The Story of a Woman Who . . .

The Village Voice 12 Apr 1973English

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Like Martha Graham, Yvonne Rainer now seems hell-bent on exorcising demons. Unlike Graham, Rainer tries to achieve this by a precise barrage of words -printed and spoken-and movements and poses carefully emptied of the passions that produced them. In her new work, "This is the story of a woman who . . . " there is none of the stylish muscular strife which Graham uses for the flailing of neuroses, public and private. By a kind of alteration or deprivation of motor intensity, Rainer succeeds not only in objectifying her own emotions, but also in creating an oppressive, repressive image of the discrepancies between thought, emotion, behavior, and art.

"This is the story of a woman who . . . " is an autobiographical fragment. It deals (I'm being very general now) with a deteriorating relationship between a man and a woman who is a dancer. Rainer is the woman. John Erdman is the man. Shirley Soffer speaks for Rainer and sometimes for herself. The principal fact that emerges about Rainer is that she is a woman tormented by doubts -about her work, her feelings, everything; and she examines these doubts relentlessly. I kept thinking of peeling onions: sometimes you want so badly to arrive at the best, whitest, quintessential onion that you keep peeling until it's all gone, and you're left with nothing but the parings. (Autobiography is catching.)

Rainer begins the dance with her solo "Inner Appearances" (1972). A green eye-shade covers her eyes, but reveals her mouth. Her short, bristly bobbed hair also curtains her much of the time. She hums monotonously, vacuums slowly; and all the while projected, typed 3x5s present us with the vigorous activity of her brain. One card tells us that the character "reveals her characteristic dissembling". Yes.

Another card mentions the powerful clarity of cliché. And cliché becomes one of Rainer's tools for putting the proper distance between herself and her fears. The barren white stage of the Theatre for the New City contains a shabby bed and mattress at floor level, some chairs, a suitcase of props. Soffer at a mike begins to read about the anger, jealousy, lust, growing lack of understanding or tenderness between Rainer and Erdman. Mostly as Rainer sees it. She speaks almost entirely in clichés (people have "changes of heart", can't "take things lying down" -terms like that). Meanwhile Rainer and Erdman go through a series of frozen attitudes that do not relate specifically to the text. The poses congeal suddenly or melt into each other. They arrest the two talking, reaching, avoiding, watching, etc., and they're marvelously designed to suggest a gesture, a facial expression caught by a camera at an extremely awkward transitional moment. Implication of the trajectory of a movement projected into utter stillness.

A fact -curious, disturbing, fascinating: the deeper you get into the piece, the more you assume you are learning about Rainer, because of all the information, heard and seen, that you're being given via movement, words, family photos, films. It seems so specific. And later you realize that you know very little. The words and the action have been edited in such a way that they could apply to many things, many people. Illusion of intimacy. We can only guess some of the extremes of passion that this relationship elicited. Once, for instance, Erdman casually lays a gun on the bed beside Rainer; another time, he picks it up and lets it drop, although the words say that he pointed it at her.

The atmosphere of the dance is spartan, clinical, but at the same time rich with potential mess. When Erdman and Rainer fight, they do so in a series of slow-motion attacks -clearly violent in aim, but controlled in execution. They bend heads back, smash faces, twist arms, knee groins, bring to the ground. They alternate emitting terrible prolonged gasps, screams, moans that are meticulously realistic, but sometimes the attacker makes the sound, sometimes the victim. Throughout, Soffer shuffles a pile of papers into order. As with everything in the dance, some element of reality has been displaced -either space, sequence, intensity- so that a distancing occurs between you and Rainer, between Rainer and Erdman, between Rainer and her fears.

In one part, Erdman and Rainer sit side by side on chairs, while Soffer stands to tell her (Yvonne's) dream. The two smile covertly, whisper, behave as if Soffer were doing something wrong and embarrassing but for some reason they have to be polite. From overhead a light falls, dangles drastically from its cord, and goes out. Rainer eyes it without change of expression.

The eyes of a lover watching you transform you into a performer. Pleasurable and wearying too. As if to heighten this illusion, Rainer performs her "Three Satie Spoons" (1961) for Erdman and us. A fine dance. The cards tell us it bothered her that he said nothing about it. This whole work seems unbelievably courageous when you learn that the two performers continued to work toward this performance while the events we are told/not told about were occurring. I don't know the original plan, but she did teach him her stoic, complex path dance "Walk She Said" from "Grand Union Dreams" and "Trio A" from "The Mind Is a Muscle". "Trio A" is usually done in loose canon, but this time the performers are greatly separated from each other in time. They mark it first, then do it fully; the marking has the effect of making its casual style in performance look more emphatic than it might normally.

"This is the story of a woman who . . . " is probably most impressive to those who know Rainer well, but I think it matters only that you know she is important as an artist. Knowing that, you feel depressed, infuriated that she's spending so much brain-time on this love affair. Yet her attempts -not to make art about it but to objectify it into art- are touching and admirable. Perhaps even more so because you sense her reticence, moral fastidiousness, intelligence, and wit -qualities that are not normally brought to bear on confessional art. Anyway, this is emphatically not a work about letting it all hang out; it's a work about someone who can't.

After "Trio A", a repeat of a pale filmed beachscape. The white typing whispers "I've always liked ocean endings".

This is one of the most peculiar articles I've ever written. Perhaps pride ought to have stopped me from including it, but in some ways I think it a good description of the work.

Under the influence of Rainer's earlier, factual style, the powerful sincerity of her performing, and the fact that in the work, she performed her own early solo, "Three Satie Spoons", I confused the roles Rainer and Erdman were playing with the real Rainer and Erdman in an extremely misleading way. Rainer, polite but properly outraged, informed me what I ought to have sensed; she was emphatically not making a piece of "confessional art" out of an actual affair with Erdman. "Do you think that I am such an exhibitionist or so insensitive that I would expose myself and an ex-lover and all the gory details before a public (or private, for that matter) audience?" She pointed out that at least four women were described in the piece, only one of them her, and three men, none of them Erdman.

The letter which Yvonne Rainer wrote to me clarified her current stance:

Since making "Grand Union Dreams" (1971), I have been involved with finding ways to use performers as something other than demonstrators of behavioral and kinetic phenomena. We are no longer ourselves; we are becoming stand-ins for personae, protagonists in a novel, characters sustaining a narrative. To carry out these transformations demands the use of certain devices that have traditionally been the domain of fiction and the theater of dramatic illusion, many of which tend to blur the distinctions between illusions and reality.

I also wonder at myself caring whether "Rainer" spent "brain-time on this love affair". Rainer spent brain-time on a love affair, and the result was an extraordinary work of art.