theatrical way. So that Valda, discussing the complexities of her relationship with John and Shirley, proposes an analysis through an inventory of possible versions of another “classical” situation: the reaction upon entering that chamber to the presence of the two other members of a triangle. These are boldly, unequivocally, “enacted” in a series of takes which are separated by intrusive jump cuts: Valda entering and noticing or not noticing their presence, Valda affectionate, indifferent, brooding.

This playing space is then easily transformed into the space of dream, and as Shirley tells that dream, we see, in slow motion, a child bouncing a ball, while in the background a cat watches. It is rather like a cinematic transposition of Goya’s portrait of a princely child. Shirley is dreaming about a wall (“neither concrete nor metal, but rather of steel mesh”—which is to say, transparent), the surmounting of which produces an experience of release and well-being as she accedes to the playground which can be glimpsed beyond it. And as she describes that wall we sense, rather than see, a limit which separates us from the playing child; it is the limit of the visual field of the camera, so that the bouncing ball is experienced as rebounding away from us, its direction inflected by the invisible, impalpable limit of the cinematic illusion.

The final major mode of fictional representation in the film is constituted by a long series of shots which engage Valda, John, Shirley, and Fernando in tableaux vivants. They are seen against a black background in fixed attitudes of a sort which suggest dramatic action in arrest, very much like movie-production photos. A drama is being enacted in complete silence, all titles, commentary having ceased. The Performers have abandoned rehearsal of their private dramas. They are part of another fiction, and we sense from the trajectory of glances, the tension of bodies, the sudden changes in costume accessories, the extremely artificial studio lighting, that, in fact, they constitute another fictional world in which the impulses of cruelty, guilt, violence are played out in an entirely different register of intensity. They are, in fact, enacting moments drawn from another film, Pandora’s Box, made by G. W. Pabst in 1928, after Wedekind’s drama. They have moved, then, from the formalization of an archetypal domestic triangle seen as choreography, to the projection of a filmic work, seen through photography. For the tableaux are drawn, not directly from film, but rather from the stills accompanying the edition of the film’s script published in 1971 by Simon and Schuster. The notion of cliché as organizing principle, as replacement for archetype, as mode of a possible fiction, has been radicalized and literalized in this final sequence: the psychological drama is wholly objectified in attitudes which succeed each other in silence, drawn from the photographic reduction of a moving picture. Music follows, and Lives of Performers is at an end.

Annette Michelson