“Ugh, memory lane,” Yvonne Rainer groaned.
It was Saturday night at Danspace Project in St. Mark’s Church, and Ms. Rainer was with her old friends Simone Forti and Steve Paxton. In the cultural sphere of Danspace Project, the slice of the dance world sometimes known as “downtown” or “postmodern,” there are no more esteemed living legends than these three. And though they had performed together in various combinations over the nearly 60 years since they met, their first outing as a threesome came only last year in Los Angeles. Saturday was the third and final evening of the New York iteration.
In other words, “Tea for Three,” as they called the event, was a historic occasion, sold out well in advance, the kind of show in which a standing ovation at the end is guaranteed. The audience on Saturday included several luminaries of the performers’ vintage (David Gordon, Valda Setterfield, Carolee Schneemann), as well as many younger dancers there to learn from the masters. This was the most receptive of crowds, the sort that would, as Ms. Rainer quipped, “laugh at anything.”
That was her dry, anxious way of acknowledging that the mostly improvised performance might not have been going as well as the audience’s eager chuckles suggested. I’m sorry to say it wasn’t the best night for her or for Mr. Paxton, the more talkative and in-charge two thirds of the trio. Perhaps they were worn out. Ms. Rainer and Ms. Forti are in their early 80s, Mr. Paxton only a few years younger. That day, the church had hosted a memorial for their beloved colleague, Trisha Brown, who died in March. The evening began with a moment of silence.
The rest of the show, though, was largely talking. There were props: wooden frames of various sizes, masks of presidents’ faces, plastic bins to sit in or wear on the head. And there were physical tasks: a two-person “arm drop” exercise that Mr. Paxton and Ms. Rainer invented after a long-ago chicken dinner; Ms. Rainer trying to dance (again!) some of her groundbreaking, overexposed 1966 work “Trio A” while Ms. Forti “glommed” onto her body.
But most of the show was strained attempts at wisecracks, mixed in with misfiring allusions to passing time and regrets. The performers, famous for their quick-witted spontaneity and mold-breaking audacity, occasionally read quotations from pieces of paper taped to the church’s pillars — potential buoys in an improvisational ocean with few breezes of inspiration. But these were more stale bread, and the old stories — the trips down memory lane taken reluctantly, dutifully, as if required by the occasion — seemed chewed-over and flavorless.
Thank goodness for Ms. Forti. The frailest-looking of the three, her hands shaking from Parkinson’s disease, she needed help from the others to rise from the floor, and once when she stumbled, people gasped in alarm. Much of the time, she hid under a jacket, blowing sounds through a long piece of metal pipe; or seemed to wander off, so that Ms. Rainer felt the need to put her back on track.