Arts & Culture

Scholar asks: ‘How can we know the spectator from the dance?’

5 min read

When Yvonne Rainer and her fellow dancers took to the stage in the early 1960s, their performances were like nothing American audiences had ever seen. First, there were no costumes. Performers wore T-shirts, casual pants, and sneakers. In place of elaborate leaps and twirls, the dancers engaged in everyday movements like running, climbing, and even falling. And there was little to no emotional drama. The focus was on the body: unadorned, physical, and pure. Rainer — choreographer, dancer, and visionary — had sparked a revolution.

To date, much of the scholarship on Rainer has addressed the ways in which she transformed the performing body and democratized dance. Along with her fellow choreographers at New York’s Judson Dance Theatre, she has been celebrated for replacing the body’s “star status” with the delights of the quotidian.

Carrie Lambert-Beatty, assistant professor of history of art and architecture and of visual and environmental studies, offers a new theory on Rainer’s contributions to modern art. Her most dramatic influence, Lambert-Beatty argues, was not in the body of the performer but in the eye of the viewer.

“Rainer worked to alter the relationship between the viewer and the performer,” Lambert-Beatty says. “She was a sculptor of spectatorship who grappled with and problematized the notion of the body as a thing to be viewed.”

Lambert explores Rainer’s work with spectatorship and the perception of dancing bodies in her recent book, titled “Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s” (MIT Press). Central to Lambert-Beatty’s argument is the notion of what she calls “seeing difficulties,” or the challenges of watching. In dance, the primary challenge is produced by the simple fact of performance’s ephemeral nature. Lambert-Beatty borrowed the term from Rainer herself, who famously proclaimed, “Dance is hard to see.”

According to Lambert-Beatty, choreographers can play with the “seeing difficulty” to make it either harder, or easier, to see the dance. Rainer actively worked through and around the practices of spectatorship, Lambert-Beatty says.

In Rainer’s early works, says Lambert-Beatty, she tried to make it “easier” for the spectator to see in a range of ways: for example, by using repetition or a follow-the-leader structure so the viewer had many opportunities to see a particular dance phrase. Later in her career, however, Rainer made it more “difficult” for the audience to see by creating dances with little to no repetition. In “Trio A,” one of her most famous works, the dancers do not repeat a single move.

“It’s very difficult to get your bearings as you watch this dance,” Lambert-Beatty says. “There is just movement after movement. … You never feel like you’ve seen it all.”

Rainer’s efforts to modify the viewing experience reflected contemporary cultural developments, says Lambert-Beatty.

“In the 1960s, artists were reckoning with the transformation that had occurred with the rise of TV,” she says. “As media coverage of the Vietnam War intensified, this reckoning got a kind of urgency. I think that consciously or not, artists who worked with displaying a body to a viewer were heavily impacted by the televisual experience of the war.”

As an example, Lambert-Beatty cites a strategy that Rainer developed in 1968 called “performance concurrence.” Rainer would choreograph multiple dances to take place in different locations at the same time. Performance attendees would receive a map of room locations and a schedule, not unlike a TV guide. Because the dances were concurrent, attendees had to make a conscious decision about what to watch.

“Rainer set up the condition where the viewer would be aware that something is going on that he or she is not actually seeing,” says Lambert-Beatty. “This was an artistic ‘working through’ of life in a media culture.”

Rainer also incorporated media culture in a more direct sense. She often projected films during her dances, or had performers imitate positions from photographs or actions from movies.

“Being Watched” traces Rainer’s treatment of the spectator from her earliest, minimalist works to the politically charged productions she created in the 1970s. Writing about spectatorship was challenging, Lambert-Beatty acknowledges, but she was able to draw on a rich body of source material to inform her scholarship.

“With dance, the performance itself is gone,” she says. “I was considering artwork that by its very nature no longer exists. So, I had to rely on traces like any performance historian.”

Lambert-Beatty drew on photographs, performance films, and interviews with individuals who had seen Rainer’s works performed live. She was also able to watch reconstructions of certain performances.

The most helpful information, however, came straight from Rainer herself. In 1997, Lambert-Beatty was a fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program in New York. She was interested in performance art of the 1960s, and had plans to write about several artists from that era — including Yvonne Rainer, who teaches regularly at the program. The pair met frequently during Lambert-Beatty’s fellowship.

“It was wonderful,” says Lambert-Beatty. “I was able to make appointments to sit down with Rainer and discuss her work at length. I came away feeling that there was so much to say.”

Those long conversations altered Lambert-Beatty’s plans a bit. The other artists would have to wait — Rainer’s groundbreaking approach to spectatorship begged its own book. The result? “Being Watched.”