I once saw a photo of Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer cavorting on top of a chicken coop in the early 60s. They were giddy with a sense of freedom, possibly knowing they would break all the rules in the years to come. That giddiness, juxtaposed with the practicality of the chicken coop, stayed in my mind’s eye.
These two giants of postmodern dance, Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer, met in 1960 at Anna Halprin’s workshops in California and have been friends ever since.
Last weekend was a good time to contemplate both their work—how their aesthetics have similar roots but have branched off in such different directions. And yet they’ve both adhered to those early ideas of “radical juxtaposition” that Yvonne wrote about.
Trisha is at DTW for another week and Yvonne was at Baryshnikov Art Center, presented by Performa last weekend. The two group pieces that Trisha is showing are from the early 90s. Yvonne’s two group pieces are more recent: from 2008 and this year. I love these two women, and have loved their work for more than 30 years. But I’ve never seen their performances so close in time, which gives me this opportunity to look at how they’ve taken a few ideas and developed them in their own ways.
Yvonne has been influenced by the Dada movement, which was all about odd juxtapositions, collages, and randomness. Her landmark work, Trio A (1966), certainly seems random, with its unusual co-ordinations like a strong fist juxtaposed with a little tap dance.
And Trisha has a certain randomness too, though it’s not as rough-hewn. During a quiet section of Foray Forêt, all of a sudden three people leap to the center and one of them gets turned around mid-air. (I think it’s called the turnstile jump.)
Both Yvonne and Trisha are resistant to delivering anything that’s expected. In that way Yvonne is still into an aesthetics of denial, but now with a bit more fun. In her premiere, Assisted Living: Good Sports 2, a dancer might break into a tiny fragment of a song (she denies us the whole song) and then lurch into a group action of making faces. Don’t get attached to anything, Rainer seems to be saying.
Trisha is not into interrupting herself. But her movement choices can seem random to those who were brought up on ballet or modern dance. She seems to be saying, I’ve found new ways for the body to move, but it’s on different pathways than how you’re used to seeing—and you can follow my logic.
Abrupt vs. continuous
Both Trisha and Yvonne favor the uninflected, non-dynamic phrasing that you see in Rainer’s Trio A.
But whereas Yvonne has stayed stubbornly grounded, workmanlike, abruptly shuttling between text and movement (brain and body?), Trisha has created a continuity of motion. The most glorious example of this continuity, based on the new pathways I mentioned, is Babette Mangolte’s film of Trisha’s Watermotor (1978), especially the slowed down section, where you can really see the lush, organic movement. (A clip of Watermotor can be seen here.)
The willingness of these two dancemakers to juxtapose radically leads to what I would call alternate realities. In Trisha’s Foray Forêt, a marching band plays offstage, the volume growing and fading as it gets closer and farther away, while the dancers pay no attention to the sound. You realize you’re looking at one world and listening to another. It’s like being in the present and the past at the same time—whatever past a marching band brings to you.
In her For M.G.: The Movie, the double reality happens in two ways. One is in the choreography, the other is in the music. One dancer jogs in a figure 8 pattern, getting himself (originally a woman, Diane Madden) so exhausted that it’s hard to watch, while another man stands still, his back to us, through the entire 30 minutes. The sharp contrast makes you feel the physical demands of both, even though the picture is complicated by other dancers threading through.
Onstage, the composer Alvin Curran plays a gentle, Satie-like score on a piano upstage right. At the same time a recording of sounds like a dog barking and a mother calling is heard. So, in the music alone, we are hearing two different realities. And the choreography is so minimal (for instance, ultra slow walking) that it makes room for the music or memories to seep in.
In Yvonne’s Assisted Living, the main event is six dancers cavorting (there’s that word again), sometimes joining in a group to jog around doing a doggy paddle. At other times they break out into bits like playing a wolf scaring little Red Riding Hood (hilarious), and occasionally go to a mike to read a selection from Rainer’s collection of edifying sources. While all this is going on, Yvonne and two “movers” (Les Dickert and Joel Reynolds) walk around the perimeter, carefully placing lights, a mattress, a chair, and a barrel into different positions (all objects more or less from past pieces). These three are actually making another dance as a parallel to the one in the center with six dancers. It’s not counterpoint, it’s another whole reality—a task dance, a ritual. Just as Yvonne, Les, and Joel arrive at the downstage left corner, all the dancers lift Pat Catterson, bring her over to that corner, and lower her into the barrel. At that moment, the two realities meet.
Different states of mind
But the most radical breech comes just before Pat is put in the barrel. She has started a laugh fest on the floor, which four other dancers join. Her laugh is so infectious that you wish you knew what she’s thinking each time she bursts into another peel of laughter. One at a time, a dancer stands up and speaks a very serious line into Yvonne’s mike. Pat keeps laughing seemingly uncontrollably. Finally Pat gets up too. I forget what her line is, maybe this one: “I’ve seen brain damage happen like a gentle breeze.” You’re so involved by this point that you feel a whiplash of the emotions.
In Trisha’s work, you’re not yanked around so much emotionally. It puts you in a more meditative state of mind. Hearing a marching band in the distance while you are watching two dancers slowly bring an index finger to the floor can sort of wrap you in a blanket of paradox.
Maybe it’s radical to juxtapose Trisha and Yvonne, but it all goes back to that photo I remember from the time of Judson Dance Theater in the 60s. The descendants of those two mischievous young women dancing on a chicken coop can be found in the playful wolf clawing at Red Riding Hood in Assisted Living or the delicious spontaneity of the slippery Watermotor.