Yvonne Rainer

b. 1934, San Francisco, California, USA

articles in Senses
web resources

My films always were meant to confound in a certain way.

— Yvonne Rainer (1)

Dancer, choreographer, performer, filmmaker and writer Yvonne Rainer, who began choreographing in 1961 and made her first film in 1967, is a key figure in the story of the New York avant-garde in terms of both her writing and practice. (2) Rainer provided a commentary on the influences that preceded her own aesthetic objectives and articulated her own project through practice and explicatory discourse, establishing her position as a key player within the New York avant-garde from the early 1960s through to the mid-1990s. During this period she produced twelve films, including silent short works for multimedia performances (which she calls “filmed choreographic exercises”) (3) as well as features. According to Rainer, her fascination with dance and film emerged simultaneously when she moved on from acting at 25 (p. 51). She is certainly a choreographer who had as many film reference points as choreographic, evidenced in the use of projection in her stage work and her erudite use of cinematic quotation in her film work. (4) What links Rainer’s dance and film work is an intense critique of disciplinary conventions and a profound interrogation of the role of performance. Performance is central to all aspects of Rainer’s work; she herself refers to performance as the subject matter in her films (p. 8) and Peggy Phelan describes her writings as “rhetorical performances”. (5)

Rainer’s parents were migrants, her mother Polish-Jewish (“a potential stage mother”) and her father Italian (“an anarchist and a house painter”), who settled in San Francisco. Rainer describes herself as a shy child who liked to read and her childhood as “depressed”. (6) At around 15 she started attending socialist-anarchist meetings with her brother where she made friends with some visiting New Yorkers. At 20 Rainer “fell into” acting school at the Theater Arts Colony in San Francisco, but after some frustrations there she moved to New York with a painter, Al Held. There she became involved in the visual arts scene and continued acting classes, now at the Herbert Berghof school where she was told she was “too intellectual” (pp. 49–50). Rainer started full-time training at the Martha Graham School at 25 and danced full-time with the support of her parents, spending her spare time at the Museum of Modern Art watching film classics. She moved on to Merce Cunningham’s classes and then became part of an informal collective meeting in the Cunningham studios who would work together and perform for each other.

Rainer became a central figure in the American postmodern dance movement, specifically the New York activity surrounding the venue, Judson Church. Following Merce Cunningham’s lead, Judson Dance Theatre was inclusive of artists working in other disciplines. Filmmaking was particularly predominant at Judson Dance Theatre events and Sally Banes describes this area as a “key outgrowth” of the group. (7) A film work, by regular contributor Elaine Summers and others, opened the very first Judson performance and within the series there were other screenings including Brian De Palma’s 1963 film, Wotan’s Wake (which parodies Maya Deren among other things). (8) Peter Wollen and Vicky Allan have written that experimental filmmakers have always been “interested in analogies between dance and film as kinetic and time-based art forms”, (9) and in the case of the ’60s and ’70s, choreographic and film/video strategies can be discussed as concomitant with the two disciplines informing and elaborating on each other. Along with De Palma, other filmmakers such as Charles Atlas, Shirley Clarke, Amy Greenfield, Doris Chase and Hilary Harris worked with dance and dancers. (10) Rainer ultimately states, however, that her influences were from outside the experimental film scene; that she was familiar with the work of Maya Deren and filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger, but “the ideas didn’t really turn me on the way that [John] Cage’s ideas in music and ’60s art practices had.” (11)

Yvonne Rainer

Yvonne Rainer was one of the first dance practitioners to make a wholesale return to the ‘everyday body’ as an alternative to the ‘performing body’ which displays skills and virtuosity. Rainer’s choreographic innovations involved combining movements that completely digress from the functional or purposeful with the tone of an everyday attitude. This lead to the development of an even, anti-dramatic phrasing, challenging the traditional intentionality behind performance with the dancer appearing as a ‘neutral doer’. Rainer thus set up a tension between the actions themselves (non-mimetic, choreographed content) and the tone of their execution (pedestrian attitude, non-virtuosic); a tension between content and performance. This interest in the relation between content material and notions of ‘performance’, and its impact on what Phelan terms “the relation between spectacle and spectator”, (12) continued in Rainer’s film work.

Rainer’s films have mainly been analysed from within a feminist or avant-garde framework, (13) and her career has been viewed as a linear progression with ‘problems’ that emerged in her dancing being worked through in her films. In her introductory essay to Rainer’s collected writings, Peggy Phelan demonstrates Rainer’s truly vanguard status and the part played by her transition from dance to film. She points to the fact that Rainer’s ideological project interrogating the inscription of spectatorial positions within the film text and the corresponding functions of narrative, pre-dates the feminist film theories that have been used to ‘read’ her films and can be found at work in her choreography (pp. 9–10). Jonathan Walley (14) continues this argument, adding that Rainer’s desire to deal with character and social relations was not part of a larger shift toward narrative in the cinematic avant-garde as argued by Noel Carroll. (15) Rainer’s turn to “emotional life”, (p. 92) which ultimately lead her away from dance and toward her interest in film, was in fact a reaction against the minimalist and Cagean traditions that had informed her choreography. (16) Both these points can be verified with passages from Rainer’s own writing, particularly in her 1984 interview with Lyn Blumenthal and a paper given by Rainer in 1997. (17) Rainer’s position as an innovator within film practice, pre-empting major shifts in both feminist discourse and avant-garde film movements, can be traced to her shift across disciplines bringing ideas and strategies from postmodern dance, visual arts and musical composition to the avant-garde film scene in New York.

One of the most discussed aspects of Rainer’s shift from dance to film has circled around her reconfiguration of the performer/spectator relation. This project began with Rainer’s battle against a narcissistic/voyeuristic model of dance performance, a critique that had ideological repercussions for the dance audience. Rainer’s choreography was freed from the exclusivity of virtuosic dance; an ‘everybody’ was performing and this thrilled as many people as it shocked. A new relation between performer and spectator was achieved through a suppression of spectacle in the dancer’s activity on stage, a kinetic familiarity with the corporeal performance, challenging phrasing that evened out dramatic crescendos and an aversion of the dancer’s gaze. Spectatorial ‘reconditioning’ was achieved through the very construction and execution of the dances and was built into the performance, inserting into her work an inherent socio-political challenge.

In discussions of spectatorial models for her film work, Rainer’s dance performances are seen as failed attempts at presenting the body as an ‘object’ and reworking the performer/spectator relation, with subjectivity seen as an inevitable element of live physical performance. (18) Walley sees this ‘problem’ as one of the “contradictions and limitations” that lead Rainer toward more narrative performance and then film. (19) But the continuities between Rainer’s performance strategies on stage and on screen are enlightening given the radical break she was making with contemporaneous trends in avant-garde film. (20) If Rainer’s films explore “the ways in which art was undemocratic, ideological, fraught with problems related to power and authority, and decidedly mediated”, (21) she had already undertaken an exploration of such issues within her choreographic work. The sense of continuity within and across Rainer’s two bodies of work comes from the continual questioning of meaning construction and presentation through performance, whether on the level of the actions of performers or the total performance comprising of the constituent elements of the work. Rainer deconstructs the smooth surface of cinematic construction and critiques the politics of its spectator/performer relations by interrogating the basic components of the apparatus, just as she had deconstructed the performance conventions of contemporary dance by adjusting the tone and phrasing of the choreography at the level of the basic unit. The various combinations and contradictions of figural movement, image, spoken or printed text, sound and spatial perspective, and the relation of this on-screen material to audience expectation, is an area for constant interrogation in Rainer’s films. (22)

An interest in the relation between content and notions of ‘performance’, what Phelan terms “Rainer’s literal exploration of the disconnections between form and content”, (p. 13) can be read in relation to narrative in Rainer’s films. Rainer often discusses what could be called a play with the ‘transmission’ of the performative in her screen work within the context of her interrogation of the cinematic elements of narrative and character. In 1978, Rainer spoke at The International Forum on Avant-Garde Film, discussing the demands of narrative filmmaking and describing a type of film that contains “both narrative and non-narrative characteristics”:

For example, a series of events containing answers to when, where, why, whom, gives way to a series of images, or maybe a single image, which, in its obsessive repetitiveness or prolonged duration or rhythmic predictability or even stillness, becomes disengaged from story and enters this other realm, call it catalogue, demonstration, lyricism, poetry or pure research. The work now floats free of ultimate climax, pot of gold, pay-off, future truth, existing solely in the present. Or perhaps a work that starts out being meditative, concerned with resonance, mood…suddenly changes its density by appropriating elements of melodrama. (p. 138)

Rainer’s rewiring of the conventions of cinematic production and generic expectation challenge the kind of cinema of illusion and exclusion based on an ordering notion of production, what Rainer calls the “tyranny” of the “predominating form of narrative” (p. 138). What Rainer is describing in the quote above, these images that repeat, prolong, create rhythm, freeze, result in an alternative cinema that never completely gives over its connections with narrative conventions. These ‘choreographic’ elements that play with movement across space and time demonstrate Rainer’s interest in cinematic motion beyond movements of production, (23) but are only ‘activated’ when they bump up against the narrativity that becomes more and more important across Rainer’s oeuvre. She often cites Jean-Luc Godard in her writing and his influence is certainly felt in these strategies that work the space between the narrative and non-narrative in a detailed and sophisticated way. (24)

In Lives of Performers (1972), Rainer’s first full-length film and the one that most clearly demonstrates her shift from dance to film, the distance from narrative cinematic conventions and critique of traditional spectatorial positions is pronounced. Often considered as a kind of early ‘sketch’ within Rainer’s oeuvre that hasn’t quite made the shift from stage to screen, this film lays bare Rainer’s founding strategies that will go on to support her increasingly political content. In Lives of Performers there is no higher order or purpose structuring the action on screen and the elements and sections of the film are strung together like her uninflected dance phrases; no single part is given more value, the score is not subservient to the visuals, there is no central character with whom we identify. Rainer says the two ideas that frame Lives of Performers are “dance and emotional life”, (p. 177) and the film does revolve around both the on and off-stage, fictional and non-fictional activities of a group of dancer/performers. Footage of dance rehearsals, dramatic enactments, photo stills and tableaux vivants are set against a sound score that comments on and runs across the action.

As Rainer puts it, “although a very loaded set of circumstances begins to emerge” in Lives of Performers, “you cannot follow the story” (pp. 74–5). These circumstances are created through an exposition of the characters’ private and emotional lives via the spoken text and certain enacted scenes and images. But any sense of a fictional narrative is thwarted; the performers’ real names are used and are consequently mixed around, and the degree of realism in the naming of the cast bleeds into the romantic involvements and character attributes which could be mistaken as real (p. 69). Spontaneous, intimate and realistic elements are set against the contrived and theatrical to subvert any persistent sense of the fictional; the layering of performances is confounding. Despite this play on notions of ‘character’, Rainer doesn’t baulk from the use of melodrama or comedy on screen whenever she sees fit, as Phelan points out. (25) But the melodramatic aspects of the film—talk of love, desire and sexual contact, scenes of emotional intimacy, love triangles—are countered by the filmic treatment which thwarts genre expectations. This subversion is particularly pointed in the distance that the commentary on the actions creates.

The inclusion of rehearsals or ‘works-in-progress’ within the body of the filmic performance further complicates the spectator’s position. Given the title of the film we could expect to see the characters going about the business of creating work, and there is actual footage from the rehearsal of one of Rainer’s pieces, Walk, She Said. But the film as a performance is itself interrupted by slippages between the rehearsal and the rehearsed. There is spontaneous laughing in the voiceover at the beginning of the film during what could be loosely termed an exposition, suggesting that we are hearing a script reading rather than the final take. This is complicated by apparent spontaneity written into the text; we hear lines such as “Yvonne, were you reading that?” and “I was reading a part that John would have read”, along with the sound of turning pages. The voiceover purposely confuses improvised and scripted speech with no matching visual reference points for clarification. Footage of a dance rehearsal is marked by repetition and monotony, has a messy quality that makes our viewing feel premature, and the staged ‘scenes’ in the domestic set are awkward, unremarkable and lack the direction of purpose expected of a well-rehearsed dramatic scene.

The following quotation reiterates Rainer’s comments above regarding the use of excessive cinematic movements in shifting the progression of the film from the horizontal to something more ‘vertical’:

Where narrative seems to break down in my films is simply where it has been subsumed by other concerns, such as the resonances created by repetition, stillness, allusion, prolonged duration, fragmented speech and framing, ‘self-conscious’ camera movement, etc. Rather than being integrated into the story, these things at times replace the story. (p. 156)

Often, the orders of cinematic movement in Lives of Performers not only interrupt, but overwhelm, any possibility of a horizontal drive in the film. For instance, the prolonged shot of Valda in her newly arrived sun visor exceeds any signifying function. There is also a substantial amount of stillness in the film, either through the freezing of action or shots of/pans over photographs. The director spends precious film stock on still photographs including images from a dance performance that the cast were involved in just prior to the film being made, and her reconstructions of pictorial compositions for the camera is strange and disturbing. Lives of Performers ends with a series of tableaux vivants, “re-enacting the series of published production stills from a scenario of Pandora’s Box” (p. 72). Movement and stillness exist for their own choreographic qualities, independent of narrative demands. One influence on Rainer in these early films that has not received much attention is the role of cinematographer Babette Mangolte, recently arrived to New York and prior to working with Chantal Akerman. (26) Mangolte provides a link between Rainer and the innovative Paris-based film director whose attention to screen performance and anti-narrative film movement makes her work of relevance.

Both dance as a type of performance along with a choreographic approach to other types of figural and filmic movement feature in Lives of Performers, and Rainer’s choreographic background is perhaps most evident in this, her first feature film. She describes the script for this film as being like choreographic directions, outlining “groupings and regroupings” (pp. 74–5) and points to her interest in the effects of movement and stillness as a result of her “dance days” (pp. 158–9). But Rainer has already made the shift toward a more cinematic type of physical performance. On this adjustment Rainer writes:

I was not only jettisoning a whole lexicon of formalized movement and behaviour, realizing instinctively that certain concessions to ‘lifelikeness’ would have to be made. For the most part my speaking performers would be doing what people, or characters, so often do in ‘the movies’: sit around, eat, walk down the street, ride bicycles, look at things etc. If they danced in my early films, I gave them good reason, assigning them the occupation ‘dancer’. (p. 93)

While dancers do dance in Lives of Performers, an equality is established between the movements of drama and movements identified as ‘dance’. Various entries by a “protagonist” (Valda Setterfield) into a room during a stage performance are cut together and draw our attention to the physical performance through repetition and variation. The same woman performs a ‘solo’ in a spotlight, creating shapes with her arms, and this stylised movement has the same performative tone and inexplicable function as the previous example.

The role of choreography would change throughout Rainer’s film career. In relation to Journeys from Berlin/1971 (1980), Rainer says:

So I guess the remnants of choreography and dance in my work manifest themselves in a certain kind of attention to physicality and have been subsumed by movement of the camera, framing and montage…In Journeys from Berlin I rehearsed…for over nine months and every gesture was choreographed down to the blink of an eye. (27)

Journey from Berlin/1971

Ultimately there was an increasing shift toward dialogue in Rainer’s film work, what she called “the language-oriented strategies of my films”, giving the example of Kristina Talking Pictures (1976) where characters sit up in bed and literally “yap for forty minutes” (p. 78). By the time we get to Journey from Berlin/1971, Noel Carroll declares a revolution in the structurally obsessed American avant-garde film scene, stating that in this film “language is more important than image” (p. 170).

Rainer’s growing emphasis on language in her films is coupled with an increasing fascination with theory which is exposed in her films from Film About a Woman Who… (1974), which Rainer refers to as “pre-political”, (p. 262) on. In Film About a Woman Who…, Kristina Talking Pictures and Journey from Berlin/1971, the strategies complicating performer and character, fact and fiction, rehearsal and rehearsed, sound and image and the manipulation of cinematic movement orders outlined above in relation to Lives of Performers, are still operating and are intensified, developing Rainer’s critique of narrative film techniques and related spectatorial profiles. In 1982, Rainer describes the “spectator-of-my-dreams”, who “has given equal attention to the fictions and the production of these fictions” (pp. 211–12). There is also, across these films, a growing preoccupation with feminist and psychoanalytic theory which leaks into the script and images, providing yet another performative layer for the director to play with. In this sense Rainer shifts from pre-empting theory to developing alongside and in direct response to it, in a very ‘public’ fashion. (28) When we get to The Man Who Envied Women (1985) Rainer’s attitude regarding theory has crystallised, matching her general attitude which is characterised by Phelan as a “profound psychological ambivalence and intellectual scepticism”. (29) The amount of theory both quoted within, and informing the structure of, this film verges on the ridiculous; a sense of play never abandons Rainer.

In this film Rainer would “throw down the gauntlet to psychoanalytic feminist film theory” (p. 207) and, as she herself acknowledges, such a task requires her to take on the elements of narrative cinema to an unprecedented degree. Rainer renders the female subject in The Man Who Envied Women invisible, existing only as a voice-over performed by, coincidentally, the intensely ephemeral choreographer/dancer Trisha Brown. By aligning audience identification with an absent female protagonist and having the male lead played by two actors, Rainer short-circuits the male-dominated power structures that the feminist film theorists had found to be ‘built into’ cinematic language. Rainer turns the male gaze/female object formula on its head by removing the female spectacle and fracturing the central, stable male identity. In an interview at the time The Man Who Envied Women was in development, Rainer describes her complex relation to theory, noting its capacity to seduce and remarking that “sometimes reading Stephen Heath is a turn on” (p. 83). Rainer’s critique of theory as both another field for playing out power relations and a performance to be interrogated somehow coexists in her films with a mobilisation of key theoretical concepts for her own purposes. In the same interview Rainer admits to discomfort with the language of theory which is evidenced in the film; the scene in which the central male character, Jack Dellar, delivers a philosophy lecture to his students is so prolonged, the lecture so impossible to follow and the camera so distracted (wandering throughout the space), a critique of the ‘performance’ of theory is achieved. Rainer both presents and subverts in the same aesthetic gesture. (30)

Rainer’s subversive strategies regarding film form have provided the groundwork for not only her philosophical and feminist subject matter, but an ever-broadening field of socio-political concerns both large and small; from the politics of New York real estate to the clinical demonising of menopause. As Adrian Martin writes, Rainer has always been “a tough, critical, ever sceptical political artist”, (31) but she is also one who never commits the cardinal sin of losing her sense of humour. Rainer’s commentary is always characterised by scepticism and irony rather than cynicism or pessimism; she wants to provoke, not alienate.


In a 1989 article, Rainer questions the role of an artistic practice cut off from contemporaneous social reality, pointing to the postmodern dance activity of the ’60s and ’70s that she was so involved in as artist and spokesperson. In this paper, she speaks out against “art-making as autonomous and self-perpetuating exercises” (p. 103). A year later Rainer releases Privilege (winner of the Dramatic Filmmaker’s Trophy, Sundance Film Festival, Utah, 1991 and the Geyer Werke Prize at the International Documentary Film Festival, Munich, 1991), a film that has a black-on-white act of violence at its centre. As in many of Rainer’s films, she couples her central idea with another unrelated but complementary one; in this case menopause and female aging. Racial and economic issues gave Rainer a new focus that emerged from the critique of feminism’s white middle-class profile. Prior to making Privilege, Rainer also worked on a conference with Bérénice Reynaud, Sexism, Colonialism, and Misrepresentation, (32) which also impacted upon the political concerns in her films. Scott MacDonald’s observation that Rainer’s films are autobiographical in the way they chart her thoughts and preoccupations seems particularly relevant to this stage of her career. (pp. 248–9).

In Privilege, even more than in The Man Who Envied Women, Rainer’s characters have gained a formal consistency that supports the more demanding themes, but an anarchic approach to film form remains: the film is shot in a variety of formats; a single monologue is assigned to numerous actors; the script features what Rainer terms her “plagiarist practices” (p. 232) of quoting other writings and film footage; actors appear in flashbacks with no attempt to alter their age; documentary-style interviews with old friends are combined with carefully scripted, fictional interviews; and the wrap-party is included at the end of the film. One shot that Rainer singles out is a close-up of the rapist accusing the victim of provoking his actions, but his mouth does not move; the persuasive close-up is coupled with unreliable dialogue and a severing of subject and voice (p. 240). The questions Rainer is raising about racial and economic privilege, and the connections between this and sexual violence, are never answered but left hanging between voices, bodies, images.

MURDER and murder
(1996, winner of the Teddy Award, Berlin Film Festival, 1997 and the Special Jury Award, Miami Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, 1999), was made after Rainer’s characteristically public and publicly self-analysed ‘coming out’ as a lesbian in 1991. (33) The film also corresponds with Rainer’s breast cancer diagnosis and mastectomy. MURDER and murder is considered Rainer’s fullest commitment to fictional characterisation, being her first film to actually play out a relationship between two characters on screen with dialogues replacing monologues. The mature lesbian couple at the centre of the film have replaced the young dancers caught up in heterosexual liaisons in Lives of Performers 24 years earlier, camera techniques are more conventional and ‘stable’, but cinematic time and space still provide Rainer with plenty of room to confound (p. 270).

With the release of MURDER and murder, retrospectives of Rainer’s work were presented at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York. Rainer’s most recent work was a choreographic commission for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak dance project, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, which she translated to film in 2002. After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid marks a return within Rainer’s film work to choreographic material. The film takes its name from an Aldous Huxley book about a decadent millionaire’s pursuit of immortality set in the 1930s. The short film juxtaposes rehearsal footage from the White Oak performance and her research into turn-of-the-century Vienna. Ann Daly describes the video as “a dense, fragmented collage of moving and static images, along with two sets of aphoristic texts” (34). In the same year, Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia mounted a retrospective exhibition, Yvonne Rainer: Radial Juxtapositions 1961–2002, which featured an installation version of After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid. The exhibition also featured a second installation by filmmaker Charles Atlas, Rainer Variations (2002), a montage dealing with Rainer’s career using real and simulated interviews and rehearsal footage. The exhibition also featured film screenings, photos, posters, manuscripts and notebooks. Rainer has also received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Wexner Prize and a MacCarthur Fellowship and currently teaches at the Independent Study Programme, Whitney Museum, New York.

Yvonne Rainer


As director/writer:

(Foot Film) (1967) short

Hand Movie (1968) short

Rhode Island Red (1968) short

Trio Film (1968) short

Line (1969) short

Lives of Performers (1972) also performer, editor

Film About a Woman Who… (1974) also performer, narrator, editor

Kristina Talking Pictures (1976) also performer, editor

Journey from Berlin/1971 (1980) also performer, editor

The Man Who Envied Women (1985) also performer, editor

Privilege (1991) also performer, editor

MURDER and murder (1996) also performer, editor

After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid (2002) short, also producer, editor


Articles, books and scripts by Rainer:

“’No’ to Spectacle…”, Tulane Drama Review, #10, 1965

“A Quasi Survey of Some ‘Minimalist’ Tendencies in the Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity Amidst the Plethora, or an Analysis of Trio A”, Gregory Battock (ed.), Minimal Art, Critical Anthology, New York, E.P. Dutton, 1968

Work: 196173, New York, New York University Press, 1974

“Beginning with Some Advertisements for Criticisms of Myself, Or Drawing the Dog You May Want to Use to Bite Me With, and Then Going On to Other Matters”, Millennium Film Journal, #6, Spring 1980 *

“Looking Myself in the Mouth”, October, #17, Summer 1981 *

“More Kicking and Screaming from the Narrative Front/Backwater”, Wide Angle, vol. 7, n. 1–2, Spring 1985 *

“Some Ruminations Around Cinematic Anecdotes to the Oedipal Net(tles) while Playing with de Lauraedipus Mulvey, or He May Be Off-Screen, but…” The Independent, vol. 9, n. 3, April 1986 *

“Thoughts on Women’s Cinema: Eating Words, Voicing Struggles”, The Independent, vol. 10, n. 3, April 1987 *

The Films of Yvonne Rainer, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1989

“Working Around the L-Word”, Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video, New York, Routledge, 1993 *

Talking Pictures: Filme, Feminismus, Psychanalyse, Avantgarde, Vienna, Passagen Verlag, 1994

“Privilege” (filmscript), Scott MacDonald (ed.), Screen Writings: Scripts and texts by Independent Filmmakers, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995 *

“MURDER and Murder” (filmscript), Performing Arts Journal, #55, 1997 *

A Woman Who… Essays, Interviews, Scripts, Baltimore & London, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999 (also includes a more comprehensive bibliography)

Articles and books on Rainer:

Sally Banes, Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1980

Sally Banes, “Lives of Performers: Annette Michelson Discusses Acting in Journeys from Berlin”, Millennium Film Journal, #7, 8 & 9, Fall 1980–Winter 1981

Sally Banes, Greenwich Village 1963, Durham, Duke University Press, 1993

Sally Banes, Writing Dancing: in the Age of Postmodernism, Wesleyen University Press, New England, 1994

Liz Baer and Willoughby Sharp, “The Performer as a Persona: An Interview with Yvonne Rainer”, Avalanche #5, Summer 1972

Maurice Berger, “The Cave: On Yvonne Rainer’s Privilege”, Artforum, vol. 29, n. 3, November 1990

Lyn Blumenthal, “On Art and Artists: Yvonne Rainer”, Profile 4:5, Fall 1984

Kate Briggs and Fiona MacDonald. “Three Possible Ending: An Interview with Yvonne Rainer”, Photofile, #30, Winter 1990

Noel Carroll, “Interview with a Woman Who…”, Millennium Film Journal, #7, 8 & 9, Fall 1980–Winter 1981 *

Camera Obscura Collective, “Yvonne Rainer: An Introduction”, “Appendix: Rainer’s Descriptions of Her Films” & “Yvonne Rainer: Interview”, * Camera Obscura, #1, Fall 1976

Anna C. Chave, “Minimalism and Biography”, The Art Bulletin, vol. 82, n. 1, March 2002

Ann Daly, “The Hybrid Yvonne Rainer: Avant-Garde Aesthete, Utopian Activist”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, #22, November 2002

Jan Dawson, “A World Beyond Freud”, Sight and Sound, vol. 49, n. 3, Summer 1980

Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1984

Teresa de Lauretis, “Strategies of Coherence: Narrative Cinema, Feminist Poetics, and Yvonne Rainer”, Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory Film and Fiction, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1987

Rachel Fensham and Jude Walton, “’Naming Myself, an interview with Yvonne Rainer”, Writings On Dance, #7, Winter 1991

Gabrielle Finnane, “Discussing Privilege: an interview with Yvonne Rainer”, Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media and Culture 5:2, 1990

Lucy Fischer, “The Dialogic Text, an Epilogue”, Shot/Countershot: Film Tradition and Women’s Cinema, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1989

Thyrza Goodeve, “Yvonne Rainer: Risks, between You and Me”, Art in America, vol. 85, n. 7, July 1997

Shelley R. Green, Radical Juxtaposition: The Films of Yvonne Rainer, Metuchen, The Scarecrow Press, 1994

David E. James, “Yvonne Rainer: Film About a Woman Who…”, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1989

Laleen Jayamanne with Geeta Kapur and Yvonne Rainer, “Discussing Modernity, Third World and The Man Who Envied Women”, Art and Text, vol. 23, n. 4, March–May 1987

Jill Johnston, “The New American Modern Dance”, Richard Kostelanetz (ed.), The New American Arts, New York, Collier Books, 1965

Jill Johnston, “Judson 1964: End of an Era, Ballet Review, vol. 1, n. 6, 1967

Jill Johnston, “Rainer’s Muscle”, Marmalade Me, New York, E. P. Dutton, 1971

Ann E. Kaplan, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera, New York, Methuen, 1983

Ann E. Kaplan, Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film and the Imperial Gaze, New York, Routledge, 1997

Annette Kuhn, Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982

Carrie Lambert, “Moving Still: Mediating Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A”, October, #89, Summer 1999

Yann Lardeau, “Yvonne Rainer, Journeys from Berlin/1971”, Cahiers du cinema, #316, October 1980

Scott MacDonald, “Demystifying the Female Body: Interviews with Anne Severson and Yvonne Rainer”, Film Quarterly, vol. 45, n. 1, Fall 1991 *

Scott MacDonald, “Yvonne Rainer”, A Critical Cinema 2, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1992

Scott MacDonald, “Yvonne Rainer, Journeys from Berlin/1971”, Avant-Garde Film: Motion Studies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993

Judith Mayne, “Screentests”, The Woman at the Keyhole, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1990

Judith Mayne, “Theory Speak(s)”, Rainer, 1999

Jonas Mekas, “Interview with Yvonne Rainer”, Village Voice, April 25, 1974

Jonas Mekas, “Yvonne Rainer’s Film About a Woman Who”, Village Voice, December 3, 1974

Patricia Mellancamp, “Images of Language and Discreet Dialogue: The Man Who Envied Women”, Screen, vol. 28, n. 2, Spring 1987

Patricia Mellancamp, “Five Ages of Film Feminism”, Laleen Jayamanne (ed.), Kiss Me Deadly: Feminism and Cinema for the Moment, Sydney, Power Publications, 1995

Annette Michelson, “Yvonne Rainer, Part 1: The Dancer and the Dance”, Artforum 12:5, January 1974

Annette Michelson, “Yvonne Rainer, Part 2: Lives of Performers”, Artforum, vol. 12, n. 6, February 1974

John Mueller, “Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A‘, Dance Magazine, vol. 53, n. 3, March 1979

Laura Mulvey, “Feminism, Film and the Avant Garde”, Framework, #10, Spring 1979

Peggy Phelan, “Spatial Envy: Yvonne Rainer’s The Man Who Envied Women”, Motion Picture, vol. 1, n. 3, Winter–Spring 1987

Peggy Phelan, “Feminist Theory, Poststructuralism and Performance”, The Drama Review, vol. 32, n. 1, Spring 1988

Peggy Phelan, “Yvonne Rainer: From Dance to Film” in Rainer, 1999

Lauren Rabinovitz, Points of Resistance: Women, Power and Politics in the New York Avant-Garde Cinema, 194371, Urbana, University of Illinois, 1991

Bérénice Reynaud, “Impossible Projections” in Rainer, 1974

Ruby Rich, “Yvonne Rainer: An Introduction” in Rainer, 1974

Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Aspects of the Avant-Garde: Three Innovators”, American Film, vol. 3, n. 10, September 1978

Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Explorations: The Ambiguities of Yvonne Rainer”, American Film, vol. 5, n. 5, March 1980

Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Yvonne Rainer”, Film: The Front Line-1983, Denver, Arden Press, 1983

Mitchell Rosenbaum, “Interview with Yvonne Rainer”, Persistence of Vision, #6, Summer 1988

Kaja Silverman, “Dis-Embodying the Female Voice” in Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellancamp and Linda Williams (eds), Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, Frederick Md., University Publications of America and the American Film Institute, 1984

Ann Sargeant Wooster, “Yvonne Rainer’s Journeys from Berlin/1971”, The Drama Review, vol. 24, n. 2, June 1980

* Reprinted in Rainer, 1999

Articles in Senses of Cinema

From Objecthood to Subject Matter: Yvonne Rainer’s Transition from Dance to Film by Jonathan Walley

The Man Who Envied Women

Web Resources

Rainer’s response to a discussion regarding racial privilege and representation in her film Privilege.

Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Links to several online articles.

Interview with Rainer.

Zeitgeist Films
Includes a bio and synopses of her films.

Click here to search for Yvonne Rainer DVDs, videos and books at


  1. Yvonne Rainer, A Woman Who…Essays, Interviews, Scripts, Baltimore & London, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, p. 75 (Hereafter all references in the body of the text.)
  2. Rainer’s first choreographed solo was Three Satie Spoons (1961) and her first film made for a performance, Volleyball (1967). Her first article was published in 1965 and she has numerous articles and several books to her credit (see bibliography).
  3. Work: 1961–73, New York, New York University Press, 1974, p. 209
  4. Some of Rainer’s early films, including Volleyball and Hand Movie (1968) were made to be projected during performance. Rainer references films such as Pandora’s Box, Psycho and Caught in her films and flaunts her fluency in cinematic conventions and clichés, for example, employing a self-consciously melodramatic mode of performance in some scenes.
  5. Peggy Phelan, “Yvonne Rainer: From Dance to Film”, in Rainer 1999, p. 4
  6. Rainer, 1999, pp. 47–8. Biographical information is taken from Lyn Blumenthal’s interview with Rainer, “On Art and Artists: Yvonne Rainer”, Profile, vol. 4, n. 5, Fall 1984, reproduced in Rainer, 1999.
  7. Sally Banes, Writing Dancing: in the Age of Postmodernism, Wesleyen University Press, New England, 1994, p. 224
  8. Ibid, p. 216
  9. Peter Wollen and Vicky Allan, “A-Z of Cinema: D-Dance”, Sight and Sound, vol. 6, September 1996, p. 30
  10. The following are examples from the filmmakers’ works that engaged with dance: Atlas began collaborating with Merce Cunningham in 1974; Clarke made an early work Dance in the Sun (1953) with Daniel Nagrin and Bullfight (1975) with Anna Sokolow; Amy Greenfield is a choreographer/director and created Dervish (1972), Dialogue for Cameraman and Dancer (1972–74) and Element (1973); Doris Chase made Variation II (1978) with Sara Rudner and many other dancefilms in the ’70s and ’80s; and Hilary Harris made Nine Variations on a Dance Theme (1967) with Bettie de Jong.
  11. Rainer, 1999, p. 71. Rainer does refer to Deren as an influence much later in her career, in 1997:

    The influence was quite conscious on my part. If you look at some of the editing in Kristina Talking Pictures, it’s right out of Deren’s At Land. Like the scene where she is running on the beach, and her movements seem to be continuous but the landscape changes from shot of shot. (p. 260)

  12. Peggy Phelan, “Feminist Theory, Poststructuralism and Performance”, The Drama Review, 32(1), Spring 1988, p. 111–2
  13. The bibliography below maps the discourse surrounding Rainer’s work, with a flurry of writing from 1974–87 and contributions from feminist and avant-garde theorists Annette Michelson, the Camera Obscura Collective, Teresa de Lauretis, Lucy Fischer, Ann Kaplan, Annette Kuhn, Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Scott MacDonald and Jonas Mekas.
  14. Jonathan Walley, “From Objecthood to Subject Matter: Yvonne Rainer’s Transition from Dance to Film”, Senses of Cinema, n. 18, January–February 2002 http://sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/18/rainer.html
  15. Noel Carroll, “Interview with a Woman Who…”, Millennium Film Journal, #7, 8 & 9, Fall 1980–Winter 1981, pp. 37–68 (reproduced in Rainer 1999, pp. 169–206).
  16. Rainer was greatly influenced by the work of John Cage, composer and collaborator with Merce Cunningham, referring to his “mixture of Duchamp and Zen Buddhism” (Rainer 1999, p. 104). Chance operations, a structuring methodology used by Cage, were taken up by Cunningham in his choreographic work. The I Ching, haphazard markings on a paper or more complex mathematical formulas were used to create random structures that released dance from its dependence on other models of artistic production, and from the specificities of the choreographer’s ‘hard-wired’ movement. Such strategies were a way of getting back to something prior to habit or recognition in order to challenge both movement conventions and the audience. Rainer describes her admiration for, and issues with, the ideas of John Cage in her article, “Looking Myself in the Mouth”, October, #17, Summer 1981, pp. 65–76. Rainer also outlines her minimalist ‘tag’ in this intertextual article. Regarding Rainer’s minimalism, one of her earliest ‘manifesto’ essays that defined her aesthetic through elimination of dramatic elements was published in a minimalist anthology: “A Quasi Survey of Some ‘Minimalist’ Tendencies in the Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity Amidst the Plethora, or an Analysis of Trio A”, Gregory Battock (ed.), Minimal Art, Critical Anthology, New York, E.P. Dutton, 1968, pp. 263–73.
  17. Lyn Blumenthal “On Art and Artists: Yvonne Rainer”, (Profile, vol. 4, n. 5, Fall 1984, reproduced in Rainer 1999, pp. 47–84) and “Looking Myself in the Mouth”, (October, #17, Summer 1981, reproduced in Rainer 1999, pp. 85–97). In the former article, Rainer describes the conflict between the ‘democratic’ creative procedures that came out of Cagean methodologies and her desire for more control (pp. 66–7), and her direct interest in the conventions of cinematic narrative as a system “to operate both within and against” (p. 69). Rainer also describes how feminist film theory crystallised strategies she was already formulating (pp. 69–70). In the latter article, Rainer directly refers to her Cagean and minimalist influences in relation to her film work (p. 94) and articulates her concerns regarding the Cagean “non-signifying practice” with its inevitable ties to the “original flamboyant artist-gesture”, which turned her back to a more direct authorial voice and the use of character and narrative (pp. 90–2). In this article she also discusses her overwhelming desire to engage with an “emotional life” again, something cinema and narrative also seemed to offer her as an artist (p. 93). In these articles, Rainer also mentions other significant influences including Jean-Luc Godard, Bertolt Brecht and the Surrealists.
  18. Rainer herself saw the voyeurism involved in dance spectatorship as ultimately unavoidable, and found the “multifarious narrative and non-narrative strategies” that film offered a way out of this conundrum (Rainer, 1999, pp. 79–80). Rainer oscillates between positive and negative perspectives on her dancing days, summarising her relationship with dance as “my ongoing argument with, love of, and contempt for dancing” (Rainer, 1999, p. 40). Although Phelan also maps a progression in Rainer’s work from dance to film, she does acknowledge a continuity between the two, stating that Rainer’s critique of spectatorial conventions in her films is “informed by her work as a dancer and choreographer”, but reduces this element in Rainer’s choreography to the aversion of the dancer’s gaze in Trio A (p. 112). While this issue of the gaze is relevant to analysing Rainer’s film work, particularly in relation to audience identification, I am focusing on the disruption of an integrated performative intentionality in Rainer’s dances as the foundation for her strategies as a filmmaker.
  19. Walley, 2002
  20. Rainer writes of feeling very isolated after the release of Lives of Performers. (Rainer, 1999, p. 74).
  21. Walley, 2002
  22. Phelan writes of Rainer’s task; “Redesigning the relation between self and other, subject and object, sound and image, man and woman, spectator and performer, is enormously difficult” (Phelan, 1988, p. 125)
  23. Here I am drawing on Jean-François Lyotard’s model of the cinema of production in, “Acinema”, Wide Angle, vol. 2, n. 3, 1978.
  24. Rainer’s comparison between herself and Godard is typically self-deprecating—and humorous; “I think of Godard as ‘wordly’ in a way that makes my stuff seem like ‘miniature provincial’”. (Rainer, 1999, p. 201).
  25. Phelan, 1988, p. 117
  26. Mangolte was the cinematographer for Lives of Performers and Film about a Woman Who… (1974) and worked with Chantal Akerman on Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) and News from Home (1976).
  27. Rachel Fensham and Jude Walton, “’Naming Myself’: an interview with Yvonne Rainer”, Writings On Dance, #7, Winter 1991, pp. 17–8
  28. For Rainer’s negotiations with feminist film theory see; “Some Ruminations Around Cinematic Anecdotes to the Oedipal Net(tles) while Playing with de Lauraedipus Mulvey, or He May Be Off-Screen, but…”, The Independent, vol. 9, n. 3, April 1986, pp. 22–5
  29. Rainer, 1999, p. 4
  30. See Peggy Phelan’s excellent discussion of Rainer’s critique of feminist film theory through her use of filmic space in The Man Who Envied Women; “Spatial Envy: Yvonne Rainer’s The Man Who Envied Women”, Motion Picture, vol.1, n. 3, Winter–Spring 1987, pp. 16–19
  31. Adrian Martin, Melbourne Sun Herald, August 5, 1990
  32. Sexism, Colonialism, and Misrepresentation, the Collective for Living Cinema, April 25–May 8, 1988
  33. See Rainer’s lecture/article, “Working Around the L-Word”, Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video, New York, Routledge, 1993, pp. 12–20 and Scott MacDonald’s interview, “Yvonne Rainer”, A Critical Cinema 2, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1992, pp. 344–54.
  34. Ann Daly, “The Hybrid Yvonne Rainer: Avant-Garde Aesthete, Utopian Activist”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, #22, November 2002

About The Author

Erin Brannigan is a PhD student at the University of New South Wales. Her area of research is dance and film, in particular, the points of contact between dance and film theory. She is also the curator of ReelDance: International Dance on Screen Festival and Body on Screen (Melbourne Festival 2003), and is on the RealTime editorial team.

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