SomeSuch Stories: Yvonne Rainer and Queering Failure
When a bout of depression was finally beginning to heal, I started to take jazz dance lessons. Living in Berlin — the city of Anita Berber and Kabarett — I hoped it might root me further into place. During the 1920s, that pyrrhic age between war and National Socialism, young Berliners were eager to dance their troubles away to unpredictable melodies. Perhaps I’d be able to do the same.
I had never studied dance before and I was objectively bad at it. I was uncoordinated, confusing left and right. I lacked grace, seemingly abandoned by the balance that ordinarily allowed me to reach a high shelf or tie my shoelaces. But the rigours of choreography at least forced form upon my body, and I enjoyed slugging my limbs into novel shapes. My cheery American teacher had a habit of reiterating how much fun we were having. “Isn’t this fun?” she would ask, as I smiled back weakly.
Susan Sontag described depression as “melancholy minus its charms — the animation, the fits.” Forcing some degree of animation, I assumed, would therefore jolt me into a more charming kind of sadness. At the very least, I liked the lightness that physical exhaustion left me with. It’s good, when you feel like that, to be reminded of your body.
Around the same time I started lessons, I watched some of Yvonne Rainer’s early films, made during the 1960s. Before turning to film, Rainer had made a life as a dancer, and as cofounder of the Judson Dance Theater she applied the same modernist experimentalism to dance that her peers John Cage applied to music and Robert Rauschenberg applied to painting. Rainer valued dance as a mode of enquiry, in which the hypothetical took precedent over skill. Her No Manifesto laid out the terms: “NO to spectacle … No to virtuosity … No to style … No to moving or being moved.” As a result, Rainer’s dance was strange and expressive and utterly unique.
By the late 1960s, however, her body had begun to let her down. She had developed a blockage in her bowels, followed by gangrene: a slow massacre creeping its way through her gut. Abscesses had to be drained. Invasive surgery was required. Despite just a 50% chance of survival from the ordeal, she eventually recovered, only for the problem to recur twice more. Over the course of several years, her body was repeatedly cut open, had parts removed, and was sewn back together. The pain was unbearable, and she became hooked on Demerol. Her body — once an object she could control without trouble — had become capricious, and no doctor could explain why.
It was after one surgery in 1965, hospitalised and bound to a bed, that she made her first film, Hand Movie. Filmed on 8mm, it featured Rainer’s right hand in close-up, upwards from the wrist. Over the course of five minutes, we see the fingers flex and curl, the muscles stretch under the skin. Fingertips rub against one another. It’s a minimal and protracted choreography that echoes the coolness of her full-body work. Her hand is a prosthetic for a damaged body. Each finger seems to be feeling its way around, figuring out how much it is capable of. Movements born from trauma, this hand does what the body is too weak to do.