Interview: Yvonne Rainer, dancer and filmmaker

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This week, when Glasgow audiences get the chance to see one of the seminal dance pieces of the last half century, they will not just be watching a piece of history.

Yvonne Rainer's Trio A, first presented in New York's Judson Church in 1966, was a step-change in performance that rewrote the rules far beyond the rarefied world of contemporary dance.

Its refusal to engage in the traditional relationship between performer and audience (dancers spend their time averting their eyes from the audience even when their bodies are facing them) is now understood as a key moment in the history of Minimalist art, but also as a renewed inspiration to contemporary performers and artists of all kinds.

It will be no dusty archive piece. Rainer, at 75, an avant-garde icon who has spent more than 50 years pushing the boundaries in dance and independent film, will herself perform in a version of the piece called Trio A Pressured. Her task will be to run around and keep "pressure" on a solo performer.

"The dancer Emily Coates will do the original dance," she explains. "And I will run around maintaining eye contact with her." Rainer, who is no slouch when it comes to both the relentless innovation and sheer hard slog that her discipline demands, seems determined to keep her own back catalogue alive and on its toes.

"It's a way of extending the work. I want to avoid Trio A becoming this fetishistic object. I think of it as a kind of pedagogy, it's a way of making it clear what it's about, challenging what it's about and challenging my own way of doing things."

As the week-long career survey at Tramway - include Rainer's entire film oeuvre, a lecture, a "teach-in" and the performance of both established and more recent dance works - will reveal, challenging seems to have been a way of life for the artist. Lacking formal classical training and, she has insisted, a natural flair for dance, she overcame a rocky childhood and spells in foster care in California to train with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham in New York.

She was one of the co-funders of the ground-breaking Judson Dance Theater, a veritable crucible of avant-garde activity and part of a downtown milieu that included dancers, artist and performers such as Trisha Brown, Carolee Schneeman and Robert Morris.

"We saw it as a massive refusal of our training," Rainer explains on the phone from Los Angeles where she is busy teaching. "I always thought it went along with all kind of polemics at the time, an opening up of the palace gates of high culture."

Her autobiography, Feelings Are Facts, which she will read from at an event at Glasgow Women's Library this Saturday, documents a life of huge artistic ambition marked by periods of what she self-mockingly calls Sturm und Drang: dramatic ill health, physical and emotional struggle.

So how did she manage to work so hard through it all? "Making art is a way of channelling or overcoming or offsetting hardship." she says. "The area of art-making is the only area where adults are allowed to play in our culture.

"That's an important aspect of my work. I never think of it as work, though. Of course, generically, it is, dance is my work, but in another way it's not hard work, it's play."

Rainer's refusal of the traditions of dance emphasised the human over the spectacular. She introduced task or work-like movements and even the simplest activities such as walking, running or, with the improvisatory group Grand Union, laughing.

"We were on tour and in the middle of a performance we found something funny and people began to laugh. I didn't think of it as transgressive so much as innovative, never in a formal dance performance had people laughed out loud uncontrollably. It might seem very private but I think laughter is of itself very contagious." Instead of props, dancers used simple objects such as pillows, mattresses or ordinary balls. Costumes, when they were used at all, might be everyday streetwear of. trainers and trousers.

Increasingly in the early 1970s, Rainer, whose parents were European immigrants who moved in anarchist circles in pre-war California, became far more aware of both the personal and global politics that were shaping her world.

Film, which had gradually crept into her dance work, became her mainstay in 1975 and for 25 years she broke formal conventions of film-making as well as tackling head-on women's emotional experiences and taboo subjects such as breast cancer and the menopause.

"I left dance because I felt I couldn't adequately deal with these issues and I became interested in the possibilities of using language and voice-over, dialogue with image. It seemed a much richer palette with which to work."

But despite her achievements in the field she says now that film was not her natural home. "I was exhausted with the process. There were too many things on a low-budget film that could go wrong. I never felt in control of it.

"When I received an invitation from Mikhail Baryshnikov to choreograph for his White Oak project in 2000 I jumped at it, went into all my old notebooks and photos and then I guess I was launched and one thing came after another. Now returning to dance I still feel the inadequacies. I returned to an aesthetic politics, an ambivalent relationship to dance conventions."

The two most recent dance works she will show pay heed to dance conventions while slyly suggesting they might be thrown out of the window. Spiralling Down quotes movements from sources as diverse as Cyd Charisse and Serena Williams, while RoS Indexical draws on Nijinksy's Rite Of Spring, the lost ballet that literally caused a riot in 1913. "Everyone has done it," she laughs when she talks about it. Her own vision? "Somewhere between old hat and Broadway musical."

It seems fitting to end with a moment that combines the contemporary and the historical. Are those palace gates of culture still open? "Sure, they are wide open, and they have been torn down." v

Yvonne Rainer: Dance and Film runs at Tramway, Glasgow from Tuesday until Sunday

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 3 October, 2010

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