By Megan V. Nicely
Trisha Brown redefined choreography as the art of posing problems to be investigated through dance. However, when she first began presenting work, some were skeptical if it even fell into the concerns of the dance world. She responded, “I was a choreographer and I was dealing with elements of choreography” (Brown 1981). Conversations amongst her artistic circle in the 60s and 70s, such as John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Robert Morris, were about “gravity and velocity and distance and real physical things I was dealing with” (Brown 1981). Her objective? “I wanted to make a very good dance” (1982).
Her now iconic architectural experiments, such as Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970), address these concerns explicitly. This work poses a changed relationship to gravity that requires a dancer to employ new physical skills to accomplish the daily activity of walking. Audiences in turn had to alter their visual perspective by looking up to see the “stage.” The “problem” of gravity in this instance leads to one solution for the dancer and another for an audience. Each perspective is partial; there is no singular “truth” of the dance.
Brown’s genius as a choreographer was her ability to pose problems that challenging thinking for both dancers and audiences without allowing either to have the final word. One crucial vantage point that often remains elusive in her works, however, is that of the choreographer. While pieces such as Accumulation with Talking Plus Water Motor (1978)—in which Brown executed three solos that continually interrupted each other—showcased her incredible mental and physical dexterity, once Brown embarked on a company model, she removed herself as the primary figure, save for her solo works. She noted of her movement early on, “I have to clear myself out of the way and let dance come out of its physical source” (Brown 1981). This point also applied to the choreographer, whose authority and position seemed suspect.
The upcoming Joyce program provides an opportunity to delve further into questions of the choreographic perspective. The evening consists of three diverse late career works created between 2000 and 2009. What is significant is that they were made during a period when Brown’s earlier pieces were simultaneously being relearned and restaged by her company. Brown’s oeuvre stands as a repository of knowledge concerning choreographic structures and the technical requirements needed to meet them. However, the late works on the Joyce program address not only this archive, but also Brown’s sustained dialogue with herself regarding her interests and investigations as choreographer.
Consider the stunning L'Amour au théâtre (2009), set to extracts from Jean-Philippe Rameau's 18th century French opera “Hippolyte et Aricie.” This work is one of a series that explores Rameau’s music and includes Pygmalion (2010) and Les Yeux et I’âme (2011) and can be positioned as part of Brown’s larger investigation of operatic musical structures that began with L’Orfeo (1998). However, the work also references Brown’s earlier experiments such as Leaning Duets (1970), Line Up (1977), and even Walking on the Wall (1971), with the challenges of upside down movement, partnering, counter balancing, and spiraling around a body as axis. Here, these themes are refashioned with a sense of humor and wit within the work’s formality. The attitude is almost tongue-in-cheek and seems to say that while certain problems may appear innovative or solved, full mastery and expertise are mere illusion. As the sweeping, almost calligraphic gestures rise and fall with the dramatic baroque music, there remains a space of objective remove. The movement and music never double up on each another. This ornamentation grounded in a minimal movement palette recalls Glacial Decoy (1979), where expressive elements escape from the work’s formal structure—a hallmark of Brown’s movement approach and a call out to past experiments, now layered with new awareness.
Then there is the compelling and mysterious Geometry of Quiet (2002), created five years earlier. The same year Brown was working on It’s a Draw (2002), a solo series of sketches created with her body on large pieces of paper. The original “set” for this dance work was made by Brown—her first—and is comprised of large pieces of white cloth that emerge from both wings to enfold the dancers and the stage space, creating a sense of invisible yet palpable motion from the periphery. This positioning again references the earlier Decoy and the play along the edge. However, the tone is different. The landscape created by the fabric yolks the dancers, who seem to wander not aimlessly but also not with assertive will. This suspended spatial-temporal sense recalls the quietude found in Newark (1987). The breathiness of Salvatore Sciarrino's accompanying flute score, played live, pierces the tangible thickness of the thin line between what might be life and death, and the piece seems a kind of meditation on this thin veil. Here, prior concerns take on new significance in this zone of introspection. Geometry of Quiet has been performed without scenic elements in museums, and will be presented without the fabric at The Joyce. It will be illuminating to see how the work feels on a stripped-down stage.
Finally, there is Groove and Countermove (2000), part of a trilogy exploring “new jazz” that includes Five Part Weather Invention (1999) and El Trilogy (2000). “The Trilogy,” as these three works are called, was made in a condensed timeframe, with the latter two works following the first as commissions by the American Dance Festival. The original backdrop consisted of graphic squares by Terry Winters, who also designed the brightly colored costumes. For this version, the costumes remain but will be accompanied by a new visual landscape by Winters, being created specifically for the Joyce engagement. A sense of planned disorder, rhythmic juxtapositions, and kinesthetic exhilaration flow throughout the dance—a reference to Brown’s earlier approach to movement vocabulary and timed execution in pieces such as Son of Gone Fishin’ (1981). Mura Dehn’s footage of lindy hoppers at the Savoy Ballroom in the 1930s was one research source, and work’s lazy drag countered by sudden bursts of momentum recalls the “hanging out” strategy Brown discovered when seeking to move with the spontaneity of improvisation but within planned structures (Brown 1981). Here, an earlier movement strategy is now placed alongside music with a similar resonance.
Writing on Pina Bausch’s “late style” in her series of works for cities, Kate Elswit notes that these “minor” or late works stand as an important but often neglected part of her iconic career because they do not fit the standard linear narrative. However, periods of an artist’s career might be read less in terms of chronology than in light of the processes or conditions of their making. In the case of Bausch, Elswit argues that the “seemingly offstage questions of patronage, encounter, and process need to be accounted for as visible onstage” (Elswit 2013: 20). This can be applied to Brown’s late works as well. While certainly economic matters are behind the company’s touring of earlier works and its educational platforms, there are other questions of off-stage process as well. The parallel trajectories of the touring early works and the creation of new late career ones is a condition. Another is the presence of the camera in the choreographic process.
Brown used film early on, initially as a way to hold herself accountable to her work. Similar to creating scores, rehearsal recordings served to verify initial intentions and choices, from which to make adjustments. Later, the camera served as a teaching tool for newer company members tasked with learning older repertory they did not initially create. This fascinating triangulation is presented in the recent film In the Steps of Trisha Brown (2016), in which former company members Carolyn Lucas (the company’s Associate Artistic Director) and Lisa Kraus teach Glacial Decoy to dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet using both the visual reference and their embodied knowledge of the movement as originally created. While the camera eye serves a documentary function, its role is equally choreographic, contributing to the unfolding of the work in tandem with the physical choreographer.
As Susan Rosenberg notes in her recent book Trisha Brown: Choreography as Visual Art (2016),
Brown continued her desire to make “good dances” throughout her career. Published a year prior to Brown’s death, the narrative stops just short of the 21st century and does not address Brown’s later works. And yet, the book’s epilogue concludes by refocusing Brown’s use of the visual away from audience reception and instead toward the role of the camera as both choreographic eye and documentarian. This call out further suggests that the camera is an important interlocutor in Brown’s works that may have allowed Brown as choreographer to both direct and observe at once—rather like a witness her own process and choreographic position.
Brown’s passing last March at age 80 leaves a vibrant legacy of compelling inquiries, not the least of which is the question of the role of the choreographer within a work. As her oeuvre continues to spark further dialogues—from Beth Gill’s New Work for the Desert (2014) to Hope Mohr’s recent Bridge Project: Ten Artists Respond to Locus (2016) and others—the ways a self is positioned, repositioned, fractured, and dissolved, whether as dancer, audience, or choreographer, remains an ongoing marker of her works’ unique ability to transmit problems across time and space.
Brown, Trisha. 1981. Interviewed by David Sears. Trisha Brown’s studio, New York City.
Brown, Trisha. 1982. Interviewed by David Sears. Trisha Brown’s studio, New York City.
Elswit, Kate. 2013. “Ten Evenings with Pina: Bausch’s ‘Late’ Style and the
Cultural Politics of Coproduction.” Theatre Journal 65, 2: 215-33.
Rosenberg, Susan. 2016. Trisha Brown: Choreography as Visual Art. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.