American Dance Institute, Rockville, MD; April 25, 2014

Carmel Morgan

"Assisted Living - Good Sports 2",  Photo ©  Paula Court

“Assisted Living – Good Sports 2”
Photo © Paula Court

Rockville, Maryland’s American Dance Institute (“ADI”) is using its performance space to its advantage by programming edgy contemporary dance that is served well by the small theater’s intimacy.  Thanks to ADI, DC area audiences are able to see some of New York City’s cooler offerings without having to make a costly trip to New York.  This is certainly a win for DC area dance fans, and a win for the dance companies visiting DC, who are able to bring their works to a crowd hungry for the latest in postmodern dance.  And it’s a win for ADI, too, in many ways, one of the most important being the ability to expose young people to a wide range possibilities in dance and to thereby grow the next generation of dance students, choreographers, and patrons.

The April 25, 2014 performance of Yvonne Rainer’s company is a prime example of ADI’s success in programming top quality, exciting modern dance.  ADI didn’t just throw Rainer on the program.  There was an accompanying exhibit in the lobby, in partnership with the Dance Heritage Coalition, about the Judson Dance Theater, of which Rainer was a founder, with wonderful video footage and photos.  In some of the video footage, local dance icons spoke about the influence of Rainer and the Judson Dance Theater, linking Judson and postmodernism to Washington area dance teachers and choreographers.  In addition, Kate Mattingly, who is completing her doctoral degree in Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, led an informative pre-performance discussion.  With the opportunity to speak to Rainer and her dancers after the performance, accompanied by some wine and snacks, the evening was rewarding in every way.

Rainer’s company, the Raindears, consisting of five dancers, the youngest of whom is in her fourth decade, presented two of Rainer’s most recent works: “Assisted Living: Good Sports 2” from 2011, and “Assisted Living: Do You Have Any Money?” from 2013.  In 2000, Rainer stepped back into her choreographer shoes after 25 years making films and her latest pieces undoubtedly incorporate her role as a filmmaker.  She and her dancers talked, reciting long, often politically charged passages.  Yet it was not the use of narrative, but the multi-layered nature of Rainer’s composition that reminded me most of a film.

"Assisted Living - Good Sports 2" Photo © Paula Court

“Assisted Living – Good Sports 2”
Photo © Paula Court

Rainer’s work is meant to be experienced rather than merely seen.  Her dances challenged the audience.  When watching Rainer’s choreography, my mind was constantly engaged.  Her works demanded more than passive absorption, and I’m incredibly thankful for that.  Perhaps most surprising to me, Rainer’s choreography felt tangible in a way most dances do not.  Instead of being flat, her dances leapt out at you, begging to be contemplated.  They exhibited complex textures that invited you, on the one hand, to ponder social issues while, on the other hand, to enjoy the movement generated by aging bodies.  So rich was the experience that I’m certain I could watch the two works over and over and gain something new every time.

In “Assisted Living: Good Sports 2,” Rainer juxtaposed movement inspired by New York Times sports photos with philosophical readings.  The five dancers (four women – Pat Catterson, Emmanuele Phuon, Patricia Hoffbauer, and Emily Coates, and one man – Keith Sabado), in brightly colored sneakers and equally vivid casual attire, trotted around in a flock with their hands flopping in front of them, frequently halting to strike a pose.  The dancers’ faces twisted and distorted like clowns as they froze momentarily in various positions.  Like in a game of Simon Says, one dancer would yell, “toast” or “hug,” and members of the group would do as commanded in an exaggerated fashion.   Dancers later broke out from the traveling group.  One by one dancers sang a bit of song.  “All By Myself,” crooned one.  Scratchy old 78s provided the music.  At one point, a recording of “Yes, We Have No Bananas” played.

All the while, Rainer remained on stage.  She wore head to toe black, with a pair of glasses.  Sometimes she read aloud.  One of the recited passages told the story of a Korean TV crew.  A woman, according to the story, was treated as no more than a piece of furniture by a member of the crew.  Another passage addressed anti-Semitism.  Rainer watched attentively from the side or the back of the stage.  Two stagehands in black followed Rainer around the stage’s perimeter, carrying lighting, a wooden barrel, or a mattress and pillow.  Toward the end of the work, dancers piled in a zig-zag heap.  Each placed a head on another’s belly, and laughed out loud.  They laughed and laughed and laughed.  Rainer approached and pulled individuals from the pile, and they delivered very un-funny speeches.  From all of the elements assembled, Rainer asked weighty questions about oppression and apathy without directly asking them.

In the second work “Assisted Living: Do You Have Any Money?” Rainer again tackled social issues.  Unemployment and the high rate of imprisonment of African-American men in the United States featured prominently.  At the beginning of the work, Rainer, in a straw hat acting as a sideshow barker, enticed the audience to see “real live dancers” and to “smell their sweat.”  In jazz shoes, the dancers stood with their backs to the audience.  Their arms were locked, fingers grabbing elbows, behind them.  The group began to move in silence so that one could hear every scoot, swish, and stomp of their feet.  They danced in intricate steps, which Rainer explained after the performance were taken from old Laurel & Hardy routines.

Again, the dancers wore pedestrian clothing, and they took turns breaking out from the group to ask questions (“Are we in the right apartment?” someone asked) or deliver lengthy dialogue (one dancer spoke about Keynesian economics, another about the lesbian couple involved in the Supreme Court case that dealt with federal taxation and the Defense of Marriage Act).  I enjoyed seeing the fancy footwork repeated.  I especially enjoyed the balletic precision and tap-like rhythms the dancers produced as they changed facings and repeated their movement sequence.  I lost count, but a dancer called out the numbers of repetitions, and it reached at least eight.  In a humorous interlude, a tall man (not a trained dancer according to Rainer) with long curly hair, a coat, and a backpack, suddenly wandered onto the stage.  Rainer took his coat and bag, and he performed a recognizable excerpt of Rainer’s famous “Trio A,” and then walked off.  Rainer confessed that was an “inside joke.”  Amidst the surface jumble of movement and text, it added up to another invitation to think about injustice and our dependence on each other to make life bearable.

I truly appreciated the performance and was awed by seeing Rainer and her work.  How amazing to see Rainer, a bridge between modern and postmodern dance, creating new dances and putting forth new roots.  She made me feel that a lot of dance I’ve seen is a cheap imitation of ideas spawned by Judson Dance Theater.  I was humbled by getting a taste of the real thing! It’s easy to praise an artist who is able to be precious, clever, deep, and wry all at at once.