- Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s
In 1999, when dance scholar Ramsey Burt lead a seminar on the 1960s at New York University—the same season that Yvonne Rainer returned to dance with a performance of Trio A Pressured at Judson Memorial Church—the project for many of us in the room lay in trying to match the historical narrative of the period with the material evidence of the newly reconstructed work itself. When the dancer/choreographer Douglas Dunn visited the class to talk about performing Trio A and other iconic works from the time, his own recollection of the period as perhaps less politically engaged than historical accounts have argued boosted the sense of a gap between the actions of Judson Dance Theater—danced and otherwise—and the veils of hindsight.
With the publication of Carrie Lambert-Beatty's Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s that gap is bridged. Lambert-Beatty's book is at once a rigorous archival investigation and a remarkable critical analysis of Rainer's oeuvre as a sustained theorization of spectatorship. While dance scholars are no doubt familiar with this thread of Rainer's work—Trio A and her often referenced "No" manifesto from 1965 spring to mind for many—what's new is the attention given by Lambert-Beatty (using the tools of visual theory, art history, and a number of newly accessible archives) to Rainer's ambiguous relation to the body in action and in representation, and to the politics therein (Rainer 1974:51).
Taking off from Rainer's much-quoted phrase, "Dance is hard to see," Lambert-Beatty gives precedence to an understanding of the artist's work as shaped by the cultural anxieties of the period, including the war in Vietnam and the rise of mass media. Reading with and against "the mass media that are always in the background of the work Rainer was involved in, shaping [End Page 227] habits of spectatorship, conditioning our seeing of bodies offered to view," the author finds in Rainer's work a more persistent concern with audiences and the political discourse around watching than other accounts have allowed (xiv).
The first three chapters examine instances of "sculpting" the viewing process for dance in ways surprising and riveting. In "Judson Dance Theater in Hindsight," Lambert-Beatty grapples with the burden of history as scholars have inherited it and as the dancers of the time experienced the problem: to make dance, at a moment when bodily presence and liveness were being challenged in unprecedented ways by the rise of mediated imagery. She writes, "these artists had to dramatize and make problematic, to present and represent, the relation of artist and viewer, and this urge makes historical sense in relation to the increasing omnipresence of media in the cultural surround" (71).
With subsequent chapters "Sections and Chunks: Serial Time" and "Mediating Trio A," the author takes up ordinary movement as a particular handling of time and attention, noting the stop-start or fractured aspect of many dances from this period. Following Barthes's discussion of how photography commits the whole to the surface of the image (see Barthes 1977), Lambert-Beatty reads the continuous flow of movement in Trio A as "one continuous photogenic moment" (164) and she identifies a photographic dimension in Judson work that is simultaneously pictorially quotational, indexical, and infinitely reproducible. "Other Solutions," a study of Rainer's five short films from the decade, carefully takes up the problem of object/ subject confusion as it played out in her work and, by implication, in dance more broadly. For Lambert-Beatty, Rainer's object-like treatment of bodies invites audiences "to see that human beings could be treated like things, but to see it 'oddly'" (198). A final chapter, "Performance Demonstration," examines Rainer's lesser-known overtly political works—including WAR (1970) and Street Action (1970)—and offers a vision of "political art" as the forced acknowledgement for spectators of the distance and disparity between performance happening in theatrical space and live events unfolding in geographic location...