Performance

Yvonne Rainer’s Conceptual Chess, Revived and Restaged

In its first performances since 1965, the recent Performa revival of Rainer’s Parts of Some Sextets prompts considerations of how we can safeguard the choreographer’s visionary oeuvre while staying true to her vision.

Yvonne Rainer, Parts of Some Sextets (1965/2019), Performa Commission for the Performa 19 Biennial, November 15-17, 2019 at Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center (photo © Paula Court)

It is evening, a bit past 7PM. The artificial heat rises in a dark theater packed to the gills. Twelve undressed mattresses — the thin, spartan kind found in hospitals — slump in two stacks on an otherwise vacant stage. Soon, they will have audio accompaniment: half-century-old recordings of choreographer Yvonne Rainer reading, with the bare minimum of intonation, excerpts from the diary of William Bentley, an eighteenth-century Unitarian minister in Salem, Massachusetts. As they perform the 2019 revival of Rainer’s Parts of Some Sextets (1965), the dancers rely upon Bentley’s colonial musings to keep time, locating the words that indicate 30-second intervals. The performers take the stage and tuck themselves behind the mattresses, which they will push and pull and step on, cling to and jump on and slither between in a choreography comprising 31 discrete activities. Whether “dancerly” (“Corridor Solo,” “Diagonal Run”), emphatically “pedestrian” (“Standing figure,” “Vague movements”), or decidedly eccentric (“Swedish werewolf”), the actions are united by their unflinching, democratic awkwardness. Parts of Some Sextets typifies the tenets of the Judson Dance Theater, the avant-garde dance collective that Rainer co-founded in the 1960s: it challenges dance’s traditional techniques and affect by embracing everyday movements and rejecting spectacle.

An August 2019 Rehearsal of Yvonne Rainer’s Parts of Some Sextets (1965/2019) at Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center, Performa Commission for the Performa 19 Biennial (photo © Paula Court)

Before its restaging at New York’s Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center for this year’s Performa 19, Parts of Some Sextets had only been performed twice, over five decades ago in March 1965: once at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, and once at the Judson Memorial Church in New York. The dance was — not atypically of Rainer — never filmed, instead living on amorphously through writings and photographs at The Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

Emily Coates, who directs Yale’s dance studies program, was admiring an old photo of the performance when she was inspired to approach Rainer about collaboratively reimagining and restaging it. The two have worked together before: the master choreographer played a tongue-in-cheek Apollo in Coates’s 2017 Incarnations. A montage of new and old elements, the contemporary Parts of Some Sextets features original audio recordings and about five-eighths of the original score, with new choreography by Rainer in the second half. In a charming choreographic addition, dancers munch on snacks or chat quietly: a nod to the large, unvarnished swathes of rehearsal time needed to master complicated choreography like Rainer’s.

The cast of Parts of Some Sextets (1965/2019), Performa Commission for the Performa 19 Biennial, November 15-17, 2019 at Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center (photo © Paula Court)

The all-new cast, like the original, includes artists as well as professional dancers. In 1965 Rainer danced alongside Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Morris; now, Coates performs with Liz Magic Laser and Nick Mauss. While the piece was originally designed for ten dancers, the update — a bit distractingly — vacillates between ten and eleven, with Brooklyn-based performance artist Brittany Engel-Adams alternating between sitting in the audience and joining the other performers onstage.

While Parts of Some Sextets packs a visual punch, the graceful conceptual chess behind it is undoubtedly its most beautiful feature. Choreographing in 1965, Rainer made a chart. On one axis were thirty-second intervals of time, numbered 1-84; on the other were the 31 actions. She covered the chart with random pencil marks, and the way that they fell shaped the order and duration of the movements. (That said, it wasn’t all left to chance — she allowed herself the option to select the number of performers in each movement as well as its location.) A riff on conventional dance notation, the page played a disciplinary role in the choreography as the dance was fit to its constraints.

Yvonne Rainer, Parts of Some Sextets (1965/2019), Performa Commission for the Performa 19 Biennial, November 15-17, 2019 at Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center (photo © Paula Court)

Rainer has “raided her icebox” by repurposing her 1960s dances before, a practice that she first explored in 1999 in response to a commission from the famed ballet dancer and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov. Parts of Some Sextets poses similar aesthetic questions in 1965 and 2019, but the revival goes beyond the bounds of the dance itself to ask how we can safeguard Rainer’s visionary oeuvre while staying true to her vision. Are traditional archival materials enough? Does a collaborative revival preserve or dilute? This Performa, Coates and Rainer give us their answer.

Performances of Yvonne Rainer’s Parts of Some Sextets (1965/2019) took place on November 15, 16, and 17 at Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center (29 Jay St, Brooklyn). The performance was curated by Kathy Noble, Performa’s Senior Curator and Manager of Curatorial Affairs, and assisted by Brittany Richmond, Curatorial Assistant. It was supported by Rauschenberg Foundation and the Performa Commissioning Fund. 

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