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I Won’t Dance, Don’t Ask Me

On my fiftieth birthday, I was predictably thrown into crisis. Banal or otherwise, this crisis was the reason I found myself in a shabby rehearsal room at the University of California, Irvine, clumsily trying to learn the introductory sequence of steps to Yvonne Rainer’s canonical work of dance and performance art, Trio A.

Like many little girls, my introduction to dance came through ballet. My first tutor was a tiny, Russian woman in Long Beach, California, named “Madame Shermatova” who dyed her hair jet black, wore scarlet lipstick and white pancake makeup and pronounced French ballet terms in the mellifluous warbled tones of a thick Russian accent. I was entranced by the feminine ideal that Madame offered—the obsession with perfection through attenuation, sinuous line, extension and hyperfluidity. Ballet, and later dance in general (I took every form available to me up through high school: jazz, tap, modern) offered an illusion of complete control over the body, a melding of the sensual and corporeal with the mind’s eye. It made me feel as though I could appear to others the way I wanted to be seen. College, however, brought a dose of reality and I majored not in dance, but in art history. After my junior year, I rarely, if ever, danced in any more formal capacity than the occasional night out at a club.

Thus, learning Trio A after fifty amounted to a traumatic encounter with the past, a birthday reckoning with the passage of time on my own body. At that age, my understanding of dance had changed irrevocably. The freedom that movement represented when I was young was entirely transformed into a feeling of entrapment. I could no longer call on my body to perform or move the way it had with such abandon when I was teenager.

Learning Trio A from Rainer herself magnified my middle-aged anxieties, in part because she herself was in her seventies. I felt alternately empathic toward her loss of flexibility and range of motion (since it mirrored my own) and guilty at my own sense of triumph when I finally learned to do some of the more taxing and athletic moves that she no longer could. But what was most unsettling about the experience was that it was akin to stepping inside an artist’s self-portrait and feeling the work of art through her body, seeing it through her eyes. I had the strange sensation of inhabiting Rainer’s body at both 31 and 70, confronting both the telescoping process of aging in her and myself and the maturation of her artistic vision.

***

Trio A was/is a pathbreaking work of late 20th c. dance and art. It was first performed fifty years ago in 1966 as part of a larger work called The Mind is a Muscle, Part I at Judson Memorial Church in New York. Although the initial reception was predictably mixed, the work nevertheless later came to be regarded as a critical break with the grand gestures and body fetishization of modern dance and quickly became one of the major touchstones in the development of post-sixties performance art. For Rainer, Trio A was a minimalist answer to her own NO Manifesto of 1965, a cri de coeur against the affect, theatricality and seduction of Martha Graham-style modernism:

NO to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to the glamour and transcendence of the star image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to the involvement of per-former or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator no to the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved.

Trio A is performed without music and is composed of a series of movements meant to evoke mundane tasks and ordinary physical calibrations. The choreography confounds most rules of dance: it restricts both flow in movement and natural rhythm or counting; it isolates the body in space; and it deliberately avoids visual or physical contact between dancers and between dancers and audience. It is an anti-dance that is consciously non-performative, treating movement as the generic effect of being human, rather than as something specific to the highly trained body of a dancer.

Rainer and I briefly overlapped as colleagues at UCI, where she taught in the Department of Art and I, in the Department of Art History. For several years, Rainer taught Trio A as a course, instructing students in the piece’s intricacies over ten weeks. In the spring of 2012 I requested her permission to audit the course and that is how I ended up in what turned out to be her last Trio A class at UCI.

I was not the first art historian at UCI to take the Trio A class. Julia Bryan Wilson, a younger colleague who is now at UC Berkeley, preceded me, taking the class in 2008. Bryan Wilson published a thoughtful article on the experience in the journal October. She explains what it meant, both as a non-dancer and an art historian specializing in 1960s art, to learn this historic work. She movingly describes how profound it was to experience the work in light of her own history as a queer, feminist scholar concerned with post-minimalism and performance-based art.

Learning Trio A from its pioneering queer maker, Bryan Wilson became newly reawakened to her self-identification as a gendered and sexed subject. Her romantic sense of the sixties (long suppressed by the illusory objectivity required by academic writing) as an era of sexual and artistic experimentation, and the seductive pull of Rainer herself, butted up against the phenomenological difficulties presented by the dance. It was a moment in which the history and performativity of the work of art intertwined indelibly with Bryan Wilson’s embodied sense of the present and the experience clearly transformed her understanding of desire, history and artistic labor.

My reasons for taking the class were different. In 2010, Rainer performed Trio A once again at Judson Memorial Church in New York for a celebration of that venue’s central role in the development of modern dance and performance art. Rainer titled that performance Trio A: Geriatric with Talking, addressing the problems posed by performing a work in her 70s that she had composed on her 31-year old body. Rainer’s confrontation with both her bodily age and the age of the piece seemed to offer some way of coming to terms with the double bind of aging: “senescing” contradictorily involves both increased bodily awareness (aches and pains, the precariousness of balance, lack of flexibility) and its obverse, inevitable disembodiment (the existential drift away from the body that occurs with age and movement toward mortality).

***

In my birthday crisis I was ready to similarly confront my age and sense of the past, to embrace “geriatric with talking.” The gravity of this confrontation became all too apparent, however, when I realized, to my horror, that I was also required to audition that first day for Rainer and her teaching assistant. I was middle aged, over weight, sluggish and slightly disoriented by the effort of moving my body across the space of the classroom. In addition, I was auditioning with some of my own students from across campus, in front of whom I would have much preferred to keep my dignity. It wasn’t just humiliating; it was a stark reminder that no matter the ideological presentiment that the dance was composed against a typical dancer’s body, it still required a haptic experience of space and lightness of movement that I no longer was sure I possessed. When (miraculously) I did pass, I rushed home to announce it triumphantly on Facebook.

Throughout the rest of the quarter, however, learning Trio A, was, as it should have been, entirely distinct from my other memories of dance class. The historical resonance of Trio A is more apparent when you see it performed than when you learn it, because it is almost impossible to envision as a whole when you are moving through it. There is no music, so the steps and phrases exist in a void without the markers that usually provide a cognitive map of movement in space (when the music rises here, you should be doing this series of movements facing this wall here, etc.). This is part of the work’s intentionality, but it makes it really difficult to learn. It has to be internalized and memorized as a series of phrases that are not organically connected and also not united by melody, narrative or even pattern.

The task of learning is also complicated by the fact that Rainer composed the dance on her own body. When she teaches the piece, she inevitably teaches it as an extension of her distinctive relationship to movement and space. This means that the movements and gestures are unique, tuned to a specific, embodied viewpoint that determines their shape, rhythm, path and extension. That is, in spite of its formation as an affectless, depersonalized and ahistorical series of movements, the dance nevertheless embodies Rainer’s “self” in a certain sense.

***

In my field, Renaissance and early modern art history, artists’ self-portraits emerged as a separate genre around the turn of the 16th c. Painted and sculpted artists’ self-portraits were a response to the Renaissance ideal of self-fashioning and were intended in a sense to promote new ideas about a unique “artistic personality.” Albrecht Durer’s monumental self-portrait of 1500 instantiates this idea. His self-portrait presents the art and artist as contiguous, imagining the work as an extension and expression of the self. It goes without saying that this self was defined in strictly gendered terms—the artist or maker was decidedly masculine. The feminine in the Renaissance was ascribed to sources of inspiration borrowed from classical prototypes: the arts were presided over by the feminine muses, who allegorized the passions that fueled a masculine, creative process. Female access to creativity was thus cut off from culturally recognized forms of inspiration, and a self-portrait by a woman artist could never claim the same kind of contiguity between sitter and work of art.

This posed a problem for the few women artists who defied societal expectations and forged careers as artists. While I was learning Trio A, I was also teaching Baroque art. During one class, I was struck by the unusual symmetry between a famous black and white photo of Rainer dancing Trio A and Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1630) by Artemisia Gentileschi, a 17th century Italian painter.

artemesia

After tumultuous teenage years in which she testified in a trial concerning her own rape/deflorestation, Artemisia left Rome for Florence and there began to forge a considerable career as a painter. Known for using her own body as a model for her work (thereby evading possible accusations of impropriety when she represented naturalistic nudes seemingly observed from life), Artemisia often used her own likeness to depict the muses. This tactic is exploited most fully and providentially in her self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting. In this work, she turns the conventional understanding of the muse of painting on its head by using herself as model. Because he is a man, Durer identifies with his painting insofar as it is product of himself—a testament to his creativity and demonstration of his art. The act of intellectual affirmation that links the artist to the self-portrait is one in which the work confirms the identity and authenticity of the artist who produced it and posed for it.

That claim of authenticity was never available to women artists in the same way. The female artist’s self-portrait often advertised her skill in the sense of affirming it as a novelty (look! a miracle of nature), or presented her as a conventional beauty with proper feminine attributes in an effort to quiet any sense of a disturbance in the natural sexual order. But Artemisia challenges this logic by representing herself as both inspiration and inspired. If Durer’s self-portrait is intended to prove the ability of painting to embody self-identity (as opposed to merely communicating status, or even likeness), Artemisia’s self-portrait both stretches this claim and calls it into question. Poised as both maker and muse, Artemisia’s “identity” is in flux. Treating her body as source, subject and instrument, while brilliantly manipulating codes of gender and artistic theory and staging a rhetorical challenge to the artistic practice of her era, Artemisia did what no male artist of the period could have done. She turns notions of imitation, representation, and spectatorship upside down by fusing her image with her body in a way that questions both the idea of inspiration and the transmission of identity in the self-portrait. In many ways, the work is presciently, if unconsciously, post-modern.

***

Distant as Artemisia’s picture is historically, it resonates with Rainer’s Trio A in ways that are entirely unexpected. It gives us a perspective on aspects of self-representation that are endemic to Rainer’s piece. Rainer’s work was composed at the moment when the masculine tropes of artistic productivity associated with abstract expressionism were questioned by pop, minimalist and conceptual artists in the 1960s. Rainer’s piece is the antithesis of a Jackson Pollock painting, disavowing ownership, spectacle, authenticity, heroism. If Pollock’s work is projected as a direct material expression of his creative force, Trio A detaches from that kind of one-to-one correspondence between maker and product.

Nevertheless, like Artemisia’s self-portrait, Trio A does provide embodied access to entirely idiosyncratic aspects of Rainer’s sense of self. More importantly, it also foregrounds the constant unfolding of time that performance makes possible, allowing you to step into the maker’s shoes, however briefly. For a brief period while learning and performing Trio A you experience a co-corporeality with Rainer’s angular grasp of motion, her individualistic grace and awkwardness, the eccentricities of her movement sequences and curious phrasing, the hard-won erasure of affect and denial of the spectatorial gaze. That is, you are trained in a peculiar point of view, a way of moving through the world, and a response to embodiment that is not your own.

Trio A’s performance is unique in that far from remaining static, the piece itself shifts and changes with age. The piece is both indelibly Rainer and not her; it simultaneously stages her as model and denies access to her as image.

Trio A, like Artemisia’s self-portrait, flips the terms under which we might understand something like a self-portrait. It is an attempt to capture something entirely fleeting, a sense of self that is in constant flux, in defiance of the seemingly stable, masculine, gendered categories that Durer relied upon.

I think then, that what I learned from Rainer was sort of the inverse of what Bryan Wilson learned. For me Trio A provided an experience of presentness in the work of art that gave me a more embodied sense of the past. While Trio A is relatively young, especially compared to Artemisia’s allegory, performing the work entails reflections on myriad past performances, each a curious palimpsest of those that came before. It is history as embodied performance, and self-portrait as an ongoing existential question mark. Trio A is temporally unstable precisely because it is tied to the clock of Rainer’s own body, making the issue of embodiment more tendentious and ghostly. To dance the piece is to reckon with the elusiveness of self, of time and meaning over time. Dancing it at the turn of my birthday forced me into an encounter with future, past and present selves when they were in a beautiful but fragile, temporal alignment.

yvonne_rainer

 

Lyle Massey 

Associate Professor, Art History and Visual Studies, University of California, Irvine

Image Credits:

Lead Image: Yvonne Rainer performing Trio A at Nova Scotia College of Art, 1978.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-portrait as Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), c. 1638-9, oil on canvas

Yvonne Rainer, 2014, Creative Commons License

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15 COMMENTS

  1. What a thought-provoking essay! As the author points out, Ranier’s dance-self-portrait presents a sense of self in constant flux, shifting and changing with time and age, different each time she performs it. I am also struck by how Rainer, in teaching this dance, invites others to learn and “perform” it too! Surely each person who learns the dance changes it, however subtly, introducing a part of themselves to the performance of Ranier’s “self-portrait.” That is a truly radical departure from the traditional, masculine self-portrait, with its fixed, permanent and self-reverential sense of self, which may invite different interpretations from external sources, but never changes in itself! If Artemisia Gentileschi, with her self-portrait, admits to an identity in flux, as both maker and muse, Ranier goes quite a bit further along that continuum, admitting a self that actually embodies “others.” As a woman approaching my own 70th birthday, this really resonates with me! Thank you for the opportunity to enter into this conversation.

  2. […] The historical resonance of Trio A is more apparent when you see it performed than when you learn it, because it is almost impossible to envision as a whole when you are moving through it. There is no music, so the steps and phrases exist in a void without the markers that usually provide a cognitive map of movement in space (when the music rises here, you should be doing this series of movements facing this wall here, etc.). This is part of the work’s intentionality, but it makes it really difficult to learn. It has to be internalized and memorized as a series of phrases that are not organically connected and also not united by melody, narrative or even pattern. – Lyle Massey […]

  3. Insightful article about dance, aging, self-portraiture, and embodiment; very suggestive connections between the modern and the pre-modern. I plan to teach a course at some point on self-portraiture and this would definitely be on the syllabus.

  4. A thought-provoking essay on movement, in regards to aging. The vessel performing the dance has transformed over the years, yet, the dance remains the same. The author brings first-hand experience of this, while observing the beauty and limitations of the artist who created it.

  5. An excellent, sensitively written piece. I love the connection between the study of art history and the embodied performance practice that can be undertaken in the studio today. Those of us in the humanities who specialize in the study of the past have much to learn, still, about what contemporary performance (dance, theatrical reenactment, ritual, performance art, etc.) can tell us about past experience.

  6. I remember when you, my little sister went through this challenging time….the excitement of auditioning and being chosen! Then the grueling rehearsals and the toll it took on your body and the mental anguish that accompanied it.
    The performance and conquering that challenge brought much pride to you and me as well. I think that being “in the moment” was the best way to describe how that episode in your life affected you. It was all in slow motion literally and figuratively…something that when turning 50 is a great lesson for us all!

  7. This brilliant essay brings together two disparate artworks in such a way as to give us great insight into both works and into the genre of the self-portrait itself. The ways the author has used her deep scholarly knowledge of Renaissance portraiture to understand Rainer’s dance piece is unexpected and erudite. Her own experience of learning Trio A brought her to the important conclusion that it is “an attempt to capture something entirely fleeting, a sense of self that is in constant flux” by contrast with Durer’s attempt to create a stable, masculine portrait of himself. A terrific essay.

  8. Like most great art, its silence speaks volumes, as your silent rehearsal of Trio reveals. Trio’s absence of music allows the art to speak loudly, as does this piece—an insightful reflection on the wisdom that comes from art.

  9. This is a wonderful essay that brings many insightful points for those of us working in the humanities and (especially those of us who work on art and literature of the past). The comparative reading of author’s personal experience, contemporary dance (in an instruction context) and the perspective from Artemisia Gentilleschi makes me rethink the challenging transformation from Muse of inspiration to Muse of creativity, the challenging conversations between ‘authoring’ and authority, and the constant fluidity from inspirer to inspired and vice versa.

  10. This is an important and critical reminder of the role of experience and practice in the historical craft, but more importantly the need for the historian in the public sphere and contributing to accessible discussions. Not as a distant and esoteric thinker, but as one mingled with the world and incarnate. It’s a testament to how we practice (art) history, in writing it and living it, both as one as a scholar.

  11. Excellent use of the online genre to contextualize two important pieces of art. The historical, artistic, and personal resonances problematize any simple reading of either piece, and add an unexpected and profound understanding of the role of the body. I am particularly struck by the way you evoke the lived experience of the body over time by artists and those who learn from them. Impressive work – so glad you made it available to a broader audience.

  12. This beautifully written essay has really opened my eyes to another way of looking at a painting I thought I knew well. Clearly the benefits of true interdisciplinary study–not just crossing some arbitrary demarcations of academic disciplines but fully participating in mutidimesional experienced, shows how much we all can learn by taking a holistic approach to inquiry of all kinds.

  13. This is a beautifully written essay which is scholarly, bittersweet and quite relevant to this reader, who in healing from an injury, is facing, testing and pushing the limits of her own aging body. It’s sad that dance in its highest and most expressive form is limited to the short shelf life of the extremely young and superbly fit. Congratulations on rising to the challenge of the dance and sharing your transcendent experience through the focused lens of art history.

  14. Enjoyed reading this thoughtful essay, in which you somehow synthesized issues of aging, dance, art, reflections, and self–in a way that made me think. Thank you..

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