Yvonne Rainer’s Dance Works create a chorus of limbs

Yvonne Rainer: Dance Works, Raven Row, 2014 Diagonal (part of Terrain), 1963. Dancers in training with Pat Catterson and Yvonne Rainer, July 2014. Photo: Eva Herzog
Yvonne Rainer: Dance Works, Raven Row, 2014. Diagonal (part of Terrain), 1963. Dancers in training with Pat Catterson and Yvonne Rainer, July 2014. Photo: Eva Herzog

Nestled behind London’s Spitalfields Market is an ordinary house on an ordinary street that has been transformed into the extraordinary Raven Row Gallery. The 18th century home was converted into a multi-room exhibition space in 2009, and has retained its domestic charm through the proud incorporation of the building’s original architectural features. Such a space becomes a fitting backdrop for Yvonne Rainer: Dance Works, a retrospective of the famed American postmodern dancer, choreographer and filmmaker whose innovative and influential performance practice took cues from the ordinary and everyday. 

Exceptionally curated by the Tate Modern’s Curator of Contemporary Art and Performance, Catherine Wood, Yvonne Rainer: Dance Works culls archival materials, audio recordings and digitally remastered performance and experimental tapes to discursively unpack the span of time between 1961 and 1972 when Rainer (along with her peers from New York City’s Judson Dance Theatre, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, David Gordon and more) was challenging the conventions of movement and the role of the dancer. The shifting politics of form can be partly defined by their resistance to theatre-influenced hierarchical structures, emotional embodiment and a dissolve between the barrier of production; dance transcended into the interdisciplinary language of the visual arts. Task-like, minimal, repetitive movements, the incorporation of non-narrative speaking and a subversion of authorship became systems for dealing with the changing politics of form and dance.

At the core of the exhibition is a series of daily performances. Six dancers take to the grey floored back hall to re-perform Diagonal (1963), Talking Solo (1963), Trio A (1966) and Chair Pillow (1969). Postmodernism’s ever-present question of performance interrelations: dancer to audience, dancer to dancer and dancer to choreographer, became subject for reappraisal. Diagonal explores this most aptly with its non-hierarchical, internalized structure. The dancers begin in the room as a singular monolithic group walking in place. The piece is composed of a strict set of individual phrases: the dancers totter on their toes with arms outstretched like a starfish, they bend rigidly at the pelvis into a perpendicular triangle to walk on all four, or jump into a quick jog before leaping into a ballet-like grand jeté and then continuing on with the run.  Each  of the dozen or so movements correspond to single word or number that is spoken allowed as instructional impetus, and is most importantly, dictated by the performers themselves.

Yvonne Rainer: Dance Works, Raven Row, 2014 Diagonal (part of Terrain), 1963 Dancers in training with Pat Catterson and Yvonne Rainer, July 2014 Photo: Eva Herzog
Yvonne Rainer: Dance Works, Raven Row, 2014. Diagonal (part of Terrain), 1963. Dancers in training with Pat Catterson and Yvonne Rainer, July 2014. Photo: Eva Herzog

From the original huddled circle, a seemingly anonymous voice calls out the code-like instruction and the group propels their bodies from one corner to the other, moving diagonally across the room,  in a running unison. The chorus of limbs is quickly disrupted as the group endlessly bifurcates into actions that are performed in solos, duos, trios and quartets, weaving between each other from corner to opposite corner, and invisibly passing the bodily control amongst them. It is movement for them, not us.

This methodology of economy of gesture, durational looking and precision of image is evident throughout the large array of displayed archival materials, video and audio in the multi-storey Raven Row.  To the credit of both Wood, and Rainer’s visually inclined practice, the exhibitions negates the usual pitfalls of trying to bring live bodies into a static space and Yvonne Rainer: Dance Works perfectly balances the line between pedagogy and performance in true postmodern fashion.

Text by Devon Caranicas 

Yvonne Rainer: Dance Works is on show at Raven Row Gallery from 11 July – 10 August 2014

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