LOSE YOUR SENSE OF SELF | AN AFTERNOON WITH YVONNE RAINER
Two weeks after attending the opening of The Yvonne Rainer Project – a number of events and exhibitions focused on the American artist in Paris this fall, Paris-based writer Haydee Touitou met with Yvonne Rainer – the influential choreographer, dancer, filmmaker and writer – for a chat about her and her work, in the equally remarkable Le musée du Jeu de Paume.
She was there to present her movies, shown in the museum movie theater throughout the cold month of November, offering refuge for anyone interested in avant-garde cinema.
Yvonne Rainer is one of those artists who contributed immensely to their field without having known a wide public recognition. First a choreographer in the 1960s, she then
became an experimental filmmaker in the 1970s. Consequently, she worked with and knew artists such as Andy Warhol, John Cage or Yoko Ono. Her life is a series of back and forth between the two forms of art, as if each period of time had its preferences. But without ever forgetting her sense of insistence, it seems.
Now in her eighties and still actively creating, Yvonne Rainer remains passionate about her work, never tired to talk about it, except when her own humbleness forbids her to.
Can you explain how your career started?
I was a dancer and a choreographer for fifteen years before turning to film.
Was the kind of work you were doing in dance linked to the medium of cinema?
No, it was connected to various influences in dance, John Cage, Merce Cunningham,
and I was also taking technique lessons. I was still a student of dance when I started
to choreograph… Ballet, and Martha Graham and then I studied with Cunningham for
Why did you start to make films?
Number of reasons… I had been quite ill; my body I felt didn’t function the way it did
before. I was harder to invent movements from this body. Also I wanted to deal with
the specifics of emotional life and these ideas with women’s movement, political
issues, and I felt that these were best conveyed by language and film offered this
possibility for integrating language, image, print, voice, synch sound, voice over,
So you chose the medium of film because it was a syncretic form of art?
Please tell us about the first movies you made.
I made five short films that accompanied dance performances. Then, when I
seriously turned to film and was easing myself out of dance, the longer format of the
feature film offered more possibilities. Those early films are very minimal. One idea.
And a duration that was about the length of a sixteen-millimeter reel. But I became a
serious filmmaker when I turned to making features.
What about your approach to feature film – and more precisely, what was your
approach to the narrative?
Narrative and also an argument with narrative. Disrupting the flow usually carries you
away from a conventional narrative film. There would be things such as a voice
begins a paragraph and then in the middle of a sentence, all of a sudden you cut to
the continuation of this paragraph in print. So you constantly have to reorient yourself
to the mode of transmission. So there’s a lot of that kind of experimentation in my
early films. I was having an argument with the so-called American structuralist films
but also Hollywood films, melodrama in particular. The subtitle of my first feature
“Lives of Performers” is “A melodrama”. So I was dealing with the content of
traditional melodrama in a very fragmented experimental way.
There’s obviously the idea of movement linking the mediums of dance and cinema –
what was your approach to this particular issue? Were you using the camera as if it
was a moving body?
It depended on the image. Sometimes there are some static shots, tableaux vivants,
sometimes the camera moves… It was pretty plotted out before hand in the script. At
the end of “Lives of Performers” the tableaux are based on the 1927 film “Pandora’s
box”. So you see the performers beginning to get into pose and then it cuts to the
pose for twenty seconds and then they start to get out of it, cuts to a new group
beginning a pose. It was all taken from the published script of “Pandora’s box”.
Was the movie medium a larger spectrum to express your ideas compared to dance?
I didn’t make an expressive kind of dance. I did tell stories trough movement in the
way, say Martha Graham did, and my movement was athletic, more quotationnal, I
used ballet at some time… I used more popular forms like the duet, in an early
dance, or Tricia Brown… On the same stage I am enacting a ballet adagio that I
learned in ballet class. So these references were about dancing and dance history
and movement history and as I said, film provided a stage for a different and broader
gamut of content.
How did you learn about how to make films? Are you a very technical director?
No. I am not. I’m a techno-dummy. I didn’t operate the camera. But editing, I loved
editing. I learned from Babette Mangold. She and I edited my first two films. So I
learned a lot from her and I would say, generally, it was not always a comfortable
situation for me. And eventually it led to my returning to dance. I was in the hands of
more technically proficient professionals and I never accomplished. The
communication was often like talking in two different languages. I always like to quote
Peter Rowland, the British writer and director who said “they let you make five films”.
Well “they” let me make seven, so I felt very fortunate.
Did it sometimes bother you not being able to operate the camera yourself?
They were misunderstandings but in editing you can compensate and re arrange
things. I was alone and after working with Babette I liked being alone in writing the
script and in postproduction. At that time, I would say, my technical deficiencies
would apply to video editing today. But dealing with the actual material of the filmstrip
was more to my liking. I was able to feel comfortable.
Did other directors inspire you?
I was exposed to film at a very early age. My father was Italian, took me to foreign
films… Rossellini and Jean Vigo and Renoir… And then in the sixties, Warhol was an
influence, in the way that the character would emerge in a still portrait, and extended duration…
What kind of movies do you personally watch?
I would say I don’t follow experimental film much today. You know, I go to Hollywood
movies and foreign films… I go more to dance.
What about now? What are working on?
I may make a shorter video of some kind. I did after returning to dance I made a
couple of videos using rehearsal footage. But mainly I’m involved with choreography
now. Movie and dance have always been separate. I don’t know, when I returned to
choreography, I just thought in terms of movement and texts, which are read. The
language material is represented in readings. I perform, I read things, I stick a
microphone in front of a dancer’s face. They have to stop what they’re doing and
read something I put in front of them. It’s different kind of material like… Lately, I’ve
been interested in the wall inscriptions in the Islamic wing at the Metropolitan
Museum. These descriptions of this pre-Ottoman empire… A material, which is hard,
I know, for the audience to take in. It’s a history that we, in the West, in America
anyway, are very unfamiliar with.
Interview and documentation by Paris-based writer Haydee Touitou
Special thanks: Le musée du Jeu de Paume