Dust Settling: Yvonne Rainer Choreographs History at The Kitchen
Yvonne Rainer: The Concept of Dust: Continuous Project—Altered Annually at The Kitchen
June 2 to June 4, 2016
512 W 19th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 255 5793
What is dust but history settling itself? Yvonne Rainer’s latest permutation of the ongoing project, The Concept of Dust, performed at The Kitchen, began quite literally with the death of an author. The stage was empty save for a white towel, pillow, and grey folding chair. The dancers, as they walked on stage, appeared not serious but devastated. Rainer began to speak: “I have a sad announcement to make tonight. One of our members won’t be here; Pat Catterson died last night.” Before the audience could react, a voice yelled from offstage, “No, what the fuck, Yvonne? What are you trying to do, get rid of me?” The forced farce — Catterson’s response sounded like that of an overly dramatic television actress — triggered first nervous, then genuine laughter from the audience as Catterson and Rainer eyed each other warily in the center of the floor. Though as the dance progressed this beginning increasingly faded from memory, the concept of lost, disembodied, or assumed voices became the spine of the piece.
Catterson soon, again, became the central figure as she began to tap dance, explaining as she danced:
During the voyage from Africa, slaves were occasionally brought up from the ship’s hull and made to dance. They were worth money now, and the physical exercise helped keep them alive. Imagine what this meant: they did routines that a month or two earlier had been part of the observance of their religion, or the celebration of a feast day, or the expression of their relationship with their grandparents. Anyone who hears this story will feel the burden of reconciliation built into tap.
With this speech — which was likely found text, as indicated by Rainer in her text on the piece — Catterson turns the once-comic atmosphere shades darker. While some of the dancers’ ensuing movements are intentionally stilted and quotidian, they can no longer be quite as amusing as much of the audience seemed to believe, laughing along. Instead, the movements and voices begin to feel hysterical. As slow violin music plays, a low and incoherent woman’s voice is subtly woven into the soundscape as if it were a subconscious murmur conducting the dancers, who improvisationally iterate small, choreographed passage of movement. Their imperfect coordination conveys informality reminiscent of rehearsal. Combined with the hysterical impulses woven into the choreography, this informality surfaces Rainer’s concern for the elemental chaos within the apparent order of daily life, which also comes through in her chosen texts. Dust is the ultimate mark of quotidian life, for it can only exist among whatever has become so routine as to be neglected.
The informality and familiarity of the dancers’ motions also allows each dancer to communicate their personality; with time, one notices how the same move looks different across bodies. Fifth position arms look best on the dancer who moves most lightly and elegantly. In ballet, the merging of body with gesture may be desirable, but in this choreography Rainer seems more interested in pointing to the citation of movement, paralleling the citation of text. Here, the same move looks best on the body that performs it most unnaturally, thus highlighting the difference between a routine and learned movement. And again, given the forced look of these movements on the dancers’ bodies,Catterson’s mention of being “made to dance” boils to the surface.
Rainer’s quoted texts are compiled in a stapled packet of papers, which she flips through during the performance, first while sitting in a chair at the edge of the stage, and then while running to the side of a dancer to ask them to read an excerpt. Most of them do so willingly, but some run away as Rainer approaches. When she finally catches up, she captures in her microphone only a gasp or guttural sound. But that appears satisfactory, as if “gasp” were part of the text. Though largely disconnected, and from sources including the Metropolitan Museum and New York Times, some texts are identified, such as excerpts from Kingsley Amis and from Maureen N McLane’s My Poets (2012). Rainer may introduce these partly for amusement, but also because they seem to be neglected stories: later in the dance, she reads a story about a young black man who was wrongly arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia, beaten up in jail, and later released but with permanently damaged eyes. By blowing the dust off of these stories, one brings them back into the present, calls attention to their contemporary relevance.
Citations are defined by their removal from an original context. Because the performers may rearrange the phrases of the dance as they perform — and presumably Rainer may rearrange the order of the spoken texts — it is not their sequence or trajectory but rather their similarities that reveal Rainer’s intentions. In one phrase of the dance, the lights turn off completely. A voice speaks, that of an invisible narrator. She recites the history of a fossil. As she reads, one can hear that she is reading from a printed text, for she repeats some words and mispronounces others. Stumbling over words and imperfectly miming movements are both acts of citation. They also allow the voices and motions of history to become personalized, no longer omnipotent and objective. History is defined by its belonging to the past; it is made visible only in its residues, its accumulation of context: references, citations and dust.