SPOTLIGHT February 2023: Yvonne Rainer, Experimental Filmmaker, Dancer and Choreographer

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Feelings Are Facts is the title of Yvonne Rainer’s 2006 autobiography, and to watch one of Rainer’s films is to understand how boldly she challenges audiences to understand what they are seeing through their feelings. Rainer, who began her artistic career as a dancer and choreographer is well acquainted with letting her feelings do the talking. When dance no longer seemed appropriate for engaging with her deep concerns about social justice and feminism, she turned to film.

Her seven experimental features—Lives of Performers (1972), Film About a Woman Who (1974), Kristina Talking Pictures (1976), Journeys from Berlin/1971 (1980), The Man Who Envied Women (1985), Privilege (1990), MURDER and murder (1996)—have been newly restored in 4K by the Museum of Modern Art and the Celeste Bartos Fund for Film Preservation. The restored films will be released theatrically in mid-February.


Born in San Francisco, California, in 1934, Yvonne Rainer was exposed early to the city’s cultural scene. In addition to attending opera and ballet performances, Rainer accompanied her father to see foreign films. She also began hanging out with “poets, painters, writers, and Italian anarchists,” all of whom influenced her progressive politics and artistic pursuits. When she moved to New York City in 1956, Rainer began taking dance classes. Over about the next decade, Rainer would study ballet and modern dance with several instructors, including Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. When she cofounded the Judson Dance Theater collective in 1962, the progressive ideas she took from her early arts exposure, modern dance training, and the fertile mix of experimental art then burgeoning in New York inflected her abstract dance choreography.


By the beginning of the 1970s, Rainer was straining for another way to express her ideas. “I had gotten involved in political and social issues that required more language,” she says, “and I didn’t make that kind of dance. My dance was more abstract. I had watched experimental films —Godard, Maya Deren, U.S. experimental film—from a very early age and, I felt I could handle specific social issues better in film with all these possibilities for print, voiceover, and intertitles.” Although she had no formal cinematic training, Rainer mastered editing under the tutelage of an early collaborator, French cinematographer Babette Mangolte, who shot Rainer’s first two films.

Rainer’s first feature, Lives of Performers, is a dizzying collage of dance rehearsal and performance, voiceovers of her performers reading their parts while a typed script fills the frame, and melodramatic scenes dealing with a love triangle. Rainer plays with sound, sometimes offering images without sound, dialogue without images, intertitles, and mismatched soundtrack and images.


In her first films, Rainer worked with professional dancers and amateurs who had studied with her. “In the early work, I wasn’t interested in working with professional actors,” she says. “I felt that most of the meanings in the films came through language. I’d have two people having a conversation, and you didn’t hear synched sound, but there were various ways of superimposing my own language onto them. So, I didn’t have to worry about the verisimilitude or Stanislavsky type of Method acting.”

The discontinuity in these films express Rainer’s interpretation of philosopher Susan Sontag’s term “radical juxtaposition.” “I guess I thought, ‘Why do we go to Hollywood films? We want to lose ourselves in identification with the characters.’ I was involved in these experimental devices to disrupt that identification with static shots and juxtapositions of things that had nothing to do with the narrative—keeping the audience members on their toes rather than (allowing them to) lose themselves.”


In her later films, Rainer moved toward more conventional narratives and the use of professional actors. “I had followed Hollywood films from a very early age. I was a film buff. So, I knew what would draw an audience in. I began to use some of those tropes with my editing and professional actors, but then I was just as interested in disrupting that kind of identification,” she says.

Rainer uses a combination of documentary and fiction in Privilege to explore menopause, abuse of women, and racism. Talking-head interviews with women about menopause mix with voiceover and intertitles on an early Apple computer screen. Actor Novella Nelson plays a director on screen, while Yvonne plays an unseen Black woman who interviews another character about her experiences living on the Lower East Side during the 1960s. The film uses statistics to debunk the usefulness of hormone replacement therapy and more traditional narrative to examine sexual desire, sexual and domestic abuse, and unacknowledged racism. Despite the weighty social concerns, Privilege has a certain exuberance and humor that makes it one of the director’s most enjoyable films.

Still from PRIVILEGE

Her last film, MURDER and murder, uses two accomplished actors, Joanna Merlin as Doris and Kathleen Chalfant as Mildred, to tell the autobiographical story of Rainer’s domestic bliss with a lesbian lover and her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer. Rainer uses the device of a younger version of Mildred and Doris’ mother to comment on the present-day action. When the couple faces Mildred’s diagnosis and single mastectomy, Rainer steps in, exposing her surgery scar, quoting statistics about breast cancer, and acknowledging her own exhibitionism. “I love performing even though I’m no longer able to do much dancing.”

Still from MURDER and murder

Indeed, performance has been a constant throughout her filmmaking years. In MURDER and murder, “I was dealing with actors who had no dance training. Still, they’re involved in performance, and one of the characters is a performance artist. So, there are these allusions, references to performance, but not specifically postmodern dance,” she says.


Following her last film, Rainer spent her time writing poetry. Then a fateful call came. “This is Misha Baryshnikov.” And I said, “Who?” The virtuoso dancer invited her to make a dance for his company. He said, “Well, think about it.” “I didn’t have to think about it,” she says. “I love working with dancers, and I felt that was really my métier, where I was most comfortable with the whole process.” The collaboration resulted in a short film, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid (2002), in which her radical juxtaposition involves the dance she choreographed and texts by four major thinkers and artists of fin-de-siècle Vienna.


“I continued to be involved with formal dance, but the language aspect that had been represented in the films persisted,” she says. She would read news reports, tracts on environmental issues, and other similar texts during the dance. “In the middle of someone’s solo, I would interrupt and put a page in front of him or her and have them read it. So this interplay of language and abstract movement persisted, but in a different way when I came back to dance.”

In 2023, Rainer premiered what she says is her final dance, Hellzapoppin’: What about the bees? As a final tip of the hat to her cinephilia, she adapts the jitterbugging performed by Black dancers in the 1941 film Hellzapoppin’ for her dance. “My dancers, who were mostly well into their 40s and 50s—the oldest was 65—studied this material and were able to do slowed-down versions of it (while I did) a voiceover reading about white racism in the U.S.” Additionally, she projects part of Jean Vigo’s anarchic Zero for Conduct (1949), perhaps in remembrance of the foreign films her father took her to see.


“I’m very pleased with this last dance. It contains every kind of material from 60 years ago—ordinary movement, movement that requires training, casual stuff, and talking to each other while dancing.”


Yvonne Rainer is an experimental filmmaker whose unique and challenging film collages are informed by her extensive knowledge of and interest in progressive politics, philosophy, social issues, avant garde art and dance, and Hollywood films. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a MacArthur “genius” grant and the addition of Lives of Performers to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, demonstrating that living life on one’s own terms is not only possible, but also a key to success.— Marilyn Ferdinand

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Marilyn Ferdinand (Archived Contributor)

Marilyn Ferdinand is the founder of the review and commentary site Ferdy on Films (2005-2018) and the fundraising Love of Films: The Film Preservation Blogathon. She currently writes for Cine-File and has written on film and film preservation for Humanities magazine, Fandor, and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. She lives in the Chicago area.