DAVID MICHALEK: SlowDancing/TrioAby Vered Engelhard
DANSPACE PROJECT | JUNE 23 – JULY 1, 2017
“She said that she’s worked in a form which
always disappears as soon as it reveals
itself. She does not want to be observed as
fixed and final.”
—Yvonne Rainer, from The Lives of the Performers (1972)
Much has been said about Trio A ever since Yvonne Rainer choreographed it in 1966, and especially after Robert Alexander recorded her performing it in the 1978 film version produced by dance historian Sally Banes. This recorded version makes it the only 20th century Rainer performance available in its “completeness” and one of the few documented dances from the much-influential early work executed by the dancers associated with Judson Dance Theater.1 It would not be safe to assume that such documentation is the reason why this piece is so heavily talked about over the years, yet it is true that, because of the clarity and accessibility of the Trio A footage, younger generations of art writers historicize it at the core of the Judson oeuvre, placing Yvonne Rainer at its center. Moreover, Trio A has been performed in multiple iterations—by less and more than three performers—which have also been documented in photographs, like Gran Union’s 1970 performance for the People’s Flag Show, where they danced it wearing nothing but American flags, a gesture doubly illegal at the time (nudity and wearing American flags as clothing). Even the photographs are a cause of controversy, as Carrie Lambert-Beatty would suggest in 1999, the documentation makes the piece look “spectacular,”2 an adjective that marks the antithesis of what Rainer sought to achieve.3 Needless to say, the work has a particularly conflicted relationship to cameras, a relationship that David Michalek was brave enough to put to test in a wholly new light.
Michalek arrived at this challenge after his much successful celebratory work Slow Dancing (2007), in which solo dancers were portrayed in highly stylized slow motion performing their virtuosity. These portraits were projected in large scale at the Lincoln Center Plaza in 2007, and travelled around the world to different museums, effectively bringing the world of dance to a popular audience. In an attempt to stretch the limits of the slow motion portrait as his medium, and inspired by the Lambert-Beatty conundrum of cameras and spectacle, Michalek proposed to try this out with one of the most anti-spectacular dances ever. He filled Danspace in St. Marks Church (a historical landmark for the Judson generation) with a unique deconstruction of Trio A, one centered on its relationship to time.
Three large screens take up most of the space, placed to be viewed simultaneously. Each screen shows a single dancer, in their street clothes, performing a different section of Trio A against a non-stylized set with a white backdrop in slow motion—slowed down thirty-five times. The screens are located somewhat randomly in space and are not coordinated with each other; reminiscent of the time it was first performed as a trio. For every five minutes of the slowed-down version (seven seconds in the actual dance), the film cuts to the next dancer, following up the choreography from the same position left by the previous one. Appropriately, the cuts are made following a time frame rather than a phrase, for, as we know, Trio A barely has phrases. Throughout, and at a different pace, one can hear the sound of switching slides—photo documentations of the first iterations of Trio A, including the original performance by the trio of Rainer, Steve Paxton, and David Gordon in 1966 as well as the group Grand Union in 1970, both at Judson, which are presented as the first mediation of the dance, evoking the paradox of attempting to freeze movement in time. A microphone amplifies their sound, one after the other, as they mark their own passage of time, reminiscent of the sound in the original performance, the crash of slabs of wood being dropped. Facing these slides and the three-screen installation, lies a smaller two-screen video of Trio A danced as a solo. On the right is Rainer’s famous 1978 documentation, and on the left we see her almost 40 years later, in Michalek’s white backdrop, repeating the choreography again with slight adaptations (for instance, the handstand is eliminated for obvious reasons), in “real” time. Twice, long-time Rainer collaborator Pat Catterson steps into the frame; once to give Rainer a hand in order to hold balance as the choreography demands; and once repeating part of a movement after her.
While seeing Michalek’s three-screen video, I couldn’t help but occasionally glance at the smaller two-screen 1978 Rainer vis-à-vis the new 2017 Rainer iteration. I got an indescribable pleasure whenever the screens would coordinate, as I noticed more clearly the small changes and delays in the later version: slower drops, less bending on the knees, some modified gestures, and a somewhat untimely element, which I can only recognize as energy. While Rainer still keeps a near-even distribution of energy throughout Trio A, as per its original aim, the performance’s relationship to the impossibility of evenness changes over time. In that regard, one can say the slowed-down collective version is more successful in doing away with the human inputs of “rhythm,” “emphasis,” and “expressiveness,” which are made invisible at a glacial pace. What is most visible is the complexity of the movement combinations that comprise the choreography, which can be digested at the pace of an image. Simultaneously, we get a new affective dimension of the piece; while the dancers still never make eye contact, the slowness allows space for a haptic visuality, establishing a line of empathy with the audience. What is sacrificed is the “pedestrian” aspect of the piece, which many have referred to as its central concern. Yet this is perhaps proof that the fruitfulness of Trio A is due to the fact that it has no real central concern, that every iteration finds a new center for it: when duration changes, what is it about the movement that remains?
The formal complexity of Trio A corresponds to its emergence as a relentless re-evaluation of the aesthetic values of its time, in a choreography that would operate as a critique of dance’s internal logic as an art form as shaped by ballet. Some of the variations can be read as reconciliations with, or at least further stretching of, initial tensions that the piece originally proposed as negations. Rainer and Catterson have developed different versions over the years that repurpose the piece and find for it new potentials. For instance Trio A: Facing (1999) requires a dancer moving around the performer of the choreography, trying to maintain eye contact throughout; this revisits its parabolic relationship to empathy. Pat Catterson developed a Retrograde (1970) variation in which it is danced to the rock classic “River Deep Mountain High,” emphasizing even more the impossibility of maintaining an even pace as well as intuition’s pull towards rhythm. In Trio A: Geriatric While Talking (2010), Rainer performs it while speaking up the physical difficulties in realizing specific movements.
The paradox of the slowing down of the piece begins, as Emily Coates succinctly points out, in “the feeling that Yvonne’s aesthetic alters David’s art from within, even as he illuminates hers.”4 To this I would add the feeling that such “illumination” changes the whole quality of the movement itself, and therefore impregnates it with a different potential. Perhaps the slow motion’s own formal impulse to beautify has to do with the amount of information it is able to give us, as Michalek himself puts it: “Slow Dancing is a record of plentitude.”5 Slowing down Trio A demands from us sustained attention to the multiple details and unfamiliar juxtapositions of movement, of which the work is comprised. The slowed-down state allows us to know more about its choreographic richness by giving us the time to feel each gesture for longer. Michalek’s iteration is, in the spirit of Slow Dancing, a celebration of Trio A’s legacy, in bringing a community of veteran as well as younger dancers together. Moreover, this installation event shows that, as the choreography evolves over time, its mystery also grows.
- Judy Hussie Taylor’s introductory essay for Michalek’s program.
- Carrie Lambert-Beatty, “Moving Still: Mediating Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A.” October 89 (Summer), 87–112. 1999.
- Cf: Rainer, Yvonne. “A Quasi Survey of Some ‘Minimalist’ Tendencies in the Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity Midst the Plethora, or an Analysis of Trio A.” Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology. Ed, Gregory Battcock. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1995.
- Emily Coates’s essay published in the program, Creeping Trio A. A full version available at Issue 5 of Danspace’s online journal. www.danspaceproject.org/journal.
- Phone interview with David Michalek.
VERED ENGELHARD is an interdisciplinary practitioner currently getting an Art History MA from Columbia University.