Part brainy researcher and inventor, part inspired artist and creator, Trisha Brown is one of the great explorers of postmodern dance, with a distinctive body of work that is often off the wall – sometimes literally.
Born in 1936 in upstate Washington, Trisha Brown took classes in ballet and tap as a child, and acted out Broadway routines with her older brother (“He owed me,” she later said. “I played football with him.”). She went on to study modern dance in California, but following a summer school with experimentalist Anna Halprin, she moved to New York in 1961, eager for new directions. There, she joined a composition class led by Robert Dunn, a musician from the Merce Cunningham dance studio who was interested in applying the musical ideas of John Cage (Cunningham’s partner and regular collaborator) to dance. In July 1962, at the Judson Memorial Church in New York, Brown and other students presented a free performance. Modestly titled “Concert of Dance No 1”, it was a turning point not just for Brown, but for the history of dance. The Judson Dance Theater, as the loose collective of performers came to be called, became a focus for the avant-garde, cross-arts movement of 1960s New York, and marked the emergence of what is now called postmodern dance.
In 1970, Brown became a founder member, alongside several other Judson artists, of another highly influential performance collective, the Grand Union (which lasted until 1976); that same year, she also formed her own dance company. Although initially she created events in non-theatre spaces (lofts, rooftops, rafts), Brown began to create works for the stage after 1979 (her eight-year-old son had announced that he wanted to go to college one day, and Brown suddenly realised she hadn’t a hope of affording that unless she could tour her work).
In moving to more mainstream theatre, Brown – like other Judson alumni – also transformed it, bringing her own experimental and determinedly anti-theatrical ideas to bear on the stage. Brown’s profile grew through the 1980s, and in 1991 she was given a MacArthur award (the so-called “genius grant”). Though her own company remains the focus of her choreographic output, Brown has occasionally worked for other companies, such as the Lyon Opera and Paris Opera Ballets. Since 1998, she has also choreographed and directed several operas; and in recent years she has increasingly exhibited her drawings.
Watching Trisha Brown
Brown’s work can be divided into different phases, and what to expect from a Brown piece depends on which cycle it is from. In the beginning, she stripped dance to its essentials, ditching the traditional supports of story, music, emotion, technique, even setting. Consequently, her first “equipment pieces” looked very un-dancey. They simply played with gravity or space, for example by using harnesses to enable the dancers to walk sideways along walls.
Without plot or music, she needed to find other compositional structures. One way was to create a gameplan. Rulegame No 5 (1964), had five dancers in seven rows; the rule was that each dancer could only move between rows when everyone in front was lower than in the row behind. The mechanism was simple, but the patterns produced were complex. Watching these patterns emerge can give you a real kick.
Brown’s “mathematic” series used addition and multiplication as principles. Accumulation (1971), for example, built up a gradually extending sequence of gestural units. And as the dancers began to articulate their bodies more, they began to look more “dancey” – though again, it’s the pattern that delivers the punch. Brown’s “unstable molecular structure” works are among her most distinctive, and aptly named: watching them makes you wonder if you’re watching particles of matter (dancers) or waves of energy (choreography). Set and Reset (1983) is the most famous of these, also Brown’s first piece to music, a thrilling combination of rigorous rules and chance encounters, the dancers slipping fluidly around each other in a rippling forcefield of motion.
In the late 80s, Brown moved on to what she calls her “valiant” cycle, with pieces such as Newark (1987). Out went fluidity, in came force, mass, effort (she was inspired by heaving furniture around her studio). Because this was very hard on the dancers (“they were barfing backstage”) Brown went back to a more minimalist style – her “back to zero” – with gentler and more allusive gestures. Surprisingly, Brown then began choreographing to existing music: first to Bach, in M.O. (1995), and Webern in Twelve Ton Rose (1996) – both composers whose formal rigour attracted her – and then, even more surprisingly, to opera, for example Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1998). She has also choreographed to modern jazz.
There are some commonalities overall. Brown has always been a compositional choreographer; pay attention to the architecture of the dance, because she can be a master builder. As far as dancing style goes, she’s developed a kind of highly articulated body that looks deceptively casual, even off-hand. She likes coming at gravity from an angle (tilts and tips are a speciality). She enjoys choreographing in and out of the wings, giving a sense that the proscenium is simply a viewfinder onto a larger world. She also has a very understated but very wry sense of humour; watch out for it.
Brown’s great friend and artistic collaborator was artist Robert Rauschenberg, who was part of the Judson group. He worked on several designs for her, and even composed one of her scores (for If You Couldn’t See Me, 1994).
Notable among other collaborators are musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson, and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton.
Diane Madden was one of Brown’s most trusted dancers; Stephen Petronio, now a choreographer in his own right, was Brown’s first male dancer, in 1979.
The lifelong friendship between Trisha Brown and Robert Rauschenberg was cemented in the early 60s when they discovered their parents shared a penchant for sending them huge food parcels. Brown would get 30 pounds of salmon; Rauschenberg received roasted ducks packed in popcorn.
In her own words
“I decided I should make the structure as visible as the dancing.” – Quoted by Lisa Kraus, Dance Magazine, 2005
“It was a joke in the dressing rooms at Judson. We were all naming categories of visual art practitioners and someone said, ‘We were doing postmodern dance at Judson.’ We all cracked up and no one countered us.” – Brown remembers the origin of the term “postmodern dance”. Interview with John Killacky, 2009
“[At Judson] I didn’t want to be marshalled in a certain direction by music. You know: music makes you dance. That’s cheating!” – Interview with John Schaefer, WNYC, January 2010
In other words
“Works by Brown don’t just challenge our perceptions; they expand our minds and untether our spirits.” – Deborah Jowitt, Village Voice, 2010
“As you try to track [Brown’s] dancers though the rules of each work, the experience is as intellectually enthralling as it is beautiful to watch.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian, 2002
“It is sometimes overlooked that along with her risk-taking intelligence and avid curiosity, Ms Brown … can be a comedian. Stepping back in time with her art is a wild ride, not just because of how the work has held up, but also because of how wittily relevant it remains.” – Gia Kourlas, New York Times, 2010
“The evolution of intelligent design.”
These five words – the title of a 2005 New York Times article by John Rockwell – pretty much encapsulate Brown’s whole career.
“The high priestess of postmodern dance.”
Already a cliche. Same goes for “Brownian motion”.
Merce Cunningham and John Cage were both formative influences.
Other Judson choreographers include Yvonne Rainer, Twyla Tharp, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton and David Gordon.
Now watch this
1970 archive footage (no sound) of Trisha Brown and dancers practising Leaning Duets in the street outside her New York studio.
2008 recreation of Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970)
Trisha Brown in 1986, performing Accumulation with Talking plus Water Motor (1979)
Rehearsal of Set and Reset (1983)
Brown’s choreography for Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1998)
There’s a good selection of videos on the Trisha Brown Company website.
Where to see Trisha Brown next
See the Trisha Brown Company website for performance dates.