Finding Trio A

By Linda K. Johnson

January 1, 2010, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

It is a well documented fact that in 1965 the dance and film icon Yvonne Rainer spent about 180 days in a studio in New York City creating what has come to be regarded as the seminal work of post-modern dance – Trio A or The Mind is a Muscle, Part I. As Sally Banes so articulately states in her influential work on the dance-makers of that period, Terpsichore in Sneakers, the resulting impact of Trio A has been nothing less than transformative for our notions of dance creation and performance. “The history of dance theory has been the repeated conflict between those who value technique and those who value expression…. With Rainer’s Trio A the cycle is at last broken. The debate is made irrelevant. The possibility is proposed that dance is neither perfection of technique nor of expression, but quite something else—the presentation of objects in themselves. It is not simply a new style of dance, but a new meaning and function, a new definition of dance, that has appeared.”

Unknowingly starved for a serious dose of conceptual and kinesthetic disorientation, I met Trio A one wet fall afternoon almost 30 years later, fell in love and have since been seduced into a life-long relationship.

It all began in 1997 when I traveled to New York City to see the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective, mounted at the Guggenheim Museums. As a hybrid maker whose work consistently flirts with the shared boundaries between performance and installation, I regularly journeyed from Portland to Manhattan in this pre-child era to see the work of both time-based and visual artists/architects. The Rauschenberg retrospective held particular interest for me because I wanted to understand more clearly his thinking and ideas as they related to dance.

After touring the uptown portion of the exhibit, I wandered downtown to spend time with the big sculptures and interactive pieces. Drenched from an autumn downpour, I entered the cavernous room that held the exhibition and looked for a place to sit down and dry out. The only seats in the entire space were two small black cloth cubes set in front of a video monitor in the far corner of the room. Eager to rest and as yet unconcerned about looking at anything, I ambled over to sit. As I drifted into the corner of the room, I became very aware that I was the only one in the exhibit at the time. There was just a big bubbling sculpture, a guard, some cubes, a lone video projection and me. Grateful to be sitting, I removed my soaked exterior, re-oriented myself so I could more easily see the video, and then settled in to watch.

There on the screen were three bodies moving around. I could “read” that they were dancing but in a way that was entirely foreign to me. I felt confused and disoriented by what I was watching. My previous dance training and education did not provide me with the tools necessary to deconstruct what I was witnessing. Here I saw movement uninfluenced by a recognizable vocabulary; a performance approach that was present yet detached; a presentation of the body that was uncontrived and matter of fact; and a choreographic form that biased no movement over any other. I was transfixed… spellbound. This was clearly a dance and this was most certainly dancing, but I could not find any kinesthetic empathy with it in my own body.

How could this be? How had I never encountered these ideas before? I was well schooled, studied widely in many forms, and was involved with and exposed to lots of cutting-edge dance and performance. This, however, was a world in and of itself, and I did not know its code, its map or its travelers. Of course, I recognized Steve Paxton, as he had stayed at my loft in Portland several times over the recent years while teaching contact workshops in which I had participated. But here, he was different… distilled. As the tape looped hypnotically, I watched without distraction for the next hour—hoping to acclimate. At 6pm, the guard tapped me on the shoulder and told me that I had to go. Urgently, I lunged toward the wall to read the tag so I could at least know the name of what I had been watching—Trio A or The Mind is a Muscle, Part I by Yvonne Rainer, 1966.

To say that this encounter got under my skin would be a gross understatement. I was obsessed, and knew that I needed to meet this dance in person and learn it if I was going to continue in the field. Instinctively, I recognized that there was something about dance and dancing that only this 4 ½ minute work could teach me.

Having literally stumbled upon Trio A, I now needed to find Trio A. Thirteen years ago in Portland, Oregon this was easier said than done, as Baryshnikov’s PASTForward had not been commissioned, let alone toured, and the huge resurgence of interest in the 1960s that we are now experiencing had yet to surface. After nearly two years of searching, a dance colleague alerted me to a month-long Trio A workshop being offered in NYC by Clarinda MacLow, the daughter of Judson-period poet Jackson MacLow and one of the first dancers in many years to learn Trio A directly from Yvonne. Fortunately, I had just received a very generous fellowship from the State of Oregon and decided to use all of the money to fund a trip that would have otherwise been unthinkable. Every time I now teach Trio A, I think about this first “date” and those 15 days in the Trisha Brown Company studios. There were 20 of us gathered there, each struggling to make sense of and remember the material, especially on the days when Yvonne would visit to check on our progress. At the close of every class, I would walk the four blocks to Central Park and try to write down the exact sequence of every movement. As I have come to learn, scrupulous attention to detail is everything with this dance. Even after 10 years of reflection, the word humbling still comes to mind.

While this first flirtation with Trio A was a fulfillment, I had not yet fallen in love. That would happen 3 years later, in 2002, after connecting with another artist who was equally as smitten with the dance as I – Shelley Senter. Together, we would commit to an intimate instructional process with the amazing Pat Catterson – Trio A’s longstanding repetiteur and teacher of many of Yvonne’s other works – that would eventually culminate in an invitation from Yvonne for Shelley and me to become additional performers and custodians of the work. At the time of this first return to Portland, however, I was intimidated more than anything else—an emotional rite of passage of sorts that I now recognize can be part of learning Trio A, as the uninflected performance of the movement material can make memory of sequence all but impossible for the new initiate. Yet, my initial humbling surrender to its very foreign ways of moving and thinking that occurred in NYC did immediately begin to transform my dancing, making and teaching, essentially reorganizing my dancing body and my entire relationship to dance.

Who knew that innocently following my need to acclimate to another kind of knowing about dance would eventually take me onto the stage at the Getty Museum and at Judson; would bring me into the studio with many artists who desire, as I did, to physically decipher the work; and would ultimately place me in the lineage of this historic work. Trio A has been nothing less than transformative for my notions of dance creation and performance; it has marked me deeply and serves as a continual reminder about the evolution and revolution at the heart of contemporary dance practice. This is a lineage that we all share.

On January 29th and 30th of this month, Yvonne Rainer will be in residence in the Dance Department at Mills College. There will be several free public events associated with her visit, including a Trio A “Teach-In” (see calendar page 9) and a public lecture.

This article appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of In Dance.