Feelings are Facts: A Life

Yvonne Rainer,
Feelings are Facts: A Life.
MIT Press, 2006.
ISBN: 0 262 18251 3
US$37.95 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by MIT Press)

Feelings are Facts gives all the usual indications of simply being an autobiography – in this case of choreographer-cum-filmmaker Yvonne Rainer – but that is not quite what it is, and for a couple of reasons. First of all because of its genesis: “I started this memoir because I was stumped, caught up short, at a loss” (xiii). What stopped Rainer in her tracks was her own intimate and vertiginous encounter with the events of September 11, 2001. Or, rather, it was the gulf between thought and action governing the political response to September 11 – the failure of thought and the leap into action – which she found to be paralysing and “an insoluble obstacle to creative rendering” (xiv). Rather than rushing headlong into this obstacle, Rainer instead took a backwards step, tracing “the development of an individual consciousness,” not because that consciousness is exemplary but because it is her own. Retracing the steps of her psychic and artistic life, Rainer both delays the confrontation with her insoluble obstacle, and immediately begins the long run up toward it.

The second reason this book is not quite an autobiography is because it does not set out to tell the tale from beginning to present. This is not so much because room is being left for a sequel than because Rainer wishes to tell a particular tale, the tale of the epoch of her existence leading up to her transformation to filmmaker. Thus the book really only covers half her life, only briefly discussing events after the early 1970s. If this still leaves us well short of September 11, the clarity of her presentation of the internal and external causes of her own becoming help the reader to grasp the pathologies and contradictions of this new, rapidly approaching, America.

This is, nevertheless, the story of one woman’s life. Yvonne Rainer was born in 1934 in San Francisco to an Italian father and a Jewish mother. A sense of her childhood milieu may be gained from observing that her parents met at a “raw food dining room,” and from the fact that from early childhood she commonly attended “Italian anarchist picnics and festas” (108). The biggest mystery of Rainer’s life, however, has always been to know why she and her brother (at the ages of four and seven, respectively) were sent by their parents to live at “Sunnyside,” an institution in Palo Alto. This Oliver-esque establishment, run along the lines of a prison, was Yvonne and Ivan’s home until 1941, when they were “released.”

This experience, and her disturbed family life, led Rainer to become, at sixteen, “chronically depressed” (74). Just before her eighteenth birthday she dropped out of Berkeley (after a week) and decided to move out of home (with financial help from her parents). It was the beginning of a long search for answers about herself and about the world. Critical to this search was her fall into the art world, and her burgeoning sexuality, both conducted in a way very particular to 1950s America, but also to a very particular part of 1950s America. Nevertheless, if her life and milieu were bohemian and avant-garde, this should not at all be thought to mean that, compared with ‘conventional’ America, art or sexuality were necessarily very ‘enlightened’ or ‘free’. The relation, as told by Rainer, will prove to be far more complex, if not indeed troubled.

In 1956 Rainer moved to New York to live with abstract expressionist painter Al Held. In the same year she began taking dance classes in an attempt to benefit her acting. Thus, remarkably, Rainer did not begin learning to dance until the age of 21 (apart from some lessons at age 5 or 6). She learned initially from Edith Stephen, but “would sometimes peek through the curtains and watch Merce Cunningham gliding around in the studio” (170). Despite her ‘long back’ and ‘short legs’, and the fact she was not very turned out, she persisted. In 1959 she enrolled at the Martha Graham School:

One day when Martha herself was teaching the class, she came over to me as I was struggling with a floor stretch and said “When you accept yourself as a woman, you will have turn-out.” Prophetic words. Neither condition has come to pass. (183)

And in a letter to her brother, also from 1959, Rainer asks herself what dance means to her. Her list includes that it is a “way out” of an emotional dilemma, an “almost indefinite postponement” of questions about purpose, aesthetics, and vocation, something to do daily, an identity based on hard work, and a way of life (180–1). Whether her lifelong “hard work” is a form of postponement, or rather the very work of life, is a question hanging over every phase of Rainer’s artistic evolution. Rainer relates these thoughts about dance to the psychotherapy she was already undergoing: when speaking about dance, she exposes her attitudes, which therapy then transforms, and which then changes her attitude to dance. This partition, but connection, between words and movement, will also figure throughout her life, and in particular in her transformation from choreographer to filmmaker.

What she learned from Cunningham was a love of ordinariness, and the emotionality of the body itself. Combined with influences from minimalism and abstract expressionism, Rainer haltingly but ambitiously embarked on a career as an experimental performer and choreographer. It was an artistic world both lively and aggressively masculine, in which her goals included bringing the god-like image of the dancer down to human scale, the destruction of the masterpiece, the democratisation of the relation between choreographer and dancer, and the renunciation of interiority and expressivity. It was, as Susan Sontag described it, an “adversarial culture.” An infamous moment of Rainer’s professional life was her “No manifesto”:

NO to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to the glamour and transcendence of the star image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved. (263–4)

Rainer denies the manifesto was meant to be prescriptive for all time for all choreographers, but it is difficult not to read Feelings are Facts as the painfully slow journey back to “moving or being moved.”

In 1966 Rainer began to suffer life-threatening abdominal problems, stemming from a childhood appendectomy. At the same time, the problems in her complex relationship to artist Robert Morris continued to deepen until, on October 15, 1971, Rainer made a serious and methodical suicide bid. This left her with two questions: how could she have failed to think of the hurt this would mean for others, and how could she have been so overtaken by the obsession to take her own life (376)? It does not seem farfetched to say that it was the attempt at responding to these questions that provoked the move from dance to cinema, even if there were always cinematic references in her kinematic choreographic works, and even if her films are undoubtedly in some way a continuation of those works.

Rainer accounts for the transformation by explaining that, given her new preoccupation with emotion, “dance was not as specific, meaning-wise, as language” (390). Guided by the unspoken thought that “feelings are facts,” she began the slow process of undoing much of the intellectual apparatus with which she had justified her previous work. Rainer recognised that much of what passed as experimental and avant-garde really was an indefinite postponement, that is, an evasion, specifically of moving and being moved, that is, of emotion:

While we aspired to the lofty and cerebral plane of a quotidian materiality, our unconscious life unraveled with an intensity and melodrama that inversely matched their absence in the boxes, beams, jogging, and standing still of our austere sculptural and choreographic creations. (391)

Rainer’s life comes across as a constant alternation of advance and delay, of running and standing still, of extreme fast-forward and even more extreme slow-mo, avoidance of movement, absence of movement, but then the most brutal passage to the act, even to the act of abandoning all care for others, for the world, and for herself. Where does all this leave her now? At the very beginning of her memoir, Rainer speaks of her hope that the book will offer a “détente” between the absolutist pronouncements of her youth and the “more measured perceptions” of her “imminent old age” (xv). Again, we see the contrast between a grand jeté and measured steps. Thus we are left, for example, with Privilege (USA, 1990), her beautifully subtle and human (which does not mean “humanistic”) film comprising “autobiographical fiction” and “unscholarly dissertation” (432).

Rainer says her demons have quieted down (436). And yet, at the age of 70, Rainer confesses that “I hate old people” – their slowness, their crankiness, their confusion and failing memories (440). She finds herself filled with inexplicable rage, and fury at a president incapable of rational thought, compassion or empathy, a president unconcerned with connecting thought with action, a president who relies on his gut instinct but who is too impatient or self-centred to develop any emotional feel, a president all too willing to leap into the passage to the act of war. In the movement from dancer to choreographer to filmmaker, it took Yvonne Rainer perhaps 25 years to learn how to walk slow, how to bring thought, action, and feeling into motion; it took her this long to perfect technique. But, however faltering and roundabout Rainer’s artistic journey may have been, she has, certainly, arrived at some kind of destination. And, with this most recent movement to autobiographer, Rainer has achieved one of her most felicitous compositions. But don’t expect her now to settle in to a comfortable old age or take up knitting. This is, no doubt, merely the prelude to the next unpredictable – but fascinating, and lively – step.

Daniel Ross,

Created on: Saturday, 9 June 2007

About the Author

Daniel Ross

About the Authors

Daniel Ross

Daniel Ross completed his doctorate on Heidegger and the political at Monash University. He is the author of Violent Democracy and co-director of The Ister (2004).View all posts by Daniel Ross →