Yvonne Rainer - Exhibition text
Catherine Wood

In 1966 the dancer and choreographer Yvonne Rainer wrote that ‘Dance is hard to see’ [1]. She was speaking about the elusiveness of her chosen medium and its ephemerality as it unfolded, and disappeared, in the live moment. Forty years later this question persists as we recognise and try, retrospectively, to show Rainer’s important contribution to contemporary dance.


This exhibition aims to retrieve and make visible Rainer’s groundbreaking dance work in the 1960s and early 1970s through a variety of formats including photography, film and audio and visual documentation. The heart of this exhibition is a live programme of significant pieces from the 1960s: reconstructions of two works that have scarcely been re-performed since their inception, Diagonal and Talking Solo from Terrain (1963), alongside Trio A (1966) and Chair Pillow (1969).


Rainer’s work from the 1960s, as well as that of her peers and collaborators Trisha Brown, Simone Forti and Steve Paxton and others at New York’s Judson Memorial Church, developed a new conception of choreography as ‘ordinary dance’ [2]. Rainer’s training as a dancer – which combined ballet, Martha Graham technique, and eight years of classes with Merce Cunningham – moved away from formal stylisation and emotional expressivity towards what she termed the ‘factual’ quality of manual labour and task, and an aspiration to ‘neutral doing’.


By incorporating ‘found’ movements from daily life (walking, running, eating, talking, lifting objects) and staging dances in the non-proscenium space of the Judson, as well as in gymnasiums, galleries and museums, Rainer tested the boundary between ordinary behaviour and art. She often combined everyday ‘movement material’ using scripted rules drawn from games or chance procedures to create choreographic form. In this she and others at the Judson were heavily influenced by the teachings of Robert Dunn, a follower of John Cage, whose dance classes she attended at the Cunningham studio in the early 1960s. Rainer tempered her pragmatic emphasis on ‘task or task-like’ [3] activity with a slapstick attitude, inspired by Buster Keaton, or moments of excess, such as the ‘Tantrum’ she performed within Three Seascapes (1962).


Between 1961, when she choreographed her first dance solo Three Satie Spoons and the beginning of her large-scale group collaboration in Continuous Project–Altered Daily (1969–70) that led to her 30-year break from dance after 1975, [4] Rainer’s dances could be seen as active dilemmas tested through embodiment and group interplay. The roles of both dance ‘star’ and ’director’ were individualistic attributions that Rainer found problematic and attempted to subvert. Likewise, the relationship between thinking and doing, between the operations of ‘mind’ and ‘muscle’, was one that she continuously sought to renegotiate.


As evidenced by her diaries, notebooks, programme notes, lectures and letters – some of which are included in this exhibition – Rainer was a prolific writer as well as a performer. In fact, it might be said that she began as a thinker and writer by inclination who fantasised pure ‘doing’. Arguably, she put a body-centred performance practice in the way of her linguistic concepts, so as to experiment with the space in between. Unusually for dance from this period, Rainer’s works, including Talking Solo, often included speech and language, thus staging the dancer as a person with a psychological dimension (a proto-feminist statement so far as the female dancing body was concerned). But she displaced the idea that dance might carry a narrative – as Classical ballet does –  by allowing both movement and text to appear in parallel but autonomously.


Rainer’s choreography looked towards the reciprocity of the theatre situation: not just between performers and audience, but also between performers themselves as they alternately moved, rested and watched each other onstage. In the previously mentioned Terrain, of which Diagonal and Talking Solo are parts, temporary street barriers were set up onstage from where the resting dancers could observe each other while remaining visible to the audience. In Trio A, she determined that rather than engaging the audience, the dancer should deliberately avert her or his gaze. Rainer’s approach to the dance theatre situation paralleled some of the work in visual art of this period: drawing attention away from the art object towards the mechanics and conventions of its display. But her investment in that situation extended this attention further, in a highly performative manner, towards the extraordinarily slippery relationships (especially so within the realm of performance) between herself as a worker or performer, the depiction of labour or task, and the ‘work’ of art itself.


Rainer’s engagement with dilemmas of authorship, and indeed the question of stardom, within the contexts of dance and theatre enabled her to address issues of work versus leisure and image-mediation through representations of physical labour as dance. She envisaged an alternative distribution method for her most famous passage of choreography, Trio A, as something akin to an edition, but one taught body-to-body. She envisaged that this work could be taught to anybody who wanted to learn it, and although she has since honed her requirements – dissatisfied by anything less than very precise execution – it is a sequence of movement that is still being taught by a number of practitioners approved by the artist, notably Pat Catterson who collaborated on this exhibition.


An ethos of democratic participation was strongly associated with work made at the Judson and by the Grand Union Collective in which Rainer was a temporary collaborator [5]. But despite its de-skilled and group focus, Rainer’s particular treatment of group choreography was not straightforwardly an illustration of utopian aspirations on her part. As the photographic and filmic documents of her early work attest, the artist was keenly aware of codes of image-making and consumption and her dance work leaves a legacy of extraordinary and precise images. Throughout her experiments with aesthetic form during this period she maintained the role of director, a role she would continue to scrutinise as she moved into feature film making in the decades that followed.



[1] Yvonne Rainer, ‘A Quasi Survey of Some “Minimalist” Tendencies in the Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity Midst the Plethora, or an Analysis of Trio A’ [1966] in Minimal Art: A Critical Survey, ed. Gregory Battcock (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995 [1968]), p. 271; reprinted in Yvonne Rainer, Work 1961–73 (Halifax/New York: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design/New York University Press, 1974), p. 68.

[2] Rainer, ‘Ordinary Dance’, in Work 1961–73, pp. 288–89.

[3] Rainer, ‘A Quasi Survey’, [in Minimal Art], p. 263; Rainer, Work 1961–73, p. 63.
[4] Rainer concentrated on feature filmmaking after 1975. In 2006 she returned to dance

work, starting with AG Indexical with a little help from HM (2006) and RoS Indexical

(2007). She continues to make dance works to this day.
[5] The Grand Union was a dance group based in New York from 1970 to 1976. It grew out of Yvonne Rainer’s piece Continuous Project–Altered Daily. Rainer’s sole authority as choreographer and director began to slip in early 1970 when the dancers, at her invitation, brought in their own materials with which to make work. Participants in The Grand Union included Trisha Brown, Barbara Dilley, Douglas Dunn, David Gordon, Nancy Green, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer and others.