Trisha Brown arose from an era in which American dance found itself in a kind of stasis. With a few notable exceptions, the idioms of modern dance had, for many, reached their creative and constructive limits. The emergence of a new vocabulary in the 1960s was predicated by a social climate of upheaval and the interrogation of established dance theory. Along with her contemporaries, Brown helped forge a new, decentralized form of communication that launched a postmodern dance aesthetic. With the formation of the Trisha Brown Dance Company in 1970, her work has evolved organically in expansive directions (including opera, dance cycles, and large-scale pieces for proscenium stage), with each new phase a distillation of the singular movement style she has created.
In 1961, Brown began attending choreographer Robert Dunn’s composition classes in Merce Cunningham’s New York studio. In this laboratory climate of new ideas—participants included Robert Rauschenberg, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer—a wide range of creative and social concerns converged into what became known as the Judson Dance Theater (1962–1967), of which Brown was a founding member.1 The experimental performance group was loosely configured, but its participants rallied around a then-revolutionary concept that aimed to erase the distinctions between art and life. Informed by the cross-pollination of artistic disciplines and guided by an egalitarian ethos of nonevaluative critique, all subjects and devices—nondancers, games, improvisation, pedestrian action—were considered legitimate material.
Although the first planned Judson/Walker Art Center residency in 1967 was reconsidered,2 many of the company’s associates reconvened as the Grand Union (1970–1976). In 1971 they opened the Walker’s new building with a residency and performances, the group’s first significant paid engagement.3 With Brown in its ranks, they transformed the concourse/lobby into an explosion of cardboard boxes and miscellany, while climbing over and around a precarious cagelike structure—an early test of spatial and stage boundaries.
Rejecting the tyranny of a rigid vocabulary, the new dance examined beauty, style, history, and context. It was anti-academy, strove for personal authenticity, and transmuted ephemeral ideas into being through movement. The latter is personified in Homemade (1965), a deconstruction of perception versus reality. With a projector strapped to her back, Brown moved simultaneously with a film (by Robert Whitman) of herself performing identical movements. With Floor of the Forest4 (1970), she conjured a symbolic woodland indoors with a grid made of pipes and clothing suspended from the ceiling; in Man Walking Down the Side of the Building (1970), she challenged the dancer’s traditional nemesis—gravity—using pulleys and ropes instead of leaps and spins.
The first Accumulation pieces (made in 1971) were based on mathematical growth patterns and entailed the enactment of a basic exercise (a rotating fist with extended thumb) in repetition. New motions were added at intervals, creating a string of systematically repeated actions that could be staged almost anywhere. More than an exercise in simple locomotor movement, Accumulation marked a significant moment—it was both a dance and not a dance. Either way, it emphasized Brown’s capacity to subtly demonstrate her thinking process while leaving the imagined possibilities wide open. She complicated the task in the Walker debut of Group Primary Accumulation (1973), which was performed on rafts floating on Minneapolis’ Loring Pond.5 Displacement (dancers floated into new positions while enacting the dictum) resulted in a changed physical proximity to the ground/water and to each other, further causing an unconscious shift in variation.
With each new dance, Brown posed a set of problems, sometimes to be solved through actions, other times spawning only new questions. The Walker-commissioned landmark Glacial Decoy6 (1979) deliberately shunned the buildup of movement, instead relying on sudden and unexpected shifts in phrase that fractured traditional patterns of climax. An indicator of the large-scale, theatrically complex work to come, Glacial Decoy crystallized the personal choreographic language Brown has developed and continues to hone. In Son of Gone Fishin’ (1981), music and choreography were used as parallel developments; Lateral Pass7 (1985) demanded attention to the purely mechanical actions of falling and standing via time-based construction. Brown’s commanding use of controlled impulse is elemental in later works such as El Trilogy (2000), an homage to the spirit and structures of jazz.
In Brown’s view, “the image, the memory, must occur in performance at precisely the same moment as the action derived from it. Without thinking, there are just physical feats.”8 The postmoderns lifted the veil on dance creation, acknowledging its inner workings and moving out of its hermetically sealed world into a wider domain of ideas, debate, and criticism. This new platform opened the door for reflexive dialogue between traditions and vocabulary, making room for a subversion of history, even as a new one was created.
Attendees in Dunn’s class included David Gordon, Yvonne Rainer, Paul Berenson, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, and others. ↩
From unpublished correspondence between Steve Paxton and then-Performing Arts coordinator John Ludwig. Jill Johnston and Yvonne Rainer fell ill; Ludwig expressed reservations about Judson’s proposed work being the right approach for the Walker at that time (Walker Art Center Archives). ↩
For details on the circumstances surrounding the residency and its larger philosophical implications for the group, see Sally Banes, Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977), 227. ↩
For its Walker-sponsored performance in 1979, the work incorporated piles of clothing, books, and other debris, and was therefore titled Rummage Sale and Floor of the Forest. ↩
The work was titled Raft Piece for the 1974 Walker performance. ↩
Set by Robert Rauschenberg. ↩
Set by Nancy Graves. ↩
Quoted in Lise Brunel, Trisha Brown (Paris: Éditions Bougé, 1987), 46. ↩