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Trisha Brown: From Falling and Its Opposite, and All the In-Betweens

By Philip Bither

In January 2013, Trisha Brown announced she’d be stepping down as artistic director of the dance company that bears her name. In celebration of her five decades of choreographic experimentation, we publish online for the first time an essay from the exhibition catalogue Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing, created as part of the Walker’s Year of Trisha in 2008. Written by Philip Bither, McGuire Senior Curator of Performing Arts, the essay takes its title from a 1979 conversation between Brown and Yvonne Rainer in which Brown said the core source impulses for her choreography came “from falling and its opposite, and all the in-betweens.”


It is impossible to view today’s contemporary dance, in all its glorious permutations, without seeing the wide-ranging influence of Trisha Brown’s forty-five years of choreographic investigations. The questions that she and her like-minded colleagues in New York posed in the 1960s and 1970s and the solutions they devised revolutionized an art form. Their ideas continue to inject oxygen into the air of studios, performance spaces, art centers, college dance departments, theaters, festivals, and opera houses worldwide.

Many of Brown’s contributions to dance have been widely noted elsewhere: her signature and singular movement vocabulary; her mix of improvisational and set structures; her contribution to the development of the “release” technique (a movement philosophy now nearly ubiquitous in dance training and process-based choreography); her unique collaborative strategies with visual artists and avant-garde composers; and her more recent innovations in opera, art song, and technology-infused dance.

Some of Brown’s less-recognized innovations, including aerial movement inventions, site-specific dance, text-infused works, and equipment-based performance (many of which date back to her first decade as a dance inquisitor), have helped equally to alter the dance landscape. These influences can be found anywhere performers mix language, media, and movement; in the tireless experiments choreographers now employ using equipment and elaborate apparatuses to reimagine notions of space and challenge gravity in new ways; in the use of elaborate rigging to expand the vertical plane; and across site-specific and site-based performance work that is so prevalent again in the work of young choreographers.

Career, Embodied

Brown’s personal history offers some insight into the origins of her art-making ideas. Growing up in Aberdeen, Washington, she spent her youth climbing trees, playing sports, exploring the forests of the Pacific Northwest, and taking tap, ballet, and acrobatic dance classes in town. She attended Mills College in Oakland, California, and visited Connecticut College in the summers to study with Louis Horst, Merce Cunningham, and José Limón. She ran the dance department at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, for two years before traveling to San Francisco to study with Anna Halprin, who was known for her groundbreaking use of improvisation and tasks to spark choreographic ideas. There she met artists who would become longtime friends and coconspirators, in particular dance-makers Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti. Also occasionally in attendance at Halprin’s monthlong class were visual artist Robert Morris and avant-garde composers La Monte Young and Terry Riley.1 Forti, whom Brown calls “deeply brilliant, a breakout artist,” had profound impact on her thinking at the time—particularly Forti’s distinctive mixing of improvisation with set structures.2 Rainer and Forti encouraged Brown to move to New York, and there she indeed landed in 1961.

Within a year, Brown and Rainer would help found a seminal collective of artists who came out of musician Robert Dunn’s experimental composition classes based on the philosophical thinking of composer John Cage. When, in the summer of 1962, a group of these students began to use the Judson Memorial Church basement in Greenwich Village to present evenings of their short works, the Judson Dance Theater (1962–1967) was born. Judson artists shared an anarchic commitment to upending the governing rules of concert dance. They distrusted physical virtuosity for its own sake and instead utilized tasks, chance, and everyday movement forms (sometimes performed by non-dancers) in an effort to bring dance closer to everyday life. They discarded other elements they felt only added artifice to staged dance—special costuming was replaced by street or rehearsal clothing; stage props and traditional scenic elements were supplanted by explorations of architecture and common objects. Many of the Judson artists abandoned music as well, preferring silence, electronic, or found sound. Vertical as well as horizontal space was explored, set choreography was combined with improvisation, and elements of film and visual art were often incorporated. In addition to Brown and Rainer, the leaders of the Judson “movement” represent a breathtaking collection of individual talent: choreographers Steve Paxton, David Gordon, Lucinda Childs, and Deborah Hay, and visual artists Alex Hay, Robert Rauschenberg, and Morris, among many others.

Each of the Judson artists employed their own approaches and strategies—what united them was not just the collective ethic of the 1960s, but a belief that the new dance had to violently shake off both the strictures of classical ballet and the increasingly codified, stifling parameters of modern dance. The radicalism of their approach, wrote Village Voice dance critic Deborah Jowett, “excited some spectators—especially visual artists and musicians who saw their own concerns echoed—and horrified others—especially those members of the dance establishment who mistook the belligerently alternative approach for a state of siege.”3

Without a doubt, the work of the Judson Dance Theater artists laid the foundation for postmodern dance that continues to inform choreographic aesthetics worldwide. Nonetheless, Judson mythology tends to overshadow the independent explorations of its various members during that same period and in the years immediately following. Speaking of her own work, Brown acknowledges as much: “History has its own powerful desires. I worked with the Judson Dance Theater, but for these early works I was on my own and outside the group. My close friends told me I was so far ahead of everyone that nobody understood what I was doing.”4

Trees, Walls, Ropes, Rafts

Brown’s first grouping of non-Judson-related projects, later termed her “equipment cycle,” used various props or simple mechanisms such as pulleys, harnesses, and ropes to both celebrate and confront gravity. The cycle put bodies in extreme situations, played with duration, involved engineering and the laws of physics, and represented pure movement—no narrative or metaphor was intended beyond a minimalist distillation of human body movement forms themselves in rigorous inquiry into whatever concept Brown was exploring in a specific work. Her first equipment piece, Planes (1968), a centerpiece of the Walker’s exhibition Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing, utilizes a large, nearly vertical wall with multiple holes. Three dancers climb the wall using handholds and footholds and often find themselves in perilous positions—sideways, at sharp angles to the floor, or entirely upside down. Projected onto the dancers is a film by Jud Yalkut, and the sound track is a score by Forti for voice and vacuum cleaner. The performers wear specially designed jumpsuits painted black on one side and white on the other, so they either seem to disappear as they are swallowed up by the film or become pop-out silhouettes depending on the direction they are facing. Planes plays with perception so effectively that the dancers sometimes seem to be crawling on the ground, and at other times appear to be skydiving far above viewers’ heads.

Other equipment pieces placed dancers parallel to the ground, walking in a downward spiral perpendicular to the trunk of a tree (Spiral, 1972); along the walls of a gallery at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art directly parallel to the floor (Walking on the Wall, 1971); or in a “forest” of discarded clothing woven into a rope grid suspended several feet from the ground by a frame of metal pipes (Floor of the Forest, 1970). One of Brown’s simplest but most spectacular equipment pieces—Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970)—began with a man standing on the edge of the roof of a seven-story brick structure in SoHo. He leaned impossibly forward until he reached a seemingly death-defying 90-degree angle to the building, then calmly walked down its side, absolutely parallel to the ground. [The work—with others, including Planes and Spiral—was restaged by the Walker in July 2008.]

In a work she premiered at the Walker in 1974, Brown placed each of her five company members on separate small rafts as they performed Group Primary Accumulation, their proximity to one another dictated by waves and ripples on the surface of Minneapolis’ Loring Pond.

In keeping with the anti-virtuosic and anti-artifice goals of the Judson era, these works were pure investigations, with Brown functioning like a scientist working in a lab. She did not try to hide the process or the equipment that allowed the dancer to defy gravity. Some of these works took no more than a few minutes to complete and, because they were generally offered for free to small numbers of artists and friends, or mounted in museums or galleries, they were liberated from the typical box-office demands and standard expectations imposed on dance in theatrical settings.

Today, it is no longer a radical notion that dance-makers use ropes and various pieces of equipment to extend the possibilities of bodies in time and space. Elizabeth Streb uses poles, trampolines, counterweights, and many other structures to create elaborate and often spectacularly exciting works of physical art. While she is more interested in action than abstraction, she was influenced by Brown’s equipment-cycle work as well as circus arts, rodeo, boxing, and extreme sports. Dance companies as diverse as the U.S.’s Diavolo and LAVA, Argentina’s de la Guarda, France’s Philippe Decouflé and Montalvo, Brazil’s Deborah Colker, and many others utilize equipment and complex apparatuses, evolutions of the type of simple devices favored by Brown.

Street, Spoken, Stage, Air

Brown’s equipment cycle pointed to another lifelong interest. “I always loved dancing that leaves the ground,” she told Dance Magazine’s Wendy Peron.5 Brown historian Klaus Kertess goes further: “Flying is a recurrent leitmotiv in the dance of Trisha Brown … but Brown’s aerial feats are ever mindful of, and ever challenging to, the forces of nature.”6 This love of getting in the air, of levitating and defying gravity and altering perspective, is evident not just in the equipment cycle but has continued across her full history of work for the stage, including the seminal Glacial Decoy (1979), Lateral Pass (1985), L’Orfeo (1998), and Present Tense (2003). In the late 1970s and 1980s, other choreographers also became interested in exploring the vertical plane—the U.S.’s Joanna Haigood, Susan Marshall, Jo Kreiter, Robert Davidson, and Terry Sendgraff, Japan’s Ushio Amagatsu (Sankai Juku), Brazil’s Brenda Angiel, Australia’s Meryl Tankard, and companies such as the U.S.’s Axis Dance Theater and Project Bandaloop committed themselves to this new aerial dance. Today, this genre has evolved to the point where it supports entire schools and systems of training, annual festivals, conferences, and a growing number of subgenres. In the wake of the blossoming new dance forms of the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond, Brown’s purist (and often witty) early explorations feel remarkably prescient.

She first incorporated speech with movement after witnessing Halprin’s experimental use of language in her workshops. Brown developed these efforts further and brought the fusion of movement and language to broader dance and artistic communities. Predating a generation of dance-makers who no longer felt that the only acceptable means of expression for them was physical, Brown helped lay the groundwork for identity and story-based performance that would bloom in the late 1970s and 1980s, and gave license to a next generation of dancer-choreographers who would frequently weave text-based personal revelations and musings into their solo and company works. As early as 1967, she reminisced about hunting and fishing with her father in rural Washington as she danced a solo called Skunk Cabbage, Salt Grass and Waders.7 In the improvisational collective Grand Union (1970–1976), made up of Brown and many of the original Judson founders, speech was used regularly, and she was often an instigator of these absurdist, wry, or sometimes mischievous language-infused improvisations. Later she added complexity and power to her seminal Accumulation series (begun 1971) by intersplicing two monologues and another solo, expanding the foundational work into Accumulation with Talking plus Watermotor (1979).

The 1960s and early 1970s were a vibrant time of broad-based artistic experimentation, particularly in lower Manhattan. The site-specific dance and movement experiments that Brown was undertaking during this period paralleled similar notions being explored by many other visual art and dance innovators, including Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, Bruce Nauman, Meredith Monk, Gordon Matta-Clark, Robert Whitman, Alwin Nikolais, and Alan Kaprow. Speaking of the artistic environment of New York in the early 1960s, Brown identified necessity as one of the original mothers of invention, particularly for choreographers, when she said, “No one under forty was invited into theaters.”8 Young dance artists were thus driven to make their works in “found” spaces, which in turn helped push their interests and investigations to new levels. Inspired by the energy of her adopted city and of the times, Brown first created works to be performed in lofts and church basements; later, her “venues” included streets, trees, parking lots, rooftops, parks, and lakes. The commitment to public performance art was part of the transformative artistic camaraderie of the times. The community of artists was small enough that cross-fertilization was natural—painters, filmmakers, avant-garde musicians, choreographers, and experimental theater-makers often lived near each other in downtown Manhattan, where they socialized, helped with, and often performed in one another’s works.

Interesting parallels can be drawn to today’s situation for U.S. choreographers and performance artists. Once again, some of the most exciting dance conceptualists are creating work for nontraditional locales, or are redefining theatrical space through their investigation of architecture, historical sites, and public spaces. Like their predecessors of the 1960s, they too are motivated by both exterior barriers and a commitment to reinventing their art forms.

Moments of Transition

In 1979, the Walker Art Center, after having supported multiple residencies and investigations by Brown in the early years of her career, helped her make a major leap forward by co-commissioning and presenting the world premiere of her first fully staged choreography, Glacial Decoy. A historic transitional work, it gave Brown the confidence to move fully into the world of theatrical dance production for the stage. Including stunning sets and costumes by Rauschenberg, the work serves as something of a summation of many of the lessons and investigations of her Judson and early work years. It also pointed to Brown’s future choreography for the stage—fluid, compelling, sensuous movement (or as she described it to Rainer, “unpredictable, unlikely, continuous”) based in part on elements of improvisation but also on complex mathematical structures and detailed choreographic construction.9

Harvey Lichtenstein of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) invited Brown to help inaugurate his first Next Wave Series (now Festival) in 1981. The series also included weeklong runs by Lucinda Childs and Laura Dean. A turning point in the United States for expanding acceptance of postmodern dance, the series helped not only usher in the country’s most prominent and successful festival of contemporary performing arts but also opened the doors of major theatrical venues nationally to the work of these innovators. Up to that point, the Trisha Brown Dance Company had only found receptive hosts in Europe and in a handful of key U.S. centers such as the Walker, and certainly not in the grand theaters of New York. But by this time Brown was regularly collaborating with leading designers, composers, and contemporary visual artists and had developed exciting strategies to transition her choreography onto the large proscenium stage—in this instance, the high-pressure environs of BAM’s Opera House. While she voluntarily chose to engage with the traditions represented by that kind of space, in the coming three decades she never allowed the frame of the proscenium or the standards of the formal theater to restrict her creativity or her willingness to challenge herself and push the field of dance forward. “Brown is still conducting postmodernism’s contrary business,” wrote dance historian Marcia Siegel in 2003, “still looking for ways to subvert the conventions right where they live.”10

Seeds, Sown, Blossomed

Artistic movements tend to run in cycles, and the innovations of younger artists often contain core elements of a generation once removed from them. Perhaps this is why Brown’s early work and that of other innovators of the 1960s and 1970s feels so present. Contemporary dance artists of the 1980s and 1990s who directly followed the Judson era re-embraced theatrics and the stage. Their return to narrative and personal identity or emotion in their work was fed by a rejection of the austerity mandated by some of the Judson artists. Also, a growth in dance-making worldwide had led to the building of new theaters and increased touring and funding opportunities for contemporary dance artists, thus giving them ample opportunity to make work for the stage.

In recent years in the United States and Europe, the return to some of the core principals explored in the 1970s (albeit with a different generational spin) is partially tied to the declining fortunes of dance—touring and in-town presentation opportunities and support systems for full companies were already drying up by the late 1990s, especially in New York, and the economic and social fallout of September 11 only ratcheted up the pressure. But like their tenacious predecessors, dance artists responded by returning to simplicity, abandoning the company model, and rejecting the theatrical spaces that no longer seemed to welcome them. Some of the most invigorating innovators of our times—John Jasperse, Eiko & Koma, Ralph Lemon, Tere O’Connor, Jennifer Monson, Reggie Wilson, and Sarah Michelson—have pursued making dances outside the traditional proscenium theater stage, or have turned those theaters on their heads when they do work in them. These new directions for dance stem not only from economic necessity, but also from a response to the audience’s heightened interest in interactivity and changes in their attention span.

Brown’s advances have had particular resonance in Europe, perhaps second only to Merce Cunningham’s. This is not only due to her company’s several decades of annual appearances in France (as well as regular tours to London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels, and other European capitals), but also to her impact on a number of key figures in European dance-making. For instance, Belgium’s Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and American expatriot William Forsythe, both enormously important and long-standing forces across the continent, directly credit Brown as an important influence. The use of repetition and purist minimal movements found in de Keersmaeker’s works and the abstract purity of her early movement investigations can be tied to Brown’s impact. Forsythe, longtime artistic director of the groundbreaking Frankfurt Ballet (and more recently the Forsythe Company), who has revolutionized ballet and continues to be one of the most influential performance thinkers in the world, directly acknowledges his debt to some of Brown’s ideas. Attending a lecture years ago by Brown about spacial theory and notation, Forsythe came up to her afterward saying, “Trisha, I get it. Points in space, points in space!”11 Forsythe’s and de Keersmaeker’s work, in turn, has profoundly influenced subsequent generations of choreographers, dancers, and theater artists. In addition to this, many younger European conceptual choreographers, such as France’s Jérôme Bel and Xavier Le Roy, have looked both to Judson-era works and early Brown creations, seeing them as primary source material in their current investigations.

The imprint of Brown’s early innovations extends beyond dance and experimental theater into contemporary visual art as well, a world that increasingly embraces live performance. This is perhaps why her work is finding receptive houses in major visual art surveys such as the 2007 Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany, which incorporated multiple Brown creations live, on video, and on paper. A highlight of the November 2007 Performa Festival was Berlin-based visual artist Christian Jankowski’s “hula hoop dance”; staged on multiple rooftops in downtown New York, it was a direct homage (in concept, strategy, and imagery) to Brown’s Roof and Fire Piece originally created and performed across twelve city blocks in SoHo in 1971.

Contemporary dance has a layered and densely overlapping history, one in which essential influences and precedents gain clarity with time. It now includes not just different stylistic directions but entire schools, many of which trace their origins to the joyously radical and iconoclastic experiments of Brown and her colleagues of the 1960s and early 1970s. That she continues to create vigorous new work in both choreographic and visual art, while simultaneously witnessing the inspiration her efforts have sparked in new generations, gives one hope for the fragile, ephemeral art form of dance as well as for the potential that a single creative life can hold for its time.


NOTES


  1. Sally Banes, Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance (Wesleyan University Press, 1977), 77–78.  

  2. Conversation with the author, March 8, 2008. 

  3. Deborah Jowett, Time and the Dancing Image (William Morrow & Co, Inc., 1988), 390.  

  4. Kelly Apter, “Trisha Brown Dance Company: True Original,” The List (London), (August 2007): 584.  

  5. Wendy Perron, “The Airborn Dances of Trisha Brown,” Dance Magazine 76, no. 3 (2002): 53  

  6. Klaus Kertess, “Space Travel with Trisha Brown,” Parkett 20 (1989): 118.  

  7. Marianne Goldberg, “Trisha Brown, U.S. Dance, and Visual Arts: Composing Structure,” in Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue, 1961–2001, exh. cat., Hendel Teicher, ed. (Andover: Addison Gallery of American Art, 2002), 31. 

  8. Andrew Princz, “off the grid: Is the ‘off the grid’ still of the grid?,” ballet-tanz, no. 2 (2007): 59–61.  

  9. Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer, “A Conversation about Glacial Decoy,” October 10 (1979): 30.  

  10. Marcia Siegal, “Making Chaos Visible,” The Hudson Review 56, no. 1 (2003): 143. 

  11. “A Conversation with Trisha Brown and Klaus Kertess,” from the DVD Trisha Brown Early Works 1966–1979, ARTPIX Notebooks, 2004.  

Trisha Brown with Philip Bither, 2008

Photo: Gene Pittman

Trisha Brown (center), Children’s Theatre, Minneapolis, 1976

Walker Art Center Archives

Trisha Brown, Group Primary Accumulation, Loring Park, Minneapolis, 1974

Photo: Boyd Hagen

Trisha Brown, Group Primary Accumulation, Loring Pond, Minneapolis, 2008

Photo: Gene Pittman

Trisha Brown, Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, Walker Art Center, 2008

Photo: Gene Pittman

Trisha Brown, Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, SoHo, 1970

Photo ©Carol Goodden

Trisha Brown’s Man Walking Down the Side of a Building

The Trisha Brown Dance Company, as part of Year of Trisha, presented free outdoor performances of rarely staged early works. This day of dance reflected the Walkers long relationship with Brown and included the Walker-premiered Group Primary Accumulation on Rafts, first unveiled in Loring Park in 1974; her popular Spanish Dance from Line Up (1979); Spiral (1974); and the seminal Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970), which hadn’t been seen in the United States since its New York debut nearly 40 years ago.

Trisha Brown, Line Up (Trisha Brown, far left), Walker Art Center gallery, 1974

Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Trisha Brown, Walking on the Wall, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1971

Photo ©Carol Goodden

Black Label Movement performing Trisha Brown’s Planes at the Walker Art Center, 2008

Photo: Gene Pittman

Trisha Brown Dance Company: Glacial Decoy, 1979

The Children’s Theatre, Minneapolis

Trisha Brown, Accumulation, Walker Art Center, 1978