Parts of Some Sextets, 1965/2019
Again? Now What?
In March 1965 the choreographer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer went to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, to premiere what she described as “a dance for ten people and twelve mattresses.” It was called Parts of Some Sextets. In the performance, she and nine other participants moved at thirty-second intervals through various combinations of thirty-one tasks, from sitting and resting to piling atop the mattresses like “human flies.” For the score, she taped herself reading excerpts from the recently republished diaries of William Bentley, a Salem pastor who recorded thousands of “daily occurrences” between 1784 and his death in 1819. “The dance ‘went nowhere,’ did not develop, progressed as though on a treadmill or like a 10-ton truck stuck on a hill,” Rainer wrote that winter in an essay that reappeared nine years later in Work 1961–73, an extensive anthology of photographs, diagrams, choreographic notations, event programs, and writings about her earlier dances, newly reissued by Primary Information after a long time out of print. “It shifts gears, groans, sweats, farts, but doesn’t move an inch.”
But as the dance went on it developed its own kind of coherence. For last year’s Performa Biennial, Rainer and her longtime collaborator Emily Coates restaged it for the first time in more than fifty years, using the surviving five eighths of the notation (a vast grid reproduced in Work 1961–73 of which the rest seems to have been lost), Peter Moore’s photographs of a 1965 performance, and a newly uncovered recording of Rainer’s original voice-over. They added an eleventh dancer and filled in the piece with new choreography but in other respects stayed close to the original staging. The dancers, as they had in 1965, stacked the heavy mattresses, crawled between them, leapt onto them, held hushed conversations around them. At various points they handled other props, too: a gear, ropes, a plush disc from a red wooden box. Thrumming under that chaotic movement was Rainer’s uninflected recital of anecdotes, rumors, and grim spectacles from Bentley’s Salem: the exhibition of an elephant; a solar eclipse; the public whipping of “some offenders”; the discovery, in a hollow tree, of two barrels of “swallows in a torpid state.”
Over the past sixty years, Rainer has made an art of bringing a deadpan comic tone to scenes of strenuous activity: bodily exertion, illness, political struggle, emotional strain, taxing dialectical thought. Throughout the pieces she choreographed for Judson Dance Theater, the influential collective she cofounded in 1962, the performers might dress in street clothes and run laps around the stage, like the participants in We Shall Run (1963), or caress one another while matter-of-factly acting out “an irregularly timed dialogue” of romantic clichés,…
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