In the '60s, she was a key figure in the choreographic revolution that resulted in "post-modernism," with its emphasis on the autonomy of movement and the interpenetration of daily life and art. In the '70s, she turned to the film medium, extending her radical artistic concepts to the realm of moving images and becoming thereby one of the leaders of the era's avant-garde cinema. She is Yvonne Rainer -- dancer, choreographer, filmmaker and theorist -- and she's in Washington for two evenings to show and discuss her films, thanks to a joint program by the American Film Institute and the Washington Project for the Arts.
At AFI's Kennedy Center screening room at 7:30 tonight, Rainer will present and talk about her 1974 "Film About a Woman Who . . .," which deals with emotional relationships between men and women in a thoroughly distinctive manner involving narration, slides, verbal titles, dance performance and inserted film clips. Friday at WPA, she will participate in a 6 p.m. panel discussion on "New Narrative" with moderator Nina Sundell, dance critic George Jackson and art critic Lee Fleming. At 8 p.m., two Rainer films will be shown -- "Trio A," documenting her groundbreaking dance work of 1966; and "Lives of Performers" (1972), her first feature-length film.
Born in San Francisco in 1934, Rainer went through the conventional dance training mill in ballet and modern dance (primarily Graham and Cunningham). In 1960 she worked with Anna Halprin on the West Coast, and not long after her resettlement in New York, she was instrumental in founding the celebrated Judson Dance Theater. In 1965, she caused a stir with her "No" litany, a passage in an essay that declared "No to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to the glamour and transcendency of the star image no to the heroic . . ." In its rejection of traditional theatrical values and its espousal of unadorned, unstylized gesture, it became the credo of post-modern dance for the next decade. In the early '70s, Rainer gave up her own troupe to establish, with Steve Paxton, the improvisatory dance collective called the Grand Union. By this time, too, she was incorporating film passages in many of her live performances. By the end of 1972, she had focused her main attention upon filmmaking.
"Lives of Performers" attests to the transition between Rainer's choreographic interests and film. It opens with what appears to be home-movie footage of a dance rehearsal, with dancers in a ramshackle studio trying out and repeating moves under Rainer's direction, heard in voice-over audio. Fragmentary, episodic and typically neutral in tone, the film slips all but imperceptibly into fictional emotional entanglements between the performers -- the line between what is real and what is simulated, what is acted and what is actual, ceases to be apparent. "Living" is seen as a form of performance, and "performance" as a distillation of pedestrian existence.
"Film About a Woman Who . . ." is a more "finished"-looking, technically sophisticated work -- the sound track includes music by Satie and Grieg; Rainer herself is seen in some dance passages; the murder-in-the-shower sequence from Hitchcock's "Psycho" suddenly intrudes at one point; and the imagery includes actual family album snapshots. But the relationship between performance and life remains a central motif. The powerful influence of Jean-Luc Godard is evident in the interplay of narration, printed and spoken titles, silence and sound, still and moving imagery. Also prominent is Rainer's continuing exploration of woman as manipulated object. Both films have a randomized, disjunctive flow that makes them puzzling and not easy to follow, but both have cumulative impact and stand as fascinating examples of the intersection between the film diary approach and choreographic iconography.