A few days before we met at her apartment in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, Yvonne Rainer sent me a detailed logistical email. She described the stairs leading up to her place, and offered tips for navigating the subway station—which is set into a cliff up near the Cloisters—via elevator (“NOT through the tunnel”). This kind of access information is familiar to me from the disability community, where none of us wants to assume stairs are OK for everyone. I was pleased, but not surprised, to receive it from Rainer, in whose work disability and illness has played a significant, if subtle role. Known to most as a foremother of performance art and a cofounder of the Judson Dance Theater, her performances from the 1960s shattered hierarchies between everyday movements (walking, lugging) and virtuosic ones (grand jetés, fouetté turns). These days, she is coming into focus as a progenitor of disability art, through a series of dances that challenge the superiority of a normative body.
At 88, Rainer is touring a new dance, Hellzapoppin’: What about the bees?, that she is calling her last. It marks the end of a long impressive run: most dancers retire in their 30s. “I just don’t have any more choreographic ideas,” she told me. She went on to describe dancing Trio A in her 80s, when getting up off the ground had started to become more difficult, and wondering to herself, “Why isn’t this way of getting up just as good as the original?” She added, “Historically, what [dancers] are able to do in their continued body consciousness is not appreciated.”
Rainer is the daughter of two anarchist vegetarians who met in the 1920s at a San Francisco Bay Area raw food restaurant. They named their kids Yvonne and Ivan. Yvonne’s father introduced her to “art-house movies” in her teens. Her mother—the daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants who, according to Rainer’s 2006 memoir, Feelings Are Facts, “had working-class aspirations to … ‘the finer things’”—introduced her to ballet. Her parents, who were also landlords, sent both children into and out of “foster homes? orphanages? boarding schools? child depositories?—places to which we were sent” for reasons that remain mysterious.
Two traumatic experiences kept young Yvonne from continuing her ballet lessons. The first occurred when she was meant to walk herself to class from a Palo Alto group home, but got terribly lost along the way. The second occurred in class. All the girls were able to touch the backs of their heads with their toes except Yvonne. When the teacher lent an assist, she let out a mortifying fart. “I had a particular body that didn’t measure up to certain standards. So I had to create my own,” Rainer said in the 2015 documentary Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer, where she describes wanting to “make something out of this recalcitrant, undancerly body.”
Rainer began dancing “in earnest” at 24, as she puts it in Work (1961–73), a book of dance-related documents first published in 1974 and reissued by Primary Information in 2020. She moved to New York (after lasting only a week at the University of California, Berkeley), where she took three classes a day—two at the Martha Graham school, the other more traditional ballet—after asking her mother for some money to study (“not telling her that it was also for an abortion”). But that was the late ’50s; she reflected that “most dancers today can’t afford to take three classes a day.” In a dance composition class taught by Robert Dunn and inspired by the ideas of avant-garde composer John Cage, Rainer had what she described as her aha moment: “We were in a fifth-floor studio, and we would go to the window and watch what was going on in the street.” She observed people “stand and shift from foot to foot… or pick up things,” and started incorporating that into her work, deciding that “everything is a performance if someone is watching.” (Eventually, the world would catch up with her: theorist Judith Butler put forth the idea in 1990 that gender is always a performance, and not long later, social media made it obvious that we’re all always crafting performative personas.)
In the early ’60s, Rainer was hosting weekly workshops and critiques, with dancers as well as filmmakers and visual artists, in her studio. But the group soon grew too big, so they started gathering in Judson Memorial Church in the West Village. There, they expanded what their respective disciplines could be as they comingled with Fluxus artists—Rainer performed at Yoko Ono’s loft. The prevailing sentiment at the time was that dance is dance, theater is theater, and both fall under the umbrella of “performing arts.” At Judson, “performance art” was born, as figures like Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Trisha Brown, and Simone Forti intermingled.
In 1966 at Judson, Rainer premiered her magnum opus, or, as she modestly described it, “maybe one of the few things I’ll be remembered for.” Trio A is a 10-minute piece marked by squatting, crouching, and reaching. There’s no music, no climactic moment, and barely any flow. The dancer’s face does not emote. She does not make eye contact with the audience. Her clothes are ordinary. She does not leave the stage. Rainer reflected that she was saying no to “everything that I could think of that theatrical tradition was based on.”
Describing her dance movements literally strips them of their oddly mesmerizing effect. As dancer Lucinda Childs once recalled, “If you had said this girl is going to walk around and do this thing and talk, I would think you were kidding—or crazy. Instead, it was completely spellbinding.” When Rainer describes her movements from her own vantage, you start to get the point a bit more: often, they have everything to do with effort. She once called Trio A “a dance where you really have to lug your weight around.”
The intended effect of Trio A was not to entertain, but rather to make people think. Dancer Emily Coates has described it as the “quintessential example of choreography as theory.” Academics have responded to Trio A with copious writing on the political implications of boringness, the refusal of the spectacle, and the democratic effects of “de-skilling” dance. In her memoir, Rainer thanks scholars of her work for the ego boost, but warns that “if you’re interested in Plato, you’re reading the wrong book.” Rainer’s own writing is, like her dances, straightforward, unpretentious, often funny. In her 1964 “No Manifesto,” she says “No to spectacle. No to virtuosity…. No to moving or being moved.” But she complained to me that this essay has dogged her forever: “I never meant it as a rule of thumb to govern anything I did in the future,” she said. “But most writers bring it up immediately.”
Many artists who saw the original Trio A live were deeply affected by it. When Rainer danced the piece as part of The Mind is a Muscle in 1968, the young Conceptualist Adrian Piper was so impressed that she attended all three nights. But only later did Piper feel the piece’s full effect. “It wasn’t until I saw Yvonne perform Trio A separately at a later event that I even began to comprehend what I had witnessed in The Mind is a Muscle,” Piper said. That iteration included an audio recording of an intimate conversation between Rainer and Minimalist sculptor Robert Morris, who was Rainer’s partner at the time. That version, Piper continued, “draws all of the disparate activities happening onstage into mutual connection.” (Piper created her 1974 sound piece Stand-In #1: Rob (1974)—in which the artist argues about philosophy with her boyfriend, then nags him to take his vitamins—as “an homage to Yvonne, otherwise known as shameless plagiarism of her ideas.”)
Trio A has impacted a whole generation of artists who weren’t been born in time to see Rainer dance the original live. “There are some old-timers who are coming to dances and my films these days, but mainly, it’s a younger generation,” Rainer said. “I’m kind of amazed people are still with revving up the ’60s like it’s this seminal decade.” In 2017 Adam Pendleton made a 14-minute video titled Just Back From Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer. At a New York diner, Pendleton asks Rainer to read a script that mixes quotes from her own writing with those from the likes of Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. The diner scene, shot in black-and-white, is intercut with archival footage of Trio A. MIT art historian Caroline A. Jones wrote that the enigmatic video invokes Rainer’s “stature as the radical conscience of that mostly male and predominantly white movement [Minimalism].” Jones goes on to describe Pendleton as part of a new generation of artists confronting Minimalism’s legacy, adding that Rainer explicitly questions the movement’s “commitment to a (tacitly white, male, upper-class, hegemonic) universal body.”
Indeed, one important part of Rainer’s legacy involves teaching certain Minimalists how to dance. Art historian Rosalind Krauss discusses Rainer’s work at length in her influential Passages on Modern Sculpture (1981)—which is notable, since Rainer is not a sculptor. Still, through collaborations and with her work, she asked fellow artists to pay attention to the body and the way it moves around. One example Krauss cites is Robert Morris’s role in Rainer’s Parts of Some Sextets (1965)—a formative experience for an artist who would make sculptures that prompted viewers to walk around and navigate the gallery space. (Krauss would know, because she dated Morris after he and Rainer split.)
A FEW YEARS AGO, the independent curator Risa Puleo brought my attention to the fact that works like Convalescent Dance (1967) and Hand Movie (1966) are, effectively, works of disability art. In the former, Rainer adapted Trio A to a slower pace, while experiencing a period of illness. She had just gotten out of the hospital, but wanted to participate in an artist-led Vietnam War protest called Angry Arts Week. In an essay for Art Papers, Puleo argued that “pain and illness ebb and flow throughout Trio A’s history as Rainer healed and relapsed,” pointing also to the 2010 version, Trio A: Geriatric with Talking, where Rainer talked about “age-related inadequacies” as she danced.
Hand Movie, meanwhile,is a 6-minute choreography for one hand that she filmed from a hospital bed while recovering from abdominal surgery. She stretches and folds her fingers with trepidation, as if just waking up, then wiggles her middle finger up and down, with erotic repetition. I tried dancing along on YouTube, thinking the movements were simple enough, but was surprised by how tired my hand muscles quickly became. Rainer’s pieces reveal that dancing, like illness, results in knowing your own body intimately.
Her health issues progressed throughout the 1960s, so in the ’70s, Rainer decided to take a long hiatus from dance. She turned instead to film, in part because she wanted to address politics, which she found difficult to do in dance. “The kind of dancing I did was just references to dance history,” she told me, “but I wanted to deal with the environment and with current events.” I told her that, since the history of dance is so exclusionary and ableist, I considered her retorts political indeed.
Early on, her films were very dancerly, marked by tracking shots that followed bodies as they edged out of the frame. Increasingly, they became more narrative. A Film About a Woman Who (1974) explores her own unsatisfying heterosexual relationships under patriarchy and her subsequent rage. Few women had opportunities to make films at the time, and those who did, like Rainer, did so on shoestring budgets. This meant she had to enlist her own brother to shoot a scene in bed, where Rainer appears in a green sequined bra. She knew he was good at memorization, and figured he could learn the lines.
After Rainer won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 1990, she used the money to make a big-budget autobiographical film about coming out as a lesbian. Murder and Murder (1996) is a tragicomic feature about middle-aged lesbians, with lines drawn verbatim from Rainer’s diary and memoir. In an opening scene, one smiling woman tells another, “never in my wildest dreams, in my most far out fantasies, did I ever come close to imagining that one day I would be able to say, with the utmost conviction… I love eating pussy!”
Her joy is contagious, but as in most of Rainer’s films—all of which were recently restored by New York’s Metrograph theater—Murder and Murder gets at the awkward ways that politics chafe against everyday life. The women are liberated—or as Rainer puts it in the narration, “evolved”—but still bicker with one another over what to have for dinner. And, once again, matters of health enter the frame. When one nutritionally minded lesbian suggests dining on tempeh and kale, she explains that as “an ex-dancer and a survivor of multiple medical crises, I monitor my body like a piece of fine machinery.” Later, in a moving monologue, Rainer appears in a tuxedo sliced down the middle, her mastectomy exposed, and observes that “women don’t often murder each other … but there is murder and there is murder … murder by homophobia … by DDT …” A list of other societal factors goes on.
RAINER KNEW SHE WOULD NEVER again have the same kind of budget for film. Besides, she said, “I loved being alone in the editing room, but I didn’t enjoy the production process,” adding, “I’m a technical asshole.” Conveniently, one day in 1999, Mikhail Baryshnikov called her. (“I believe I said, ‘Who?’” she recalled, with a laugh.) Baryshnikov had recently stepped down from his post as artistic director of the American Ballet Theater, and he asked her to choreograph something for his new company, White Oak Dance. He was known for choreography with virtuosic leaps, but by then, he had compromised his knees, and had come to relate to Rainer’s work in a new way. She didn’t hesitate. “I’ve been making dances ever since!”
When she emerged back on the dance scene after a three-decade hiatus, museums were offering themselves as institutional homes for the performance art that had once been relegated to downtown lofts and church basements. In 2003 Tate Modern in London began a performance-focused initiative called “Live Culture,” and 2005 marked the launch of Performa, New York’s performance art biennial. That edition’s lynchpin was Marina Abramović’s weeklong series at the Guggenheim, “Seven Easy Pieces,” which “emphatically confirmed the incursion of performance into the space and logic of the ‘high art’ museum,” as art historian Amelia Jones put it in this magazine, “for better or for worse.”
Rainer confronted this changing landscape for performance art firsthand when she began working with MoMA to choreograph a response to Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy (1897). She identified the painting as her favorite in the museum’s collection when she first arrived in New York in 1956. It shows a Black woman resting supine in the desert below a full moon, a lion standing nearby. Sleep is a recurring theme in her own work, one that Rauschenberg commemorated in a 1965 combine, Sleep for Yvonne Rainer. Her original idea was to sleep in front of the painting, next to a stack of handouts.
But two curators warned that the piece felt too similar to Tilda Swinton’s 2013 MoMA intervention, The Maybe, for which the actress slept in a glass case on random days for all to see. When Rainer googled photos of Swinton, she found herself, as she wrote in Triple Canopy, “aghast at the blatant voyeurism of the onlookers who pressed their noses up against the glass cage that enclosed the glamorous celebrity.” Rainer’s ideas about pedestrian movement had gone mainstream, and paradoxically, become a kind of spectacle. Marina Abramović’s blockbuster 2010 MoMA exhibition, “The Artist Is Present,” for which she stared at length into the eyes of willing visitors, epitomizes this trajectory. When I asked Rainer what she thought of Abramović, she replied, “I respect her, but I’m not very interested in her work,” adding, “she has a whole different relationship to doing nothing.”
In recent years, Rainer has been reconstituting old works in addition to creating new ones. “There’s a whole generation who hasn’t seen” many of her pieces, she said. In 2019 she restaged her classic Parts of Some Sextets for Performa. The piece had never been filmed, so Rainer drew from stills and cryptic notes that say things like “pelvis whack,” “6 counts of romantic poses,” and “dead pose.” The choreography is meant for 10 dancers and 12 mattresses; the dancers—including Rauschenberg and Morris in the original, but Coates and artist Nick Mauss in 2019—lug around and lean on them. Rainer was drawn to the mattress for its “many connotations: death, sleep, illness, daily life, sex … whatever.” It is not, in fact, a sextet; Rainer just “liked the corny pun on sex.”
Rainer’s latest piece, Hellzapoppin’: What about the bees?, which debuted at New York Live Arts last October, grapples with the fate of being, as Rainer put it, a “permanent recovering racist.” It draws from a scene in a 1941 film with the same title, where “Black performers do this acrobatic Jitterbug.” Rainer said she “worked with dancers who range in age from 30 to 65 and couldn’t do what these dancers in their early 20s do.” She slowed down the film to study it closely, and used it as the “main source” for her choreography. The narration is by the sun god Apollo Musagète, who descends from Mount Olympus to observe the “rampant racial injustices” endemic to the United States. An unhelpful white lady interrupts to ask, “But what about the bees?!”
It’s a difficult work that has garnered mixed reviews. Here again, Rainer confronts the contradictions between political ideas and daily life, recalling in the soundtrack that even her anarchist parents kept Black housekeepers. “In this moment in our culture, people are often trying to get things right,” MoMA curator Thomas (T.) Jean Lax told me. “But Rainer remains committed to a deeper, or more challenging, set of artistic questions.” Anyway, she was never going to give her audience a grand finale.
When I asked her what she’s up to now, Rainer said, “I don’t know.” Then her dark eyes lit up as she described a Japanese detective series she was watching with her partner, Martha: they had two episodes left, and were hopefully about to get answers. She told me about a book she is reading, I Will Bear Witness, the diaries of a German Jew named Victor Klemperer, who was married to an Aryan during the Nazi era and thus spared deportation to the concentration camps. Throughout our conversation, Rainer never used the word “retiring”: for her, distinctions between what we think of as rest and what we think of as action remain irrelevant.