Yvonne Rainer at REDCAT explores what it is
to sit on a sofa and call it choreography
by Joseph Mailander
Conceptual art unfolds not in the plane of the subliminal, but in the supraliminal. It’s above consciousness, not underneath it. In fine art, this means resorting to text and slogans as artwork; in poetry, it means offering a typed geometric pattern rather than rhyme or meter; in dance means a woman who lies prone on stage rather than one who moves with agility and grace.
Yvonne Rainer, an unrepentantly conceptual choreographer, often brings her own intriguingly androgynous identity to her choreography, that’s for sure. But even more assertively, she is willing to bring conceptuality itself into the staging of expressive human movement. As choreographer, she works the margin of the margin: her main inquiry is into where dance ends and human movements that may or may not be worthwhile watching or even identifying as artistic begin, and what kind of background noise can ferry them along. It’s very difficult on all but the most tolerant audiences; unless, perchance, they might also be entertained by the extra layer of artistic expression she may bring to a piece.
Fortunately for Rainer as a conceptual choreographer, she’s very good at choosing that extra layer. Her provocative Stravinsky interanimation RoS Indexical at REDCAT last weekend is her telling of the telling, by a BBC film, of The Rite of Spring’s riotous debut night. This is a wonderful work to see interpreted in dance; it’s a brilliant concept. Everybody knows the story of the riot that broke out on the occasion of the first performance of The Rite of Spring; upstairs from RedCat in fact, the vaunted and tame Disney Hall itself hauled out the once avant-garde chestnut for one of its own galas in 2003. While the tale of the riot is well-known, few, even among those who know the piece well, have had a chance to visualize or consider what the evening must have actually been like. The film, and Rainer's "indexical" interpretation of the soundtrack, aspire to work us through the shock, bedlam, raspberries, whistles and staircase wit as though we were ringside to it all.
High concept: and anyone choreographing it may do something intriguing with it. Unfortunately, Rainier can’t—or simply refuses to—match movement to concept very much, and lets the piece drift toward the banal throughout.
Only one of her dancers, in fact, is worth mentioning as a dancer; all performers are very studied choreographers themselves, and maybe too little in the line of movement is conceded to them. They mostly perform as dancing mimes who make manic faces and turn the evening into something like a Civil War Reenactment. (One tried to go on point a few times but only got less than halfway there.)
Rainer more often asks her quartet of girls to perform pantomime and certainly not ballet, and they the mimicry often comes with a gimp; when hurling tomatoes, for instance, they have not bothered to learn what leg a right-handed rioter typically pushes off of. Sometimes they’ll even flail a phantom tennis racket, noisily, and the result comes across more as a victory for one time Roland Garros clay-court specialist Monica Seles rather than music hall specialist Stravinisky.
In short, three of four of her dancers rarely dance at all, they are mostly miming concepts that may or not be related to Stravinsky, a riot, music, Nijinsky, Paris, boxing…hodgepodge…dance. When they are at their most intriguing, they are simply piling onto a prop sofa and rearranging their limbs, the way we do in high school when there are too few seats at a party. But even this is desexualized and mimed, and the bodies are variously more bored or panicked than alive and searching for something in either the music or the mayhem. Always, whether on sofa or floor, they are dancing Rainer’s idiosyncratic idioms, often completely unrelated to the piece or to tradition, and they might as well be dancing your auto mechanic’s idioms for all we are invited to care about their individual talents and abilities. (In the performance I saw, Rainer herself was obliged to step in for one of the dancers, who was obliged to leave for the sake of an emergency family illness, and the choreographer pleaded to the audience that it might not find her own presence on stage distracting; alas, it was a hope against hope.)
In case you miss the conceptuality of it all, pennants bearing heavy nouns—nouns freighted with far too much meaning than is ever evident in the choreography—suddenly drop at a key point, and hang and twist slowly, but they still provided more kinetic amusement than the listless dancers provided at any given moment.
I most liked the second piece, Spiraling Down, especially the first third of it, because it flirted even more than RoS Indexical with the boundary of what dance can be: not only an accompaniment to music but an accompaniment to recited text. The four women assembled as joggers for the beginning of the piece and executed a fabulous front-back-front-back slow-mo conga line that almost brought some adrenalin to the evening. Alas, after a lap and a half of chugging locomotion they broke off into alternatively puzzling spheres of mime and narrative meant more to fetch ironic laughs than to celebrate running, another joyous but fatiguing stripe of human movement that one feels could have set up far more. The text itself—I don’t know whose it was—disintegrated towards its end into a narcissistic pile of rubbish, with the author duly noting that at 33, turning to fiction at last, not only was he past peak and ready for the morgue but also the same age of Christ at His Death. Rainer does manage to locate the killjoy in everything, not only dance.
Much caught up in her own identity, Rainer’s most special concept of all in conceiving work is to remorselessly desexualize and demystify that most sexual and celebratory art form of all, dance. She variously goes too far and not far enough. It is as though she wants to provoke a riot herself, but not with the shock of the new; instead, she wants to shock with the vulgarizing of the tried and true. Hoping to say something to everyone, it ends up saying nothing much to anyone, nothing other than, “Yes, this too might be art, if the right critic thinks it is.” Which is often the conceptual case, and makes for a very marginal exploration, whether you agree or dis.