Back in the early 1970s, Yvonne Rainer was in the midst of a transition from postmodern dance maker to experimental film auteur. She still had all kinds of ideas for new dances, but she would jokingly send them to her friend, the choreographer Trisha Brown, instead of realizing them herself.
“Movement was not coming out of my body the way it once had,” she recalls. “At that time, I was feeling the limitations of choreography, whereas film opened up a whole new set of possibilities.” Rainer fully reinvented herself by 1975 as the avant-garde feminist filmmaker of “Lives of Performers” (1972) and “Film About a Woman Who . . .” (1974), spending the next 25 years creating cinematic works that embodied the “personal is political” ethos, exploring gender, identity and human relationships.
It has only been in the last decade, after a request from a stellar admirer, that Rainer returned to dance, and now, at age 74, she finds herself firmly in the throes of her first artistic love. “I’ve come back to the body as the main element of my work. Once a dancer, always a dancer, I suppose,” says Rainer.
Since her return in 2000, Rainer has created four works that demonstrate her evolution as an artist yet reflect her past as the dance radical who pioneered the use of pedestrian and task-based movement and whose famous 1965 “No Manifesto” bluntly articulated her minimalist aesthetic.
Two of those recent dances, Rainer’s 2007 “RoS Indexical” and last year’s “Spiraling Down,” will receive West Coast premieres this week in a co-presentation by REDCAT, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Research Institute.
“Yvonne has both tied herself to her history and gone off in a new direction,” says Andrew Perchuk, deputy director of the Getty Research Institute, which co-commissioned “Spiraling Down” with Yale University’s World Performance Project. “I think that anyone who knows her old dance vocabulary can see she’s come up with a new, exciting idiom.”
Rainer could spend hours experimenting with movement using her own body in the 1960s, but today she mostly generates material from other sources. She also has formed something of a multi-generational dance company, working with the same quartet of female dancers ranging in age from their mid-30s to early 60s.
“Since my body has changed, I’ll put on a video for my dancers and say, ‘Learn that,’ ” says Rainer, speaking by phone from her New York City loft, where she lives when not teaching at UC Irvine. “Every now and then a phrase comes out of me, but it’s mostly about organizing bits and pieces of material from things like video or photographs.”
Rainer watched a variety of videotaped performances to create “RoS Indexical,” for example, which reenvisions the infamous 1913 premiere of “Rite of Spring,” the ballet composed by Igor Stravinsky and choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky that literally caused an audience riot. Set to the soundtrack of a BBC docudrama, “Riot at the Rite” (2006), the dance both riffs off Millicent Hodson’s choreography for the program, performed by the Finnish National Ballet, and draws from such sources as performances by Groucho Marx, Sarah Bernhardt and Robin Williams.
“I was trying to invoke the sense of scandal that colored the premiere in Paris and also tried to create something new out of these disparate materials,” says Rainer, who admits to having a slapstick side and thinks Robin Williams is a “kinetic genius.”
Rainer’s newest work, “Spiraling Down,” meanders thematically, featuring subject matter about aging, technology and soccer. Rainer studied the moves of players such as Pelé to create “indeterminate sequences” of set movements that her dancers perform according to the timing of their choosing. There are also steps inspired by ballroom dancing and “a Luddite section,” where the dancers object to technology such as Facebook and automated war.
With plans for a fifth dance that will involve sports photographs and an antiwar theme, Rainer observes that this latest chapter of her career feels exactly “like coming home. I have always loved working with dancers and as soon as I’m around dancers, the ideas start to flow. Actors, I always found a bit of a mystery,” she says. No longer a young choreographer, Rainer today perceives “dance as mortality” and has deliberately chosen to collaborate with a group of older dancers who span four decades, possess varying movement abilities and are more than happy to tackle subject matter about aging.
The dancers -- Pat Catterson, Sally Silvers, Patricia Hoffbauer and Emily Coates -- are also established choreographers and teachers with their own distinct sensibilities.
“It’s our differences that keep Yvonne interested in us and why we keep returning to work with her,” says Coates, a former New York City Ballet dancer, who at 35 is the youngest member of the troupe.
Catterson, the group’s oldest dancer at 63, first met Rainer in 1969 and “is still amazed at how it’s all come full circle,” she says. “For me, the experience of being a dancer in Yvonne’s works has been incredibly liberating and connects me to when I was young and when Yvonne first had a huge impact on my life.”
Catterson helped Rainer ransack old notebooks, photographs and memories after she found herself unable to say “no” to Mikhail Baryshnikov, who asked her to create a piece for his White Oak Dance Project. The result was “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan,” which featured new arrangements of old work and propelled Rainer back into the dance world in 2000.
“It was a proposition I couldn’t refuse,” says Rainer, chuckling. “And it all went from there.”
Rainer observes that although the world may have changed since “we were all young at Judson,” she continues to feel connected “to the tradition of the avant-garde and to ruptures with tradition. But I don’t think I try to shock so much these days, since that’s pretty hard to do. In my salad days, I could come out onstage with my face painted black and that would shock people.”
At this stage, Rainer feels most inspired by what she calls “moments of surprise. By working with such a diverse group of dancers, I’m more likely to encounter these moments,” she says. “When I find them, I grab them.”