Creeping Trio A
June 22, 2017
A condensed version of this essay appears in the Gallery Guide for SlowDancing/TrioA, a video installation by David Michalek in collaboration with Yvonne Rainer on view at Danspace Project June 23-July 1, 2017. More details here.
Creeping Trio A
by Emily Coates
My first encounter with Trio A involved watching Yvonne Rainer mark through the dance to warm up before our rehearsals at White Oak Plantation in 2000. She would have been 66. We were there to create her work After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, commissioned by Mikhail Baryshnikov for White Oak Dance Project. Before Misha taught morning ballet class, Yvonne did her dance. Afterward, she pulled on pink ballet slippers, pushed up her thick glasses, and took his barre with the rest of us. When Mark Morris arrived and taught, she did the same. Her interpretation of a ballet barre bore notable similarities to Trio A: intensely focused, with the quirky, awkward coordination that she has elevated into an iconic style. She “Trio A-ified” their ballet.
Since then, I have performed her Trio A many times around the world and taught the dance both alone and with Yvonne. I have also continued to observe Yvonne working slowly through Trio A offstage, as a kind of daily mantra, across the U.S., France, Germany, Austria, Scotland, Ireland, and Brazil. Her rendition has changed over the past seventeen years, with modifications made for aging, ailments, and environment. Several years ago, when navigating the second floor offices at Dia:Beacon that we were given as our warm up space, she mainly marked the arms–otherwise she would have hit a desk.
Even as the dance endures in her body, Yvonne has tinkered with the formal stagings of Trio A since its premiere in 1966. Variations include the famous Trio A with Flag of the 1970s, in which the dancers perform naked with American flags encircling their necks; the Trio A Pressured: Retrograde, Facing, Forward that I danced with Baryshnikov’s company in 2001; and her recent Trio A: Geriatric with Talking, which she performed at Judson Church in 2010. Other artists, with her permission, have lent their own spin. Baroque dance specialist Patricia Beaman once performed the dance in full 18th century regalia. Recently, biologists in Chicago sought approval to learn and perform Trio A before plants, in order to test the effects of postmodern aesthetics on their growth. Written interpretations of the dance, including a number of Yvonne’s own, equally abound. The many versions and mound of critical writings surrounding this four and a half minute choreography prompt the thought: surely nothing more could be done with Trio A.
Miraculously, David Michalek’s installation SlowDancing/TrioA discovers that there is more to be done with Trio A. The new installation follows the premise of his previous triptych, Slow Dancing (2007): using digital technologies, he slows the movement of dancers down. His tools include advanced software that goes as far as to add frames per second—inventing realities that never happened, in other words, in order to reach his uncannily creeping rate of change. Beyond the similar technology, however, the first Slow Dancing and this new slowed Trio A differ sharply, because the dance aesthetics are so different. Whereas in the earlier work, David accentuates the spectacle of conventional dance virtuosity, in SlowDancing/TrioA he turns his cameras on Yvonne’s choreographic logic, which willfully opposes those spectacular aesthetics in every way. If the dance forms (and by extension the dancers) in the first Slow Dancing crave exhibition, Trio A questions the nature of performance itself. For me, watching David’s SlowDancing/TrioA is like witnessing the wedding of two old friends who come from such opposing worlds that one prays their union will survive. I think this is why SlowDancing/TrioA is a more curious work: I have the feeling that Yvonne’s aesthetic alters David’s art from within, even as he illuminates hers.
I have known David only slightly longer than I have known Yvonne, through his wife, Wendy Whelan, of New York City Ballet. He began his career working in the studio of Herb Ritts, a renowned photographer whose influence shows in the 2007 Slow Dancing. The dancers, many of whom are perfect specimens of human form, have a glittery appeal, and their attention-grabbing costumes appear to transmogrify into other substances altogether under the digital effects. Even Trisha Brown, the closest peer to Yvonne to appear, wears a silk evening gown, a distant cry from their Judson Church basement days. There are no unbeautiful moments in Slow Dancing. Even when in-between positions, the dancers project a polished sheen.
Yvonne’s anti-spectacular, anti-virtuosic, anti-convention, offstage-as-dance rebellion certainly differs. In the opening of David’s SlowDancing/TrioA (which in the installation will be projected on three screens in different sequences and rates), Yvonne stands in profile facing stage left, wearing her usual “uniform”: black t-shirt and black pants. This lasts a minute or more in the stretched, digitized time of the video. Then, in a single coordinated action, she bends her knees, turns her head upstage, and begins to swing her arms with a weightiness, as if holding rocks in her hands (her words)–all of which occurs at the pace of a weed growing. For the next three minutes of the video, equal to about five seconds of the dance in real time, viewers look at the back of Yvonne’s head. While in live performance, this is a quintessential anti-exhibitionist move, in slow-paced visual art, this gesture looks like a mistake, not an image but a buried self.
But without her face, we can watch her arms, and here the slow motion does something fantastical: it makes the sculptural quality of the choreography pop. Yvonne’s arms inch outward away from her body and then curl around her hips. The folding looks like a blooming flower in retrograde, an animal protecting a wound, or simply self-care. A plethora of new interpretations becomes possible by reducing the speed of execution. As she has explained in her 1966 essay, “A Quasi Survey of Some ‘Minimalist’ Tendencies in the Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity Midst the Plethora, or an Analysis of Trio A,” Yvonne had minimalist sculpture in mind when she made the dance. SlowDancing/TrioA shows how this thinking pervades the choreography, in the mini, fleeting sculptures of human form that suddenly come into view.
The slow speed pulls into relief other characteristics of the dance, too. The tricky coordination between head, arms, legs, and feet, for example, becomes clearer, more analyzable. This is the most difficult thing for new dancers to wire into their muscle memory. Take the first weight shift, which Yvonne performs in the video: the dancer should shift her weight onto her right leg, with the left ball of the foot propped behind in a kind of turned in tendu derriere, as she casts her gaze downward at a forty-five degree angle. Once in this position, she draws two small circles with her fingertips, her arms extended outward. If the dancer begins the arm circling too soon, while still shifting onto the right leg, or her gaze is not yet cast downward, the image of rear-facing flight—you might call it planetary hovering—disappears. The coordination creates the images.
Flying isn’t a motif that Yvonne uses often when she stages the dance, nor is it language that the five of us whom she has authorized to teach the dance—the “Trio A transmitters”—use. But flight becomes a central motif in Trio A at the Michalek pace. As the arms swing outward or extend straight out from the body, in slow motion the dancer appears to be either trying to leave the Earth or land. Pat Catterson appears in the sequence immediately following Yvonne, and as she sinks into her right hip and rounds the corner toward the front, as per the choreography, she lowers her arms to her sides. The effect of her arms descending lies somewhere between floating and flying through ether. The few jumps in Trio A, including the one I perform in the video, abnormally suspend in the air.
Some of these effects also show up in the original Slow Dancing. Other effects are entirely new, caused by the digitization of Yvonne’s choreographic logic. The moments when her choreography carves out space, for instance, become heightened in the video. Patricia Beaman performs a passage in which the dancer allows her right arm to lead her “around the corner” (Yvonne’s words), in the upstage direction. Her curved arm cuts a negative space that suddenly becomes more palpable due to the duration, and her body appears at a sharp angle to the floor as she curves. We never see that angle on stage: if she made that same curve at that speed in real time, she would tip over.
I never realized just how often Yvonne presents the dancer in profile in Trio A, until I watched David’s video. Not surprising for a dance trying to subvert the frontal conventions of concert dance, but the effect is different in a really slow moving image. All those profiles start to symbolize nose-thumbing at screens themselves, and the yearning they instill in viewers to see human bodies full-on. Here, Yvonne’s aesthetic refreshingly clashes with Slow Dancing, in which most of the dance forms have built into their DNA a forward-facing presentation. In contrast, the profiles in the slowed Trio A offer up protruding bellies and rounded hips, jutting chins and stooped shoulders, bodies along a more varied spectrum of age, fitness, and dance training.
David’s most transformative intervention in SlowDancing/TrioA acts on the idea of transitions, which is so central to the dance’s logic. Once begun, the dancer moves deliberately and continuously through Trio A’s non-repeating vocabulary until she reaches the end. Yvonne has theorized her evened out phrasing in the dance as an attack on the climax-prone conventions of Western dance . But Merce Cunningham, one of the forefathers of her aesthetic, offers a subtler view: “…since our lives, both by nature and by the newspapers, are so full of crisis that one is no longer aware of it, then it is clear that life goes on regardless… Climax is for those who are swept by New Year’s Eve” . This emphasis on art more closely representing time in everyday life is the very aspect of Trio A that David’s slowed version gets at most acutely–perhaps much to his surprise. If Peter Moore’s photographs create the illusion that Trio A consists of a string of spectacular climaxes, as per Carrie Lambert-Beatty’s thesis, David’s slowed Trio A creates the illusion of a dance made up entirely of middles: all living, no arrival .
Framing the transitions through the slow speed leads to some marvelous effects, one of which is total mundaneness: positions that are neither here nor there, such as John Erdman caught in an awkward open-legged position, weight mid-transfer, facing upstage for a minute or so, before he moves into the next movement. Or Emmanuéle Phuon, caught hiking her right leg up into the baseball pitcher’s pose. Or Patricia Beaman, mid-push off her left leg to shift and pivot, in order to walk in profile stage right. These states are not formally beautiful, slowed to this extreme. But Patricia will eventually tuck and then release her left hand out from her armpit into an angular, upward U, as if from an Egyptian vase. Attention to the nothingness of certain transitions on screen pays off when these subtle sculptures appear.
The transitions can also turn into stories, pressured by the digitization, becoming emotionally resonant in a way that they are not in real time. I am thinking again of John Erdman in the video, as he moves into clasping his hands above his head. As he lifts his hands, he suddenly appears to be weeping, as if he were about to bury his face in his palms. But instead he moves into the funny, awkward action of covering first one ear and then the other with his clasped hands, as if his ears were cars and his hands a sliding garage door. These contrasting tones—melodramatic and witty—magnify when the choreography stretches in time.
David’s art is about attention, above all, and Trio A at this speed forces the viewer to focus on the details in the same way that the original Slow Dancing does. I also venture to say that the new installation will similarly quiet a public space, though I have not yet seen it installed at St. Mark’s Church. But the rewards of close attention differ from his earlier work. Trio A both does and does not want to perform, both does and does not want to be filmed. So it alters the expectations of the medium. Yvonne “Trio A-ifies” David’s screens from within, forcing viewers, yet again, to reconsider their own desires in relation to an image.
David showed me an outtake he captured of Yvonne running through Trio A on the set of SlowDancing/TrioA in late 2016. She marks through the movements, calling out for Pat Catterson’s help when she needs a hand or forgets a detail. It’s the version I know from watching Yvonne’s warm ups over the years, with something more: she performs for his camera. She goes down to the floor completely most times, even doing both versions of the floor rolls. Her balances are shakier, but she tries them all and holds onto Pat when she needs help. She marks the handstand near the end, but then finishes off everything else: back on the ground, pedaling her legs in the half circle, rising, extending the left leg along the floor, marking the curve, and reaching the final gesture, arms up over the head and down, right toe propped. Pat, our most senior Trio A transmitter, has written vividly about the first time she saw Trio A, in 1969 at the Billy Rose Theater: “It was like seeing my mother make a bed, or a cobbler fix a pair of shoes, or a store clerk ring up and bag your groceries, or someone folding her laundry and noting the beauty of that doing, that performing” . Yvonne told David that she wanted the dancers to “wear what they wear when they come into the studio.” To his credit, David listened, turned his cameras on, and created a work of art that resembles something more like everyday life.