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Minimalist movement

Seeing the choreography of Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer will allow us to contemplate what role dance and the active, physical body played in Minimalism.

May 02, 2004|Sasha Anawalt | Special to The Times

Fresh winds. New people. New movement. New choreography."

Those were the opening lines of a review in March 1962 by Jill Johnston, who covered dance and art for New York's Village Voice from 1959 to 1968. Johnston was extremely personal, often describing the process of how she saw something and allowing herself, in the words of current Voice dance critic Deborah Jowitt, to be "devoured by art." This review alerted her readers to the revolutionary ideas blowing out of a composition course taught by Robert Dunn at choreographer Merce Cunningham's studio; and in it, Johnston expended most of her brainpower on the radical and eccentric choreography of Yvonne Rainer.

Rainer was Johnston's gateway into understanding the avant-garde in dance, and the critic held nothing back from her. The review continues with a description of Rainer's static and repetitious solo "Satie for Two." It "could be a deadly bore I'll admit," Johnston wrote in her appreciation, which she included in her 1971 book, "Marmalade Me," "but Miss Rainer is quite special and she is doing something in this dance that comes close to what Gertrude Stein was doing in her writing."

I picked up "Marmalade Me" again the other day after visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art's exhibition "A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958-1968." Going from room to room in this stupendous show -- with its deceptively simple works by Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Tony Smith, Anne Truitt and more -- you want to break the museum's rules and dance on the art, touch it, smell it, run and walk around and under it. The gallery space is integrated with the art, and the art becomes part of the space.

People, you notice, look better in these galleries. And you realize that curator Ann Goldstein has phrased and planned the exhibition like music, like dance. Seeing it, I wanted to find out more about what was going on in the dance world when these works were created, to reacquaint myself with the contributions of Dunn, Cunningham and John Cage and with the rambunctious beginnings of the Judson Dance Theater in lower Manhattan and of "happenings." I wondered about the choreographers' influence on the art and the artists' influence on choreographers, and the influences by composers on all of them.

And reading Johnston made me -- more than ever -- long to see Rainer's work from that time, along with that of her contemporaries.

Now, this turns out to be possible. The directors and curatorial educators at MOCA, the Getty, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, the CalArts REDCAT theater and Beyond Baroque, anticipating a renewed interest in Minimalism's past, have planned various events from this month through August focusing on the movement's builders. And no one is getting more play than Rainer, closely followed by a dancer who greatly influenced her, Simone Forti. The two, in fact, are collaborating on a dance program to be presented next Saturday and Sunday at the Getty Center.

'There was ground to be broken'

In 1960, Rainer was in her mid-20s. She had just finished three years of study with Martha Graham in New York and was about to start with Cunningham -- whose aesthetic was then perceived as elegant and even classical. In other words, she was poised for a well-oiled career on the modern dance concert stage. But then she took Dunn's composition workshop, met Forti in the same workshop and went on to share a studio loft with Forti and her then husband, the former Abstract Expressionist painter and soon-to-be Minimalist sculptor Robert Morris. And everything changed.

"One day in the studio loft," she recalled recently by phone from San Francisco, "Simone put pieces of paper on the floor and improvised disparate movement, picking up the paper and saying unrelated things like 'I think I am going to write a letter to Helen.' And I'll never forget it, because she brought down the superhuman, godlike endemic presence of the dancer that was all over the place in modern dance with Graham -- who had told me to be more 'regal' and even more athletic.

"I realized then that I wanted to have an argument with the pleasure of being looked at. I no longer wanted to exploit my gifts, my athleticism. I wanted to refuse them, to deny the audience the pleasure of a dancer's charisma and concentrate on putting everyday activity in a formal setting."

Rainer went on to make dances that she half-jokingly said "invented running." She shared many of her programs at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village with Steve Paxton, Lucinda Childs, Robert Rauschenberg, Fred Herko, Deborah Hay, Trisha Brown, David Gordon and Morris, among others. Five of her most talked-about pieces -- including "Trio A: Pressured," derived from her signature work "Trio A" (1966) -- will be restaged for next weekend's performances at the Getty.

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