Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer Showcases the Avant-Garde Choreographer

In Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer, director Jack Walsh chronicles the lengthy career of the pioneering avant-garde choreographer who, along with an ensemble of dancers and artists, formed New York’s Judson Dance Theater in 1962. The iconoclastic dance group came alive during a time when movements such as Fluxus, performance art, pop art and others were coming to the forefront. Rainer’s choreography challenged modern dance, and she broke new ground when she explored narrative filmmaking in the 1970s.

Feelings Are Facts is also the title of Rainer’s memoir and based on a statement told to her by a psychotherapist. Stemming from the belief that one should trust one’s intuition, “it’s a way of looking at, for me, the wellspring of creativity that needs to kind of come up,” says Walsh. “I think creative work is mental but must have a part that is intuitive.” Walsh knew Rainer in the mid-1980s when she served as a board member for his media center, Collective for Living Cinema in New York.

As Rainer explains herself in the film, she didn’t study art or dance professionally, but rather she picked up dance in her mid-20s. Without a background in ballet or modern dance, Rainer was able to develop a style that was more transgressive. Her routines studied walking, jumping, moving across the room and other everyday actions, a focus she maintains in her newer works. “It’s a mindset that you have to do with what you have,” she says, “and what I had was a particular body that didn’t measure up to certain standards, but I had to create my own.”

The viewer is treated to early footage of Rainer performing her Trio A dance, a revolutionary work that has stumped and mesmerized choreographers to this day. Her movements are confident in their randomness, yet playful and incongruous; it’s an anti-ballet. “It was like she was testing to see how far she could go in not giving the audience what they might want and still be a performance,” says fellow choreographer Wendy Perron. Other works by Rainer shatter misconceptions of what dance must be; contrary to the work of another famous avant-garde choreographer, Pina Bausch (memorialized in Wim Wenders’ excellent 2011 documentary Pina), Rainer’s pieces don’t carry flow or other traditions of dance theater. Rainer is instead thinking about the theory of movement itself.

As a self-taught artist, Rainer is honest in her talking-head interviews about her past inexperience and ignorance about art. Yet she’s rather withholding about her personal life and relationships, her diagnosis of breast cancer, which led her to a mastectomy, around the same time she came out as a lesbian. Lack of insight into that difficult time removes from the film an emotional weight found in other highly personal documentaries, but Walsh shows her processing that drama the best way she knows how—through art. During her foray into narrative filmmaking, Rainer’s film MURDER and murder, the dancer appeared front and center with a butch haircut and in a half-open tuxedo, revealing her surgically altered chest.

There are weight and drama in the smaller moments, such as when she talks about her distant relationship with her parents, discusses a photograph of her mother with friends at Coney Island, and talks of her on-and-off relationship with artist Robert Morris. While scattered, these moments are tactfully placed within the timeline, adding layers of complexity while not distracting from the overall celebratory purpose of the film.

Feelings Are Facts manages to give a vivid portrait of Rainer and her artistic journey. Not only did she radicalize dance, but she was also a true trailblazer in other aspects: she was one of the few filmmakers of the ’60s and ’70s who was thinking critically about race, gender and economic equality, women’s representation in Hollywood, white privilege, middle-age sex and desire, queer issues, female bodies, and other such topics that filmmakers and artists struggle to include in media today. It’s time we recognize Rainer and her contributions to the arts; our culture will be all the better for it.

Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer was directed by Jack Walsh. Presented by Cinema Orange at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122; www.ocma.net. Fri., 7 p.m. Free.

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