A Farewell to Trisha Brown
For many in the dance world, Trisha Brown has become a sacred figure. She made works that were beautiful in a whole new way, coaxing the dance world out of its theatrical narrative and into a beguiling state of what she called "pure movement." From her early works at Judson Dance Theater to the magnificent operas she directed, she found new pathways of motion in the body. A huge influence on the international dance world, she created drama and exhilaration out of pure experimentation. As Doug Elkins wrote in a condolence text, "She was a tsunami and tea ceremony all at the same moment."
Brown in Water Motor, Photo by Johan Elbers, courtesy DM Archives
Her early work is still iconic: Walking on the Wall (1971, which created the thrillingly disorienting illusion that you were looking down on people from above), Floor of the Forest (1970, where the audience had to crouch down to really see what was happening) and Water Motor (1978, caught gloriously by the filmmaker Babette Mangolte). In her mid-career work, like Glacial Decoy (1979), Set and Reset (1983) and Newark (1987), she challenged the conventions of the proscenium stage. She made asking questions part of the audience's experience.
Her treatise on "pure movement" in the 1970s wiped the slate clean and reset modern dance in a search for movement itself. People love repeating the last line: "If I am beginning to sound like a bricklayer with a sense of humor, you are beginning to understand my work."
Having danced with Trisha in the 1970s when the company was just five women, and having followed her choreography since then, I would say she was both a groundbreaking artist as well as a woman-centered leader. She invited people to think, move and see differently. And she was generous and caring toward her dancers.
Brown, PC Lois Greenfield
She had a keen eye for all kinds of spaces. She said she felt sorry for places that weren't center stage—the corners, walls and wing space. She caused a revolution by simply, sweetly, turning to spaces that other dance-makers don't, and that could be trees, lakes or firehouses. To this day, with the recent wave of dance in museums, her early work fits more easily into a museum setting than anyone else's.
But she also caused a revolution in the space that is the human body. She rejected the pulled up stance of ballet and the tortured torque of Martha Graham. She loved Merce Cunningham's work but she had no wish for dancing bodies to be so upright. She was going for something else, something more yielding, more off-balance. She found new pathways for the energy to flow through the body and she found pleasure in disorientation—of both performer and audience. In her choreography the sensuality of the relaxed, articulate body is contained only by a rigorous structure. And she could be a demon when it came to editing her own work. As company alum David Thomson wrote on Facebook, "Her fire was fierce and her mind was like a knife, cutting away at the unnecessary and creating new three-dimensional figures and ideas."
Starting with Improvisation
Trisha's earliest works were improvised. She had learned to deploy task-like structures from Anna Halprin when she studied with her in California in 1960. She later experimented with "rule games" and other structures with Simone Forti. In Trillium (1961) Trisha took a basic improvisation exercise to either lie down, sit or jump, and did it her own way. "I made my decision about lying down and jumping at the same time," she said in a 1980 interview. Forti provided a soundscape of whistling and scraping. By all accounts, Trillium was a wild solo that made people believe Trisha could suspend herself in the air.
Trisha often asked her dancers to improvise based on either a loose idea (e.g. "Line up" or "Read the walls") or explicit verbal instructions. She wanted the look and feel of improvisation, but for the dance to be repeatable. That aesthetic reached its peak in her astonishing solo Water Motor (1978). Mangolte's tantalizing film of it has become essential viewing for students of postmodern dance.
When she taught us a choreographic sequence, her movement was so elusive that I remember thinking, "She teaches it as a solid but she dances it like a liquid." The key to attaining that liquid quality was to know in your own body how one impulse triggers another, to know where and when to let go. While Trisha rejected the term "release technique," the dancers have to be precise about utilizing release as well as strength.
Lines vs. Chaos, Rigor vs. Sensuality
One of the Brownian paradoxes is that she framed the sense of discovery she got from improvisation with a rigorous visual or mathematical order. In Line Up, which we made collectively in the mid 70s, lines of people would materialize and dissolve—like following one's own thoughts. These sections were framed by brief line dances she had created earlier. Injected into this alternation was a new sequence called "Solo Olos." She was meticulous about the details, though her relaxed body camouflaged that precision. In this archival clip, Trisha and I are laying down that sequence in unison.
It was never performed in unison this way, but she wanted her neighbor, the videographer David Gigliotti, to capture the building blocks of what would become the complex "Solo Olos" section of Line Up in which we had to respond immediately to a caller giving commands to reverse, go forward or launch into a variation. When I look at this clip, I see the beginnings of a new kind of body logic—folding the body on different lines for functional purposes, channeling Halprin's idea of task improvisation into fixed choreography. If you watch it carefully, you will see the point at which the phrase goes into retrograde.
Trisha loved her home territory of the Pacific Northwest woods; come summer, she often returned there to take her son, Adam, backpacking. While teaching one section of "Solo Olos" she said, "Imagine you are seeing Puget Sound in the distance and are tracing it with your fingers."
It wasn't landscapes alone that captivated her; it was the human body in an environment. InGroup Primary Accumulation (1973), she set the inevitable curves of the body against the absoluteness of lines, and then set the whole dance in a new environment, for instance on a pond in Minneapolis. The dance is incredibly sensual to do and to see, and yet the accumulation score keeps the mind strictly focused. (Click here to see a 2008 performance of it in Paris.) While we were on tour, Trisha told me, "When I am doing Primary, I'm thinking, 'This is all there is.' ""Spanish Dance," 1979s with Lisa Kraus, Mona Sulzman, Trisha Brown, Perron, and Elizabeth Garren, photo © Babette Mangolte
In the iconic "Spanish Dance" (1973), five women tread slowly across the stage, accumulating one at a time to form a crush of bodies that hits the proscenium wall on the last note of Bob Dylan's rendition of Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain." Each woman is sandwiched by others, flesh on flesh, swaying pelvis upon swaying pelvis. The audience can see where the line of women is heading but the physicality of it still elicits chuckles of delight.
Perron with Elizabeth Garren, rehearsal forSplang, mid-70s, photo © Babette Mangolte
Over the years—Brown has created about 100 works including operas—I saw a progression from simplicity to complexity, from clear strategies to hidden strategies, from orderliness to seeming disarray. Set and Reset (1983), with is freeform look and lids-off sense of play, creates a kind of sublime chaos. With tantalizing music by Laurie Anderson and set by Robert Rauschenberg, it's a masterwork that offers an unbounded sense of possibility. While jogging from upstage to downstage, Stephen Petronio suddenly got yanked offstage by Trisha grabbing his neck. Another time, Diane Madden, like a pebble skittering on a lake, gets pulled by one dancer, tossed by another and finally hurled into the arms of a third dancer who suddenly appears to catch her on the other side of the stage. Brown's choreography brings to mind this quote from physicist Carlo Rovelli that I heard on the radio program On Being: "Quantum physics doesn't describe how things are, but how things interact with each other."
Set and Reset is so overflowing with unpredictable interactions and close calls, that it took me three times of watching it to realize that simple walking and running are also woven into the dance. Trisha taught us to see things that are not obvious. And to keep looking.
Her trajectory of simplicity to chaos is paralleled by the trajectory of earth to air. Just as she managed to catapult herself to hover in the air for Trillium, and to function horizontally whileWalking on the Walls of the Whitney, she set dancers afloat above the ground—with assistance from objects—in Planes (1968), Floor of the Forest (1970) and Lateral Pass (1985)
In the opera L'Orfeo (1998), the opening scene sets Diane Madden airborne, floating/flying as the demigod Musica. When working in opera, Trisha allowed herself to use metaphor. Talking about this role for Madden in our March 2002 issue, she said, "When Di lay backwards in the air and then lifted her head, it reminded me of the domed paintings in Italy with angels looking down from the edge of heaven."
Dance and Visual Art
Trisha wanted to bestow dance with the same seriousness accorded visual art. That meant, in the balance of art and entertainment, tipping more toward art and less toward entertainment. When we gave lecture-demonstrations in the '70s and the question came up, Why don't you dance to music, she would counter with, "Do you walk around a piece of sculpture and ask why there is no music?"
Trisha's diagram for the accumulation structure of Pyramid (1975), Courtesy Perron's archives
It was natural for her to collaborate with some of the best artists of our time, including Robert Rauschenberg, Nancy Graves, Donald Judd and Elizabeth Murray. She was a visual artist too; her drawings have been shown in galleries in the U.S. and abroad.Trisha's diagram for the accumulation structure ofPyramid (1975), Courtesy Perron's archives
Back to the Beginning
Trisha always went back to the beginning, questioning the assumptions that have built up. In clearing the air of modern dance "heroics" in the early '60s, she had comrades in Judson Dance Theater like Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton. Yvonne ran, screamed or lugged mattresses around. Steve walked or stood still or struck an athletic pose. Trisha fell and got up and favored being upside down. While that's a simplification of the experiments at Judson, it shows how committed they were to getting down to basics, how much they aimed for the "ordinary" (to use their teacher Robert Dunn's term).
For Trisha that meant channeling the radical into an ordinary container. In her statement on pure movement mentioned earlier, she wrote, "I make radical changes in a mundane way.
Glacial Decoy. From left: Trisha Brown, Nina Lundborg, Lisa Kraus. PC Babette Mangolte, Courtesy DM Archives
When she started creating works for the proscenium stage, she started at the beginning again, enlisting Rauschenberg's help in questioning the conventions of the stage. In Glacial Decoy (1979), they both envisioned the dance extending beyond the proscenium, creating the illusion that the dance extended beyond the wings. For Set and Reset (1983), he made the stage wings transparent, blurring the boundary between performing and not performing.
Trisha Brown has guided us through the transformation from modern dance into postmodern dance. Her influence permeates the international dance world. Young dancers who fling their limbs and allow the weight of the body to take its own time may never have seen her company. But they've taken a workshop somewhere and this style of movement has seeped in. Even if they haven't seen it first-hand, her way of moving is now in the air. It's like a Trisha Brown mist that dancers all over the world are breathing in.
And one can catch glimpses of her imagery recycled in works by younger choreographers, whether consciously, as with Beth Gill, or unconsciously, as with many others.
Brown, PC Vincent Pereira
Some alums from the company continued to choreograph including Stephen Petronio, Vicky Shick, Eva Karczag, Lance Gries and David Thomson
Although Trisha is beloved in New York, Minneapolis and Seattle, it is in France where she is lionized. She's premiered many of her works there, been honored as a Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and was invited to make a new work on the Paris Opéra Ballet. When POB brought the trio that Trisha made for their étoiles to BAM, I basked in the quiet beauty of it. French filmmaker Marie-Hélène Rebois' documentary, In the Steps of Trisha Brown, about Lisa Kraus and Carolyn Lucas setting Glacial Decoy on POB dancers, came to the Dance on Camera Festival last month.
And of course, the Trisha Brown Dance Company continues to perform her work across the globe.
Another part of her legacy: Not only was Brown a great artist who pushed the boundaries of contemporary dance, but she was also a fine human being, an example of compassionate leadership. She was always respectful, nurturing and generous. She fulfilled the promise of a new, feminist way of being a director.
Steve Paxton and Trisha, Bennington College c. 1980, photo by Tyler Resch
Diane Madden, who started as a dancer with the company in 1980 and is now co-artistic associate, described her way of working: "She created a clear space that allows people to have lots of room. You felt trusted by her, which allowed you to take more risks and give more. She would give us very clear guidelines, whether working around the perimeter of the space, or keeping close proximity to the floor, working in slow motion, but wouldn't over-define or over-direct…She would challenge you to go beyond your comfort zone because she was always challenging herself. We all were challenged."
Brown left us with works that are edifying, stirring, beguiling, and sometimes hauntingly beautiful, all without dipping into narrative. In some ways she continued the philosophy of Merce Cunningham and John Cage, namely, their faith in choreography to be about itself, not about something else. And she brought the dancing body further into a contemporary mode—relaxed, articulate, ready for anything—while also engaging in relationship with others.
For those of us who danced with her, the tsunami of her creativity swept through us with great vigor, and the tea ceremony of her specificity focused our own explorations. Although it's sad to say goodbye, I am heartened knowing how fully her contributions are recognized, and how many people have been touched by her brilliance.
Note: Some of the language in this essay was taken from a tribute I wrote on the occasion of Dance/USA honoring of Trisha Brown in 2015; it was first posted in From the Green Room.
Showing choreography at a major venue in New York City is a goal and milestone for many dance artists. Yet when such an opportunity comes their way, choreographers frequently find themselves scrambling for time and technical resources to give their work that professional shine. What they end up performing may not have the polish they intended. "Far too often artists are arriving at their presenting house and the piece isn't ready," says Adrienne Willis, the executive and artistic director of Lumberyard Contemporary Performing Arts, an organization that helps dance artists develop new work.
Back when Lumberyard was known as the American Dance Institute and operated out of a strip mall in Rockville, Maryland, it pioneered its Incubator program to whip new pieces into shape, kind of like the "out-of-town" tryout model for theater. Several of the artists it supported ultimately brought their shows to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of New York City's most prestigious venues, which quickly recognized the positive influence of the Incubator on performances.
Since Thanksgiving is finally here, it's officially time to talk Nutcracker. With countless productions taking place between now and Christmas (and even some through the new year), we've been keeping tabs on Instagram to check in on rehearsals. Whether you're obsessed with all things Sugar Plum Fairy or the snow scene is more your speed, we've got your first look at the holiday classic.
We have a feeling even the Boston Ballet dancing bear couldn't keep up with second soloist Lawrence Rines' tricks in Russian.
For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.
'Tis the season to have some fun in the kitchen. If you want to get more creative than simply baking another pumpkin pie, try these Nutcracker-themed treats—created by and for dancers. These recipes from former Boston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet dancers were first published in Dance Magazine's December 1990 issue. Today, they're still guaranteed to turn any holiday party or dressing room into a true Land of the Sweets.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
Everyone knows that training is the cornerstone of a successful career in dance. But as a dance educator, I also take comfort in the fact that high-quality dance training helps shape students into genuinely good people (in addition to creating future artists, which is a wonderful goal in itself.) These are the lessons dance teaches that help make students into better humans:
Improvement Takes Commitment Over Time
In my tap courses at Cal State University, sometimes students are shocked when they can't learn something quickly. In today's world, we're used to getting fast results. You need an answer—Google it. You need to talk to someone—text them. The cooking channel wants your dinner to be easy, the physical trainer wants your workout to be five minutes, Rosetta Stone can have you speaking Mandarin in an hour.
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.