Yvonne Rainer, 2002
|WITH TIM GRIFFIN
|TIM: You went to anarchist picnics in your youth.
YVONNE: [laughs] Did I tell you that? Well, there was a group of Italian anarchists in the Bay Area, where I grew up. My father, who was born in Italy and whose parents were socialists, immediately went to North Beach in San Francisco when he came here, so he knew many anarchists. Throughout my childhood, these people held an annual "festa" on an old Italian farmer's spread, with music, grapes, and wine. You'd spend the whole day there. One of the purposes was to raise money for anarchist groups in Europe and for periodicals like Freedom in England, or Resistance in New York. There were also weekly lectures and poetry readings at The Workman's Circle, which is now a Bed and Breakfast in the Fillmore District. In my teens, I started going to those events, and I heard Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, and Ferlinghetti. Of course, San Francisco has a long tradition of artist bohemians mingling with political radicals.
TIM: I've heard you were at the first reading of Howl.
YVONNE: Yes, at the Six Gallery. Ginsberg read the poem while holding a jug of red wine. I was living nearby. I would go out on a Friday or Saturday, by myself, looking for excitement and sex. It's actually where I met my future husband, Al Held. He was from New York, which is one reason I came here in the summer of '56.
TIM: So how do anarchists dance?
YVONNE: At the festas, there was a kind of polka. There would be an accordion, violin, and banjo, along with a two-step kind of dancing.
TIM: Was that your first experience with dance?
YVONNE: No, my mother took me to the San Francisco Ballet, and to the opera. My earliest meaningful memory of dance was when I went by myself to see Roland Petit's Ballet Du Monde. I saw a French dancer, Jean BabilŽe. It never dawned on me that I could do anything close to that. It wasn't until I came to New York and took my first modern dance class that I realized this was what I wanted to do.
TIM: What triggered your going to a dance class?
YVONNE: I wasn't doing very well in the acting department. I was taking classes based on the Stanislavski Method, and they told me I was too cerebral. So obviously, I wasn't going to make much headway acting in New York. Then a friend of mine, who was a budding composer and pianist, took me along to a dance class taught by Edith Stephen. I just found it exhilarating. The sheer physicality of it appealed to me. I was very strong, but not very limber. I loved running around and jumping.
TIM: So you just dropped the acting.
YVONNE: I did. I was in my early twenties, and I knew it was late to begin studying dance with hopes of being a professional. But I went ahead. For a living, I modeled for artists and I did part-time typing. I hadn't gone to college, so I asked my mother to support me for a year. At that time, you could live very cheaply my apartment cost forty-five dollars a month. So I started taking three classes a day. I saw all the '50s modern performers Martha Graham, Eric Hawkins.
TIM: But you stopped dancing after sixteen years.
YVONNE: As I aged, I found dance constricting. By the early '70s I was turning to film.
TIM: And what is your direction now?
YVONNE: I'm still interested in making things that require a certain amount of time to comprehend. With the standard video installation, you go in, stand there for two minutes, say "I get it," and walk out. I don't think of images in that way.
TIM: Tell me about an upcoming project.
YVONNE: I'm working on a video in which projected texts are combined with photos and videotaped footage from a dance that I made for Mikhail Baryshnikov two years ago, called After Many A Summer Dies The Swan.
TIM: Nice title.
YVONNE: I named the dance after the novel by Aldus Huxley, which was about Hollywood decadence in the 1930s. I read the book in my teens, and the title stayed resonant with me.
TIM: When you first met with Barishnikov, did it feel like you were coming at things from completely opposite perspectives?
YVONNE: No! It was a delightful meeting. He's been interested in postmodern dance for years. He's a bright, inquisitive, amazing guy with a very restless kind of curiosity. He didn't know what I would come up with. Who knows if he liked it, but he was willing to take a chance. I hadn't choreographed since 1975.
TIM: How did you go about it?
YVONNE: I unpacked my old notebooks and made some new movement. I went through all my biographies and found death-bed utterances, which I had the dancers speak. I put in some political statements, some music. The piece was a half-hour, a collagist kind of vaudeville.
TIM: What kinds of things were you thinking about when you choreographed the piece?
YVONNE: For one thing, I was thinking about Baryshnikov's own passage from being this balletic danseur-noble to a postmodern dancer. More importantly, I was also thinking about turn-of-the-century Vienna. In the end, the swan stands for the aristocracy in the period leading up to World War I, just before the fall of Hapsburg Empire.
TIM: Why was that important to you?
YVONNE: As the political power of the haute-bourgeoisie waned, they immersed themselves in theatre, opera, and the arts in general. It was a critical time for the avant-garde. I wanted to consider what that meant then. I still think of myself as an avant-garde artist, even though the term has lost a lot of its meaning. It was a kind of resistance, both political and aesthetic.
TIM: Is that how the upper middle class operates today?
YVONNE: Yes, the upper middle class is still infatuated with art. In the '80s and '90s, the nouveau riche collected a lot of art. It went hand in hand with a vast increase in wealth within a very small portion of the population. I sensed these correspondences when I began to investigate turn of the century Vienna, but they became much clearer afterwards. With the new installation, I'm doing a very strange thing. I'm attacking the cultural elite, and yet I'm also setting myself up as a product of this haute-bourgeoisie fascination which indeed the dance has always been. The rehearsals that I videotaped took place under very luxurious circumstances at the White Oak plantation in Florida, which is the seven thousand acre estate of the paper magnate who is Baryshnikov's patron. My work was made under the auspices of that opulence.
TIM: What makes you want to go back into gallery installation?
YVONNE: It isn't a matter of going back. I've never really been in, right? I came out of movement, out of time-based art.
TIM: Is it problematic for you to work in the gallery setting now?
YVONNE: Galleries and museums still have such a problem with installation they haven't worked out how to show time-based work that has sound. Go to a gallery, and the sound is always bleeding from one work to the other, and people are yapping away nearby. It's not like being at a movie. The movie house absorbs you, allowing you to "send your mind away," as Pauline Kael used to say. You not only lose awareness of who's sitting next to you, but you lose awareness of your body. In the gallery situation, you are aware of a whole world around you. But it's not a world that makes what you are looking at any more intelligible.
TIM: How will you address that in your installation?
YVONNE: The installation will take place in a round room about ten feet in diameter. There can be only two spectators at one time in the room. They will sit on bubble stools that they'll have to rotate to follow the projected image which revolves around the room. I'll be asking them to chew gum and talk at the same time to read and move at once.
TIM: Has your relationship to time and duration changed over the years?
YVONNE: Well, half an hour is short for me. My early movies were based on the time frame of an evening in the theatre.
TIM: You have said that you were afraid that people would just get bored looking at those early works, and that you're happy some of them weren't documented.
YVONNE: Yeah, well, extended duration was in fashion then. John Cage said, "If you can stand it for one minute, try it for two." So I did a lot of very minimal pieces that probably went on, by my own standards now, for too long.
TIM: Would you say that people think of you as a minimalist dancer?
YVONNE: Yes. But they think of the Judson Church Dance Theater as being minimalist too, which is a total misconception. Recently the composer Phillip Corner, who was part of Judson, organized a performance with some old works from the period. In one them Phoebe Neville, Beverly Schmidt, and I functioned as conductors we did dance movements that six musicians used as a score. Afterwards, someone said to me, "Oh, I had no idea you did such expressionistic dancing." But that was always part of my repertoire. I did some things that were formal, some that were minimalist. When I improvised I often ran amok. There were solos where I screamed and yelled, and threw myself around.
TIM: Did anybody ever scream back?
YVONNE: One of my favorite stories involves the dance that has become my signature piece, Trio A. For its first performance at Judson Church, I instructed a person in the choir loft to throw about one hundred yardstick-like pieces of wood, one at a time in succession, down to the stage. While this was going on, someone in the front row picked one up, put a white handkerchief on it, and waved it in the air like "Uncle! Enough!"
TIM: Many videos today give off a sense of duration since they're made as repeated loops. They're like visual drones. I wonder why that interests people?
YVONNE: It's related to '60s post-Cageian music. LaMonte Young was very interested in the drone.
TIM: Have you ever been interested in that?
YVONNE: In fact, I don't have a very long attention span. Nor do I have much tolerance for repetition anymore. I think I've been conditioned by TV, by the pace of film cutting and mainstream movies, by e-mail by the general speeding-up.
TIM: So e-mail has changed your sense of time?
YVONNE: Oh, absolutely. You send something and you know someone is reading it almost immediately.
TIM: Has that affected your compositions at all?
YVONNE: The increments of time are just shorter now. So I'll begin with a piece of music, and just when you think it's going to turn into a big production number, I'll cut it off, and something else will happen. I have a dance aesthetic now that's about beginning over "Begin, stop. Begin again." It's a way of totally avoiding thematic continuity. Of course, extended duration was a way of flouting thematic expectations. So possibly I'm just using another strategy for the same purpose.
TIM: You've looked to theory a great deal in the past. Is there a theoretical component to what you're doing now?
YVONNE: Feminist film theory influenced me in the '80s. Now, I don't know. As a young artist you use theory in various ways. And if it's at all meaningful to you, you absorb it and eventually you stop using it consciously. It becomes part of the way you think about the world. Feminism is like that for me, as are Cage's theories.
TIM: Speaking of theory, did you ever have a defining conversation with Cage or Merce Cunningham?
YVONNE: Cunningham used to say, "You have to love the daily work." That was one of the most meaningful things I learned from him. I've found it true in my own experience. One of the last times I saw John Cage was at some dinner party. He said to me, "When you get older, love gets easier." That's nice.
TIM: Has it?
YVONNE: In some ways. I have a partner, for ten years, and it has gotten easier. [laughs] And I fell in love with someone on Bravo last night. Oh, what's his name, the guy from the Velvet Underground ...
TIM: Lou Reed!
YVONNE: Yeah! I knew about the Velvet Underground, but I had never seen him. Yes, last night I fell in love with Lou Reed. [laughs]