#374) Lives of Performers (1972)


#374) Lives of Performers (1972)

OR “I Won’t Dance”

Directed & Written by Yvonne Rainer

Class of 2017

No trailer, but here’s a clip. Please note the music is not part of the original film.

The Plot: “Lives of Performers” blurs the line between fiction and reality in a deconstruction of Yvonne Rainer’s dance routine “Walk, She Said”. Rehearsals are presented through footage out of sync with its audio, still photos, and candid conversations between Rainer and her performers. The final result is experimental dance conveying a love triangle from multiple viewpoints, simultaneously engaging and disengaging the viewer.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a rundown of Yvonne Rainer’s place in the world of dance and calls the film “a stark and revealing examination of romantic alliances”…which is the same description used by the film’s distributor Zeitgeist Films.

But Does It Really?: I confess that I went into “Lives of Performers” with zero knowledge of the film or Yvonne Rainer, and was quite perplexed by the whole experience. Having now done my homework, the film makes a lot more sense. “Lives of Performers” isn’t my cup of tea, but I can appreciate what Yvonne Rainer is trying to do in her feminist dissection of the melodrama (at least I think that’s what she’s doing here). A pass for “Lives of Performers” and its NFR induction, though I highly recommend doing your research before viewing.

Everybody Gets One: Born in San Francisco, Yvonne Rainer was introduced to a variety of arts at a young age, including ballet, opera, foreign cinema, poetry, and jazz. After moving to New York, Rainer studied modern dance with such well-known instructors as Martha Graham, though most of them doubted her future as a dancer. Undeterred, Rainer pivoted to choreography, founding the Judson Dance Company and choreographing many experimental, political pieces. By the late ‘60s she had been dabbling in short films, and “Lives of Performers” was Yvonne’s first full-length movie.

Wow, That’s Dated: Besides the ‘70s hairstyles, your only giveaway is the use of the Rolling Stones B-side “No Expectations” during the film’s final moments.

Seriously, Oscars?: Unsurprisingly for an experimental film with almost zero information available on the internet, “Lives of Performers” was not nominated for an Oscar in any category. Also unsurprisingly, outside a few critics awards and film festivals, Yvonne Rainer has received little hardware for her movies.

Other notes

  • In order to better understand Yvonne Rainer, I recommend taking a look at her 1965 “No Manifesto”. This essay includes many of her dance guidelines including: No to spectacle, No to style, No to involvement of performer or spectator, and No to moving or being moved. Rainer’s style of dance doesn’t necessarily want to engage the audience, which I feel is key to comprehending “Lives of Performers”.
  • Also important: Rainer enjoyed collaborating with both dancers and non-dancers in her piece. A majority of the performers in this film were not trained dancers.
  • One of the sound consultants is named Gene de Fever. You probably know his brother: Starve de Fever. Thank you!
  • From the get-go this movie is confusing. First off, this print is uncut, meaning the screen goes to black in-between reel changes, complete with film leader. Then we open with a large amount of silence, followed by out-of-synch audio. The barrier between movie and audience is clearly established and consistently enforced.
  • One section of the movie is told with still photos, and thanks to Hollis Frampton, I’m now concerned those photos will be burned during their discussion.
  • I did enjoy one of the performers’ comments on standing ovations during curtain calls: “Oh Christ, do we have to do this too?” The thought crosses my mind every time.
  • Rainer’s love of minimalism is on full display here. Her work makes Jim Jarmusch’s films look like David Lean’s epics.
  • “He wants a homosexual relationship, only with a woman instead of a man.” …wait, what?
  • My favorite part of the film was watching the actors experiment with how a character enters a room. A montage shows Valda entering a scene with several different subtexts and emotions. The film successfully conveys the various colors an actor can bring to a performance.
  • Fernando looks a lot like Adam Driver.
  • Whose cat is that? Yvonne’s? And how come they don’t provide commentary on their performance?
  • Anyone not actively participating in this movie spends a night in the box.
  • The final performance – “Lulu” – is a series of tableaus based on the 1929 silent film “Pandora’s Box”. The “Pandora” influence is not mentioned in the movie; yet another piece of information you need to know going into “Lives of Performers”.
  • Interestingly, the finale is when the performer’s lack of experience comes through. Most of them have visible difficulty holding perfectly still for the tableaus. It looks like the end credits to a “Police Squad!” episode.
  • What I wouldn’t give to watch Yvonne Rainer and her non-professionals tackle a more conventional play like “The Odd Couple”.


  • Yvonne Rainer hasn’t made a film since 1996, but is still going strong in the dance community. Her most recent piece, 2015’s “The Concept of Dust, or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move?”, has performed around the world in the ensuing years. Rainer is the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant and two Guggenheim Fellowships.

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