The Useful Lies of Dance Meditation
June 27, 2017
This essay appears in the Gallery Guide for SlowDancing/TrioA, a video installation by David Michalek in collaboration with Yvonne Rainer on view at Danspace Project June 23-July 1, 2017. More details here.
The Useful Lies of Dance Meditation
by David Michalek
SlowDancing/TrioA is a new work in conversation both with prior mediations of Trio A as well as my own work from 2007, Slow Dancing. My initial thought to create the work came several years ago after coming across Carrie Lambert-Beatty’s 1999 essay, “Moving Still: Mediating Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A” . In it, she writes, “approached through its photographs, Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A (1966) is a spectacular dance. Images from performances in the mid to late 1960s capture a dance of physical expansiveness, of dramatic and athletic display…Dancers stretch their spread-eagled figures. They balance in classical arabesques. They launch their extended bodies gracefully into the air.” To illustrate the point, the author includes several juxtaposed photographs: a suspended David Gordon enacting one of Trio A’s few leaps is placed alongside Peter Martins in airborne assemblé performing George Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes; another pairing features a virtuosic Angel Corella as Ali the Slave in Le Corsaire alongside Steve Paxton who, while performing Trio A, appears equally intent to stay “on his leg” in apparent attitude. But because no thing such as the heroic resolution of an assemblé or attitude appears in the whole of Trio A (a dance of continuous and unresolved phrase if ever there was one), the photographic records which suggest as much might be viewed as particularly misleading. This is Lambert-Beatty’s essential thesis, which is further compounded in light of Rainer’s 1965 No Manifesto wherein she announced some standards for her own artistic practice: “NO to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe…”
Lambert-Beatty’s essay interestingly sidesteps dance history along with some of the more common issues surrounding Rainer’s work such as the artistic oppositionality of Rainer’s choreography, and the radicality of Trio A’s aesthetic relative to the mainstream modern dance of its time, in favor of a conversation with the visual culture of the 1960s. But it is one particular aspect of Rainer’s danced manifesto to which Lambert-Beatty focuses her attention: its engagement with the photographic spectacular. Bearing in mind that the No Manifesto has been repeated by critics over and over as shorthand for Rainer’s own protocol in regard to Trio A (when it was actually written as a postscript to an essay related to Parts of Some Sextets), Lambert-Beatty’s thesis is, to some degree, problematic. However, it does ignite a series of thoughts that help us to consider the problematics of dance mediation in general.
Lambert-Beatty writes, “faced with the surprisingly dynamic poses in the images of Trio A, most dance historians would shrug.” But what I found interesting was Rainer’s own shrug to Lambert-Beatty’s essential thesis: the “dancerly” look of Trio A’s documentation. Rainer’s reply, which can be read in the appendix to the essay, assumes a practical stance in regard to the apparent contradiction: “the dance photographer is conditioned to watch for those moments of suspension that will best ‘register like a photograph.’ Trio A is obviously full of those moments. However much I intended to abort a jump, blur a transition, erase a rhythm, the dance inevitably could not be amorphous, simply because the body is constantly making shapes whether or not it ‘dances.’ And what about my own selection of all those photos you showed from Peter Moore’s contact sheets? Do you think I looked for the most ‘shapeless’ and amorphous and least ‘dancelike’ (whatever that means)? Not on your life. I chose the most dramatic and ‘dancerly’ ones I could find.”
Implicit in Rainer’s response is the question of use: what exactly are visual records of dances supposed to do? The question merits a broader examination, and Lambert-Beatty’s essay takes it up by extension. But if Rainer was set on choosing the “most dramatic and dancerly” images of her antispectacular choreography, surely it was not because they were the finest or ‘most correct’ representations of the dance itself, but rather, because they would do other things such as function as memorable visual markers for the actual dance in a promotional context. In short, if images of Trio A tell certain lies about the dance, they may be useful lies.
If certain documentary still images apparently contradict something essential about Trio A, a 1978 film produced by dance historian Sally Banes might seem to preserve something more like the expected vision of Rainer’s choreography. But upon further consideration, the film can be said to mislead in a somewhat different sense. Banes’ camera pans through an empty, gray space, following Rainer and keeping her in central frame, providing telephoto visual access to the choreography and to Rainer’s body. But what we gain in terms of body-centric information, we lose in spatial understanding: our relationship to the surrounding volume and to the ways in which the dance travels through it are distorted. Again, put simply, the film employs another useful lie.
In 2007, I made a work of video art, Slow Dancing, which used a high-speed, high-definition camera to create studio portraits of dancers in action, their five-second flashes of movement each slowed to a span of ten minutes. Slow Dancing, which premiered on a triptych of projecting screens on the facade of the New York State Theater, has since been shown in contemporary art spaces, museums, public squares, universities and arts festivals in 42 cities. Ten years later, hundreds of thousands of spectators have now had the opportunity to gather and watch the triptych for minutes and, often, for hours as every motion and every muscle of the 46 dancers was made visible in a quite astonishing way. Writing on the occasion of an exhibition of Slow Dancing on Harvard’s Widener Library in 2012, University President Drew Gilpin Faust wrote, “Movements I had watched in performances over many years now appeared completely new, as if I was seeing each gesture and each leap for the first time. The change of speed meant altered vision and transformed understanding. Even the dancers themselves [several of whom were present at the opening] were surprised to see what their movements actually involved.”
Carrie Lambert-Beatty opens her aforementioned essay with a literary fragment which speaks volumes about Slow Dancing: “For one to whom the real world becomes real images, mere images are transformed into real beings—tangible figments which are the efficient motor of trancelike behavior.” (Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 1967). Slow Dancing is undeniably, unashamedly spectacular. I intended it to be so. It transforms beings in the real world into real images that are themselves optically magnificent—a veritable feast of visual pleasure. And as the projected images of the dancers at 50 vertical feet move in a glacially-paced deceleration (one that is 100 times slower than real life), they are most assuredly efficient motors of trancelike behavior. In short, Slow Dancing, principally because of the dancers it features and uniquely draws attention to, is beautiful.
After reading Lambert-Beatty’s essay I began to wonder: what would happen if I recorded the ne plus ultra of anti-spectacular, anti-virtuosic dance that is Trio A? Would it be possible to reveal something new about Trio A through the artistic strategy and mediating device that is extreme slowness? Could I tell yet another new and perhaps useful lie about Trio A by placing it somewhere between freeze and flow?
I brought up the idea to a friend and fellow artist, Emily Coates, who directs the Dance Studies curriculum at Yale, but also tours with Yvonne Rainer and Group and who is, not incidentally, a Trio A expert. Emily encouraged me to meet with Yvonne personally to discuss it and connected us. A few weeks later I was sitting across from Yvonne at a Lower East Side diner. She agreed in principal to the concept, though it would take some years to gather the necessary financing and support. But as is often the case, time allowed me to devise some formal strategies that were not part of my original conception. My original thought of recording Rainer alone was supplanted by the idea of recording a variety of dancers who have danced Trio A throughout the 50 years of its existence. Dividing the roughly five-minute dance into 46 seven-second sections, would provide me the section of time that is part of Slow Dancing’s signature. But it would do more than this—it would also signify something about transmission, about how dances such as this are stored in the minds and bodies of those who’ve learned them and then passed on. Yvonne Rainer and Raindears company member, Pat Catterson, cast 46 dancers—a range of veteran performers and their students—to perform the parts in sequence on a specially-constructed set designed for high-speed recording.
After each dancer performed their seven-second sequence, the camera stopped recording until the following dancer picked up where they left off. All of this would eventually be knit together in post-production. The final work will be presented on three screens, each of which will play the entire dance from start to finish, although with slightly different time signatures—a nod to the original presentation of the work in 1966. SlowDancing/TrioA is not in any way the opulent visual spectacle that is Slow Dancing. It’s a drier and harder work to appreciate, particularly for viewers who, like myself, are not dancers. It’s curious to admit that even as I made this work, it will remain inaccessible to me, to some degree, indefinitely. But for those viewers who have spent their lives training their minds and bodies to such a degree that they have become the special artist we call dancer—they may likely see and understand patterns of force and meaning which I cannot. What exactly is the new visual record of this landmark dance supposed to do? Perhaps the dancers among us will know. I made this work for them.
I want to thank Yvonne Rainer, both for her assistance with gathering the dance artists for SlowDancing /TrioA (along with Pat Catterson) and for her extraordinary openness to new interpretations of her work.