Editor’s Note: When invited to take part in the Trisha Brown: In the New Body project, Steve Paxton chose to write about how Trisha Brown’s movement is transmitted from one dancer to another. Brown’s Glacial Decoy has gone into the Petronio Company repertory as part of the Bloodlines project, Petronio’s homage to important works by post-modern choreographers.
The revelations of this video provoke a kind of awe in me. I have seen live performances of the dance, and though I enjoyed them, I did not see very far into the dance. Maybe it was the costumes, which are tent-like affairs of chiffon. Possibly meant to be transparent to reveal the body, I found their shape more convincing than their transparency. This video of dancers in practice clothes shows me the dance I missed. There is a sort of shimmer to the movement itself, like light reflecting on the moving surface of a pond splendidly aglitter.
Trisha and I met in 1959 at the American Dance Festival in New London, Connecticut. We met warmly over the decades, but she didn’t reveal her inner feelings. She had a poker-faced presentation. Once I challenged her to a game of Double Solitaire, in which all the cards of either partner on the table are available for either person to use in a race to lighten the cards in hand. It was convivial until the game started. Then she struck. She was lightning fast. Her concentration was intense. The competition provoked her and she reveled in it. The game was quickly over; she won, and I had not even got up to speed. I feel the same way examining Glacial Decoy.
What shimmers is her attention, romping through her body, stimulating changes in support, gesture, and the momentum of her parts. There will be other water metaphors in this essay, so I want to think about shimmer for a moment. To know shimmer would be to understand the relation of wavelet and trough to sun. Over the surface, wind will blow unevenly, and wavelets will rebound from shore, running both fore and backward over the surface. Each glitter is a miniature sun, dancing on the surface and reflecting when the mirrored surface wrinkles.
The company, about eight dancers, is well set up in terms of running the phrases; I hear that it isn’t practical to slow down and invest the phrases with all the detail they contain because the dance operates on momentum. This is not just the momentum of the mass of the whole body, but the momentum of swinging arms, legs, the tilt of the pelvis, the inclination of the head, the specific range of a step to constrain the body despite all the elaboration of gesture. The strategy of rehearsing is to add details to the ongoing flow. I am interested in how these details are added in, how the quick changes of physical focus are conveyed.
I think these thoughts because of a rehearsal I saw some years ago in the Brown studio. Diane Madden and Carolyn Lucas were directing it, the company was learning from a video that ran at one side. The company was split, each small group running different aspects of the dance. A new member was being initiated. She seemed to have a good grasp on her phrase, and Diane let her work, then stepped in close to modify movement, make suggestions, remind her of the cascade of details which make up a Trisha Brown phrase. Suggestions like, “As you round the corner let the tension in the supporting leg relax to take the weight down so the torso twist has a ground,” and “Let the arms swing to the side here, while the spine bends and the head turns.” That kind of thing. Of course, I don’t recall the specific instructions, but I remember the kind of instructions Diane made to turn a competently danced series of movements into Trisha Brown movement.
Trisha once remarked that she considered her company to be like brain surgeons. So I suppose Diane, the senior surgeon, was passing on the delicate technical detail that would make the procedure successful.
If we are dancers, we take classes. Eventually we grow technically adept and the range of our movement increases, and with experience the brain part also increases—movement memory, attention to nuances of energy, subtleties in timing. It is this realm of dance into which I believe Trisha saw most profoundly: she built challenges to herself and her company, somehow making objective the materials which elsewhere in dance are subjective, intuitive, or improvisational.
She spoke to me about developing the solo Primary Accumulation. She was in the process of working on it and memorizing it. It is an accumulation of fairly abstract and absurd detailed gestures that seems to be rhythmic, except for occasional hiccups in timing, as though hitching weight up to dive again into the pattern. This recurs, lengthening, and possibly with omissions—it was my impression that sometimes elements I was expecting were absent. But that might be my inability to completely grasp the phrase she presented. However, the unfolded dance spoke as much or more about the extent of her memory than even the patterns of gestures it comprised.
The thing is, every dancer who performs choreography has as a base the movement memory required to do the dance. Indeed, we the audience, if we enjoy a dance, are grateful that if we see it again it will be “the same” down to the apparently most spontaneous moments. We are grateful, and we can hardly imagine the quantities of movement memory required by the entire company to make this be so. In a world of set dances, it can be taken for granted.
I am curious about where Trisha went in her brain, and what she learned to do, and how she managed to convey that to her dancers.
Not having seen Trisha teaching material to her company, I assume that Diane and Lisa are following her model. The dance they are teaching is what Trisha found, in this one instance for this dance, and we can assess its elements.
My overview is that the conventional dance concept of phrasing is absent in favor of a concept of constant flow. Diane and Lisa break down the movement, typically in sections of a second or so, but when these are performed in context there is no break, no breath. Also, the whole body is at play. It looks like any body part may initiate or propel or gesture at any time. But no randomness is involved. Diane and Lisa seem locked into the vagaries of the movement, presenting the same complexities each time they demonstrate.
The movement seems to be composed of one or more body elements activated at any time, typically in different directions and with precisely tempered degrees of energy. This ensures that however fully the arms are flung, or a step displaces the center of movement, or the weight of a leg is rotated or lifted, the flow of movement is not impaired. It will be affected, changed, but it remains coordinated even when it becomes extreme. The dancer remains on her feet, the next moment implicit.
It seems that Trisha had a remarkably developed auto-scan. By this, I mean the ability to move the mind into various parts of the body, to feel the state of each part, to sense what next state may be possible. This is essentially what a dance class tries to implant into the movement mind. Within the structure of the technical study, the dancer begins by imitation and assessing her reflection in the mirror. With repetition, collaboration grows between the movement memory and the body that is a set of enchained sensations—auto-scan—that comprise the dance, the tool which the dancer will take to performance.
Trisha, I would guess, used rigorous improvisation to explore her options, avoiding most things from her previous technical studies. The next step, the selection of impulses, astonishes me. She could both explore and record her newly minted territory. She could then give her company members a precise map through perhaps thousands of decisions. That is a considerable mental achievement, and is the foundation that the Petronio dancers rely upon in learning Glacial Decoy. It is as though a new country has been explored and every footfall, every head turn, every reach of arm or leg of the original journey is replicated. In the land of choreography, the country is defined by the movements of the journey.
This is a cheering thought: the Petronio dancers are being introduced to a dance process perhaps more complicated and idiosyncratic than they have encountered before. The reach of Trisha’s mental development can be passed on. I trust that learning this dance will expand these dancers’ appreciation of what is possible regarding the minutia and potential of each aspect of a movement, plus the highest standard of memory possible.
It is not enough to say that Trisha eliminated conventional dance moves and employed alternatives. The mind we see making the selection appears to be impish, humorous, unpredictable. What is monumental in Glacial Decoy is the variety of impulses comprising the dance. Classical dance, much as classical music, relies on repetition of phrases to fill the time. If repetitious phrasing is dispensed with, the challenge is for a constant flow of new materials to do the same job.
Trisha’s assessment of the body’s potential for new movement is astonishing. The structure is the body upon its feet. Within those broad limits, there is a constant play with gravity, giving into it with various parts in various configurations, and/or resisting it with legs, arms, spine, head, in quick succession or at once. Mood, character, narrative, relation to music, the hallmarks of classical dance, are not the issue here. It is something more elemental; if classical dance relates to Newtonian physics and Newtonian times, Trisha’s model is perhaps more like particle physics. We are given a space of much smaller dance elements, interweaving unpredictably. This causes a dance of elements more basic, slippery, with unknown relationships, to emerge. It is more like Brownian movement (pun intended) than Newtonian mechanics. It is a unique and uniquely developed movement premise, and I have to bow to the long patient hours Trisha must have spent in her studio, and again with her dancers, to translate her vision into Glacial Decoy. The dance in performance has a spritely air, with too many details to take in, tossed blithely off, but all accumulating into a very dynamic experience if only partially knowable. It can exist because of discipline and diligence. My appreciation and respect to Lisa Kraus, Carolyn Lucas, Diane Madden, and the others who were physically perceptive enough to learn this dance and to teach it.
In this video, the language used to convey the coloration of the movement is interesting. “Sloshing,” “crumpling,” are mentioned—ways gravity affects various materials that, after all, are part of the body. Movement can be thought of as wetter or drier. It is another aspect of auto-scan—checking out the water in the body or the support in the joints.
In my eagerness to stress the unique qualities of the dance I have ignored more traditional elements. There are plenty of battements, flexed feet, movement through arabesque, even an attitude or two. But they are not deployed in a traditional fashion because everything contributes to the flow, and is intermixed with gesture and impulse in other parts of the body. Trisha trained her body conscientiously from Modern techniques to yoga, to Kinetic Awareness (Elaine Summers) and Alexander Technique; and developed it in her improvisations and compositions. So although the freedom of limbs she gained is expressed in some familiar gestures, something else is visible in her dance and the movements of Diane and Lisa. Even in the occasional battement, they manage to not employ the classical energy of extension. Not that arms and legs don’t extend, but Western dance has gotten into what I’ll term hyper-extension. It is a remarkable invention, not known in movement elsewhere in the world, barring some aggressive movements in various martial arts.
Hyper-extension is one of the hallmarks of our “Dance,” in which students extend their limbs as far into space as they can, through every arm and leg gesture. It would seem that the average body has the same degree of kinesphere as a ballet dancer, potentially, but the range within which the ballet dancer moves suggests that we have space reserved and only rarely utilized. Hyper-extension is a brilliant way to train dancers to access their joint space, their limb leverage, to overcome the crumpling effect of day to day gravity, and the physical-social norms suggesting that we inhibit our gestures and moderate our energy around other people.
Trisha seems to play between the two, not releasing outward into hyper-extension, finding endless possibility in quotidian potential we all use, though not often in such very quick succession. This is the shimmer; how fast her mind moved within her body. This is the discipline: don’t employ that which most dance does, ignore nothing regarding movement and thereby find much. This is the memory: remember sensations. And this is the art: structure it all into work that is faithful to the basic materials.
In this video, Glacial Decoy is at the stage in which the dancers are exploring the details of the movement, learning to add them in and join the flowing overall romp of it. Diane and Lisa inform the dancers that in the larger structure of the dance, the dancers will be required to be precise with the choreographic space, because the whole dance moves from left to right and back again. As it moves left, the left-most dancer moves offstage behind the wing, and as that happens, a dancer, fully engaged in the movement, enters onstage right. The dancers onstage must be precisely placed so when the new dancer enters, she, too, is in the correct spatial relation. The illusion is that the dance extends beyond the proscenium, that if the frame of the stage could just pan far enough left or right an unlimited number of dancers might be seen. So we see the Petronio company well on their way to achieving a basic tuning of their bodies—the dance-brain dissection Trisha pioneered—with considerably more to accomplish.
About Glacial Decoy, Lisa said to the company, “It’s like a streambed, and there are places where it goes over rapids, and places where it kind of swirls around, and places where it shoots forward like in big gushes, but the thing is, it is an ongoing, unstoppable flow, right? So within that ongoing, unstoppable flow, there are moments of extreme precision, and moments of real relaxation; so it’s just that I would like you to see if you can experience it in that way . . . but don’t think too hard about it, just that you are on that streambed moving along, appreciating the moments, relaxing the moments . . . okay?”
A fine analogy for what I see in the video, it improves if you see or remember a real brook. The stream is boggling in its fluid complexity, but its logic is ongoing, unstoppable.
Steve Paxton and Trisha Brown met as young Western dancers newly in New York City and their lives intertwined in dance classes, performances, and neighborhoods. He has written about her work in Contact Quarterly, Trisha Brown Company, Inc. at the Palindrome, and in Letter To Trisha, which she liked enough to use in her publicity materials. She once invited him to join her company, which he had to decline due to ill health.
Top photo courtesy of Stephen Petronio.