Mikhail Baryshnikov defected to America more than 25 years ago, the same season that Yvonne Rainer gave up dancing and choreographing. At the time, he was 27 and a star at the Leningrad Kirov Ballet—one of the most extraordinary performers audiences on either side of the Iron Curtain had ever seen. She was a pioneer postmodernist, famous for rejecting “the glamour and transcendency of the star image.” She had hit 40, had collected her career’s ephemera into a book, and was finishing her 16mm, feature-length Film About a Woman Who . . .
This week at BAM, New Yorkers can watch After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, Rainer’s new 35-minute dance. Her first in 25 years, it features six performers, including the 52-year-old Baryshnikov, who, after leaving the directorship of American Ballet Theatre, founded the White Oak Dance Project with contemporary choreographer Mark Morris. The troupe’s BAM season, which also includes work by Morris, John Jasperse, and Trisha Brown, celebrates 10 years of arduous touring. Until recently a for-profit production company, it recently obtained not-for-profit status in order to raise money for the current tour, which will reach across the country as far as Maui and Anchorage.
“Misha brings legitimacy to a kind of dance work that thousands of people would not ordinarily see or pay much attention to,” observed Rainer recently over tea in her Tribeca loft. “There’s something about his épaulement, whatever he does. The way he changes direction, with his whole body—there’s nothing like it.”
Rainer, who is 65, and Baryshnikov represented, to utterly different publics in the same period, the pinnacle of accomplishment in their respective styles. He began dancing as a kid in Riga, Latvia, making his way through the Soviet system to the Kirov, the troupe that nurtured Balanchine and Nureyev, before jumping ship in Toronto and building a dazzling career on stage and screen.
She was raised by vegetarian anarchists in San Francisco, dropped out of Berkeley “after about a week,” and arrived in New York City in her early twenties as an “artist’s moll,” living with painter Al Held and finding her way to dance classes with Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and a host of ballet teachers. A founding member in 1962 of the seminal Judson Dance Theater with fellow Westerners Trisha Brown and Steve Paxton, she also performed with the Grand Union, an improvisational troupe whose members, including David Gordon, Lucinda Childs, Paxton, and Brown, continue to shape the landscape of American contemporary dance into the 21st century. In 1968, Rainer began integrating short films into her performances, and has since made seven features, which have collected several prizes. She received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award in 1990, and has garnered four honorary doctorates from art schools around the country. She finished her last film, MURDER and Murder, in 1996.
After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, says Rainer, contains “stuff from almost every dance I’ve ever made.” Structurally, it resembles Merce Cunningham’s Events, famously constructed from bits of his other works. Included in Swan is a solo from The Mind Is a Muscle (1966-68) incorporating a mat and a dumbbell. There’s a talking duet from Dialogues, originally performed by Rainer and Deborah Hay, and a solo from the 1963 Terrain in which the original text by Spencer Holst has been replaced with an essay by Vladimir Nabokov on the transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly.
“There’s a lot of language that’s totally new—deathbed utterances, some polemical material, political material,” the choreographer comments. “None of it is very long, and it comes up in unexpected places.” From Continuous Project—Altered Daily (1970) she’s extracted a “group hoist.”
Jill Johnston, who began writing about Rainer and the Judson group in The Village Voice in 1962 and championed them for the rest of that decade, recognized immediately that she was seeing something revolutionary. She articulated the simple, uninflected quality of the movement she watched. Initially, Rainer worked with highly trained dance artists; only later, when the spirit of democracy swept through the dance world as it had through all facets of American political life in the wake of Vietnam protests, did she begin casting “ordinary people” in her pieces.
Clearly an intellectual, Rainer wrote essays, manifestos, letters, and program notes designed to elucidate her work, collecting them and other source materials into a large-format book, Work 1961-73, published in 1974 by the Presses of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and New York University Press. (Subsequent essays, interviews, and film scripts appeared last year in a collection called A Woman Who . . . from PAJ Books, a series of the Johns Hopkins University Press.) She has been teaching part-time for the past 30 years, and is involved in various projects to reconstruct and exhibit her work at universities and museums. “I call them ‘pedagogical vaudevilles,’ ” she says, “because they’re in these academic settings.
“I think of [working with White Oak] as coming home temporarily,” Rainer explains. She has no plans to continue her dance career and has seen “some awful stuff” in the past few years, choreography that reminds her why she penned her controversial so-called “NO” manifesto, an essay that followed Parts of Some Sextets (1965). “Something about the intrinsic exhibitionism of dance, showing your body, relieves people of their critical faculties.”
How did these two heavyweights find themselves on the same stage, assembling a dance that will wind up touring the country, playing to patrons paying as much as $65 a ticket?
Baryshnikov, occupied with rehearsals, could not be reached for comment. Says Rainer, “Misha came to see two versions of Trio A I did at Judson last year. And Sue Weil had approached me about contributing something to White Oak’s program of ’60s work. I went to see them at the New Victory Theater and made enthusiastic recommendations. Misha said very casually, ‘Maybe you’d like to do something new.’ It hit me like a ton of bricks. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
She and veteran colleague Pat Catterson went down to the White Oak plantation in Yulee, Florida, where the New York-based company rehearses, and worked at retrieving choreography Catterson had learned in the early ’70s. The young members of Baryshnikov’s troupe came to see her reconstructions at Judson Church, and she gave them each a copy of Work. “That was my big concern—how would they take to walking and running? They were gung ho, as was he, which is so amazing to think about. In the ’60s, Steve Paxton and Lucinda Childs and I went to see Rebekah Harkness and proposed some of our dances for her ballet company. She looked at us and said, ‘These dancers spend their whole lives acquiring a classical technique, and all you want them to do is walk and run?’
“Now, Misha, he says, ‘No problem.’ I can’t get over it.”