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The Ambulatory Aesthetics of Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A
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It is an exceptionally good time for Judson Dance Theatre, at least if measured by institutional success. Just over a half century after their original concert in 1962, Judson is enjoying an unexpected resurgence of interest from the dance community and art world. In recent years, Trisha Brown’s dancers have scaled the walls at the Whitney, Steve Paxton’s people have occupied the Pompidou, and audiences have applauded Trio A at MoMA, which closely coincided with Yvonne Rainer’s heralded return to choreography after a forty-year absence. However, before embracing this newfound enthusiasm, it is important to ask why these institutions have suddenly become so interested in dance, especially in the particular historical episode associated with Judson. Does it have something to do with the commodified status of the art object, perhaps a longing for the project of dematerialization undertaken during the 1960s? Could this interest relate to the precarious position of the avant-garde’s oppositional strategies, which have been appropriated by mainstream culture and validated by the official narrative of art history?

Furthermore, it is difficult to predict the results of displacing these dances from their original context and into the museum. What happens when Rainer restages Trio A in MoMA, which is devoted to the historical preservation of modern art? Is this performance of Trio A actually a reproduction of the original dance? If a reproduction, is such a performance still “live”? If nothing else, this wave of revivals will have the inadvertent effect of reinforcing the canonical history of Judson. In fact, it is possible to imagine the literal writing on the wall presented to museum visitors in a gallery. It would likely state that the neutral, work-like style of Trio A reflects the use of pedestrian movements like walking as championed by Judson Dance Theatre, whose members sought to contest established conventions of dance, especially the expressive value of virtuosic movement. Judson, one might read, thus made dance available to anyone and everyone, regardless of skill or knowledge.

Of course, as dance scholars have demonstrated, no movement is neutral or equally accessible to all, even the ordinary act of walking. Using perspectives drawn from art history, cinema studies, and everyday life theory, this essay conducts a close reading of Trio A in order to challenge perceptions of its neutrality and expand the prevailing understanding of pedestrian movement and walking in dance. This reading has immediate consequences for dance history. It proposes a new account of the role of Trio A in Rainer’s career and brings renewed attention to its specificity of movement and innovative choreographic structure, which develops a special mode of motion that I liken to the passing of footsteps and have thus named ambulatory performance. Subsequent analysis of this special mode of motion addresses broader conceptual concerns for dance, including the contentious relationship between live performance and mechanical mediation, the status of the body as a “medium,” and the persistence of artistic practices pioneered by the historical avant-garde, especially as pertains to Judson Dance Theatre. As an alternative to the artistic strategies employed by Judson, my reading of Trio A examines its choreography in order to articulate a new set of practices and priorities that may be applied to this unusual dance and other works in the field of performance.

Admittedly, Trio A is not the most evident choice for a new theory of walking in performance. After all, it does not use the literal act of walking, unlike works by Judson such as Trisha Brown’s Walking on the Wall (1971), Rainer’s We Shall Run (1963), or Steve Paxton’s Satisfyin Lover (1967), which exclusively consisted of dancers strolling across the stage. According to the “classical” history of Judson, Paxton used walking in Satisfyin Lover to contest conventions of traditional dance, including the primacy of individual authorship, the expressive purpose of movement, and the hierarchical values embedded in the structure of choreography. Like Rainer, who acknowledged the influence of Paxton’s 1962 dance Transit on Trio A, walking provided Paxton with a model that neutralized these values and made dance available to amateur performers, thus affirming “the importance of the ordinary” as argued by Sally Banes...

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