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Feelings are Facts by Yvonne Rainer

Feelings are Facts by Yvonne Rainer

“Feelings are facts” is the kind of catchy statement that sticks in your ear in a subway car, or on a busy street corner, screamed into a phone by someone stomping hastily in the opposite direction. It’s the kind of statement one might hear in therapy, which is exactly where Yvonne Rainer heard it, sometime in the early 1960s. She says it was an “adage of the late John Schimel,” her psychotherapist, that she adopted to disentangle herself from her era’s McLuhan-style ‘media is the message’ mantra, and to honor the emotion in human life—something her peers in American minimalism at the time were working hard to avoid.

Of course, it’s also the title of her autobiography, Feelings are Facts: A Life, a book which chronicles how, after only beginning to dance in her mid-twenties, she became one of the leading choreographers of American modern dance, and later reinvented herself in poetry and film. It’s breadth and depth test the permeable space between memoir and historical project, pulling together personal journal entries, letters, programs, scripts, articles and photographs into nearly 450 pages that weave through her past like the digits in her first short film, “Hand Movie,” bobbing and dancing askew of the palm to no particular rhythm.

Or, to the turbulent rhythms of a life in art: creativity, sex, politics, abandonment, ambition. The rhythms of her own drive, her feelings of inadequacy, and her need to be seen.

As a child growing up in San Francisco in the 1930s and 40s, Rainer was sent away with her older brother, Ivan, to live in a children’s center in Palo Alto due to her mother’s health issues. Her parents came to visit them once a month, but the years she spent apart from them kept her visiting therapists and psychologists, confronting abandonment and insecurity for most of her life. Rainer comes back to these doubts and anxieties repeatedly, particularly in her intimate relationships. Rainer spent a lot of time in her late teens and twenties dating older men, mostly artists. She learned the power of sex early, what can be given and taken by bodies, and she notes rather acutely that she would often do things “because the guy had wanted to do it and it was expected of me. Or, more accurately, I had expected it of myself.”

Her early life, however, also opened her to a world of art and dance. After moving back to San Francisco, her parents brought her regularly to the opera, movies theaters in the Richmond, and even some of the first happenings of the beatnik scene in North Beach. In 1956, Rainer moved to New York with the painter Al Held, where she was introduced to the art scenes of Greenwich Village and the Cedar Street Tavern, and where she began taking introductory theater and dance classes. She broke up with Held in 1959, after his jealousy over her ambition became too much. Their relationship ended with him raping her one night (“There is no other word for it,” she writes) in an assertion of dominance. After she left him, she wrote a letter to her brother, Ivan, about why she was now throwing her entire being into dance. Her shortened list includes:

1. A way out of an emotional dilemma

2. A place where the training period is so long and arduous as to almost indefinitely postpone a coming to grips with things like purpose and aesthetic or vocational direction

3. A place that offers rare moments of “rightness”

4. Something that makes my throat fill up sometimes

5. Something to do every day

6. A way of life, where most other things in life assume a lesser importance or value

7. Something that offers an identity

In another letter to Ivan two years later, still working up through her classes, she writes:

Like an idiot mule I stand at the barre everyday and do what I am told. I slowly enlarge my technique, hoarding each new-found bit of progress like a rare gem. I ape everybody; I am a human garbage dump–the garbage being bits and pieces of movement seen and relished everyday of my life. I have faith in my garbage-disposal system. Everything that goes in, no matter how secondrate, will someday emerge in a personal, perhaps even original, form. So far, in my few efforts at choreography, this has proved to be so.

When Rainer is talked about it is often in relationship to how she started dancing late, how her body was not typical for a dancer, and how her stubbornness and creativity changed the course of modern dance. In her writing, she draws astute lines between her ambition, her relationships, and her mental and emotional distress. Although she was grappling with how to assert herself as an artist against the boundaries of sexuality and gender, it wasn’t until years later that she realized the things she had been trying to outline for herself were the very foundations of the Feminist movement. However, being a white woman with ties to artists and others in positions of cultural power (she was dating the artist Robert Morris at the time), even she felt blindsided when finally confronted by her own ignorance. She describes a scene in 1970, at the Museum of Modern Art, where artists and activists stood on the steps of the building to protest the white male-dominated art world.

A woman got up and reviled curator Kynaston McShine for including too few women in the current show and then only those who were attached to male artists. I was one of those women. Although I didn’t have an art work in the exhibition, the catalogue contained a statement I had written. It was the first time I had to confront the fact that my career, insofar as it encountered the art world up to that point, may have owed something to my being with Robert Morris. It was distressing, not because the assessment was necessarily accurate, but because I was being aligned with the agents of exclusion. I was forced to start asking myself some questions: Where did I stand, whose side was I on? All of a sudden I was cast as a product of privilege rather than the “unaligned outside” I had always imagined–and preferred–myself to be.

Rainer describes the process of asking these questions as what finally led her away from dance toward filmmaking and poetry. “In hindsight,” she writes, “if I had ruminated at all over Dr. Schimel’s “feelings are facts,” it would have seemed unassailably obvious that facts are best conveyed by writing, print, and reading.”

One of her feature-length films, Privilege (1990), critiques not patriarchy, which is taken in this instance as a given, but white feminism. On the screen, women of color challenge white womens’ knowledge and roles. It’s the culmination of Rainer’s beliefs in creativity as cure, in honesty and openness as the ultimate reckoning. It’s credits roll over the cast hugging one another and a simple phrase, one final thought:

Utopia: The more impossible it seems, the more necessary it becomes.—Claire Mullen

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