There are, in the contemporary renewal of performance modes, two basic and diverging impulses which shape and animate its major innovations. The first, grounded in the idealist extensions of a Christian past, is mythopoeic in its aspiration, eclectic in its forms, and constantly traversed by the dominant and polymorphic style which constitutes the most tenacious vestige of that past: expressionism. Its celebrants are: for theater, Artaud, Grotowski, for film Murnau and Brakhage, and for the dance, Wigman, Graham. The second, consistently secular in its commitment to objectification, proceeds from Cubism and Constructivism; its modes are analytic and its spokesmen are: for theater, Meyerhold and Brecht, for film Eisenstein and Snow, for dance, Cunningham and Rainer.
New dance and new film in this country have for the past decade grown and flourished within the latter context, developing as the most sustained and radical instances of its esthetic enterprise. The condition of that radicality has been the painful luxury of homelessness. New dance, like new film, inhabits and works largely out of Soho and those adjunct quarters which constitute the center of our commerce in the visual arts. They live and work, however, entirely on the periphery of their world’s economy, stimulated by the labor and production of that economy, with no support, no place in the structure of its market. New dance and new film have been, in part and whole, unassimilable to commodity value. Existing and developing within their habitat as if on a reservation, they are condemned to a strict reflexiveness. The result is an art of critical discourse, consumingly autoanalytical, at every point explicative of the problems attendant upon the constant revision of the grammar and syntax of that discourse. If Dance in its most innovative instances has insisted on an alteration of the terms of discourse, pressed for an altered relationship between performer and audience, decreeing and soliciting new modes of attention and of gratification, this is, in part, because the audience has been, as well, the most problematic element in the dialectic of performance.
The work of Yvonne Rainer, deriving a good deal of its energy and coherence from a systematic investigation of that relationship and those changing modes, begins with an initial investigation of the notion of the Performing Self and an acknowledgement of its questionable character for the contemporary artist. Consider the piece known as Trio A (it is part of the larger work, The Mind Is a Muscle, 1966). Trio A appears and recurs, reworked, quoted, remembered, varied, in the performances of the last several years. (In This is the story of a woman who . . . , 1972, it will be preceded by the remark, “She shows him her dance” which, occurring in the context of a new, fictional structure, assumes a newly equivocal character.) It is not only a very successful piece; it is something of a signature, and constituted, as part of The Mind Is a Muscle, something of a watershed in Rainer’s work, combining as it does, a number of the strategies adopted for her revision of choreographic grammar. Above all, it generates a shift in one’s temporal experience of Dance, and in the performer’s function; it is this conjunction that accounts, no doubt, for the particular pleasure it gives to those who watch it.
Trio A is highly asyndetonic, proceeding from phrase to phrase, without pause or transition, and its evenness of utterance, its seamlessness results from the dancer’s refusal to inflect movement in the sense of emphasis; it is, quite simply in one way, without stress or interruption, a succession of things, a true temporal order of movements experienced as seen one after the other. But this makes of it a rather special work.
Trio A was made within the context of that general reassessment of the dance esthetics and style of the West, which turned upon considerations paralleling those of advanced sculpture of the mid-1960s. Central to those considerations was the distinction between a time one might call synthetic as against a time that is operational, the time of experience, of our actions in the world.
A questioning was initiated by Merce Cunningham and radicalized through the work of Rainer, Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, Deborah Hay, and others working and performing in New York in the mid-1960s. Their common aim was the establishment of a radically new economy of movement. This required a systematic critique of the rhetoric, conventions, the esthetic hierarchies imposed by traditional or classical dance forms. That rhetoric was, in fact, reversed, destroyed, in what came to be known as the dance of “ordinary language” and of “task performance.”
The correlative of virtual, sculptural space was the rhythmic, mimetic time, generated by music and/or the narrative situation of traditional dance and theater. Here is a critical text which celebrates that time and its esthetic consequences.