In The Box: After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid

Thu, Feb 07, 2019

The immediate source of After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid is the 35-minute dance piece Yvonne Rainer pro-duced for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project in 2000, in which he and five other performers appeared. Since the transition away from choreography to filmmak-ing early in her career, Rainer had always shown a recombinant streak, with her first films incorporating elements of dance and stagecraft drawn from live performance. But it’s an effectively alchemical conversion Rainer conducts in moving from After Many a Summer Dies the Swan to After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid.

Its title from Tennyson by way of Aldous Huxley’s Los Angeles novel, Rainer’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan consisted of original choreographic movement as well as invocations of her own earlier work from the Judson Dance Theater period, accompanied by recitations of deathbed utterances—last gasps—from individuals both well-known and obscure, and other musical and textual elements, including three poems she’d recently written.

Subsequently, Rainer brought to bear on extensive rehearsal footage of this piece (shot by Charles Atlas and Natsuko Inue) one of her concurrent intellectual preoccupations, as she herself described it:

Having early on acknowledged my debt to the Futurist, Dadaist, and Surrealist movements by the way of John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, I have Jenny-come-lately to research in any depth the culture and political milieu of turn-of-the-19th-century Vienna. Although I have continued to feel more affinity with post-WWll art movements, the histories of that earlier avant-garde offer the prospect of understanding a period of art-making in all its complex relations to a prolonged historical crisis, that of the declining Austro-Hungarian empire.

Rainer thus overlays—through a series of constantly shift-ing, rising and descending titles—the performance footage with a distillation of commentary on Vienna culled from the writings of some of its signature artists and philoso-phers (Oskar Kokoschka, Adolf Loos, Arnold Schoenberg, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, rendered in red text) and from writers then and now puzzling the legacy of Vienna (Rob-ert Musil in the magisterial The Man Without Qualities, and late-20th-century academics Carl Schorske, Allan Janik, and Stephen Toulmin, rendered in white text). Graphic imagery from the Viennese imagination—the façade of the radical Vienna Secession building, the ringed interior of the Opera House, portraits by Klimt, Kokoschka, and others—is the third major visual element of the piece, which thus as it unfolds assumes the dynamics of a work conceived for a trio: live performance, graphic archival imagery, and speculative, allusive text, set to an acoustic double bass-line of intermittent live audio from the rehearsal mixed with the entirety of Schoenberg’s elegiac Transfigured Night.

Initial viewing of Swan: Hybrid can be daunting, partly be-cause the text fragments lack authorial attribution (who’s speaking here?), partly because the texts themselves veer from sociological and aesthetic abstraction to virtual inter-title (“Failure above, explosion below”), but chiefly because the viewer’s instinct to read the text as specifically motiv-ated by, or illustrative of, the accompanying dance foot-age, is alternately frustrated and encouraged, this from Rainer’s decision to avoid a “fixed” relationship between image and text in favor of one that’s “constantly shifting.”

That “shifting” is what renders Swan: Hybrid such an exhilar-ating demonstration of Rainer’s artistic allegiances and of her heroic commitment, in the 1960s no less than in this already disreputable decade, to the valor of declaring an avant-garde identity. Literally situating her own work in dialogue with the experimentation and self-searching of Vienna’s embryonic modernism, Rainer sustains the voca-tion into our time of artists speaking truth to power, whe-ther as wielded by corrupt bureaucracies or embedded within the smothering dictates of taste—“We must elimin-ate the reign of terror imposed on social life and art alike by the demands of style,” as one of the titles declares.

—Bill Horrigan, Curator At Large 

(from A Woman Who…: Selected Works of Yvonne Rainer, 2005)

Yvonne Rainer (b. 1934) is a Wexner Prize–winning dancer, choreographer, writer, and filmmaker. She initially trained at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York before studying under experimental choreographers Merce Cunningham and Robert Dunne. Rainer founded the Judson Dance Theater, whose performances in the 1960s were influential in focusing on mundane movements. Her choreographic interests carried over to her experimental films, which have been regarded as seminal examples of feminist cinema. After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid was supported through a residency in the Wex’s Film/Video Studio in 2002.

(31 mins., video)