The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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APR 2011 Issue

“AS NIGHTFALL DOES NOT COME ALL AT ONCE…”: Yvonne Rainer’s Politics of Pathos

For Yvonne Rainer, dance is text. I suppose this has been said many times before. But it bears repeating, given her March performances at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, organized by Performa: Spiraling Down (2008), and the American premiere of Assisted Living: Good Sports 2 (2011).

Spiraling Down offers a playful take on the bodies of sports programs and dance films alike. The piece made me think of that silly line from ABC’s Wide World of Sports: “the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.” In Spiraling Down, the world is text, represented by a series of clichés, iconic imagery, and indexical gestures. Each dance movement, or pose (often the dancers will pose, as though having their picture taken), evokes an intricate inter-textuality of prior dance movements and poses. The program notes from Spiraling Down point to this; Rainer acknowledges her many sources, which include Fred Astaire, Elvis Presley, Marcel Mauss, and Sylvia Plath. One could easily spend an article or two just unpacking these sources, how they are cited via the choreography.

The dance itself is interrupted by a variety of texts, some read live by the performers, and some prerecorded by Rainer. To what does Spiraling Down refer? I can only imagine to Rainer’s own advancing age (the choreographer is 77), or to a devolution that her choreography would seem to perform, foregrounding the body’s deterioration, the pathos of that deterioration. And of course this pathos of bodies has long been a problem and theme of Rainer’s. Watching Spiraling Down, I thought of her wonderful films and particularly MURDER and murder, in which she deals head-on with the politics of aging, breast cancer, and coming out late in life.

Pathos is also a primary concern of Assisted Living: Good Sports 2. The dancers are again dressed in brightly colored running shoes and vibrant athletic gear. As in Spiraling Down, they perform a set of exercises and gestures related to sports; a dancer kicks a soccer ball, or seems to be anticipating a basketball at the backboard. They run across the stage. Their faces display visible effort as they attempt athletic challenges in slow motion (I kept imagining the shot put). Rainer prefaces the piece by alluding to the problem of empathy in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, a work remembered for the emotional responses it elicited from a readership.

During much of the piece the dancers flock, proceeding around the dance studio in a rectangular formation, walking with their hands out as though about to receive a manicure. Periodically a dancer will call out a command—“toast” or “freak-out”—and the pack will respond in unison. Other times a dancer will break off from the group, soloing or reciting a text. As in Spiraling Down, Assisted Living: Good Sports 2 is structured through a series of passages by disparate writers and thinkers, including Lydia Davis, William James, and Rosalyn Deutsch. Many of these passages, which indicate the breadth of Rainer’s reading, are of a political nature, especially the recitation that closes the performance, which imagines political despair as a pair of eyes adjusting to the dark. They play off of the choreography itself, creating various frictions.

Meanwhile, Rainer and the lighting and stage directors continually move a set of props (barrel, mattress, pillow, flashlight), as though to allegorize itinerancy, or literalize assisted living. This movement around the studio’s periphery structures the performance, which ends with one of the dancers climbing in the barrel while the others circle her.

There are countless stunning moments throughout. But one moment in the piece stuck with me more than any other. The dancers one by one lie on the floor, each resting his or her head on the stomach of the preceding performer. As they do this, they start to laugh. Not just any laughter, but a contagious one, like that of the group therapy sessions of Wilhelm Reich. The laughing is so strong that when Rainer herself pulls the dancers up from their positions on the floor many of them cannot stop. At this moment, each recites texts of a stark political or social content. About the Ku Klux Klan, about Hitler invading Poland, about death by shrapnel wounds. The contrast between form and content, gesture and denotation embodies the question I detected across these two works: How, through the meditation of a set of inherited social gestures, to jump-start the faculty of empathy in an audience; to make someone witness, and feel something within an increasingly devastated world?


Thom Donovan

THOM DONOVAN edits the weblog Wild Horses of Fire ( and writes widely about performance, visual art, new media, and poetry.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

All Issues