Shining a light on the past: Continuous Project Altered Again

David Mead muses on postmodern dance and the public presentation of the recent Continuous Project Altered Again project by Taipei National University of the Arts and Taipei Fine Arts Museum on January 2, 2017; part of the Taipei Biennial 2016

In some quarters it remains near heresy to criticise so-called postmodern dance (a wonderfully vague term with many meanings if ever there was one); to even dare to suggest that it might just be not quite the amazing thing some claim. Merely questioning the ‘solution’, as it were, that postmodern dance brought does rather seem to make you part of the ‘problem’ in some people’s eyes; and so often that seems even more true of its supporters today than those around at the time. Indeed, I can hear the opprobrium coming my way now, because I don’t buy into the romanticism and maybe that’s one reason I struggled a lot at the recent presentation of the Continuous Project Altered Again project at TNUA (in association with the Taipei Fine Arts Museum as part of the Taipei Biennial 2016), which I found often to be somewhat self-indulgent and that had increasing problems engaging with. It felt like a scholarly exercise, albeit a meaningful one, but one where I as an audience member was rather incidental.

At its best, postmodern dance, as applied to the then radical, innovative dance work that first developed at New York’s Judson Memorial Church in the early 1960s was playful, intelligent, funny and fascinating (as opposed to a lot of the American modern dance from the 1980s on by artists who grew out of that era and who drew on those earlier artistic strategies, which is also sometimes called postmodern). The artists were rebellious in a smart sort of way as they re-examined what it meant to create and perform. They certainly challenged traditional ideas and existing political and power hierarchies in dance, even if they effectively just replaced them with another set.

Postmodernism of the Judson Church variety did attract an audience, albeit not in as great numbers as its modern supporters would sometimes have us believe, and one that tended to be quite niche. It was and remains the sort of dance, and approach to dance and its presentation, that you either embraced wholeheartedly or did not. Reports from the time suggest that even then a lot of it was predictable and insincere. Looking at it fifty years later when dance and the world has moved on, even more of it feels that way.

If you hadn’t already guessed, Continuous Project Altered Again was based on Yvonne Rainer’s Continuous Project Altered Daily, a piece first shown at the Pratt Institute in March 1969, which altered and extended over the next twelve months. The March 1970 Whitney Museum presentation, sometimes said to be the premiere, was actually described at the time as the “latest version.” Rainer’s work was based on sculptor and designer Robert Morris’ 1969 work Continuous Project – Altered Daily, which comprised a pile of dirt and objects including electrical cord, pieces of metal, grass and rope that he rearranged daily. Rainer’s idea was that her dance would similarly metamorphose as it was presented.

Continuous Project Altered Again was a collaborative workshop directed by Christophe Wavelet, a friend of Rainer who has performed her work. One of Rainer’s aims was to blur the lines between rehearsal and performance to the point where they become almost indistinguishable. To that end, the new TNUA/TFAM presentation worked to a point, although much of it did feel heavily rehearsed and set. Indeed, if it wasn’t, one wonders why as much as 48 hours of rehearsal time was necessary beforehand.

The flyer for the Whitney Museum presentations of Yvonne Rainer's Continuous Project Altered Daily
The flyer for the Whitney Museum presentations of Yvonne Rainer’s Continuous Project Altered Daily

Of course, the TNUA/TFAM presentation was not authentic in the sense of being a perfect reconstruction of the original, and while not really made clear, I don’t think that was the intent. Indeed, given Rainer’s work was continuously revised and extended as the title suggests, quite what the ‘original’ might be is debateable anyway. While that does not negate the historical interest, it means it needs to be viewed in a different way.

No dance work can be reconstructed as a perfect image of what went before anyway, however much documentation is available and despite the claims of some who restage old pieces (even notation is not perfect, and that’s before you bring bodies from a different time into the equation), but that fact that Rainer’s Continuous Project Altered Daily was an attempt to bring together process and presentation work brings extra problems. At the time, one revealing process as she attempted to do was new and exciting, although just how far she really did so in practice is questionable. But how do you reveal process, which at the time must have involved lots of improvisation and relied a lot of the characters of those involved? One can follow the same ideas and set the same tasks, but since what then happens depends on the individuals, coming to the same or even broadly similar outcomes is unlikely. Or do you just set it and pretend that’s what happened?

Then there’s the issue that no dance work can be experienced as it was first performed. Today’s audiences and dancers cannot feel the same excitement and thrill of discovery as those in the 1960s. As Trisha Brown commented in 2000 in a note for PASTForward, a project intended to reconstruct dances of the 1960s as well as showcase some new works by choreographers of that decade, including Rainer, “I can’t go back. It [the past] isn’t there anymore. Not the context and not the ratio of what the world does and does not know about dance.”

Having said all that, I think the mix of experienced and non-experienced performers, trained and non-trained dancers in the TNUA/TFAM project must have helped it get closer to the original intent to some.

Yvonne Rainer at the Press conference to open the exhibition Yvonne Rainer – Raum, Körper, Sprache at the Museum Ludwig, Köln in 2012Photo Raimond Spekking
Yvonne Rainer at the Press conference to open the exhibition Yvonne Rainer – Raum, Körper, Sprache at the Museum Ludwig, Köln in 2012
Photo Raimond Spekking

Best then, to see Continuous Project Altered Again as an echo of Rainer’s work. Despite my dislike of pre-performance ‘lectures’, maybe it would have been a good idea to set matters in context via a brief introduction rather than simply presenting it as a performance. I also find myself wondering whether the fact it was presented in a dance studio, a formal dance space, was a factor in my reaction to it.

I am sure the performers found the experience of rehearsing together enticing (as indeed did Rainer and her dancers in 1969-70). They undoubtedly enjoyed the public presentations, and there were times when I did too. Rainer’s Pillow Chair Dance is still a gem, and sliding across the floor using those pillows as sort of sleds is also amusing, but even they started to pail as they came around again and again. The repetition did allow one to see differences, but so much of the other content was just not that interesting (piling empty boxes on a body being carried around was especially tedious), and the more things came around, the more my attention wandered to the clock opposite and elsewhere. It seemed I wasn’t the only one as, glancing around the audience, there were a number of conversations going on and heads buried in the programme.

I suspect it may well have helped if one had been able to shift around the studio. The programme note for presentations at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1970 actually encourages the audience to walk around and to “go to any of the three performance areas at any time.” At TNUA no-one actually said moving around was not permitted, but equally no-one suggested it either, although it would have been possible on two sides of the space at least. That may have helped us hear better some of the spoken word that appeared to be important at some points (I think one group was allocating roles according to the names in that Whitney event).

Don’t misunderstand me, I have no doubt that Continuous Project Altered Again had value. Even an old cynic like me found it historically interesting as a concept, even if I wouldn’t be rushing back to witness it again. As an aside here, isn’t it interesting that dance from the past is so often viewed differently to old paintings or sculptures, and that some dance ages much quicker than other, even though the world moves on in all fields.

What it highlighted to me, though, was how easy it is to see why the regular, mainstream dance audience never really bought widely into the Judson postmodern ideas about movement and presentation, especially the idea that any movement, including everyday movement, can be dance. But if everything is or can be dance, what then makes it art? What special value does it have? Why on earth should anyone pay any special attention to it? If you want more on these questions, I suggest a dip into Grayson Perry’s book and defence of art, Playing to the Gallery.

Rainer, in her well-known statement about dance, said, “No to spectacle,” and “No to seduction of the audience by the wiles of the performer.” It’s a point of view, and I still hear such words along those lines from young choreographers in particular, who often like to add sentiment about how their dance is for them. Fine words, and wonderfully idealistic, but dance needs to remember that it’s in the entertainment business, and competing with music, film, TV and much more. While choreographers should never simply give audiences what they want, if you want people to come and watch, and come back another time, you cannot ignore them. I’m all for educating and developing tastes, but if choreographers renounce the idea of the kind of performative presence that audiences appreciate and want, they can hardly be surprised if people turn their backs on what is produced. It’s worth noting here that the more successful of those choreographers who started out in what I’ll call ‘early postmodernism’ such as Trisha Brown and Twyla Tharp only achieved real success by returning to traditional forms of presenting dance.

So, an interesting if not entirely edifying evening that sort of shone a light (if obtusely) on a time in dance history, but looking at it through a 21st-century lens, it’s not hard to see why this sort of approach never really caught on. Still, as Alan Bennett once suggested was put on a big sign outside London’s National Gallery: “You don’t have to like it all.”