Yvonne Rainer, a giant of choreography, makes her last dance

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Yvonne Rainer, a giant of choreography, makes her last dance
Choreographer Yvonne Rainer at Fort Tryon Park in New York on Sept. 2, 2022. With more than a half-century of work behind her, Rainer goes out swinging with “Hellzapoppin’: What About the Bees?,” which takes on themes of race and resistance. (Erik Tanner/The New York Times

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK, NY.- In 1966, Yvonne Rainer presented “Trio A,” her celebrated solo that emphasized movement over expression. By stripping dance of narrative, of emotion and even of the dancer’s gaze — there is no looking at the audience — the steps could shine. And those steps, delivered with the same temperament no matter how simple or difficult, were the dance. What did Rainer banish? Affectation.

In another iteration of “Trio A,” in 1970, the work expanded to six dancers, including Rainer, who performed nude with American flags tied around their necks like halter tops, at the People’s Flag Show at Judson Memorial Church in New York. The event was a response to the prosecution of gallery owner Stephen Radich for showing work that desecrated the flag. Censorship, the Vietnam War — these were issues of the day.

Now at 87, with 61 years of choreography behind her, Rainer is even more aghast at the state of the world. As a self-proclaimed news addict — “oy, oy, oy,” she said, summarizing the anguish she experiences when reading the newspaper — she is putting the finishing touches on “Hellzapoppin’: What About the Bees?” which will be performed at New York Live Arts starting Wednesday. She is calling it her last dance.

Given her age, it makes sense. But is it really true? “Yeah, I feel it’s my last production,” she said while sitting on a sun-speckled bench in a park near her Washington Heights apartment. “I don’t know. I have no more ideas.”

RoseLee Goldberg, founding director and chief curator of Performa, which has in recent years commissioned several of Rainer’s works, begs to differ. “The energy just keeps coming, the inventiveness just keeps coming,” she said. “If she changes her mind next year, we’ll be there for her — whenever she’s ready.”

Rainer, a founding member of Judson Dance Theater, the experimental collective that gave birth to postmodern dance in the 1960s, was part of a generation that revolutionized the field. Her 1965 “No Manifesto” laid out a new approach to dance, stating an opposition, for instance, to spectacle, to camp, to virtuosity. She has since disavowed it, but she knows that along with “Trio A,” it will be her legacy. “Well, I have to laugh,” she said wryly. “Yeah. Oy.”

But if “Hellzapoppin’” proves to be her final work, she isn’t taking the easy way out. Her subject is a tough one: race in America. And it’s a personal work. Rainer, who grew up in San Francisco with parents who considered themselves to be radicals — her lonely childhood included a period in which she and her brother were sent to live at a boarding institution — is coming at it as a white woman born in a certain time.

“I’m very outspoken about calling myself a permanently recovering racist,” she said. “I grew up in a racist environment. The contradictions of my parents being anarchists and yet living in a totally white neighborhood and having Black housekeepers come in.” (Her mother would say demeaning things about the housekeepers.)

She added: “The milieu in which I became an artist, like Judson Dance Theater, was almost totally a white community, which we’ve been severely criticized for. But we didn’t reach out.”

In a way, Rainer’s last dance is an end-of-life coming-of-age story, a chance for her to examine her history and to speak out using familiar artistic tools: words, dance and the notion of “radical juxtaposition,” a term used by Susan Sontag to describe surrealist techniques and that relates to the assemblage of seemingly disparate objects.

In “Hellzapoppin,’” produced and presented by Performa with Live Arts, Rainer mixes voice-over, music and movement sources from Laurel and Hardy, “The Dying Swan” and two films: “Hellzapoppin’” (1941) and Jean Vigo’s “Zero for Conduct” (1933). The very idea of putting things together that don’t quite belong still fills her with delight. Rainer’s brand of humor lands firmly in the land of deadpan.

In order to free herself up to speak her mind, Rainer writes from the point of view of Apollo Musagétés, the sun god. “Apollo goes around and has these experiences,” she said, “observing and trying to make some inroads on what he sees in New York social life.”

The text, presented in a voice-over, is read by David Thomson, a Black member of the cast. Having a Black man talk about white racism makes the words even more raw, although for Thomson, the process hasn’t been entirely smooth. When Rainer asked him to perform the voice-over, he asked her to edit parts out.

“I was like, ‘I’m just not going to say that,’” he said. “I asked her, ‘Why did you want me to do this voice-over?’ and she says, ‘Well, you have a voice of authority, and I think that would be great. That’s what this needs, because it’s Apollo Musagétés.’”

Rainer’s text can be alarming at times. It features remembrances from Jane, an older white woman described as an acquaintance — clearly a stand-in for Rainer. In one passage, Jane shares the memory of working as a typist next to “an older, somewhat overweight Black woman.” One day, forgetting the woman’s name, Jane addresses her as, “‘How now, brown cow?’”

In expressing her shame, Rainer’s blunt approach raises questions: Is she being naive? Vulnerable? Clueless? Pat Catterson, a longtime Rainer dancer who is the assistant director of “Hellzapoppin,’” said, “It’s really stories of things that happened to Yvonne in relation to race and how she learned how white and stupid we are basically,” she said. “Which we are.”

The major dance section of “Hellzapoppin’” borrows a Lindy Hop scene choreographed by Frankie Manning for the 1941 film. The dancing is extraordinary, and Rainer is obsessed with it. She asked Catterson for help in re-creating it, but Catterson was hesitant, concerned about appropriation and living up to the authenticity of the dance. She asked Rainer to expand on the racial context. Why was she including it? The dancers may be the ones lighting up the screen, but in the film, they are servants.

“How can I be so oblivious at this late date?” Rainer asked her in an email. “Well, it’s never too late.”

In the end, Catterson split the cast of eight into two groups; they have learned only the dynamic lifts or flips, which they re-create with assistance from one another. If they need to, they can talk their way through it. What is absent are the actual dancing steps. What’s important to Catterson is the labor behind the action.

“We’re trying to do something that we really can’t quite do in the world: We’re trying to overcome this race thing, and we really can’t quite do it,” she said. “So it’s slow and it takes a lot of cooperation and it’s difficult.”

The dance also features a scene inspired by the slow-motion pillow fight in “Zero for Conduct,” which Rainer first watched as a teenager. The fight, at an all-boys school, has the students overtaking their guardian. Catterson sees both scenes as examples of rebelling against norms: the Lindy Hop, performed with a kind of ferocious defiance; and the pillow fight with its raucous abandon.

And that is part of Rainer’s avant-garde legacy, too: questioning and resisting the status quo. With her Judson compatriots — including Trisha Brown, David Gordon and Steve Paxton — Rainer fought against the emotion and narrative of traditional modern dance and choreographers like Martha Graham, who was one of her teachers. After she moved to New York and abandoned acting for dance — “I was a washout in the Stanislavsky method,” she said — Rainer studied at the Graham school.

“One day before class, I’m on the floor stretching in second position, and she comes over and she says to me, ‘When you accept yourself as a woman, you will have turnout,’” Rainer said, referring to the degree of rotation at the hips. “Well, I never did evidently. That’s a difference in generation. Oh, wow, that woman.”

After Judson, Rainer formed the improvisatory group Grand Union; then, she moved away from dance to film. “I didn’t feel dance could encompass the specifics of my current political, environmental interests,” she said.

But by the mid-1990s, raising money for her films became increasingly difficult. “I wasn’t going to go into mainstream film,” she said. “And I was tired — I’m a technological dimwit. I never handled the camera. I got tired of production with this waiting around. The editing was where I felt I could be most productive and creative.”

For a few years, she wrote poetry before finding her way back to dance at the prompting of Mikhail Baryshnikov, who in 1999 asked her to work with his group, White Oak Dance Project. “I was ready to come back,” she said. “I’m really a choreographer. I followed experimental films and foreign films from a very early age, but I’m not comfortable in that way of producing films. I knew that returning to dance, I was in my element.”

But fittingly, for her final program, Rainer is mixing both worlds: Along with “Hellzapoppin’,” she is presenting a film, “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid” (2002), which combines a dance performance she choreographed for White Oak in 2000 with text by Austrian artists and thinkers — Oskar Kokoschka, Adolf Loos, Arnold Schoenberg and Ludwig Wittgenstein. It continues her theme of resistance.

And there is another link to her film career. “Hellzapoppin’” includes a cameo by actor Kathleen Chalfant, who also appeared in Rainer’s film “MURDER and Murder.” Without giving too much away, Chalfant appears briefly to tell Rainer what is wrong with her dance. “It’s kind of comic relief,” Rainer said. “I tell her to please sit down and we’ll talk about this later.”

But while the dance ends on a serious note — a reference to the climate crisis — it will also feature a classic, poignant hallmark of Rainer’s choreography. “The dancers never leave the stage once they’re entered,” she said. “I’ve always hated this disappearance of a performer. No one leaves.” The only exit, it seems, will be hers.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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