The Big Picture of Trisha Brown

January 18, 2011

When I was dancing with Trisha, one of the task dances we did was
(1973). Lying on the floor, holding a 6-ft-long stick horizontally above my chest, I proceeded to maneuver myself up to my knees and around the stick and back to lying on my back again—all the while keeping my stick connected to the stick of the woman at my feet and the other woman past my head. When you’ve completed it, you say, “I’m on,” and when all five dancers are “on,” the dance is over.


I loved doing
as I loved performing all of Trisha’s work from 1975 to ’78. You had to concentrate on how you could get over the stick, moving continuously, without kicking it out of place. At the same time you had to keep track of what the other four women (at that time her company was all women) were doing so that you stayed connected to their sticks.


This dual concentration was totally consuming for the performer. So I never realized till last weekend what the bigger picture was. At the Museum of Modern Art’s program of the 40th anniversary of Trisha’s company (in conjunction with the exhibit “On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century”),
was shown along with other short pieces. Because of the crowds of people, I couldn’t find a spot on the second-floor gallery, where Trisha’s company was performing, and had to squeeze in on the level above. From that viewpoint, I looked down and saw the long, wavy, diagonal line that the five sticks, together, formed. From above, the snaky line looked like it was floating in space, independent of the dancers. When it was over, it was almost shocking to see the dancers disengage their sticks, and the snake break into five parts.


Roof Piece
Re-Layed (2011), based on Roof Piece (1971), again one sees the largeness of Trisha’s vision. One gallery was not big enough to contain her nine red-clad dancers, each sending out semaphore-like signals across the vast air space. I could see maybe six or seven dancers on four levels, but I don’t think there was a single spot in the museum from which you could see all nine dancers. Again, the idea extended beyond the space.


And yet, what I found most moving was the piece in a tiny area. Diane Madden performed a solo version of
(1975) in a small, outlined square of space. What motivates the movement is not psychological as in Graham or pure energy as in Cunningham. What motivates the movement is a set of points on an imaginary cube that encompasses the dancer. (The making of Locus was based on a mapping of the alphabet onto the points of the cube that’s too complex to go into here). Beyond that, it’s all about Trisha’s very original sense of architecture of the body and its continuity. Locus was the dance I watched most often during the three years I was with Trisha. The other dancers used it to warm up, and I feel like I’d come home every time I see it (though I was never in it).


Locus is Trisha’s
Trio A
(the 1966 landmark piece of Yvonne Rainer’s). Like Trio A, which helped define Yvonne’s aesthetic concerns, Locus defined Trisha’s concerns in 1974, and was the foundation of her vocabulary, which found new axes of the body to fold along. Everything she’s done since then has built on that very precise, seemingly random piece. The steady stream of movement with only occasional slowdowns and gentle lift-offs has a calming effect. You feel like you’re following a single thread of decisions. A hand goes up to one imagined corner, the hips back up to another corner, the forearms push in and out parallel to the floor.


Trisha always told us to allow a movement to take the time that it takes. And that’s true of a phrase too. And a dance. Just let it take its time. Diane Madden was that steady stream, that single thread, with no “dynamics” and no “expression.” It was like watching something in nature, a babbling brook or a cornfield in the wind. I would have been very content watching it—except that it filled me with nostalgia for those early days of dancing with Trisha in my ’20s.



Trisha Brown Dance Company.

Roof Piece Re-Layed , 2011, based on Roof Piece, 1971

Dancers (front to back): Nicholas Strafaccia, Dai Jian

Performance 11: On Line/Trisha Brown Dance Company at The Museum of Modern Art, New York

© Yi-Chun Wu/The Museum of Modern Art