Rite in Progress: Yvonne Rainer Jumps Over Two Sets of Decades


Back in the 1960s, when Yvonne Rainer was a queen of downtown dance, she and her colleagues in Judson Dance Theater—Trisha Brown, David Gordon, Steve Paxton, Lucinda Childs, et al.—generated a vision of art as serious play. They’d had it with ballet virtuosity and modern dance’s heroic idealism and dark narratives. Like the Dadaists and Futurists early in the 20th century, these choreographers were into testing limits in larky and obstreperous ways.

Until the ’70s—when Rainer abandoned dance to become an avant-garde filmmaker of consequence—she experimented with incorporating process into performance and juxtaposing the kind of art she was making with art as entertainment (a professional juggler strutted his stuff during her groundbreaking 1968 The Mind Is a Muscle). Her rekindled interest in dance, inaugurated by her creation in 2000 for
After Many a Summer Dies the Swan for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Past Forward project, reveals a postmodern fascination with inserting the past into the present.

RoS Indexical, commissioned by Performa 07 for its three-week art fest, is a double palimpsest rooted in Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, as choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Rainer focuses on the 1913 Paris premiere, during which spectators scandalized by Stravinsky’s dissonances and Nijinsky’s primitivism yelled their disapproval and were shushed, even punched, by partisans. We hear the score via the soundtrack of an over-the-top BBC production entitled Riot at the Rite (viewable on YouTube). British actors representing the Ballets Russes personnel (including the distraught Nijinsky shouting counts from backstage) and the dissenting French public drown out the music at times, or layer it with sotto voce remarks like “Are these the virgins, do you suppose?”

Rainer has devised numerous ways for her four performers to connect with the hordes of dancers we don’t see. In the opening passage, Pat Catterson, Emily Coates, Patricia Hoffbauer, and Sally Silvers sit around a card table, wearing workout clothes subtly marked by Elizabeth Hope Clancy with motifs from Nicholas Roerich’s original costume designs. Three are attempting to sing Rite‘s overture, which they’re listening to through headphones, while Catterson, without headphones, tries to pick it up from them. Our reactions (mostly amused) to this earnest, out-of-tune effort resonate against the 1913 public’s first stirrings of annoyance over Stravinsky’s dissonance.

The four smart, engaging women (only one of whom—Coates—has a major ballet background) accurately reproduce a lot of the pigeon-toed stomps, explosive jumps, heavy skips, limping steps, and combative games from Millicent Hodson’s reconstruction of Rite. They represent the maidens who play a circle game to choose who will dance herself to death. Although no one executes that grueling solo in full, Silvers falls down and is pushed out. Coates performs another sort of tranced solo—first all quavering gentility and stumbly confusion, then combative anger. Still, Rainer’s Rite, like Nijinsky’s, ends with an inert body lifted and the lights going out.

The dancers also confer, drink water, and take time-outs on a flowered sofa, with one after another of them straining like a racehorse to get into the action and being pulled back by her companions. Sometimes they stand in for the audience, hurling insults at us as if they had handfuls of tomatoes. Rainer also mischievously and ironically equates the Paris audience’s outrage with our own possible negative reactions to her work: Suddenly, people planted in the audience (including two in costumes imitating the original ones) charge onto the stage, screaming over Rainer’s desecration of what’s now revered as a masterpiece.

Non-Rite allusions (to Groucho Marx, among others) may account for some of RoS‘s more confusing and structurally wobbly moments. The work refers back to the ’60s playfulness that many once considered shocking; ironically, those whose tastes were formed in the 1990s may still be discomfited by it.