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Yvonne Rainer and Sally Banes: Talking Dance

From Performance Assembles Publics: Contact Improvisation as Landmark

Before the recent “white cube” representations of dance history, such as the Museum of Modern Art’s 2018 exhibition “The Work is Never Done,” Mark Morris and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project organized a notable “black box” attempt to reconsider the work of the Judson Theater Group in 2000 and 2001. In a bold experiment, White Oak adopted the model of a touring repertory company to approach the Judson work as a canonical resource to be explored and renewed. Beyond mining the archive, White Oak commissioned new works by Yvonne Rainer, and involved community participation in works like Simone Forti’s Huddle and Steve Paxton’s Satisfying Lover. Works were tested against the conditions and expectations of a public that, in many cases, bought tickets to see Baryshnikov without looking in detail into what exactly was going to be performed.

This 2001 dialogue between dance historian Sally Banes and Rainer was produced to accompany one of these performances and serves as an excellent condensation of dance history, from before Judson through the 1970s, even referring to a Grand Union performance that took place in the same room at the Walker Art Center.1 Banes insistently focuses on the organizational aspects: how this new space of cultural work was built between and by people as they shifted out of traditional roles. Were the evenings curated, she asks? Who took responsibility, and how?

Echoing this concern with the power structure of cultural production and reception, there’s a wonderful moment in the beginning when Banes asks for the house lights to be turned back up so she and Rainer can see the public. It’s a gesture in line with the work they’re discussing, but also reminiscent of the later hardcore band Fugazi, who insisted on playing with the house lights on because they wanted to play to “people, not consumers.”2

Fred Dewey (with whom Simone Forti and I collaborated on a series of projects from 2009 to 2015) commented precisely on this aspect in noting that the recent MoMA exhibition’s title (The Work is Never Done) clipped Paxton’s quote in which the aspect of collaboration, self-organization, and even refuge—safe spaces for artists to practice mutual support—was explicit: “The work is never done. Sanctuary always needed.”3

1 Wendy Perron presents an excellent detailed account of Grand Union in Walker for Walker magazine here.

2 Ian MacKaye from Fugazi elaborates on that ethos at the end of this this video.

3 This quote was taken from a letter from Paxton to Danspace Project executive director and chief curator Judy Hussie-Taylor regarding the institution’s Judson Now platform, September–December 2012. Ana Janevski refers to it in her essay “Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done—Sanctuary Always Needed” in the MoMA exhibition catalogue.

April 19, 2019

Curated by

Jeremiah Day