Yvonne Rainer is a woman who broke rules and made no apologies. In the opening scene of Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer, she’s crossing the street in a tailored suit making a lesbian joke. We immediately want to learn more about this mysterious woman with this altruistic tone.
Yvonne was a pioneer of dance in her day, starting in the ‘60s. Humbly, she navigates us through the film (since she is the subject matter after all) as others describe in awe their experiences with and of her in dance and life. Yvonne is an incredibly articulate and fascinating-to-listen-to feminist, and her ideas about the art form of dance transcended dance forever, but her ideas about the art form, of unforming art, is the stuff mid-century radical thought is made of. Half way through the film, she says, “I had to be stoned to do it,” referring to many of the performances of early eras. But there’s something ultimately liberating about what Yvonne is describing here: a higher self, that expands boundaries, toys with weight, distance, and allowing for the unexpected to take hold.
Yvonne and a group of other choreographers ran Judson Dance Theater where they created new forms of dance by including choreography that took common gestures like running, skipping, and walking into disjointed, fragmented motion. Yvonne even cut out sports images from magazines and handed them out in one experiment—the dance choreography emulating images of loss and win, power and strength—transferred onto the stage in spurts by way of strained facial gestures, exaggerated limb poses, some shouting of words, and epically grand music. In one dance where a pillow and chairs are involved, one dancer is seen in the back sitting while the others carry out motions and move about. This is the perfect example of how some of Yvonne’s choreography allows the mind to feel, differentiate and desire pattern, and then break it wide open.
What made this type of choreography so poignant was not its precision per say, but that it requires the hardest of unlearned diligences for any dancer or person: to untrain the mind to dance against the rhythm of the music, to let the body go, and to fall totally out of perceived sync. By the ‘70s, Yvonne turned her craft into filmmaking—her work tackling major social issues about power and privilege, female-to-male relationships as society expected (or, also, as Yvonne perceived) their gender and sexuality roles to look like. She then came out at age 56 as a lesbian. A survivor of breast cancer, she is a character in one of her films, MURDER and Murder, about two totally-in-love women in their 50s/60s and one who learns she has breast cancer and must get a mastectomy. The film artistically examines aging lesbians, sexuality and cancer, way before anyone in the mainstream illustrated these topics together in film and television. In that sense, Yvonne was a trailblazer for lesbianism and feminism by simply daring the uncover real life topics worthy of artistic exploration.
Now at 80 years old (yes—I looked you up, Yvonne, you Scorpio, you) Yvonne continues to create work and the dancers who have followed her in her footsteps perform the avant-garde choreography with pride, like they did in last year’s Assisted Living: Good Sports 2 (the performance the previously mentioned sports gestures went into) and Assisted Living: Do You Have Any Money? Yvonne performed for the event. Much of the old dance footage from early Judson Dance days was lost over time, but of what’s survived—there are true gems. Carrying down Yvonne’s work through the body of new dancers is the best way to record the dances, and keep the work alive.
This past weekend, Director Jack Walsh and Producer Christine Murray were in attendance at QDoc—the Portland Queer Film Festival. Christine explained she’s learned Yvonne’s legendary piece, Trio A—perhaps the most infamous of her pieces. But the team has yet to convince Yvonne to join the masses for a film festival showing. Take a bow, Yvonne. You’ve earned your keep.