Trisha Brown likes coincidences. Things that happen at the same time, but without any causal link. Look at any of her pieces and you’ll see coincidences. Between the dancers, between the choreography and the set, between the set and the sound. Some are planned, some are not, and some she’s given a helping hand. For Brown, part of being a creative artist is being a creative opportunist.
Was it just coincidence that Brown’s career began at a time and place which turned out to be a historic moment for dance itself? It was certainly opportune. In July 1962 at the Judson Memorial Church, New York City, 26-year-old Trisha Brown was among a group of young artists who presented a free performance of their work entitled simply “Concert of Dance No. 1”. They would scarcely have guessed that the evening would mark the beginning of a whole new movement that grew to influence dance around the world. But after that concert, things were no longer what they had been before. Old ideas had been swept aside, and the landscape of dance had been changed irrevocably.
Brown, born in Aberdeen, Washington, had recently arrived in New York after studying modern dance in California. She was dissatisfied with the dance of her training, with its soul-searching themes, its physical techniques, its expressive musicality. She felt that they “buttered up” dance, but were not at all essential to it. “I did not connect,” she explains, “to the redundancy – to the triple redundancy – of a dance, which would have a story, about which one was dancing, and a musical score, also about which one was dancing.” She favoured more coincidence and less causation. That much she had in common with her contemporaries at the Judson Dance Theater – as the group came to be known – and like them, she was interested in finding out just what dance could be on its own, without the support of story or score.
So they set about exploring dance itself, as movement. Could it include walking, getting dressed, eating, crying, doing nothing? Yes it could, and more. Could it take place in a warehouse, in the street? Of course. Just don’t forget about rooftops or trees. Did it need to have music? No. A story? Absolutely not. A meaning? Choice is yours. Pretty soon, they found that their fundamental question – what is dance? – had backflipped into: what isn’t?
The field was wide open. But a choreographer trying to build a dance from the ground up has to take some kind of line. For Brown, there were two basic lines of questioning. You could call them the what, and the how. First, given that Brown wasn’t interested in dancing on stage to music about stories, what exactly should she do instead? Well, Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970) did just what it said on the packet: dangling on a rope and strapped into harness, a man walked down the side of a building. Later, in Line Up (1977), her dancers had to keep contact with six-foot poles as they moved under and around them. These dances – her “equipment pieces”, as Brown calls them – were very un-dancey. They weren’t about expressing emotions or displaying technique. The performers didn’t so much dance as tackle tasks. They had actions, but they weren’t acting; they were just doing something.
Just doing things, though, only gets you so far in choreography. You need to decide how to do them – in what sequence, in what relation to each other. You have to think about composition. For Brown, that question was crucial: if you’re not using a musical or narrative “score”, how do you construct a dance? For Inside (1966), Brown used the inside of her apartment as a “score”, taking the measurements and angles of walls and windows to interpret as “instructions” for shaping a dance. Another solution was to use “gameplans”. In Rulegame No. 5 (1964), Brown put five dancers in seven rows. Each row had a certain kind of movement associated with it, and the dancers could only move between rows when everyone is lower than in the row behind. That’s it. The rules are simple, but the dance ended up complex. And Brown wasn’t at all concerned with what the performers actually did, as long as they followed the rules.
Composition – how you do what you do – has remained a touchstone for Brown’s choreography. In what she calls her “mathematic series”, she experimented with the idea of accumulating and combining little cells of movement. Accumulation (1971) was an accretion of little gestural movements that built up into a dance that involved her whole body. Not satisfied with that, she remade the dance while also telling a story. Then, in Accumulation With Talking Plus Watermotor, she added a third layer, talking through excerpts from two different stories while also performing the accumulation. The stories coincided with the action without actually corresponding to it. No triple redundancy here. The effect was to make it seem as if two talking people and one moving person were coexisting in the same body. It was complex, intelligent and also witty. Brown’s compositions can be complicated and concentrated, but she relishes a little wit. She once described herself as a bricklayer with a sense of humour.
A major turning point in Brown’s career came with Glacial Decoy in 1979. Having spent years making work for studios, streets and galleries, she now made a piece for the conventional stage. And all the way through Glacial Decoy, you’re made aware of the limits of that proscenium. Everything feels flattened: Robert Rauschenberg’s projections march in sequence from left to right, the dancers keep getting tugged in from the wings and pushed back out into them. It feels as if the stage is a window onto a dance that’s carrying on outside your field of vision.
Brown continued making works for the stage; it just wasn’t the stage as we knew it. In some ways this was a departure, but in others it simply marked the beginning of a new phase of exploration. For Brown has often described her work in terms of particular “cycles”. After her “equipment” cycle and the “mathematical” series, Brown embarked on what she calls her “unstable molecular structure” cycle. Here, she explained, the dancers act “like independent molecules… overlapping each other with the same movements”. Her masterwork and her most enduring popular piece from this phase is Set and Reset (1983). It begins with a little in-joke to her 1971 piece Walking on the Walls (for New York’s Whitney Museum, in which the dancers – you’ve guessed it – walked on the walls). Then Brown sends one phrase of movement travelling round the stage perimeter. This acts like a “conveyor belt”, delivering little group numbers into the centre. Again, something simple is built into something layered and dazzlingly complex. It’s a piece where you always sense an intelligence behind it but you can never quite grasp it. You see chain reactions, chance collisions, vortexes – but everything is fleeting, melting, slippery.
Following her “unstable molecular structures” series, Brown embarked on what she calls her “valiant” cycle. Out went the silky fluidity. In works like Newark (1987) she wanted to see effort, lines, positions, power. She got some of her ideas by pushing furniture around her studio. “Because of the harsh, powerful movement,” Brown remembers, “it was too much for my company to do all the pieces in that cycle in one programme. They were barfing backstage.” Relenting, Brown began her “back to zero” cycle – enigmatic, gentler works such as Foray Forêt (1990) and For M.G., the Movie (1991), which focused on the idea of unconscious gestures.
Then came another turning point, this time triggered not by dance, but by ageing. “In 1995,” says Brown, “I realised that I had more years behind me than lay ahead – unless I should have the misfortune to live to 119… I just said to myself, what haven’t you done yet, girl?” The answer must surely have surprised even herself: “I had not yet directed an opera.”
Yes, Brown adored that most theatrically stylised of arts, the opera. She began to do what she’d never done before: make pieces to existing musical scores, scores by revered, dead, classical composers. Before taking on opera itself, she made M.O. (1995), to Bach’s Musical Offering. You can see how Bach – the way he could construct a whole sonic universe out of a few simple phrases – would strike a chord with Brown’s compositional imagination. Yet even here, she wanted to maintain her movement as independent “voice”, in dialogue with the music, rather than either following it or fighting it.
Then in 1998 she choreographed a production of Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo, for the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. Here was a musical-theatrical score with characters, a narrative, a musical structure – everything she’d been dissatisfied with back in 1962. And she relished the opportunity to take on the challenge. Just as in her subsequent choreography for Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise (2002), she wanted to stake movement as partner, not follower, to the music and the story – to create, as she put it, a “third music”. And, as if to show that dance can stand on its own feet, her Canto/Pianto (1997) is a choreographic distillation of episodes from the opera L’Orfeo.
A decade has gone by since then, and Brown hasn’t stopped doing things she’d not done before. Her El Trilogy (1998–2000) was made to contemporary jazz music. Present Tense (2003) was in rehearsal during the 2001 September 11th bombings in New York. And though it makes no explicit reference to that event (Brown is never literal), it incorporates a kind of response to them: its bodily constructions and counterweights are suggestive of human support and inter-reliance.
Brown is still moving on. In 2005 she working with motion capture technology, where a computer program, triggered by sensors on the dancers, activated visual projections and musical sequences. Most recently, in I love my robots (2007), she created a piece where her dancers were joined by wooden robots on wheeled platforms. According to critic Deborah Jowitt, the robots seemed “attentive, even hopeful”, sometimes even “jiggling with excitement”.
Coincidentally, that makes me think of Brown herself. I like to picture her as a young choreographer arriving in New York, attentive, hopeful, sometimes perhaps jiggling with excitement. It may seem like a very long distance from Judson Memorial Church in 1962 to wooden robots in 2007, but the connection is there. Trisha Brown wouldn’t be where she is here and now, if she hadn’t started out there and then.