Going through some old files I found this review I wrote of Jack Walsh's 2015 documentary on Yvonne Rainer. For some reason I now can't recall, the review was never published. I've been thinking a lot about YR lately (am I ever not thinking about YR?), especially about her excellence as a writer and chronicler of her own history. I also think a lot about how she left and came back (to dance). Anyway, I felt like I should release this from my "Old Desktop" folder and into the world, mostly for the stellar quotes from YR and Steve Paxton.
How has this not been done before? For the dance history enthusiast, that question arises just at the mention of Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer, a discerning and necessary new documentary about the revolutionary choreographer, performer, filmmaker and writer who helped to usher American dance from modern to postmodern in the 1960s — and who, at 81, is still performing and making work today.
Or maybe it has been done, just not on film. The story told by the director Jack Walsh and producer Christine Murray is one that Rainer herself has been telling, bit by bit, for decades. As trenchant in print as she is in performance, Rainer has long chronicled her own life and art, in publications like her 1974 book Work 1961-73, her 2006 autobiography Feelings Are Facts: A Life and essays that she continues to publish, like her reflection on “doing nothing” in a recent issue of Performing Arts Journal.
For followers of that work, Feelings Are Facts, the film, will contain familiar sound bytes. “There was ground to be broken, and we were standing on it,” Rainer has said — and says again — of Judson Dance Theater, the 1960s collective that railed against the modern dance establishment. She also reiterates that her “No Manifesto,” which became a defining Judson document, was meant to be fleeting. (“It has dogged my heels.”)
Yet such trademark quotes are balanced by Rainer’s spontaneity and wit — she’s as self-critical as she is self-assured — captured through interviews with the artist and her colleagues, including fellow Judsonites Lucinda Childs and Steve Paxton.
“Bizarre head, askew eyes, excellent hair,” Paxton says, describing her unconventional physique and charisma. “She would walk onstage, and it was like a jolt.”
Her work speaks for itself, too, from well-known footage of her 1966 solo Trio A to rare excerpts from her own films, which she began creating in the 1970s as she embarked on a three-decade hiatus from dance. Whether as herself or as a semi-fictional character, she addresses her physicality and sexuality with disarming honesty. We learn about the “recalcitrant” body, as she calls it, that refused to absorb Martha Graham technique, and about her struggle with breast cancer, via clips from her 1996 film MURDER and murder, which also dealt with her coming out as a lesbian relatively late in life.
“Sex and desire between old people, between two older women — I mean, this was an area that just had to be explored,” she says.
Feelings Are Facts takes us through Rainer’s return to dance in 1999 and shows that same staunch curiosity enlivening her recent work. May she continue going off script.