PRINT September 2012

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David Velasco on Annette Michelson’s “The Dancer and the Dance” and “Lives of Performers”

Page from Artforum 12, no. 5 (January 1974). Annette Michelson, “Yvonne Rainer, Part One: The Dancer and the Dance.” Shown: Production still by Babette Mangolte of Yvonne Rainer’s Lives of Performers, 1972.

BEFORE SHE BECAME the doyenne of film theory, Annette Michelson was also a champion of what some anachronistically called the New Dance. In her first feature article in Artforum, on André Breton, in the September 1966 issue devoted to Surrealism, there is this:

One of the beautiful and important works of art I have seen this year . . . was a choreography (The Mind is a Muscle by Yvonne Rainer) in which movement and the evocation or figuration of its absence tended to assume the nature and presence of objects. More urgently than any theoretical or speculative contexts, a work of this sort poses the question of Surrealism’s metaphor in a climate in which the notion of making replaces that of revealing or expressing.

That event, which would have included one of the earliest performances of Rainer’s Trio A, 1966, stuck with Michelson. Seemingly unassimilable to the rest of her essay, this brief reference to what would become Rainer’s signature evening-length work, then still in progress, represented both a measure of Michelson’s investment in the signal revolutions in dance and a signpost of her specific commitment to Rainer. It also seems to have been the first mention in Artforum of the goings-on of anyone affiliated with the historic convulsion of 1962–64 known as Judson Dance Theater (currently also celebrating its fiftieth anniversary).

From September 1972 to February 1974, Michelson was the magazine’s associate editor of film, a title presumably awarded for her campaigning for the field and for her pioneering writings on everyone from Michael Snow to Stanley Kubrick. But during this period of her tenure, there was also a notable proliferation in Artforum of articles on performance: in December 1972, a survey of recent dance by Don McDonagh and a roundtable conversation hosted by Stephen Koch featuring, among others, Rainer, Trisha Brown, and Twyla Tharp; in February 1973, a portfolio by Lucinda Childs; in May 1973, a piece by Angela Westwater and Mark Berger on Meredith Monk; the following month, an extended review of Rainer and Brown performances by Lizzie Borden; and so on. Until recently, after some unpredictable intersection of social and aesthetic facts launched our current dance-art amity, this was the only period during which dance could be said to have mattered in Artforum.

Michelson’s own interest would culminate in her two-part essay on Rainer’s work in the January and February 1974 issues. The cover story “Part One: The Dancer and the Dance” concerns itself with Rainer’s performances; “Part Two: Lives of Performers” deals with her first stand-alone film. Michelson’s double feature concretizes her own more or less permanent transition to film theory—she has not written so directly about contemporary performance since—just as her essays trace Rainer’s own transformations. There’s a cranky incongruity in the meeting of these original polemicists, between Michelson’s ornate, restless prose brimming with ideas and Rainer’s gutsy, incisive wit, which intrudes through quotations and along the edges.

The texts are peak Michelson. The canon is a horizon toward which one aspires: For her, it’s not just the terms of modern dance that are at stake but the entire nervous system of Western art. She begins, “There are, in the contemporary renewal of performance modes, two basic and diverging impulses which shape and animate its major innovations.” Her opening gambit, a telescopic frame story, is that Rainer’s work, like that of Brecht, Eisenstein, and Cunningham, belongs to a tradition of “analytic” art—secular, reflexive, objective—a lineage that Michelson sets against the more “expressive” (“Christian,” even) traditions of Artaud, Brakhage, Graham, et al.

It’s hardly surprising that the initial flash point for Michelson was Trio A, whose gimlet polemic against the plotlike structure (preparation, climax, denouement) of the basic dance phrase is practically theory bait. Trio A is, thanks in part to Rainer’s own analyses, a writer-friendly dance. On the plus side, this means it has a better chance than most of surviving the great historical forgetting that picks off ephemeral forms like choreography first, and it’s a smart point of access for any novitiate looking to lucubrate on advanced twentieth-century dance. As a minus, it’s so overanalyzed that you might think you don’t have to see it to “get” it. (Another axis along which to read Rainer’s oft-cited axiom that “dance is hard to see.”) Michelson uses a philological vocabulary to describe the work: “Trio A is highly asyndetonic, proceeding from phrase to phrase, without pause or transition, and its evenness of utterance, its seamlessness results from the dancer’s refusal to inflect movement in the sense of emphasis.” She also discusses the “paratactic structures” of this new “vocabulary of movement” and Rainer’s “revision of choreographic grammar.” Indeed, this language of grammar dovetails with what seems to be Michelson’s overriding theory about Rainer: that her work—in both dance and film—is a renegotiation of the terms of narrative (plot, character, syntax) vis-à-vis the “medium” of the performer.

In the course of Michelson’s attempt to resolve the dialectical contractions of Rainer’s art, Rainer begins to look a little like the protagonist of a philosophical bildungsroman. As Michelson has it, the critical juncture prompting Rainer’s transition from dance to film is Rainer’s “culture shock” following an Experiments in Art and Technology–funded research trip to India in the winter of 1970–71. (Michelson refers to it portentously as Rainer’s “Indian voyage.”) Here, the encounter of the “secular consciousness of a modernist artist” with the religious culture articulated in kathakali dance catalyzes Rainer’s “reinvention” in film, though Michelson argues that much of the material, as well as some of the strategies, employed there was already salient in Rainer’s Continuous Project—Altered Daily, 1970. Notably, Michelson played an extratextual role in this makeover, having introduced Rainer to Babette Mangolte, who shot Rainer’s first feature-length film, Lives of Performers (1972).

“My body remains the enduring reality,” Rainer says in 1968, and by 1972 she’s saying, “For me, the body is no longer the main focus.” What happened to Rainer’s body (or to that reality) in those years is still up for grabs, though Michelson perhaps goes further than any outside observer in accounting for its theoretical consequences. As Michelson has it, Rainer’s shift from dance to film is not only an extension of Rainer’s reevaluation of narrative structure and the performer as medium: In a final masterstroke, Michelson argues that Rainer’s “reinvention” is also a rapprochement with that other impulse in the “contemporary renewal of performance modes,” a turn toward mythopoesis and the “expressive” tradition. The dialectic of the bildungsroman is complete; the heroine emerges from her journey shaken but mature. Narrative is radicalized. Such showstopping theoretical panache gives as much as it glosses, but you have to admit it’s golden stuff.

In March 1974, in the immediate wake of the Rainer articles, Michelson’s editorial title was amended to include “performance.” But by then her dance-writing days were largely behind her. A few months later, Lynda Benglis’s bellwether provocation would run in the magazine, precipitating the departure of both Michelson and her colleague Rosalind E. Krauss. Michelson in interviews claims that the final straw was in fact a confrontation with editor John Coplans over her desire to devote an entire issue to performance (he reportedly told her that performance was “not essential to the lifeblood of the magazine”). Whatever the case, the damage was done, the break was made, and a significant chapter in Artforum’s tentative encounter with dance was at an end.

David Velasco is editor of and a regular contributor to Artforum.