Yvonne Rainer at ADI by Luella Christopher


by *Luella Christopher
April 26, 2014

ASSISTED LIVING: SPORTS 2 (Montreal Dance Festival, France, 2011)

One knows that Yvonne Rainer’s choreography will amuse, confound and probably disturb when “Sports 2″ opens with scratchy music from 78’s on a wind-up Victrola. She punctuates this intro with a downstage tableau – three faces frozen in different expressions (O-shaped open mouth, grimace and Silly-Symphonies smile) to the strains of “Yes, we have no bananas”. It’s the first indication that facial expressions and dramatic tension will play integral roles in the choreography. Rainer then launches her textual assault, starting with homage to French philosopher Henri Rousseau’s musings on passion, love and virtue.

Before long, one dancer drags a piece of furniture across Rainer’s leg as she is seated in a chair, followed by a prolonged rendering of four women and one man jogging and prancing about the stage as an ensemble – a series of advancing phalanxes. Rainer often humorously but also solemnly compresses the space in which Pat Catterson, Emily Coates, Patricia Hoffbauer, Emmanuelle Phuon and Keith Sabbado (the “Raindears”) move within a sometimes bleak large canvas. This provides a psychological referent for any number of possible emotions, from a need for group consensus or solidarity to the pain of confinement, incredulity or alienation. At times these emotions co-exist.

The music morphs from swing or ragtime to opera and torch songs and even a French children’s song (Alouette). In the space of a few minutes, soloist Pharon is dancing to the famous soprano aria from Gounod’s “Faust” (Marguerite’s “Jewel Song”). This lilting moment from such a somber legend in opera and literature as “Faust” is overladen by “My Funny Valentine”, featuring soloist Sabbado. Dancer Hoffbauer is noteworthy as a woman wondering whether she will ever become a mother.

Is Rainer treating us to a series of musical jokes or anomalies by conflating the doomed mistress of Faust with a woman contemplating motherhood? (Marguerite eventually bears the bedeviled Faust’s child and dies in prison.) Or with imitators of crooner Frank Sinatra? Whatever her intention – accounting for the possibility that there may be none in particular – Rainer displays her considerable gifts not only for textual lenses and compelling narrative but musically dramatic nuance through the mere selections that undergird her dancers’ movements.

The pensive, prospective mother is joined by each of the other dancers who sculpt individual shapes. Dancer Pharon executes jerky movements to a phrase that sounded like “inability to make mistakes”. Hoffbauer laughs, then all laugh as they form a wooly-worm on the floor in which dancers lie on their backs but rest their heads on each other. For dramatic emphasis, this lasts far longer than a minute. Hoffbauer remains off to herself as Rainer roams the stage, attempting to tell a joke about Steve Jobs and a Chinese factory worker who has his face blown off walking into a bar. (Rainer admits that she constantly muffs the punch-lines.)

BAM! The narrative transits to a more serious evocation by dancer Coates of the decline of America (latter-day parallel to the ill-fated Roman Empire). It is punctuated by dancer Sabbado’s declaration that “my brother is full of schrapnel wounds and is dying in front of me”. Meanwhile, the laughter subsides, one-by-one. Suddenly, dancer Catterson shouts: “Frontal lobes: who needs them”? She is carried off on the shoulders of the other dancers to a dimly lit spot downstage left where she wrests the mic from Rainer and pleads that we resist becoming “victims of the darkness”.

One is left with the biting, sardonic humor and also a warning conveyed by the recitations in their totality. Rainer, ever the polemicist, has corralled our sensibilities while we were absorbing the occasionally mirth-filled movements executed by her versatile Raindears. (Readers will forgive this reviewer for any hints of polemicizing the polemicist, noting that mounting this genre of dance theater in the D.C. metro area is tantamount to preaching to the choir.)



begins with a taped cacophony of sounds, seemingly children. Rainer, wearing pants and a cocky hat, is wheeled to center-stage in an overstuffed armchair. Was her reference to “adipose gents” a cheeky description of the folk to be found in assisted living facilities? “Be a part of something too real to ignore”, she proclaims or bemoans. “Only $25 to see the show!”

For much of this work, dancers keep their arms folded behind their backs. This gives the patina of “Singin’ in the Rain” or some other fanciful Hollywood musical. Rainer seems to be inadvertently poking fun at the ballet genre, redefining it with a recognizably new twist that befits the average Joe’s experience. With her enhanced or altered ballet vocabulary, chassés become shuffles, ronds de jambe à terre (foot circles on the floor) become hops, developpés become forward-jerking kicks, tendus become toe or foot taps and bourrées become walks on heels or toe-raised flat feet.

One dancer finally breaks free with arms overhead and someone shouts, “Where have you been”? The foot and toe taps accompany someone else’s query: “Are we in the right apartment”?

Still another’s: “Why don’t you do something to help me”? Now they’re all prancing. “Look what you’ve done!” Are we nothing but robotic, “credit-swapped algorithms”?

Dancer Sabbado delivers a lengthy monologue on the Keynesian theory that active government is necessary to stabilize the economy. A discourse on the intelligence failures of September 11th is danced by two females; this becomes a trio. We are bombarded with reminders of everything from the perils of Lyme disease to the forced resignation of a big bank officer.

Another duet ensues to the tale of a “string” walking into a bar. A question posed by one dancer to another elicits a response of “‘fraid not”, which the speaker rephrases as “frayed knot.” Score one for double entendre.

Polemics are fired at the audience in rapid succession. They can be ingested either as dismaying or liberating, but are uniquely paired, as with the commentary to bouncing balloons on a Marxist axiom (“end-justifies-the-means”) and the recitation of details from a recent Supreme Court decision handing victory to a lesbian couple over the issue of inheritance taxes. Would the original penalty exacted on the surviving spouse have occurred if “Thea had been a Theo”?

By now Rainer has mesmerized us with rich content and lessons deftly borrowed from 18th century literature and philosophy as well as history and economic theory. She excoriates the Bush II White House, specifically the waging of the war in Iraq. She shows that misguided policies were either predictable or ignored the messages of sages like William James and Alexis DeToqueville (who were quoted throughout the evening). The cacophonous noisy tape is reintroduced at this point as an impromptu Greek chorus.

Three of the dancers crawl under a pink sheet, hiding from reality. A soliloquy on peacocks is accompanied by the wail: “Anthony, you know you love me.” How many friendships have struggled through this stage? What may well be an extract from opera buffo danced by a trio alternates sinewy with frenzied movements. These are followed by a clever segue to what happens “when Republicans are in the White House”.

A trio of female dancers surrounds people reading aloud one-at-a-time from the overstuffed chair. One agitated character behind the chair (Hoffbauer) pantomimes for the benefit of the other two. Male dancer Sabbado verges on disappearing into the wings, downstage left of center. Is he the boyfriend at whom the mime is digging? All four female dancers then gesture wildly and simultaneously, propelling the singular diatribe into group gripes. Are they complaining about this rogue? Is he their boss? Rainer lets us speculate.

Someone exhumes the progressive axiom that “society has permanently expelled the underclass”. Sadly, “mass incarceration has replaced slavery as America’s greatest social ill, accompanied by the branding of felons for life and creation of a generation of recidivists”. The five Raindears now dance in unison, perhaps in agreement over the message just conveyed. Rainer moseys downstage center: “It was very good to be included in my non-existence”. The work concludes with: “People are different because they is THEM”.

Rainer’s elevation of text and narrative was indispensable to the power and success of her twin works. She delivers a surprisingly updated look at the gamut of social and political issues as they evolved from early twentieth century through the present. In commenting on societal trends and flaws, she both wittily and solemnly questions  behavioral norms and institutional authority.

Rainer reigns supreme not just as an incubator of post-modern dance. She is a bonafide ethnologist with the fortitude to denude the cultural core of our recent decades.

copyright©2014 Luella Christopher on behalf of IsItModern?
*author of Pirouettes with Bayonets: Classical Ballet Metamorphosed as Dance-Drama and Its Usage in the People’s Republic of China as a Tool of Political Socialization, Ph.D dissertation, School of International Service, The American University, Washington, D.C., 1979 (archived at University of Michigan)