Why did pioneer dancer and choreographer Yvonne Rainer leave her dance practice in 1972 to make films? This was the questions that all artists where asking after the premier of Rainer’s first film in New York, marking the beginning of a fruitful and exciting discussion on the relationship between dance and film.
Siobhan Davies, a London based artist and choreographer, decided it was time to bring back Rainer’s thought-provoking films to the UK in order to inspire a new generation of dancers who have not had the chance yet to see her seminal work. Every Tuesday until 10 April, Siobhan Davies Studio in South London will host Yvonne Rainer: The Choreography of Film. The series has been curated by Oliver Fuke, an independent researcher and co-director of the community, and opens on 27 February with Lives of Performers (1972) and After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid (2002), introduced by Siobhan Davies herself.
Other notable speakers of the season are British feminist film theorist and seminal voice on film and media studies, Laura Mulvey; writer and professor of psychology and gender studies, Lynne Segal; and Catherine Wood, Senior Curator of Performing Art at Tate, writer of Yvonne Rainer: The Mind is a Muscle (2007) and curator of Yvonne Rainer: Dance Works 1961–72 at Raven Row in London in 2014.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Rainer was at the forefront of a group of dancers based in New York City overthrowing ballet’s rules, structure and education. Trained with Merce Cunnigham and inspired by the rule-breaking work of composer John Cage, she founded the legendary Judson Dance Centre in the heart of New York's Village, a bustling hub of young and radical artists, dancers, musicians and poets. Rainer collaborated with Trisha Brown, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Morris, Lucinda Childs and Carolee Scheneemann just to name a few. Starting from an infinite number of simple and ordinary movements any one does in their everyday life, she built a repertory of complex choreographies that changed irreversibly the history of dance. Minimal in style and often incorporating chance and improvisation, Rainer’s works see in dance the potential to be provocative, radical, conceptual while speaking about contemporary issues such as war, conflict, feminism and social injustice. Working in the 1960s into the following decade, Rainer’s works got increasingly personal and political and she often accompanied her performance with a short film.
It was 1976 when Davies started exploring Rainer’s work, after assisting a performance by Grand Union, the improvisational dance collective that grew out of Rainer’s dance company and her piece Continuous Project – Altered Daily (1970). “I was seeing dance-based artists behaving very differently but somehow true to what they knew”, Davies tells Candid magazine, “her work helped me remain conscious of all movements.” Rainer’s revolutionary view is contagious: her approach still inspires entire generations of artists who want to go beyond the academic structure of classical and modern ballet and the highly technically trained figure of the dancer.
Between 1972 and 1996, Yvonne made seven experimental feature-length films dealing with political and personal matters, these two categories always intertwined and never separated, such as political power, terrorism, lesbian sexuality and breast cancer. “These films are notable for many things, including their innovative narrative strategies, political commitment and engagement with theory”, Fuke explains, “I admire them for their rigor, complexity, and because of the important political topics they address. As they deftly move through a number of viewpoints and the complications and contradictions contained within them, these different films constantly ask questions of the spectator.” Since 2000 Yvonne has gone back to making choreographic work while her films tour worldwide in major international LGBT, film and dance festivals.
“Yvonne Rainer is an artist whose seminal work is really in our DNA here. Her innovations as a choreographer, filmmaker and thinker continue to play out in the work we support here, including in Siobhan Davies dance and film work”, explains Lauren Wright, Programme Director at Siobhan Davies Studio. While the films have already been introduced to the London public at the BFI in the past, this is the first time they will be screened in a dance focused-space. Yvonne’s lesson is still very much relevant now and Davies sees the importance to keep discussing her work with the new generation of dancers. “She has always kept us lively because she keeps intellectually questioning,” she explains, “I have always wanted our studios to be a place of lively questioning. A safe place to be risky in.”
Yvonne Rainer: The Choreography of Film is part of an ongoing interest on behalf of Siobhan Davies and Siobhan Davies Studios in the choreographic nature of film and filmmaking. Indeed, speaking about the reasons to offer this season of screenings, Fuke reminds us of Peggy Phelan’s suggestion that whilst Rainer's films have been “repeatedly discussed in relation to feminist film theory, it is important to understand that her films are also revisions of the concerns she first articulated in dance.” In fact, to make a film is not very dissimilar to creating a choreographic dance work. While the relationship between dance and film is very young, the two fields have always shared the potentiality to ‘perform’ movement (on the one hand of the body and the other of the image) of contemporary ideas.
Words by Victoria de Zanche
Yvonne Rainer: The Choreography of Film, every Tuesday, 27 Feb—10 April, 7pm at Siobhan Davies Studios, 85 St George's Road, London SE1 6ER