For dance lovers, New York in the 1960s was a bit like Paris in the 1920s: the undisputed centre of an avant-garde arts movement in which dance was a driving force. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was the powerhouse in Paris; in New York the action centred on Judson Memorial Church, a platform for the short-lived but hugely influential Judson Dance Theater. Trisha Brown was a founder member – and while Diaghilev is celebrated at the V&A, and the Judson legacy in the Hayward Gallery’s “Move” exhibition, Brown was the glowing centre piece of this year’s Dance Umbrella festival.
Over a weekend of performances, installations, filmed interviews and archive footage, you could track Brown’s wayward path from youthful radical to art-house figurehead. She began by stripping dance of everything she could, just to see what was left. First to go were music and story. “I did not connect,” she remembers, “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.” Out of the window, too, went codified dance styles (too much theatrical baggage) and, indeed, theatres (ditto). The question then was, having thrown out all this bath water, what to do with the baby she was left holding?
Brown’s answers were writ large across the weekend. Tate Modern showed several early works, both on film and performed live in different galleries. Many are focused on mechanics: Leaning Duets (1970) has pairs of dancers walking hand in hand, tilted away from each other in precarious V-shapes. That’s it. It’s surprisingly affecting and quite funny – and not a theatrical trick in sight. Other works also showed how much Brown liked messing with mass and gravity.
Where to put these “dances” was another question. Roof Piece (1973) shows dancers semaphoring from rooftops, over an area of 12 blocks (Brown had gone knocking on doors, announcing “Hello, I’m a choreographer, and I would like very much to put a dance on your roof”). A man walked down the side of a building in Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970). She called this piece a “dance machine”: you set it up, set it off, and it produced a kind of piece.
The “machinery” of dance – how to make something – seems to be Brown’s perennial concern. Her early pieces were simple in construction, if not in outcome, like the “accumulations” in which units of movement accrue one by one so that the choreography looks like an ever-growing molecule. Film footage shows where that simplicity led: in her complex solo Accumulation with Talking Plus Watermotor (1978), Brown cut between two completely different dances, while also telling two different stories. No triple redundancy there.
Brown brought all this experience to bear on her theatre work when she turned to the stage with Glacial Decoy (1979), one of four pieces performed in an inspiring repertory programme. Here, Robert Rauschenberg’s photographs form a slideshow of crisp everyday images (a bicycle, a dog, boats, shops), while in front of them four wraith-like women slip fluidly from side to side, creating the unsettling illusion that the dancers are less solidly material than the photos.
Brown’s most recent piece, L’Amour au théâtre (2009), seems to contradict everything she once stood for. It has music – 18th-century music, by Rameau, with songs and lyrics and conventional structures. It has snippets of story – there are little flirtations between the dancers, and one witty number appears constructed from the action of “getting your leg over”. And it has direct images – horse carriages, love’s arrow. Is this triple redundancy? Is the bath water back? No: it’s different water; a different bath, even. Compare Brown’s delightful hunting scene with an apparently similar episode in Mark Morris’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, which is immersed in music and story, and commonly regarded as a masterpiece of modern dance. Morris’s scene is enchanting, clever and exquisitely choreographed – and on each count is outclassed by Brown’s. She comes to the juncture at an altogether odder angle, sideways rather than straight on. This inspiring weekend of work showed how she could not have arrived at this point without her point of departure, throwing out bath water in New York in the 1960s.