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A Farewell to Trisha Brown

"Spanish Dance," 1979 with Lisa Kraus, Mona Sulzman, Trisha Brown, Perron, and Elizabeth Garren, photo © Babette Mangolte

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.

Her Legacy

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.

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