PRINT December 2020


Yvonne Rainer's Work 1961–73

Photo: Brian Green

A big black-and-white book, first published in 1973 and prettily reissued by Primary Information, Work 1961–73 collects screenplays, photographs, flyers, and essays, which comprise an odd monument to thirteen years of scrupulous, self-inflicted, paradoxically rebellious discipline that took the form, for Yvonne Rainer, of dances and films. Devotees will find much to relish: Loaded with documentation and reflections, the book gives a sinuous and often funny account of the first stirrings of Judson Dance Theater, breathing life into an avant-garde now hardened into history. But it’s also a tour of Rainer’s sensibility and idiosyncratic ethics—the bite of her peculiarity, the wry swivel of her apperceptions, her assaults on and irrepressible affection for the very category of “dance.” Politics streams through, inflecting this early work but never driving it along; young Rainer is sheepish, twitchingly circumspect about her privileges and what they empower her to presume and proclaim: “This statement is not an apology,” she writes in 1968. “It is a reflection of a state of mind that reacts with horror and disbelief upon seeing a Vietnamese shot dead on TV—not at the sight of death, however, but at the fact that the TV can be shut off afterwards as after a bad Western.” But this isn’t an agonizing book; it’s informative, carefully compiled, the self-involvement less anxious than preposterously—cool. I read the epilogue on Merce Cunningham over and over not just because it moved me to tears but because it captures, in three pages, her complex love for him and her own particular admixture of abstraction and militant literalism, her wish to link the Concept to the body that both articulates and obstructs it. To quote the title of one of her own pieces: The mind is a muscle.

Tobi Haslett has written about art, film, and literature for n+1, the New Yorker, and other publications.