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An Analysis of Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A, Survival through Repetition, Caroline Partamian

Posted on October 28, 2011

In watching re-performances of ballets and modern dance pieces, it occurred to me how simple it is for the viewer to detach themselves from the original performance, without losing sight of the original choreographer behind the concept of the incorporated movements. However, in viewing re-performance in the context of a museum, it is more difficult for the viewer to recognize that what they are seeing is not the original (perhaps because the museum is so intent on capturing the experience of the original performance). Does this stem from a fear of losing sight of the artist, which the museum has distinctly restricted to a label description?

Dance, as a practice, has room to grow and be reinterpreted, since the artist is the original choreographer and the reference from which future participants interpret a work. However, with performance art acquired by a museum, there is a set date, time, and author, and thereby a definite “original.” It is this ephemeral and momentous physicality of a performance that is given so much more lenience in the dance world, while the original concept is allowed to be sustained, and breathe.

In literature, much like in performance, as soon as a concept is written, it already becomes detached from its original idea, an idea expressed by Roland Barthes in his essay “The Death of the Author” (1977). Therefore, the physical incarnation of an idea cannot truly represent its conceptual counterpart. Our culture, he says, is “so tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism” equalizes the author to his failures, and it is then that the author becomes “the past of his own [work].” Perhaps it is this pressure of living up to one’s past work that can be applied to performance artists, resulting in little room to grow.

Yvonne Rainer (born San Francisco, 1934), credited with launching the post modern dance movement and helping start Judson Church and Dance Theater, has been able to escape this aforementioned artist’s fate. Her work poses a unique case study since it is fluid, and appreciated by, audiences both in the dance world and the art world. One of her most well known pieces, Trio A, was first performed in 1966 and received unenthusiastic and very poor reviews. On January 11, 1966, New York Times critic Clive Barnes reported “the evening was nothing but the exercise of puerile egocentric minds in the futile quest of shocking the already unshockable. Poor little darlings!” According to Barnes, the whole evening was a “TOTAL disaster…Correction: Total nothingness.”

Despite unimpressive reviews, Trio A has undergone numerous re-performances and transformations since its conceptual birth in 1965, but its importance as a piece of Yvonne Rainer’s has only solidified since. It has been performed in both traditional dance spaces and traditional art spaces, like museums. Trio A, specifically, proves true iteration and continued relevance through repeated, but varied, performances since 1966.

In 1965, Rainer began to work on Trio A, constructed originally as a solo. The piece itself consists of a series of movements that appear to be fluid from one motion to the next, without any climax or predictability as in traditional dance. Rainer’s purpose in creating the piece was in accord with her drive to break from any repetition she saw common in her previous work. After six months of preparation, she taught it to dancers David Gordon and Steve Paxton. The three of them performed it as work-in-progress THE MIND IS A MUSCLE, Part I for the first time officially on January 10, 11, and 12 of 1966 in a program at the Judson Church.

Since then, Trio A has been performed under numerous names by both dancers and non-dancers alike in a variety of spaces: the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, outdoors, the Museum of Modern Art, and more. Documentation of the piece is abundant, spanning critic reviews after its first performance, video interviews with Rainer, a 1978 video recording directed by Sally Banes, and more.

An example used in William A. Real’s “Toward Guidelines for Practice in the Preservation and Documentation of Technology-Based Installation Art” (2001) serves as a good metaphor for Trio A and performance in general. He mentions the reconstruction of the Japanese Shinto temple every 20 years, a practice that allows for the “essential characteristics” of the piece to be “understood and experienced by more people.” Real also makes the claim that “aside from documentation, ‘repeat performances’ of installations are perhaps the best guarantee for survival.” The abundant re-performances of Trio A over the course of its lifetime have served as the true documentation of this piece. Rainer, having taught Trio A to both dancers and non-dancers has broadened the number of persons who are able to experience the piece first hand, whether they are a performer or a viewer. Therefore, we can see how memory has played such an important part in carrying on Trio A’s legacy.

Applying the trajectory of Rainer’s Trio A to other pieces in the art world may help elucidate the trajectory of performance art we have seen in the museum context. For example, in acquiring Tino Sehgal’s The Kiss, MoMA was not allowed to have any written or photographic documentation or contractual agreement. Perhaps Sehgal is testing the importance of the drive of memory and experience from generation to generation. An artform can only truly survive by re-performing it, i.e., through repetition.

It is hard to imagine Trio A any other way. It’s trajectory as one of Rainer’s most important pieces would be so different had it been purchased by a museum, a fate that only seems unnatural. Expressed by Tate Modern curator of contemporary art Catherine Wood, Trio A can be considered an “editioned artwork ‘taught person-to-person’ as a kind of code. Although it has been captured on video and in numerous photographs, its real transmission has been as a form of a living archive.” Despite Rainer’s drive to avoid repetition in any movements within Trio A, it is through re-performance that the piece has been able to remain relevant and reinvented from one generation to the next. Trio A has forever been, and will continue to be, a “work-in-progress.”

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