Yvonne Rainer Revives Her ‘Mattress Monster’ Dance

It could be a dream or a nightmare. You’re 84. What would it be like to have an artistic conversation with your 30-year-old self?

The postmodern choreographer Yvonne Rainer is finding that out as she reconstructs, in collaboration with Emily Coates, “Parts of Some Sextets,” which she created in 1965 for 10 performers and 12 mattresses. A complex braiding of movement, text and, yes, mattresses, it builds an invigorating labyrinth of choreographic activity. Ms. Rainer now refers to it as “the mattress monster.”

It’s also a rarity: Presented Friday to Sunday at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center, the work has been performed only a few times before, and in 1965 — at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut and Judson Dance Theater.

The idea for the reconstruction, a Performa 19 biennial commission, came from Ms. Coates, who is in the cast, as well as the director of dance studies and associate professor in theater studies at Yale University. “I recently heard a young artist succinctly describe the 1960s dance aesthetics as ‘They cracked an egg on their head and called it dance,’” Ms. Coates said. That “moment of horror,” as she put it, gave her the incentive to stage the revival.

“Some Sextets,” she said, could “be a way to challenge and complicate the more reductive interpretations” of Ms. Rainer’s legacy.

It’s an important work for that reason and more. Ms. Rainer, a member of the groundbreaking 1960s collective Judson Dance Theater, helped to usher in a new way of thinking and approaching dance. While everyday or pedestrian movement was deemed a valuable and worthy tool by its practitioners, choreographers of that period also featured untrained performers in their works; “Some Sextets” included the visual artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Morris. Their dances were full of craft and finely articulated movement. They studied ballet and the Merce Cunningham technique. And their choices of what to put onstage weren’t random.

And that included mattresses. Ms. Rainer said that reviving “Some Sextets,” with its “stack of mattresses that had disappeared I don’t know where,” had never occurred to her. “It was a big enterprise. It seemed over.”

One problem in reviving the dance was that few have actually seen it, a category in which Ms. Rainer includes herself. Because she was in it, she never had a clear sense of what it looked like. “I wanted it to have a very strict structure,” she said. “I left it to the mechanics of the strategy that I had laid out and to hell with aesthetics and choice.”

Ms. Coates, who met Ms. Rainer while dancing with White Oak Dance Project, convinced her that the process of reconstructing “Some Sextets” wouldn’t take long. (It didn’t.) And she had another motive, related to that remark about the egg on the head: To show that Ms. Rainer’s innovative approach was “an epic site of experimentation with choreographic organization.”

Its movement score features 31 possibilities of activity, which are performed in 30-second increments; they include standing, running, interacting with the mattresses and a rope, as well as executing unison dance phrases. One is called “Swedish werewolf (always offstage)” in which, “people go out of sight behind the pile and they do what they think is Swedish werewolf,” Ms. Rainer said. “They howl. For 30 seconds. I don’t know where I got that.”

The performers’ actions change according to cues taken from phrases from “The Diary of William Bentley, D.D.,” which Ms. Rainer reads excerpts from in a voice-over. An Episcopal minister living in Salem, Mass., Bentley wrote meticulously about his community in the late 18th and early 19th century; Ms. Rainer learned of the diary from a review in The Times.

“I wasn’t about to buy it,” she said, but it was in the library, “so I just spent time perusing it.”

That took five weeks. “I had gotten the idea about the mattresses around the same time, and I wasn’t even that aware that there would be a congruence of the voice-over and the actions,” Ms. Rainer said. “But looking at it from the outside, you hear about this daily life — illness, fishing, sea monsters and an elephant came to town. It’s all kinds of details and you see this constant parallel movement in the space. I think they meld.”

As the movement and words layer upon one another in a continually shifting landscape — it’s sad and funny, refined and a little dangerous as the dancers leap onto mattresses and one another — it’s impossible for viewers to follow both the entire time. “But overall I feel there are two parallel lives — one in a village, the other in this space,” Ms. Rainer said. “There are even some exact parallels.”

During the reconstruction process, the original sound recording was found at the Rauschenberg Foundation. In the present version of the dance, it is used along with a new recording of Bentley’s diary entries.

When Ms. Coates and Ms. Rainer heard the original recording, it solved a mystery: One written cue had referred to a musical interlude. Ms. Rainer didn’t remember what she had done but on the recording she could be heard bursting into song. Now the voice-over includes that — and something else that Ms. Rainer came up with: She added, Ms. Coates said, “a series of expletives.”

These discoveries were happy surprises for the collaborators; originally, Ms. Rainer said she had doubted there was enough information to bring back “Some Sextets” at all. Ms. Coates traveled to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles and spent several days immersed in Ms. Rainer’s archives there.

She found the receipt for the mattresses ($140 for all 12). She also discovered a letter from Ms. Rainer to the editor of Tulane Drama Review, which published her essay about creating the work. Ms Coates said: “She told him basically like: ‘Lay off editing my writing. Don’t change my language. If you want to publish artists, you have to let artists sound like artists in their own words.’ ”

Ms. Coates, who performs Lucinda Childs’s part in “Some Sextets” — Shayla-Vie Jenkins takes Ms. Rainer’s role unearthed much of the necessary core materials for the reconstruction though she could only track down a little more than half of the original score.

Ms. Rainer remade the rest of the dance, aided, in part, by images from the Peter Moore Photography Archive. The ending — with one tweak to accommodate today’s bulkier mattresses — is the same. “They slowly all group themselves on two piles of mattresses,” Ms. Rainer said of what was originally one tall stack. “These mattresses are much thicker, and they wouldn’t been able to jump on top.”

As that final, poignant tableau attests, “Some Sextets” is driven by structure, but it’s not dry. It’s full of vitality, and for Ms. Rainer, the experience of remounting it has been both intense and gratifying; she loves working with Ms. Coates. “I’ve watched her develop from this innocent,” Ms. Rainer said. “She didn’t quite know what she was about and now she has a child, a family and is doing her own work.”

Lately, Ms. Rainer, who is presenting the United States premiere of “Again? What now?” (2108) for a concert of Barnard/Columbia Dances next week at New York Live Arts, has been working nonstop. She will publish a piece of writing soon, too; in it, Apollo, the sun god, is appalled by what’s happening on earth. (It’s political.)

“It was a way of screaming,” she said.

There is a reference to it in the voice-over of “Some Sextets.” Ms. Rainer, who turns 85 later this month, still has things to say, but she has no plans, at present, to choreograph a new dance.

“I don’t want to audition new people and I’ve run out of ideas, frankly,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. Go volunteer in a soup kitchen. I’m serious.”

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