For generations of dancers, Yvonne Rainer is an avant-garde icon. In the 1960s she was a moving force behind Judson Dance Theater, the incubator of postmodern dance. With an Olympian stubbornness, she was hell-bent on making her rough-hewn, “difficult” dances. She was a feminist and antiwar activist who spoke her mind. Even now, 30 years after she turned to filmmaking, her name holds a mystique for young choreographers and budding dance historians.
Her autobiography, Feelings Are Facts, is a gripping account of her life up until the 1970s. The book is also a window on the 1960s, the decade that exploded the existing methods for making art—and the decade that questioned both chastity and authority.
Rainer grew up an outsider. Feeling beleaguered, her immigrant parents placed her and her brother into foster care. Rainer’s tendency toward moroseness later blossomed into a debilitating depression that she called her “engine of self-destruction.” She points out that even as a child she supplied ammunition to her enemies (and later to her critics). As an adult, her medical enemy was an intestinal problem that would strike with such force that she would be hospitalized for weeks.
An anarchist almost by birth, she was horrified by banality and complacency. She refused to “bedeck” herself for social occasions—the first refusal of many. Her letters and diary entries as a 17-year-old are as exquisitely conscious, as intellectually nimble, and as full of moral fiber as Susan Sontag’s famous postgraduate essay, “Against Interpretation.” As an adult, her distrust of expressivity was shared by the minimalists of her time—of whom her lover Robert Morris was a key figure. Other influences ranged from Cocteau’s Orpheus and theater director Richard Foreman to dance artists Erick Hawkins, Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, Anna Halprin, Trisha Brown, and Merce Cunningham.
A charismatic performer, Rainer’s strong, quiet face thinly veiled the passion under the surface. No one who saw her solo Inner Appearances (1972) can forget the charged reverie in which she vacuumed the floor while her innermost thoughts were projected in slides on the back wall. This was a pivotal piece because she realized she could express more about her feelings on a screen. The irony is that, in her rejection of the heroism of Martha Graham and in her embrace of “the human scale,” she could not embark in dance on the larger themes of relationships, love, and suffering.
Perhaps the happiest time in her life was when she first started dancing. “All I knew was that I loved running and jumping,” she writes. She embraced Merce Cunningham’s edict, “You must love the daily work.” Another high point was an idyllic camping trip with Morris. Later she found out that a previous lover had given birth to his baby during their two weeks of harmony. After she and Morris broke up and she learned he had married yet another woman, she took a killer amount of pills. Luckily (to say the least) a dance buddy found her in time to have her stomach pumped.
Rainer’s prose is alarmingly frank, touched with mordant humor and a blunt brand of brilliance. She makes no attempt to sound sophisticated or creative (so different from Isadora Duncan’s highly theatrical autobiography, My Life). Her modesty is almost disturbing. She doesn’t consider her childhood unusual until she sees the reaction in her friend Nancy Meehan’s face after she tells her about it. During Judson’s heyday (1962 to 1964), when she should have been reveling in her success, she is envious of Rauschenberg’s mega-success and calls the whole Judson group “the tail to his comet.” Likewise, when she makes the landmark work Trio A, she doesn’t think much of it until, while describing her process to Morris, she sees the “light in his eyes.” Like many women, she lived for that light, no matter how independent she was as an artist.
As director of Yvonne Rainer and Group, she famously abdicated her authority when she realized that the contributions she had invited from the dancers created a freer environment. But it was her device of framing wild moments with rigorous structure that helped make the Grand Union a legendary improvisation collective. In her letters to her dancers at the time—an all-star group that included Steve Paxton, Barbara Dilley, and David Gordon—she carefully deconstructs the idea of authority, especially her own.
When Rainer was recovering from her suicide attempt, Pat Catterson brought Rainer’s students to the hospital and performed Trio A with them on the sidewalk below. Beautiful gestures like this pass by without comment, without framing. As in her dances and her films, she leaves us to make our own sense of it.
The most recent 30 years are crunched into an epilogue. This includes several films plus her choreography for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s “Past Forward” tour in 2000. It also includes a frustratingly quick mention of her shift from straight to gay, from turmoil to stability—frustrating, given the forthrightness with which she describes her earlier affairs.
Much as the minimalists would deny it, Rainer’s life is a testament to that old cliché about artists having to suffer. The darkness she lived contributed to the brazenness and forcefulness of her work. Her feelings were the facts of her life, more so than her achievements. She struggled to find a way to express those overwhelming facts. She found it in her ground-breaking dances and films, but also in rare moments of utter abandon in performance.