Yvonne Rainer and Queering Failure

by Siobhan Leddy

When my depression was finally beginning to heal, I started to take jazz dance lessons. Living in Berlin, the city of Anita Berber and Weimar Kabarett, I hoped it might root me further into place. During the 1920s, that pyrrhic age between war and National Socialism, eager young Berliners danced 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 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.” A degree of animation, I assumed, would 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 and Robert Rauschenberg applied to music and painting respectively. 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 needed to be drained. Invasive surgery was required. Despite just a 50% chance of survival, 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 with ease – 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 skin. Fingertips rub against one another. It’s a minimal and protracted choreography that echoes the coolness of her full-body work. The 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.

The film’s title, so Rainer says, was also a pun on a ‘hand job’. At first, the conceit seems ironic, even laughable. The titular hand, as art historian Carrie Lambert has pointed out, is neutral and sexless. A generic, tentative hand that’s as about as erotic as a smear test. But maybe we should consider its erotics as eros rather than libido. Hand Movie demonstrates an erotic drive towards survival, a creative life force. Rainer’s body may be failing, but there’s life in her yet.

This calls to mind Jack Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure, the 2011 book that locates failure as a queer and anticapitalist practice. In a heteronormative market economy, failure is a shadow logic in which “losers leave no records” and queerness yields no progeny. By ‘failure’, Halberstam does not mean ‘failing better’, the macho-corporate mantra of Silicon Valley’s denizens. For them, failure is simply a small and single component that shapes a larger narrative of success. A trendy origin story that you can later pitch to Forbes, or mention in an MBA graduation address. By contrast, failure as a queer art has no expectations. Things fall apart – bodies and minds falter. The perpetual failure to live up to expectations can, potentially, open up new modes of liberation. A damaged body, a failed body, is still a body. Even if, as Rainer describes it, that body is a “recalcitrant, undancerly body”.

In 1968, not long after Hand Movie, came Volleyball, another 8mm short. It goes like this: a volleyball rolls into frame, followed by two feet in trainers and white socks. Despite these signifiers of athleticism, the feet do not move, and the volleyball bounces uselessly against them. These ‘recalcitrant’ feet are uncooperative and lifeless – more so, in fact, than the ball, which gently rolls around to its own Newtonian agenda. When we cut to another angle, the same action repeats: ball rolls into shot, feet remain still. No matter how many attempts are made, improvement never comes. As viewers, we can expect the foot to kick the ball as much as we like, but it will never meet this expectation. The only outcome, again and again, is failure.

Although I saw an affinity between Rainer’s life and my own (she, too, had experienced depression, and had spent time in Berlin), I suspect that Rainer would dislike this kind of identification. These early works show, as Carrie Lambert has noted, Rainer’s interest in the body as an object rather than persona. The body is a thing to be moved, fleshy matter to lug around with you. Take Trio A, one of her only full choreographed dances to be captured on film. Her body parts are flung into shape, lifted as if a heavy burden, recalling Simone Weil’s words, in her essay ‘The Iliad, or The Poem of Force’, that violence turns anybody subjected to it into a thing.

In Rainer’s early films, the isolation of a body into parts – the hand in Hand Movie and the feet in Volleyball – further emphasises their ‘thingness’. We can never make eye contact, never identify with the abstracted version of a person in the frame. This was a deliberate move. She didn’t want the escapism of Hollywood films, the abandonment of the mind. She wanted the viewer to stay alert, unsettled.

Eventually, Rainer turned further away from dance, although she maintained an interest in movement, space and the body. She directed lengthier video projects that made greater use of narrative, albeit unconventionally, including Lives of Performers, Privilege, Film About a Woman Who and Journeys from Berlin/1971. Buoyed by feminist theory and the shifting social landscape, these films were more politically charged than her earlier work, presenting new explorations of pain, desire and subjectivity.

Much later in life, though, she returned to dancing. This was an unusual choice, in part because visibly ageing dancers are rare, but also because of the limitations ageing places on the body –movements are harder and smaller. Muscles aren’t as strong, joints are stiffer. This isn’t so much failure (how can anyone win when faced with time?) but it is often seen as such. Age is to be hidden away, obscured from view. This is why Rainer’s decision to return to dance, at the age of 75, is so extraordinary. As a septuagenarian, her body was so entirely different to the one she had in her twenties and thirties – the last time she’d danced.

For this return, she restaged a performance of Trio A, this time subtitled ‘Geriatric With Talking’. She described the work as the embodiment of her “philosophy of ageing in dance, namely, ‘Let it all hang out.’” Embracing a radical kind of honesty, Rainer wanted to show her failures to her audience through narration. As she danced, she spoke her difficulties, her failures, out loud, saying things like, “What you are just now witnessing is a state of extreme stage fright. I haven’t performed for a while,” or, “This move is supposed to be a slow rise of the leg, not a battement, but why can’t I get my leg up any higher than this anymore?” This isn’t meant to be inspirational, in the ‘octogenarian climbs Everest’ sort of way. Rainer isn’t defying her age but documenting it. The leg that won’t lift so high becomes part of the choreography, and the body’s failure is not a disappointment but a methodology. In the epigraph to Halberstam’s book, The Queer Art of Failure, Quentin Crisp neatly captures this mood: “If at first you don’t succeed, failure might be your style.” In Rainer words, failure becomes “a new form of avant-garde dance.” And this kind of imperfection, this delinquency, might well be movement we all need. 


This piece was originally published in Somesuch Stories Issue 4, which is available for purchase via AntenneBooks.



Photograph by Yvonne Rainer // Hand Movie (1966)

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