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My Seven Seconds of Anyone-Can-Do-It (but Not Really) Dance

In the same vein, but with a much different subject, he was planning to slow down “Trio A,” a work defined by its anti-virtuosity and refusal of the spectator. (Even when facing front, the dancer never looks directly at the audience.) Each seven-second phrase, recorded at 1,000 frames per second, would stretch to about five minutes in the final work, an installation that opens at Danspace Project on Friday, June 23. The shoot would take place over four days in December at Baryshnikov Arts Center.


Watch Yvonne Rainer in ‘Trio A (Geriatric Version)’

Ms. Rainer performs her own work.

By DAVID MICHALEK on Publish Date June 16, 2017.


I accepted the invitation right away, still half-expecting to find out it wasn’t intended for me. I danced for 20 years, nine on-and-off professionally, but had been on an indefinite hiatus for nearly three. I was taking dance class occasionally but had stopped performing altogether. I didn’t quite consider myself a “former dancer” — that felt too conclusive — but I was on my way.

Hence my delight at this message from Ms. Rainer. In 2015, while writing about her latest piece — at 82, she’s still making and performing in new work — I learned parts of “Trio A” at a workshop taught by her and Emily Coates (a member of her company, the Raindears). I never imagined, though, that I would dance it in a context other than a class or my living room. Or that I would be part of a cast including Jodi Melnick, David Thomson, Richard Move and so many other performers I admire — even for just seven seconds.

Yet seven seconds of “Trio A” isn’t nothing. Created at a time when Ms. Rainer, a founder of the renegade collective Judson Dance Theater, was throwing open definitions of who could be a dancer and what constituted dance, the piece is often described as “pedestrian.” You don’t have to be a trained dancer to learn it. But as much as it incorporates everyday movement — running, skipping — it’s also loaded with detail and with awkward juxtapositions, like tapping one toe in a semicircle, from front to back, as the torso slouches and straightens. (Try it.)


Watch ‘Slow Dancing/Trio A’

Ms. Rainer’s performance, in slow motion.

By DAVID MICHALEK on Publish Date June 16, 2017.


And while there’s little continuity to the steps — one doesn’t flow naturally into the next, and no movement repeats — they’re meant to be danced with an even, uninterrupted energy. Ideally the dancer imbues each moment — be it the part that looks like winding up for a pitch or the half-somersault known informally as the turtle — with the same amount of effort, or appears to. Balancing this relaxed evenness with precision is, to me, the work’s greatest challenge and contradiction.

“Trio A,” originally “The Mind is a Muscle, Part 1,” was first danced by Ms. Rainer, Steve Paxton and David Gordon at Judson Memorial Church: the same choreography done concurrently by three people, each moving at his or her own pace. (While it was initially accompanied by the crash of wooden slats dropping from the church balcony, Ms. Rainer decided in 1968 to lose the soundtrack, and it’s now danced in silence.) At an early rehearsal, she recalls in her book “Work 1961-73,” Mr. Gordon was doing something that “looked strange.”

“I asked him what kind of imagery he was using,” she writes. “He said ‘I’m thinking of myself as a faun.’ I said ‘Try thinking of yourself as a barrel.’”


The ballerina Wendy Whelan, on performing seven seconds of Ms. Rainer’s “Trio A” for a film by David Michalek, “I wish I had a whole day to practice.”

Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

I didn’t receive that particular note on the set of “Slow Dancing/Trio A,” though the more I think about it, the more on-point it seems, encapsulating Ms. Rainer’s rejection, at the time, of the mythic and spectacular in favor of the utilitarian and everyday. I did, however, receive other illuminating pointers from Pat Catterson — Ms. Rainer’s rehearsal assistant and a member of her company — whose clarity in teaching assuaged my fear that I, in my lapsed-dancer state, was underprepared.

Ms. Catterson had sent notes to the cast in advance, reminders about the overall movement quality. For instance: “If you were picking up your backpack and carrying it across the room and putting it down, you would use just the energy it takes to do it. It is the same with this dance.”

I had hoped to practice my seven seconds at home, but Ms. Catterson didn’t assign our phrases until we arrived at the shoot, perhaps hoping to deter us from overthinking or rehearsing incorrectly on our own. I was relieved to find out that mine was one I remembered, at least vaguely, from the 2015 workshop, so I wasn’t starting from scratch.


Siobhan Burke on the set of “Slow Dancing/Trio A” at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in December.

Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

After warming up and choosing what to wear with the wardrobe supervisor (we were asked to bring our own “pedestrian street clothes”), I met with Ms. Catterson outside the studio where filming was underway. She walked me through my phrase, stressing that I should finish each “event” — the coordinated sweeping back of a leg and both arms, or the flicking up of the palms while jumping forward onto one foot — before starting the next. No slurring together of movements or, on the other hand, accenting anything too sharply.

The filming itself went quickly — too quickly. After three or so takes, with Mr. Michalek counting aloud to seven each time, I felt I hadn’t quite nailed it. But Ms. Rainer, sitting beside him and checking the results onscreen, approved.

I wasn’t the only one craving more time. “I wish I had a whole day to practice,” said Ms. Whelan, the former New York City Ballet principal, who happened to be right before me in the lineup. (My section picked up where hers left off, putting me in the position of literally filling in for Wendy Whelan, a first for me, and probably a last.)

With my part out of the way, I watched others do theirs: Patricia Hoffbauer, Patrick Gallagher — and then, in an unexpected appearance, Ms. Rainer herself. With a few assists from Ms. Catterson, she danced “Trio A” from start to finish, grumbling through some parts and breezing through others.

Ms. Rainer left dance-making for filmmaking in the 1970s and, since returning in 2000, has been a regular presence onstage, in her own work and beyond. The rules that she rejected in the ’60s persist in some spheres of the dance world, but she keeps giving us permission: to be who we are, to change, to leave and come back.

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