I have been asked to put my arms around this vast landscape otherwise known as Trisha Brown: In the New Body. On one end, my fingers extend outward to touch the floor, the wall, my own pelvis, just remembering Early Works. Indeed, I can say I lived through the bodies of Cecily Campbell, Tara Lorenzen, and Jamie Scott dancing Group Primary Accumulation in the lobby of the Barnes Foundation. Crouched on the floor, holding my breath a little to maintain the atmospheric silence, my gaze held in the turn of a neck, the opening of a knee, the crease of thigh, elbow. All of this repeated. All of this gentle. All of this seen from all sides.
The day before, I led a panel as part of the In the New Body project in a small theater of the Barnes. The panel was shared by a group of choreographers, each presenting videos of their performances and talks on the influence of Brown on their approach to thinking, making, performing. Stacy Spence said that as a dancer for Brown, he had to learn how to “begin again,” and to “enter into a new body” with each piece they created. He found himself asking the following questions in order to look at “the origin of a new idea:”
How am I as a person?
How do I take in the world?
What am I interested in?
How does my body work when I’m discovering?
How does my body work with the questions I have?
When I take the time to ask these questions of myself, everything slows down. I have to stop. I have to notice what I am doing in that very moment. What sensations am I feeling? What am I noticing? Where is my body? What does it want, what does it feel? Asking these questions brings the origins of choreographing down to the very instant of noticing. Imagine four decades of noticing as an art form. Imagine a room of people asking themselves these questions with you, asking themselves how their bodies work while you are asking the same of yourself. That’s rehearsal.
Sometimes, I feel sad when I am writing alone in a room and I’m not in a studio with other people. In part this is because I don’t have the resolve to reside within a quality of stillness that is necessary to compose thoughts with language. I’d rather be improvising with my body, letting that be a thought. I’ve avoided writing a reflection on my experience of participating in this project because the memories feel alive when they stay in my body.
The weekend after the panel and the performance of Early Works at the Barnes Foundation, I led gallery talks with curator, Brian Wallace, at the small gallery in Bryn Mawr’s library, which housed an exhibition of visual art by Brown. We ended up giving a revolving talk, as one group of Princeton students came early, and another group came after. I noticed a few generations of former Brown dancers at the gallery, and Brown’s partner, Burt.
Some of the drawings in the exhibition came from their house. So, I was giving a type of academic talk on drawings that Burt had lent. I suddenly felt very conscious of this. I was theorizing on Brown’s use of her right and left hand, her right and left foot, while drawing, and the aesthetic aims of this practice, while someone who was intimately acquainted with them observed.
Later, at a reception that night, Burt said to me, “Each time I make a video now, I wonder if it will be my last.” He said this resolutely without sadness. If anything, there was a sliver of jubilance, maybe a strange thrill of living at the edge of the unknown. I have to say that I hadn’t been preoccupied with this as an artist. I am more afraid of failure than of death.
Why am I saying this to you? I’m writing as a record, to speak of past events, to say that I stood in the middle of a gallery with work that spanned over forty years and pointed at it and talked about things. We all watched the video of Brown performing–drawing It’s A Draw/ Live Feed on a monitor across from her drawings of repetitive shapes. Were we looking at objects, or were we looking inside a mind?
On the panel at the Barnes, Beth Gill talked about the kinds of personal mythologies we build around our idols and heroes. She said that at some point every young artist must undertake the painful process of looking at the ideas and narratives stored within these mythologies. This “historical wrestling” is an event in which artists must “suss out for themselves, which of these projections and perceptions are relevant to who they are.” She likened this experience to slowly turning a barge in the water.
Now I’m thinking about Jamie Scott performing If you couldn’t see me as part of the program of performances of Brown’s Proscenium Works at Bryn Mawr. I got lost in my desire to see Trisha, to somehow touch her collaborative relationship with Robert Rauschenberg. The shadow of the musculature of her back in red light, the effect of the light on the costume, how Rauschenberg knew what kind of creature Brown was, and how he brought it into focus with the lighting and costume design for that piece.
And then watching Marc Crousillat slip into and out of pants in Floor of the Forest that same night, the impossible antagonism of rendering the body creaturely, treating a pair of pants like a curious animal. How is it that Floor of the Forest could recontextualize dance as an obstacle course of clothes and ropes?
What is called “repertory” in dance lexicon in a museum is called a “retrospective” and in a book is called “collected works.” The accretion of decisions to create a work, to name it, to show it. To show it more than once. To show it over a span of years. To teach it to one body and then another and then another. This is where dance is the exception: a body can only house certain material for so long, then it must change. But the work finds new bodies. This is the only way choreography can travel, can be passed down, can accrete.
I don’t want to talk about loss here. I’ve tried to avoid this topic, though I can’t help edging back toward it in my role as a curator, scholar, observer for In the New Body. I read once that the central issue of museology, the science and practice of arranging and organizing museums and their collections, is loss. The preservation of objects is a way of relating a history, but first a history must be accrued. The present must fade into the past, and that past must be worth recounting.
I’m saying this to actively work through the fact that loss is imminent and it serves a purpose. Without loss, history cannot exist. In the New Body is a retrospective, it is an unfolding landscape with an abundance of topographies, each revealing the ways in which Trisha Brown’s practice proliferated through many art forms, eras, and across generations. She explored site-specificity, minimalism, abstraction, sculpture, drawing, release technique, pedestrian movement, embodiment of objects, embodiment of architecture, folk, rock, noise music, opera, which one could say is the quintessential post-modern artistic practice. When younger generations seek to work with two or more of these mediums at the same time, it’s because Brown helped make that way of working a value.
I’m working on slowly turning this barge.
On that panel, David Brick got up and faced the back wall of the theater. He was re-performing Wendy Perron, who re-performed an instruction from Brown, which was to “dance the wall.” In one minute, he had developed a relationship to the wall. This instant was many things: the body as material relating to another material (Brick’s thesis on his work for the panel), an energetic resonance with architecture, showing how a body can know “self” as “place” and vice versa.
Then he sat down and had the sign-language interpreter who was speaking for him that day read various definitions of presence, one of which was “the intentional transparency of directed consciousness,” which he had just shown while dancing the wall. All of this is to say that Brown redefined choreography as matching purpose to consciousness.
The body is material, material is consciousness, consciousness is presence.
I’m inhabiting this archive, and I’m inhabiting this loss. In order for me to acknowledge Brown’s body of work, I must acknowledge the eventual loss of it. I must acknowledge that this is the course of time, that the work is a record of time. It is a record of a woman who was not held by the limits of form, it is a record of a woman who created her own structure, her own practice, who asked was what true to herself, and worked from there for the rest of her career.
My other arm is extended outward toward an infinite horizon. My fingers reach to touch the empty space beyond the landscape of In the New Body. I am filled with questions, I am filled with the memory of what is possible.