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Yvonne Rainer: Ushering in postmodern dance

Photo courtesy of the Dance Magazine archives

Yvonne Rainer is a New York City–based choreographer who was a leading member of Judson Dance Theater, the 1960s avant-garde dance collective that rejected modern dance. In 1965 Rainer wrote her famous "No Manifesto," a public dismissal of the qualities that exemplified then-current concert dance styles: spectacle, glamour, virtuosity. Her resulting choreographic work, Trio A (1966), epitomized the minimalist aesthetic of postmodern dance.


Born in San Francisco, she moved to New York City at 22 to become an actor. She took ballet and Graham technique classes, but struggled due to her lack of flexibility. In 1960, she began attending a dance composition workshop taught by composer Robert Dunn. The protégé of experimental composer John Cage, Dunn encouraged his students to try new and radical ideas—any and all movement was fair game. After two years, the class put on a performance at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan, creating a new genre: postmodern dance.

Known as Judson Dance Theater, the group redefined dance, doing away with theatricality and highly technical movement—popular in the work of Martha Graham, for example—in favor of pedestrian movement, often in site-specific or in-the-round performances. When Judson Dance Theater disbanded in 1964, Rainer kept creating. She wrote her “No Manifesto" in 1965 and choreographed her piece de resistance, Trio A, the next year.

In 1969 Rainer, along with a few former Judson dancers, founded Grand Union, a collective of dancer-choreographers that performed improvisation-based concerts. Participants arranged segments of material—some set choreography, some improvised—in unexpected ways during each showing. Rainer eventually lost interest in the format in 1974 and left Grand Union.

At age 40, Rainer shifted her focus completely to creating experimental films and didn't return to dance until 2000, when Mikhail Baryshnikov invited her to create a work for his White Oak Dance Project. She has been an active choreographer and occasional performer ever since, setting new work on her informal company, whose dancers—all of whom are middle-aged or older—are known as “Raindears."

Rainer in Trio A. Photo by Herbert Migdoll, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

Judson Dance Theater

Rainer and her Judson Dance Theater cohort believed that any movement could be considered dance. They sought to eliminate hierarchy, shift the focus from product to process and view the body purely as an instrument to perform movement.

Rainer's peers manifested these ideas in different ways. Steve Paxton often used nudity. Trisha Brown employed structured improvisation. David Gordon infused choreography with social commentary. Other notable Judson dancers included Lucinda Childs, Barbara Dilley and Deborah Hay.

The Work

Rainer has worked with chance procedures and improvisation. Pedestrian movements like walking, running and sitting have been a staple of her work, and she has frequently used multimedia components.

Three Satie Spoons (1961): For this early solo, Rainer used chance procedures to determine which movements she would do (lying down, rolling, squatting, touching her face) and how she would perform the vocal elements (squeaks, high pitches) of the piece.

The Mind Is a Muscle, Part I, aka Trio A (1966): After writing her “No Manifesto," Rainer created a solo, Trio A—a continuous four-and-a-half-minute phrase. In it, she avoided eye contact with the audience while performing an assorted array of arm gestures; walking patterns; small jumps; subtle articulations of the head, shoulders, hips, hands and feet; and frequent changes of facing and direction.

Continuous Project—Altered Daily (1969): Rainer experimented with a structure called “performance demonstration," in which she and fellow dancers would improvise, alternating who led the improvisation. This piece, which launched the Grand Union, was a prime example of this format—a series of interchangeable units of movement arranged by the participants differently each time.

The Legacy Continues

Rainer's most recent project, The Concept of Dust: Continuous Project—Altered Annually, was presented by American Dance Institute at The Kitchen in NYC in June. In this and other recent works, Rainer (now 81) explores the concepts of aging and mortality through movement and text. Trio A is still taught at universities. In 2010 at Judson Church, she danced a version titled Trio A: Geriatric With Talking, in which she told the audience what she was thinking as she moved. A handful of people, chosen by Rainer, are authorized to teach Trio A.

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