Yvonne Rainer's Got Game at the Baryshnikov Arts Center; the Royal Danish Ballet Dances the Guggenheim

Emmanuelle Phuon and Sally Silvers join the veteran NYC artist, Nikolai Hübbe talks about his company

The adventurous works of the 1960s and 1970s came to be identified as postmodern some time after the question, “Is it dance or not?” had died. It’s interesting to see this earlier aesthetic revisited by its creators or adapted by younger ones. For instance, a year ago this month, Trisha Brown re-envisioned her 1974 Spiral Descent. What had been a two-minute descent round and round three pillars via ropes and harnesses by three dancers in a shabby loft became Spiral, magnified in the white vastness of Dia Beacon. Ten pillars, 10 ladders and ropes, 10 dancers in a canon that prolonged and varied the simple act.

In 1963, Yvonne Rainer made a piece called We Shall Run. A bunch of people in everyday clothes ran around Judson Church in a clump. A little over a week ago, when the Guggenheim Museum Works & Process series present works curated by Robert Wilson and made by artists who’d been in residence at his Watermill Center, Andrew Ondrejcak presented his Veneration I: The Young Heir Takes Possession of the Master’s Effects. For about a half hour, beginning before the audience straggled in, he ran in place—wearing only a jockstrap and so beautifully lit that he looked like one of Wilson’s VOOM video portraits—until he dropped, exhausted.

Rainer herself, since going back to making dances after decades as a filmmaker, has returned to strategies of the 1960s that interested her and some of her colleagues in Judson Dance Theater. Early on, she experimented with juxtaposing text to movement to see how the combination affected our perceptions, and she raised issues to do with what constituted “performance” as opposed either to process or to adamantly matter-of-fact, illusionless behavior. Everyday objects like mattresses might figure, along with ordinary-looking people.

Photo copyright Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.
Yvonne Rainer's Assisted Living: Good Sports 2, with Sally Silvers, Pat Catterson, Patricia Hoffbauer, EmmanuŤlle Phuon, Emily Coates, Keith Sabado, Yvonne Rainer.


Yvonne Rainer
Baryshnikov Arts Center
March 16 through 19
Works & Process: The Royal Danish Ballet
The Guggenheim Museum
March 20 through 21

Her Spiraling Down (2008) and her brand new Assisted Living: Good Sports 2, presented at the Baryshnikov Center by Performa, take such tactics to a more theatrical level. For Spiraling Down, Rainer drew movement images and text (spoken by Rainer on tape and by the performers at a mic or during scuffles) from a long, eclectic list of sources that includes Fred Astaire, Marcel Mauss, and Serena Williams. For Assisted Living, she collected sports photos, somewhat the way Steve Paxton and Robert Rasuchenberg did for their 1964 Ja ville görna telefonera, and distributed them among her dancers to generate movement.

What you see in the white-floored space of BAC’s Howard Gilman Performance Space are extremely polished structures that nevertheless celebrate rough edges, thinking on the spot, spontaneity, intellectual provocation, and an abiding delight in mischief. The four women who perform Spiraling Down and whom Rainer dubbed the Raindears are a charmingly motley bunch in terms of age, size, and shape: Pat Catterson, who presented her own choreography at Judson Church in 1970 and is a tap artist as well; Brazilian-born Patricia Hoffbauer, best known, perhaps, for her many collaborations with George Emilio Sanchez; Sally Silvers, who has been choreographing and performing for 30 years; and youngest, Emily Coates, ex–New York City Ballet, who directs the Dance Studies Program at Yale. For Assisted Living, they’re joined by Keith Sabado, ex–Mark Morris, and the French-Cambodian Emmanuelle Phuon, who, like Coates, was a member of Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project. These are pros, up for anything.

There’s quite a lot of friendly competitive scrimmaging in both pieces (especially in Assisted Living, where you can at times almost see an unpredictable soccer ball rolling around among the performers’ feet). You may not be able to identify Spiraling’s sources (nor should you try), although they’re clearly visible—whether it’s Catterson hawking, spitting, and blowing her nose like a ball player mid-game, Coates holding a leg improbably high, Hoffbauer as a monster chasing a wailing Catterson (and then Silvers chasing Hoffbauer), or alarmed reactions out of film noir (Silvers is divine as a wide-eyes heroine). Pinning the spoken words to the action is equally challenging and not necessary, although it’s entertaining to hear Coates complaining about the downside of testosterone shots: “Being horny is a nuisance.”

Rainer choreographs and orchestrates all this with astute theatricality in order to vary the effect on our eyes and ears, grooming apparent—even illusory—randomness to function within a whole.

Her gamesmanship is even more evident in Assisted Living: Good Sports 2 (the clever title is also resonant). Lighting designer Les Dickerson has added three big Hollywood-style spotlights and set designer Joel Reynolds has assembled a bunch of stuff, some of which—a tire, for example, and a mattress—alludes to Rainer’s early dances. Dickerson, Reynolds, and Rainer herself move stuff around. Dickerson spends quite a lot of time uncoiling an orange electrical cords so he can drop to the floor and aim a tiny lamp at a portion of the action for a few minutes. By the end of the piece, everything has been moved from a far corner to the opposite side of the performing area.

Rainer keeps an eye on the proceedings and occasionally speaks (is that Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie or the New Héloïse she’s reading from?). As the work progresses, her commentary becomes increasingly, if obliquely, attuned to today’s disastrous politics, wars, discrimination, and moral smugness (there are alarming contemporary quotes re the Ku Klux Klan and the Protocol of the Elders of Zion). As ironic counterpoint, a soprano voice filters into Quentin Chiappetta’s electronic effects with the lyric, “Everything is beautiful at the ballet.”

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