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. (more…)
“Peter and I see the Baroque and the postmodern as these sort of bookends that relate to each other, are in conversation with each other over the arc of 300 years.”
Megan Bridge and Peter Price, artistic directors of <fidget>, were invited by Andrew Repasky McElhinney to select a film to screen at Andrew’s Video Vault, McElhinney’s long-running film series. They chose to screen Trisha Brown’s staging of Claudio Monteverdi’s Baroque opera L’Orfeo (Orpheus) from 2006. Brown’s hypnotic choreography walks a fine line between dance and theater, and creates overarching patterns and structures that sweep through the entire ensemble of performers. A total symbiosis of music, text and movement. The screening is March 10 at 8pm at the Rotunda, 4014 Walnut Street in West Philadelphia. Free. 170 minutes.
We caught up with Megan, herself a choreographer and performing arts programmer, to ask her thoughts about L’Orfeo and why she chose to screen it.
Tell us about the event.
Megan Bridge: We’re screening L’Orfeo at a free film series in West Philly called “Andrew’s Video Vault.” Andrew Repasky McElhinney, an experimental filmmaker and very close friend, has been running the video vault for thirteen years and has only recently started to invite guest curators to select films for screening. Peter and I will be giving a very brief introduction to the film, talking about its context and why we chose it.
What made you choose L’Orfeo over others?
Megan Bridge: Peter and I are really interested in opera as a form, as Gesamtkunstwerk. But opera today is hard in a lot of ways. We are so used to the frameworks, in contemporary culture, of postmodernism and the distance it creates between subjects and their emotions. For experimental artists, an emoting subject is somewhat laughable, and a lot of opera is all about this. But listening to Baroque opera is a really different experience from listening to opera that came later: Monteverdi’s work, and in particular L’Orfeo, really ushered in the operatic form. In the Baroque, art was so tied to structure and formula, and the “stories” were so allegorical and poetic, almost to the point of abstraction. Then opera evolved over hundreds of years, becoming more and more overblown, dramatic, and tied to narrative. At the same time there was the rise of ballet, which often appeared in opera of course, and romanticism. Modern dance finally showed up on the scene in the early 20th century, sprinkling on a few decades of angst-ridden narrativity with Martha Graham leading the way—don’t get me wrong, I love Graham! Trisha Brown and her postmodern cohorts in the 1960s, following Merce Cunningham’s lead of course, were like a breath of fresh air! Peter and I see the Baroque and the postmodern as these sort of bookends that relate to each other, are in conversation with each other over the arc of 300 years, in the sense that they are both dealing with abstraction and have the same impatience with narrativity. This production of L’Orfeo, with Brown’s postmodernism rubbing up against Monteverdi’s Baroque, is an amazing way to get a real sense of that relationship.
What is the job of a choreographer in an opera and how does Trisha Brown play with this form?
Megan Bridge: The role of the choreographer in opera is really different depending on the opera and the production. Often the choreographer is just in charge of the full-on dance sections in an opera, and the director is in charge of the movements of the singers and the overall movement and blocking of all the performers throughout the work. In L’Orfeo Trisha Brown has both the choreography credit and the director credit. I love it when opera companies bring in dance-based practitioners to both choreograph and direct, because they are able to bring a different perspective to the whole work. You can really see this in Brown’s L’Orfeo. The dancers aren’t just eye candy, brought in to give the audience a little entertaining break. And the singers don’t just stand around and wave their arms while they sing, relying on the dancers to bring a more kinetic presence into the work. Every time they are on stage, the singers are performing task-based choreography, for example: simple but precise hand and arm gestures, standing completely still and neutral but with a particular facing and on a particular spot, or walking on time to the meter while weaving in and around the other performers in a specific pattern. When the dancers are on stage they join as members of the ensemble. Their choreography is more complicated, involving partnering, weight sharing, etc. But the singers really rise to the challenge…leaping, going to the floor, and really getting fully physically invested in the work. All the performers, not just the dancers, are barefoot. For the entire opera Brown is really blurring the distinctions between the singers and dancers, and this is really satisfying to see.
Why does the opera and Brown’s choreography work for you?
Megan Bridge: What makes this opera work for me is the way the task-based movement and the abstraction of the libretto reveal this really simple humanity. When the messenger comes to tell Orpheus that Euridice is dead, the libretto simply says:
Messenger: Your wife is dead.
Orpheus: Oh woe is me.
It’s so non-emotive it’s almost ironic. And while the performers are singing these lines, Brown gives them these really simple gestures to do—no overblown heart-clutching or fake crying. The simplicity of the gesture and the libretto work together to leave room for the performers to be themselves. The work really comes alive through the deep investment of the performers as they carry out their tasks, weaving together the complicated tonal and rhythmic structure of the music and simultaneously performing Brown’s movement. There’s no room or time for overblown embellishment. There is concentration, commitment, and deep investment: both the singers and the dancers of the Trisha Brown Company exist so exquisitely as themselves inside of Brown’s movement. The choreographic approach very much reminds me of David Gordon, another post-modern choreographer from the Judson Dance Theater era, who, when I worked with him on a project in 2014, made us carry our scripts in particular ways in order to prevent us from unnecessary gesticulations or physically “over-acting.”
Having created your own dance work from Robert Ashley’s opera Dust, are there specific elements of the choreography that really stick out for you?
Megan Bridge: I love the way Brown maps bodies in space, the way she uses the bodies as a “chorus,” not at all to act out the narrative but simply to provide a structure which houses the narrative. Her choreography is spacious and abstract, allowing narrative to arise in relation to the libretto, the music, or the movement, but not forcing narrative on any of them.
Megan Bridge is a dancer, choreographer, curator, and dance writer. She currently co-directs <fidget>, a platform for her collaborative work with sound artist Peter Price. <fidget> has toured to New York, Berlin, Vienna, Zurich, Dresden, Arizona, and Johannesburg. In 2009, Bridge and Price founded thefidget space, a hub for research and experimental performance which has hosted dozens of local, national, and international artists. Bridge has worked as a dancer with choreographers and companies such as Group Motion, Jerome Bel, Lucinda Childs, David Gordon, Susan Rethorst, and Willi Dorner, and has studied with Deborah Hay, Xavier LeRoy, Jan Fabre, and Miguel Guittierez. She is the executive director of thINKingDANCE.net, where she also writes and edits, and she has published articles in Dance Chronicle, Dance Magazine, and Pointe Magazine. She holds a BFA in dance from SUNY Purchase, and lives in a warehouse in Kensington, Philadelphia with her husband and two kids. www.thefidget.org
The letter below was sent to Trisha Brown after she performed her solo If you couldn’t see me at the American Dance Festival in Durham, NC in June 1994.
References which would’ve been clear to her but not to you, probably, include: Betsy Frederick, a mutual friend in Albuquerque, New Mexico; the costume, which consisted of a very scoop-backed leotard, tights, and a long panel from the waist, front and back; “Bob’s device” which is the idea of not facing front; Bob himself, the artist Robert Rauschenberg, who made the music and costume; the lighting designer is Spenser S. Brown.
The Trillium of the last sentence is another Trisha Brown solo which she performed at the Judson Memorial Church in 1962. [S.P.]
27 June 94
I wrote to Betsy Frederick yesterday including something about your solo. And it lingered. I woke with your scapulae floating in the part of the brain which remembers such things.
Spenser, Bob and especially you have made a deeply satisfying artifact. The costume is exactly right. It is impossible to separate it from the light, because you are clothed in both. The revel and revelation of your spinus erectae, scapulae and delicate pearls of the spinous processes in the lumbar, side-lit for maximum bas-relief, sent a gasp through the audience.
You cannot know, but may have heard from others, what the sculpture of your back can accomplish. It is Indonesian in line and volumes: richly shadowed and starkly lit in its highlands, it became an abstraction shifting from an anatomical event with muscles like a whippet to a large looming face to a mask—something alien and frightening although weirdly comic as the rest of the body reconnects and we see again a back.
Bob’s device gives us three things in the end. It refutes the frontal convention, as you did once before, with the standing figure in For MG: the movie, so Magritte-like. It gives the solo a real task to accomplish—a simple idea, one we can examine for effects and learn from: for instance, the enlivening of the upstage space and how the black curtain is not just an expanse of dark background to contrast with your lit figure and push you toward us, visually. Your orientation declares it a dark vista, and it acquires a dimensionless depth.
And last, facing up relieves you of facing us. I believe you are essentially a private person who almost perversely, mothlike, headed for the limelight. Your dances are never less than brilliantly constructed and (bless your excellent company) danced. Yet they do not yield to our gaze. They are hyperactive; over-rich in thrust, drop, dart, scamper, buck, throw, lift, swoop, twist. They don’t settle happily onstage. They twist metaphorically too, subtlety and irony being common.
The performance style is sometimes like seeing animals in one’s headlights. Or an insect, however beautifully exotic, pinned. Who was that masked woman?
Facing upstage, you aren’t blinking uncomfortably in the light of our avid eye. You know you cannot know or concern yourself with how you may look to us, and so try to deflect us. With that issue aside and privacy assured, you seem to relax and really put out. Lordy, how you dance. Pure, assured, full-bodied, wild and fully self-knowing.
We are not watchers but onlookers. You are not our focus exactly but a medium mediating between something, some unknowable or unthinkable vision in the upstage volume or, sometimes beyond into the velour fathom into which we project. This illusory upstage spatial pliability—from positive dancing figure on black to negative dancing figure in front of potentized unguessable empty space is deeply satisfying, mythic and wholly theatrical.
I grew fond of the music. It sets you up well, for one thing. We watch the front curtain lights, beginning to…drift, in spite of ourselves. Then the curtain rises and the black is a color, not an absence. Our eyes see you and then the moonscape of your back, the chiaroscuro which, as you raise your arms, fascinates us bringing us closer and rendering you enormous, a woman with a whole scene on her back. It is like puppets and how we adjust to their scale, along with the unsettling fact that the puppeteer’s whole body is visible and active, too.
This is analogous to the figure-ground flipping revealed as the dance progresses—partial or full-figure, back is front, front is back, looks as on-lookers. When, in philosophy, so much is achieved and the means are minimal, the word used to describe the effect is “elegant.” And so it is.
One quibble. The ending. We have gotten used to these materials, and having made your move, it is time to stop. The light again is dressing you. Your arms float high then drop and swoop to their asymmetrical positions beside you, fingertips alert to your surface and your figure’s suddenly quiet mass. The light fades; just right. But the music—was it, too, faded out? It felt like acoustical short shrift. One further flip could be achieved if it played on a moment in darkness—we could lose all our visual foci and be engulfed in the black you have sourced; so we might experience what we have seen beyond you on the stage, but only as a distance. We could be you in it, or experience what you might have felt as you played with it, faced it. The music would keep us entranced as our bearings fade, your visual surface recedes. We could shift from the specificity of the visual solids to more oceanic senses—the drone and the dark.
I run on. Let me just say that I think Trillium would be proud of you.
Letter To Trisha reprinted with kind permission, published originally in Contact Quarterly, Vol. 10 No. 1, Winter/Spring 1995.
Steve Paxton was born in Arizona in 1939. He was a member of the José Limón Company in 1959 and a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1961 to 1964. He was a founding member of the seminal dance collectives Judson Dance Theater (1962–64) and Grand Union (1970–76). Throughout his career, Paxton’s singular investigation of improvisation has opened new ideas in creating and composing choreographic work. It was during his time with Grand Union that he first formulated Contact Improvisation, a dynamic, partner-based dance that is now practiced worldwide. From Contact Improvisation, he developed the movement practice Material for the Spine in 1986, which examines movement outward from the core of the body.
In June 2015 Carla Peterson presented the Dance/USA Honors award to Trisha Brown at Dance/USA’s Annual Conference. Peterson is the director of the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography and former artistic director of New York Live Arts and Dance Theater Workshop and executive director of Movement Research. What follows are her remarks:
Here are a few words about why it means so much to me to present this Dance/USA Honor Award to the inestimable Trisha Brown.
I was never a dancer—outside of being your average kid in a tutu—but was someone who early on had a strong affinity for kinesthetic intelligence and poetry. I was instead a gymnast, fourth in the country on trampoline. But with the verifiable cutefest that gymnastics for women was becoming at the time in the 1960s, it ceased to be interesting to me so I quit and turned to visual arts and, ultimately, to dance and performance, working over the years as a curator, artistic director, writer, and occasional performer.
What sealed it for me? Seeing Viola Farber back then, early Nikolais, early Tharp, Merce, and even earlier, the recently passed and incomparable Maya Plitsetskaya.
And seeing Trisha—more than equal, in her own revolutionary way, to these, her fellow giants.
But it would be sheer hubris of me to suggest that I have something to say about Trisha that hasn’t already been said by countless knowledgeable folks: curators, international festival producers, critics, scholars, visual arts leaders, peer artists and longtime colleagues. This luminary, who has so deeply influenced succeeding generations of artists over the course of her long, brilliant, multidirectional and game-changing career, has had so much written about her, so many awards.
So I am going to go personal. Here are a couple of deeply happy reminiscences . . . for which I have enormous gratitude.
Twice I had the beyond meaningful chance as a curator to present Trisha and the company. The first time—in conjunction with the TBDC’s [Trisha Brown Dance Company’s] fortieth anniversary celebration year—at Dance Theater Workshop (DTW) as part of our Season of Returns program, which was intended to bring back reprisals of seminal works by influential makers. That rationale was a gigantic understatement when applied to Trisha.
On DTW’s at least decent-size stage, with its intimate 184-seat house, we all got the rare opportunity to be with the company, up close. Trisha, an internationally acclaimed artist who has been on some of the most prominent operatic stages in the world, was here on our stage, her dancers and dances all flesh and blood and liquid bones, with that unpredictable yet mathematical rigor. We had the chance to experience such a wonderful level of intimacy with these dancers and her works.
We got to be up close with:
Foray Foret (1990), complete with marching band—I had been at the then still young Wexner Center in 1991 when we presented it there with the tremendous OSU Marching Band. For MG: The Movie (1991), shot by Trisha from the wings from her Back to Zero series, and the marvelous reprise of Watermotor (1978), this time with a male dancer returning to Trisha’s company, the wonderful Neal Beasley. The original documentation by Babette Mangolte with the beautifully watery Trisha was projected on our lobby wall, in lovely contrast to the very propulsive embodiment of that same movement language by Neal on the stage. (more…)
Before the feeling of the dance ever leaves you, you stop and look at the space around the dancers’ bodies. You notice areas of the Barnes in ways you did not perceive before. The dances were fluid and minimal—and yet, they held your gaze completely, made you aware of where you were standing, and perhaps even, how you were standing there; this is the gift of Trisha Brown’s choreography. You might walk outside and feel that everything is both completely the same and completely different than it was before. You might imagine how your body is relating to the space around you, to the sides of the building, to the objects in your path, and this is so: dance is both no more and no less than that. Brown said, “I have limbs, and I know them well; they are directly plugged into my imagination, and this is precisely what I need.”[i]
Imagine for a moment that you are a dancer. With the body you have, whether you’ve been trained in any way or you haven’t, you are a dancer and your body is your material. Imagine that you are an artist and you have precisely what you need to make your art. How will you set out to make that art? What’s the first action you will take with your body? What if you encounter someone whose body, like yours, is an artistic tool? What will you do with that person?
Maybe you’ll lean against each other shoulder-to-shoulder, maybe you’ll stand across from one another and rest sticks on your arms, maybe you’ll push up against that person’s back while twisting your wrists up over your head. The possibilities are endless, and you’ve only just started. But if this experiment is going to be successful, you need to develop a language for what you are doing so that you can work together, so that your individual bodies can work as if they are one—one with one another, one with objects, and one with the surfaces on which you move. As you develop this language, you will need to practice many times, you will need to refine your communication, and you will start to see new connections and relationships forming. Maybe this will make you want to become a choreographer.
The legacy of the 1960s Judson Dance Theater of which Trisha Brown, as well as Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Lucinda Childs, Carolee Schneemann, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Robert Rauschenberg, and others were part, provided such an impulse. The artistic process was democratized: if you could listen, look, touch, move, or talk, you already had the necessary skills to initiate art making. The method with which you applied these skills would become your artistic process. This was the historic turn of the post-modern era, when art was taken down from its modernist pedestal and placed in the hands of the people. (more…)
“When the dancers seemed to be stuck or unable to bring an idea to life, she’d come bursting out of her chair and bust into movements that would ignite the room into flurries of activity and invention.”
Brandi Norton and Aaron Mattocks in Goats by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Brandi Norton was a dancer for the Trisha Brown Dance Company from 1997 to 2006. She continues to restage projects for the company.
Q: What was your first encounter with Trisha Brown’s work?
Brandi Norton: I took a workshop with Carolyn Lucas in 1997 and that was my first encounter with Trisha’s work. I remember feeling a thousand different things, but blissfully confused and relieved above all else. Relieved because after a lifetime of rigorous containment, I could finally let go into something that made sense to my body. Confused because the act of letting go seemed impossible. Why was it so difficult? If I asked my body to let go, why would it not respond? What would I have to do in order for it to do so? How could I maintain the rigor of clear intention and virtuosic athleticism while simultaneously letting go of superfluous movements? This blissful and infuriating confusion would continue to inspire and motivate me throughout my career.
Q: What were rehearsals like?
BN: Rehearsals with Trisha were exciting, challenging, and funny. For the almost nine years that I was lucky enough to be in a studio with her, I always sought to bring my A game. She would ask simple questions that would spark inventions: “How can you stay low to the ground and stick all of your limbs out at the same time, and keep moving?” When the dancers seemed to be stuck or unable to bring an idea to life, she’d come bursting out of her chair and bust into movements that would ignite the room into flurries of activity and invention. The challenge was to remain open to possibilities while being brave enough to act on instinct and creativity. This was immensely exciting, this call and response way of creating movement. When unencumbered by self-doubt, these rehearsals were completely fulfilling.
Q: If you had one Trisha Brown dance to take with you to a desert isle what would it be and why?
BN: To dance or to watch? I would have to take two. To dance, I would take Winterreise. To watch, M.O. While one might perceive Winterreise as not having an enormous amount of dancing for the dancers to dance, in actuality there is an enormous amount of movement in it. The piece took over a year to create and went through many evolutions during that time. We began with large and loud movements that slowly got boiled down to the essence of themselves. Performing the piece was challenging because it felt essential to keep the history of each movement in there somehow. Maybe it was simply acknowledging the complexity of each movement, while striving for simplicity. Making this piece was also a deeply personal experience, where I got to know Trisha in a new way. While delving into some of the songs, we explored physical vulnerabilities that revealed personal histories. It was also incredible to be so close to Simon while he was singing! Holding him up while he was at full voice was incredibly moving. I’ll never forget being in the studio when we first ran through Die Krähe, I almost burst into tears from the power and beauty of the song and dance coming together finally. And M.O., because, well, I think it is just the most perfect dance. Jennifer Tipton said of the piece, “There is simplicity and there is chaos. Simplicity is boring and chaos is totally uninforming. And right there at that line, between simplicity and chaos is complexity. And I think that is the wonderful place that this piece exists in.” I couldn’t agree more.
Q: How did Trisha’s dances evolve during your time with the company?
BN: In the time that I was in the company, Trisha seemed to remain excited by things that were new to her. Whether it was music, technology or different styles of movement, she was always looking for ways to innovate herself and her work. I was immensely inspired by her bravery in doing so. She could have easily made dances in the same style, we all would have loved dancing them and I am sure her audiences would have loved seeing them. But she wanted to see what jazz music bring to her work, what motion-capture would bring, what Lieder would bring. Embracing these challenges demonstrated her truly post-modernist approach to artistry.
Q: What stays with you the most today?
BN: What I carry with me from working with Trisha is an openness to ideas and curiosity about the unknown. On my very first day in the company, we were working on the very last section of L’Orfeo. There was an incredible amount of complicated and difficult partnering and I was overwhelmed by it all. In a run-through that was videotaped, Trisha can be heard off-camera shouting, “Keep going Brandi!” I carry that with me always.
Brandi Norton is featured in this excerpt from L’Orfeo.
“Working with Trisha Brown was like learning to bicycle: once a Trisha Brown dancer, always a Trisha Brown dancer. The dance, her dance, never leaves you completely—you can pick it up again and again.”
Iréne Hultman was a dancer for Trisha Brown Dance Company from 1983 to 1988. She was later a rehearsal director (2006–2009) and continues to teach for the company.
Q: What was your first encounter with Trisha Brown’s work?
Iréne Hultman: Elizabeth Garren and Mona Sultzman came to Stockholm, I believe in 1976, and taught Locus. I was in heaven—for me the experience was Butoh meeting time meeting movement meeting abstraction meeting emotion meeting instinct meeting the unknown—the downbeat, the architectural line, and the rhythm suited my senses. I also saw a Glacial Decoy rehearsal with Nina Lundborg and Lisa Kraus that blew my mind—again the visual rhythm where the abstract becomes narrative without being a defined story but more likened to a musical score. The kinetic experience while viewing was unescapable.
Q: What were rehearsals like? How did Trisha create work on the dancers? How did she talk about the work to you? What was the most challenging aspect to master? What was the most natural to connect to?
IH: Rehearsals were very focused whether there were much action or much repetition. It was a sense of time management: this is the actual time carved out for this research separated from the world outside. The most challenging and also intriguing for me was the constant repetition. And with that decipher the innate physical micro order of intent. For me Trisha’s physical rhythm was and is just marvelous to execute.
Q: How did Trisha talk about the work to you?
IH: The impetus she gave to us while I was there were mostly in images, adjectives, and/or actual directions. Since she was active as well you tended to pick up on her energy level or what you interpreted as “reason.” As a dancer you had to enhance, continue or add to what she had created—it was very welcoming in trying to find out, trying to expand, explore—and possibly fail. In the studio and onstage Trisha was exuberant, full of life and energy, easy to laugh and embrace life. Her being was very positively contagious.
Q: If you had one Trisha Brown dance to take with you to a desert isle what would it be and why?
IH: I have a hard time deciding between Glacial Decoy and Set and Reset. Glacial Decoy has a very joyous execution with surprise elements that requires a total commitment to direction and awareness. It directs itself outwards and inwards at the same time. I particular like the dialogue of the technical exuberance with the quotidian instances. It makes me happy to dance. Set and Reset is also a very joyous dance. The drive of direction and connections makes it an ongoing spill of movements. Dancing it you have a feeling of riding the wave. You can’t help but be happy dancing Set and Reset.
Q: How did Trisha’s dances evolve during your time with the company?
IH: Trisha’s investigation of the body never stopped. Her use of the body’s architecture and the architecture of the space seemed to be in constant investigation, including energetically and rhythmically. Her scores both became more complicated and layered and at the same time they had a direct simplicity about them. I would say during the time I danced with the company her artistic endeavors and interest became “bigger.” There was no surprise to me that when that opportunity presented itself, she was interested in opera.
Her evolution as a dance maker I think did go full circle. While experiencing her latest piece I’m going to toss my arms- if you catch them they’re yours (2011), it seemed that her movement vocabulary returned to a quotidian attitude. For me it was very reassuring, recognizable, and logical.
Q: What stays with you the most about Trisha’s work today?
IH: Working with Trisha Brown was like learning to bicycle: once a Trisha Brown dancer, always a Trisha Brown dancer. The dance, her dance, never leaves you completely—you can pick it up again and again. Her kinetic vocabulary is so natural and complicated, so logical and so impossible that it stays with you. Ideas and intention changes, concepts change, but the body is a body is a body. You learned to trust your instinct and mind as well as the body while working with Trisha Brown. There was always a listening attitude towards yourself—and others—that later carried over in my own investigation as a dance maker.
To say that any one thing has influenced me would be too simple. I am a product of Trisha Brown in a way: she—as a dance artist, as a woman—has inspired and influenced me. She still does.
Photo: Irene (2nd from left) with other former company dancers performing Spanish Dance.
Reprinted from Fifty Contemporary Choreographers published by Routledge, edited by Martha Bremser. Used by permission of the author.
Trisha Brown’s dances are shaped by dreams of levitation, by geometry, enigma, physics, by memory, mathematics and geography, by language. Her gestural imagery challenges perception of the moving body, making the impossible appear possible. Imagining that dancers can fall not only down but up or sideways, Brown makes the rules of life seem arbitrary, offering an exhilarating transcendence of physical limits. Since 1962 her choreography has explored the interplay of intellect and instinct, paradoxes of logic and non sequitur, interpenetrations of present and past, coincidences of abstract form and mythic action, and the edges between visibility and invisibility.
Brown was born in rural Aberdeen, Washington, where she immersed herself in her wilderness environment, in dance, and in athletics. While attending Mills College in California she studied modern dance technique and composition derived from the teachings of Martha Graham and Louis Horst. At a workshop with the dance innovator Anna Halprin, she explored experiential anatomy, task-based improvisation, breath and vocalization, and sensory awareness of the environment. This led to further investigations of experimental structures in the early 1960s in New York City—improvisational ‘rulegames’ with Simone Forti, indeterminate dances and spoken text with Yvonne Rainer, ‘happenings’ with Robert Whitman, Fluxus events with poets and composers, and performance pieces with Robert Rauschenberg.
At the Merce Cunningham studio, Brown was introduced to chance organization of movement and stage space. The aesthetic philosophy of the composer John Cage also became a source of ideas through his performed lectures and through Robert Dunn’s Cage-sponsored composition course. Dunn emphasized conceptual strategies for composing dances, influenced by chance scores, Bauhaus approaches to materials and structure, Eastern philosophy, and existentialism. Brown presented her earliest works with Judson Church Dance Theater, the home of a revolutionary movement in dance composition that evolved from Dunn’s classes. Trillium (1962), Lightfall (1963), and Rulegame 5 (1964) were highly physical responses to improvisational scores. In Trillium she took simple instructions to sit, stand, or lie down to illogical conclusions and ended up ‘lying’ flat out in the air, suspended.
During the late 1960s, Brown initiated a series of autobiographical pieces exploring self-transformation and gesture: Homemade (1966), Inside (1966), Skunk Cabbage, Salt Grass, and Waders (1967), Ballet (1968), and Dance with a Duck’s Head (1968). Full of physical and emotional risk, these were personally created rituals in which Brown posed the self as a dilemma, making identity vulnerable to disassembly. More performance-art pieces than dances, their predecessors were ‘happenings’. Brown conflated private and public spaces by using a barely converted industrial loft as both home and studio, putting domestic gestures into her dances like found objects. She overlaid personal history with live improvisation, exorcising, for example, the violence of hunting experiences as a teenager with her father. She pursued sudden disorientations in off-balance moves, hurling herself, plummeting, and rebounding. With filmic projections she took metaphoric flight from the constraints of femininity, using props like tutus and tightropes to fulfil fantastical images.
From 1968 to 1975 Brown created a series of suspension works, constructing specialized surfaces and devising equipment that enabled dancers to traverse them. In Planes (1968), Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970), The Floor of the Forest (1970), Leaning Duets (1970), Walking on the Wall (1971), Roof Piece (1971), and Spiral (1974), she suspended dancers in unusual relationships to gravity. She celebrated downtown Manhattan’s architecture, its raw interior lofts and expansive outside spaces. She estranged pedestrian activities by shifting around the ways that floors, walls, or ceilings frame them: three women navigated a huge pegboard wall, using holes as hand and footholds; a man keeled forward atop a seven-story building and ambulated downwards perpendicular to it; performers climbed in and out of clothing strung horizontally across a huge pipe grid rigged at eye level in an empty room. Dancers walked on the walls of the Whitney Museum, viewed by spectators as if from a tall building looking down, or they cantilevered out from pillars in a loft space, spiraling their way around horizontally until they reached the ground. Elevated above the city, performers stationed on rooftops relayed gestures across a mile-long span of skyline.
Overlapping these works, from 1971 to 1975, Brown invented eight dances in a new ‘accumulation’ genre, including Accumulation (1971), Group Primary Accumulation (1973), Accumulation With Talking (1973), and Group Primary Accumulation: Raft Version (1974). She pared movement down to sparse gestures played out serially, following mathematical dictates. Standing or prone, in solo or unison group forms, in museums, parks, or floating on rafts on a lagoon, in silence or while talking, she and her dancers articulated one move, then another, then returned to the first, moved on to the second, added a third, and so on until they had accumulated a list of basic flexions and rotations of the joints, negating any rationale for moving other than being attentively present. (more…)
Mariah Maloney was a dancer with the Trisha Brown Dance Company from February 14, 1995, to December 12, 2002, and has since has served on its faculty.
Q: What was your first encounter with Trisha Brown’s work?
Mariah Maloney: On March 9th, 1991 I was an undergraduate student earning a BFA at Purchase College, SUNY. My classmates and I went to see—for the first time—the Trisha Brown Dance Company at City Center in New York City. Today the strong kinesthetic impression I felt in my body while watching the company dance Foray Forêt is still palpable. I remember in Foray Forêt a series of cause and effect moments. Squiggles drawn by a dancer or dancers seemed to vanish as new formations occurred. The dancers careened through the space weaving designs as they cycled and catapulted through center and out to the edges.
The costumes designed by Robert Rauschenberg were made of an effervescent shiny gold fabric. Somehow, the fabric was in contrast to the lush and deeply articulate phrases and choreography and I loved it! I fell in love on the spot with the movement Trisha brought to grace the stage. The dancing and Trisha’s choreography was awe-inspiring. This singular moment at City Center felt amazing and from that moment forward, I was connected to Trisha, her work, and the dancers. Trisha created a world I never wanted to leave.
Q: What you remember about the performance?
MM: I remember in Foray Forêt a quiet moment ignited into a churning choreography that began to dissipate until one delicately articulate female dancer remained on stage. She progressed downstage to perform a simple, sensual and elegant phrase composed of tactile gestures, level changes and body part manipulations. In my tenure with Trisha I explored Foray Forêt phrases; this solo phrase is referred to as “soft phrase.” The night I saw this work Carolyn Lucas performed soft phrase. [See clip below.]
Somewhere in the middle of the solo a marching band emerged traveling around the perimeter of the theater. The sound of the marching band created a festive atmosphere inside the theater. I began to view the gold clad dancers as spirits gathered in the forest within a Victorian painting. I became curious about the band, was the music distracting the dancers? Was the band meant to be there? Was it ok? Somehow, intuitively I understood that Trisha enjoyed playing with the audience by bringing her work and a marching band together creating a juxtaposition in contexts for the viewer.
Toward the end of the dance Trisha appeared adorned in an elegant flowing dress of muted gold. Alone on the stage, she commanded the eye as she filled the stage with her refined yet feisty dancing. The fabric of her dress billowed into the air as she fired initiation after initiation launching into a jump pushing the ground away from her and swinging her arms taking her body into flight. Eventually Trisha became still and seemed circumspect for a moment before proceeding with a quiet tactile gestural phrase interspersed with valiant rifts. While still engrossed in this solo, my eye was directed to the little splashes of movement that kept peeking out from the stage right and left wings. Trisha’s solo was framed by dancers enacting a question and answer. The last image seen on the stage as the lights faded and the dance came to a close was Trisha’s silky articulations. I sat in my chair wanting to see the dance again wishing it could continue forever. I felt transformed and didn’t want to leave this experience. As the dancers moved through a procession of bows, deep inside my body, I kept experiencing the dancing that had just occurred. I fell in love at first sight with Foray Forêt and Trisha Brown’s work.
Q: What were rehearsals like?
MM: Dancers arrived each day fully present ready to take risk, be accountable, remember, develop, play, and work with Trisha and each other. Rehearsals and performances felt like a rich playground of Trisha’s imagination. The company worked together in creative problem solving. Trisha’s rehearsal process was always at the highest level of focus, body intelligence, resourcefulness and intelligence. Working with Trisha Brown was Awe-inspiring, Exhilarating, Alive, Juicy, Free, Sensual, Organic, Beautiful, Lush, Clear, Nature to Nature, Articulate, Edges, Searching, Becoming, Being, Present, Embodiment of Design, Craft, Fresh, and Felt Good. (more…)