Lives of Performers, the first feature film by the choreographer, cofounder of the Judson Dance Theater, and author of 1965’s “No Manifesto.”
In her transition from dance to film, Rainer said yes: “Having survived my various physical and psychic traumas”—including a suicide attempt in 1971—“and emboldened by the women’s movement, I felt entitled to struggle with an entirely new lexicon. The language of specific emotional experience . . . promised all the ambivalent pleasures and terrors of the experiences themselves: seduction, passion, rage, betrayal, grief, and joy.”
Yet that surfeit of emotion is presented austerely and disjunctively in Lives of Performers, parenthetically labeled “a melodrama” by an opening title card. Indeed, the film revolves around a love triangle, a standard setup of the genre, focusing on a man involved with two women. These romantic entanglements, however, are delineated only after a prologue of sorts, featuring Rainer leading a rehearsal of Walk, She Said, a dance that includes the four main “protagonists” in the film: John Erdman, Valda Setterfield, Shirley Soffer, and Fernando Torm. (Of this quartet, only Setterfield, a member of Merce Cunningham’s troupe from 1964 to 1974, had previous professional dance experience.)
Over this footage, we hear Rainer’s directives: “Foot open, gaze goes to the window, gaze goes to closet.” The audio, save for a few instances, is almost entirely offscreen. Though the performers deliver their lines, as Rainer does, without inflection, their voices are distinct, a mix of accents from the UK (Setterfield), Chile (Torm), and Kings County (Soffer); the few sentences in a buttery French intonation are uttered by Babette Mangolte, the redoubtable cinematographer with whom Rainer would make two more films. (The same year that Lives of Performers was made, Mangolte began another important collaboration in New York, shooting Chantal Akerman’s La Chambre and Hotel Monterey.) We hear the pages of the script being turned, further estranging us from this spartan soap opera about a man who “can’t make up his mind”—though this distancing device never dilutes our fascination with the intensely private moments, sourced from dreams, perhaps from letters or diaries, presented on-screen.