A Beautiful Mind: Trisha Brown

July 19, 2007
Imagine being wound tight like a corkscrew and suddenly your arms fling open, propelling you on a careening arc that lands you smack into your partner’s left shoulder. Take a moment to settle, then a sideways jump, and off you go, in and out of a unison phrase that’s by turns delicate and gestural or space-eating and buoyant.
Glacial Decoy
is a definite high. But you could say that for just about any of the works Trisha Brown has made for her company. They all demand hyper-mobility and a demonic coordination that has you switching into retrograde or performing the top half of one phrase with the bottom of another.
Brown is a grande dame of the dance, a leader of postmodernism, and an enduring renegade. She’s developed a new approach to movement and choreography that’s changed the way we look at dance. She investigates every relationship to gravity—falling into it, defying it, and enjoying the rides that come from momentum. Harnessing simultaneous streams of movement, Brown creates shifting human architectures and layers them with humor and enigmatic gestures. Her impact extends far beyond downtown New York to international artists such as Daniel Larrieu, Bill T. Jones, and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. Jones, who has performed as a guest artist with Brown, says, “I went to her because I felt that she had found a way of making significant art free of psychology and politics.”
The Trisha Brown Dance Company celebrates its 35th anniversary this month with two programs spanning 25 years at Lincoln Center’s new Rose Theater. One program includes a string of Brown’s shimmering collaborations with visual arts titan Robert Rauschenberg. The other has two New York premieres, including Brown’s foray into the new technology of motion capture and a collaboration with painter Elizabeth Murray.
While growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Brown climbed trees, hunted, and took lessons in jazz and tap. She later studied modern dance at Mills College and improvisation with Anna Halprin in Marin County, California. At Halprin’s workshops, she met Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti, who urged her to come to New York. There she got involved in the experimental Judson Dance Theater, which, with its penchant for pedestrian movement and the “natural body,” became the crucible of postmodern dance.
In the ’60s and ’70s, Brown dreamed up near impossible tasks: signaling across Soho rooftops, spiraling down trees, and walking on the walls of the Whitney museum and down the side of a Soho building (performers were buckled into mountain gear to be able to walk horizontally).
Exploring mathematical structure, she created permutations of the accumulation form (1; 1, 2; 1, 2, 3; etc). “I decided that I should make the structure as visible as the dancing,” Brown said in a recent interview in Paris. The encounter between these rigorous structures and her loose-limbed multi-directional movement bristled with vitality.
Brown’s first company was made up of all women, all friends. “I was operating,” she says, “on the found performer premise—that one who was untrained was as valuable as one who was trained.” They performed lying along paths in Central Park, in large plazas, and floating on rafts.
Without narrative or music, the early work wasn’t easy for all audiences. But for some, seeing it was love at first sight.

Glacial Decoy
(1979), her first work for the proscenium stage, plays with theatrical convention, having a row of equidistantly-spaced dancers slip off and onstage as the dance moves far left or right, implying an endless line of dancers beyond the wings. Brown’s mercurial, no-holds-barred movement made Decoy a favorite piece for many of her dancers. “It’s such a challenge,” says Carolyn Lucas, Brown’s choreographic assistant, who danced the work starting 20 years ago. “You get so in what you’re doing and the sweat’s flying. By the end you feel like a hero!”
“I was trying to transfer this way of moving, which has at its heart elusiveness and evanescence,” Brown says. “I wanted to keep the spirit of improvisation, of being alive at the moment.”
Set and Reset
(1983) was “the sweetheart” of her 1980s repertory. It’s nonstop and full of small explosions, like fish zooming together when you toss them food. At the edges of the space are small dramas, half in/half out, with dancers held at acute about-to-fall angles. Casual walks and runs are cut short to catch fellow dancers hurtling through space. There’s a constant charge from Laurie Anderson’s sound—a clanging triangle, thudding drums, and Anderson intoning the words, “long time no see.” With its pile-ups and near misses, it’s a thrilling dance adventure.
Brown’s own explanation is, typically, pragmatic: “I set two different phrases in opposing directions, aiming them like two arrows at each other. All that exquisite maneuvering that happens instinctively so as not to get hit or hurt was part of what I loved,” she says.
Brown, 68, performs less frequently than before, but still sometimes dances
If You Couldn’t See Me
(1994), her solo facing upstage. She fans her movements outward toward the sides of the body like a semaphore of swooping and crumpling limbs. See Me has the feel of a solitary quest, with Brown facing a deep upstage void and relying on her own fine-tuned dancing wits.
Brown’s new collaboration with painter Elizabeth Murray,
Present Tense
, set to John Cage music for prepared piano, offers crystalline configurations and elegant lifts that coalesce and dissolve. Dancers seem to suddenly multiply and just as suddenly fall away. It’s as if Brown caught all the colors of light streaming through a diamond and displayed them one by one.
A new work created as part of Arizona State University’s motion-e project uses motion capture technology to forge live interactions of the visual surround with the dancers—a first. “Onstage are large black and white forms (made of light) with tentacles that can reach down and attach themselves to one of my dancers,” says Brown. “As a dancer moves forward in the phrase the tentacles get pulled. It’s some of the best visual art I’ve ever seen!” she remarked, ecstatic about the work of her media collaborators Paul Kaiser, Shelley Eshkar, and Marc Downey.
Brown’s dancers must be able to see into the confounding complexity of her movement and to render it with clarity—a clarity not just of shapes but of the path of motion through the body. A number of dancers came to the company with contact improvisation as their formative training, among them choreographer Stephen Petronio. “For me,” he says, “there was enough rigor in her structures that I could just unleash the animal and the intuitive responses I needed to be a good dancer.” 
Diane Madden, who joined the TBDC in 1980 and is still associated with it, pinpoints the elusiveness of Brown’s style. “The movement is happening in the articulation between the bones,” she says. The dancers who do well in Brown’s work, Madden maintains, have a strong foundation in ballet or modern, plus experience in a somatic practice like Klein Technique, Alexander, Kinetic Awareness (Elaine Summers’ ball work), or Body-Mind Centering. Classes offered through the company’s own school now make this kind of hybridized training easily available.
In the long journey of Trisha Brown and her company, what began as pure abstraction has become emotionally infused, deepening into a newfound, ineffable theatricality. What began as an all women’s company has become a mix of genders, races, and nationalities. The pedestrian has given way to the virtuosic; the Soho cityscapes and lofts have given way to the grandest of halls worldwide. Brown’s gone from dancing in silence to dancing to classical, baroque, or jazz music (not to mention the two operas and Schubert song cycle she has directed); she’s gone from making the work on a shoestring to receiving a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship—the first given to a woman choreographer. (Her other accolades include a Dance Magazine Award in 1987 and a National Medal of the Arts in 2003.) Throughout the variations of Brown’s exploration, she has always paired movement with lucid structures which, taken together, create dance that takes your breath away.
Lisa Kraus was a member of the TBDC from 1977-82 and was rehearsal director for the Paris Opéra Ballet’s recent staging
Glacial Decoy.