Walker Art Center

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Trisha Brown Draws on Her Muse—on Paper and Onstage

By Matt Peiken

In the 1970s, Trisha Brown created notational drawings as road maps for her dancers. Today, one of the founding innovators of postmodern dance draws with abandon, largely as a personal, impulsive expression unto itself. That is, of course, when she can muster the time. If she isn’t steering the vaunted dance company bearing her name, Brown is choreographing opera productions-her next one, she says, will be her last—and she relishes her latest opportunity, through the Walker, to exercise her drawing muse.

An extensive exhibition of Brown’s drawings, including a large-scale piece she is creating live on the show’s preview night, anchors what the Walker is calling the Year of Trisha. A week after the opening, in partnership with the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Dance Season, the Trisha Brown Dance Company will present new work alongside a piece that hasn’t been staged in 20 years. The company returns in July to perform in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and neighboring Loring Park; their roster includes the first U.S. presentation of Brown’s Walking Down the Side of a Building since it debuted in New York in 1970. Other programs include lectures, classes, workshops, and a residency through the University of Minnesota’s dance department.

“People look for connections in my work that stem from knowing me in dance. Polydiscipline people have a hard time introducing their other talents,” Brown says, though that’s never been a problem for her with the Walker. She was a member of the Judson Dance Theater collective who spun off into a new multidisciplinary group, Grand Union, which in 1971 helped celebrate the opening of the Walker’s new building designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes. Brown’s own company has since conducted five residencies here and premiered three dance works through Walker commissions.

At the April 17 preview/opening for the exhibition Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing, Brown will improvise movements across a large piece of paper on the Medtronic Gallery floor, holding charcoal and pastel between her fingers and toes, drawing on the fly. Audiences can watch her work from a live video feed in the Cinema or a live webcast on the Walker Channel (channel.walkerart.org) and the footage of the artist’s performance will then be projected onto the gallery floor throughout the run of the exhibition. Brown’s finished piece will hang nearby. “I don’t just come in with my holsters loaded with charcoal. I get involved in—the word ‘mystery’ comes to me—the mystery of space,” she says. “I have the same adrenaline and heartbeat going as I enter the paper as I do going onstage.”

Brown has also collaborated with visual artists many times during her career. Robert Rauschenberg created the set pieces for Glacial Decoy, her first dance work for proscenium stage, which the Walker commissioned in 1979. In the mid-1970s, Brown devised a personal notation for her dances, because she thought the language she had been taught was insufficient to describe her movements. She drew cubes representing the reach of her entire body, dividing the boxes into numbered squares and using them to paint movement-by-movement schematics for her dancers. Among the pieces in the exhibition are five notational drawings that lay out a dance.

Turning to video to help compose dances freed Brown to make her works on paper more “private and experimental,” says Walker exhibition curator Peter Eleey. “Looking at 35 years of Trisha’s drawings, you watch her discover and embrace ways in which the line she draws can have bigger and more direct connections to her body and its movements.” Brown began exploring her own hands and feet by drawing with them—the right drawing the left, the left drawing the right—as if dancing duets on paper. Later works appear as webs of lines drawn from point to point (often layered atop her handwriting), as squares made from broad, diagonal strokes, and as sculptural squiggles. Though she started drawing, in part, as a way to instruct her dancers, Brown’s most recent works on paper stand less as prescriptive diagrams and more as records of where she has danced. “The alacrity of dancing all these years gives me access to the surface of the paper,” she says of the floor drawings. “I’ve been reading a lot of art books, because I didn’t go to art school. That part of my life is new to me. I don’t know what’s going to come off, what’s going to hit the paper. I can’t control that, and that scares and excites me.”

—Matt Peiken, Walker managing editor