Linnea Swan’s work, YES, begins up close and personal. We watch a video of her — a selfie confessional, detailing her artistic “writer’s block” during a residency at Toronto’s Gibraltar Point. We discover that she’s not inspired, nor has she completed the required reading — Yvonne Rainer’s “No Manifesto” (1965). The video is edited with jump-cuts to feature Swan’s repertoire of sarcastic and vulnerable faces: she grimaces and rolls her eyes; we see anxious lines on her forehead and watch her stress-smoke a cigarette. It’s hysterical in both senses of the word. Inspiration, it seems, is not something an artist can will into being.
Swan enters the space and launches into performing Rainer’s Trio A, while a recording plays excerpts from “No Manifesto,” amid more commentary about what she should be doing for motivation. After following guidelines of the manifesto, which asks dance artists to say no to a litany of theatrical devices (“no to spectacle,” “no to virtuosity,” “no to style”…), what is left? Swan seems frustrated with the mechanical form of Trio A and takes us back through modern dance history to figure out how we got here — which is, I guess, still in 1965.
Swan also cheekily mentions that if you should wish to lean Trio A, which takes approximately between fifteen and twenty-five hours to “clean to the exacting physical and performative expectations of Ms. Rainer,” you can do so for a hefty fee from a handful of trained “custodians” of the work. Or, (wink, wink) you can go the YouTube route and risk copyright infringement.
With Swan’s impeccable comedic timing, we’re in good hands on a journey through modern dance moments — Isadora Duncan, Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’Après midi d’un faun, Martha Graham’s Lamentation, Marie Chouinard’s Petit danse sans nom (in which she pees into a bucket) and, wait for it, Sia’s Chandelier video choreography, featuring teen reality TV star Maddie Ziegler. This is how far we’ve come (?), I question, before realizing that yes, this is what a majority of people defer to when the term contemporary dance comes up in conversation. (Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with the video, but still.)
Each performance is enacted by Swan as she struggles with anxiety, and each is interrupted by one of Rainer’s tenets. Nijinsky? (“No to spectacle”). Duncan? (“No to transformations and magic”). Chouinard? (“No to trash imagery”). Ugh, fine, karaoke? (“No to camp”). And so on …
Where modern dance was once a reaction against the spectacle of ballet, its various styles were mostly supplanted by the postmodern, with dancers like Rainer taking an aesthetic/political stand against what seemed to veer dangerously close to camp. Things have evolved from there, and now we’re even interrogating what it means to call a work “contemporary” and how the term excludes other great work being done on the margins. What do dancers have to do to be contemporary these days?
Saying “no” no longer feels like where we’re at. In a monologue, Swan reveals that, as a young and masochistic modern dancer, she loved falling — loved expressing the angst of being a young woman through the vulnerability and strength that contemporary dance training offers. I think this appeals to a lot of young women. But what are the tolls placed on the body and psyche, Swan poses to us, when you have fallen thousands of times and been injured by these movements?
“No to moving or being moved” is the last line of Rainer’s manifesto, and YES ends with Swan’s rejection of this tenet. She dances a “moving” solo reminding us why she’s a compelling dancer herself and providing us with a sincere and poignant twist. I think we like being moved.