When American choreographer Trisha Brown turned her back on the audience in her 1994 solo If You Couldn’t See Me, she wasn’t “turning her back” on them. Sure, she did in fact perform the whole 10-minute piece facing upstage, but it wasn’t a way of ignoring them. It was another way of doing something that she often does: shifting perspective so that we can see things differently, or see things we don’t usually see. We don’t often get to focus on backs, for example, but they are fundamental to how dance functions. The scapula articulates the arms, legs are held across the back of the pelvis, the spine serves as a pliant stem holding the whole kinetic mechanism of levers and cantilevers together. So If You Couldn’t See Me is a kind of “backstage” solo. Instead of all that theatrical frontstage stuff – the dancer’s persona and presentation, the “me” in If You Couldn’t See Me, if you like – we get to watch the workings: the pulleys and cogs and flies. On another level, though, we just get a different theatrical front. We can’t help but wonder: why is this person facing away? Is there an invisible audience in front of her? What face might she be showing to them? And come to that, what might her back be saying to us? That simple device of reversing our sightlines reveals the backstage workings of dance and at the same time presents it with a different face.
Trisha Brown was 58 when she performed that solo, but such concerns had been with her since she started out as a choreographer in the 1960s. Born in 1936 in upstate Washington, Brown had taken classes in ballet and tap as a child, and gone on to study modern dance in California. Following an inspirational summer school with the experimentalist Anna Halprin, who focused on improvisation and sensory awareness of the environment, Brown moved to New York in 1961, eager for new discoveries. There, the now legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham was in the ascendant, beginning to displace the expressive, symbolic style of modern dance that then held sway with his own artfully abstract compositions and quizzical approach. Brown joined a course at the Cunningham Studio led by musician Robert Dunn, exploring the concepts and methods of composer John Cage, Cunningham’s regular collaborator and long-time partner. And from those classes emerged a nucleus of students, Brown among them, who in July 1962 presented a free showing of their work at the Judson Memorial Church in downtown New York. Little did they know it then, but that modest performance, called simply “Concert of Dance No. 1”, was the start of something big.
The Judson Dance Theater, as the loose collective came to be known, was a crucible for experimentation and a cradle for a veritable wave of pioneering artists (the group encompassed musicians, actors and visual artists as well as dancers), including Lucinda Childs, Meredith Monk and Steve Paxton. The Judson ethos was encapsulated in a manifesto penned by Yvonne Rainer, a young dancer who had also come to New York from Anna Halprin’s summer school. “No to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make believe,” she wrote, in an unpunctuated string of theatrical prohibitions that included glamour, star image, style, involvement and eccentricity, and ended with “no to moving or being moved.” That sounds like a death-knell for dance itself, but the Judson dancers found it liberating. Brown, for example, had grown increasingly exasperated with the idea that theatre dance had a subject that was expressed in movement and set to music. “I did not connect,” she later recalled in a film interview, “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.” So along with her Judson Dance Theater associates, and in her own way, Brown turned her back on dance.
Or so it seemed. Actually, she was shifting her angle of vision, or changing face. In doing so – just as audiences find in If You Couldn’t See Me – she had to attend more closely to how things work. Having ditched “dancey” movement, she constructed pieces out of “ordinary” actions, like riding a skateboard or jumping in the bath. Having ditched music and storyline, she looked to other kinds of “score” that might serve to structure a piece: the walls and windows of a room, for example, could become the reference points for a dance performed within it. And having ditched conventional choreography, she constructed what she called “dance machines” – systems and situations that would generate choreography for her. An example: in Rulegame No. 5 (1964), Brown put five performers in seven rows, and gave them two instructions: first, each row was assigned a certain level, from standing up to lying down flat, which the performers had to follow; second, they could move between rows only when everyone is lower than whoever is in the row behind. A simple algorithm that produced a complex piece.
Since the 1970s, Brown’s choreography has developed through a series of overlapping phases, each cycle indicating a shift of perspective. In the early 1970s, perspective was itself her focus. In the “equipment pieces”, performers were rigged up in harnesses and walked down the side of a building or round the walls of a gallery, so that viewers seemed to be seeing them from above instead of sideways. In her outdoor pieces, the performance might be scattered across a series of floating rafts, or spread out as a striking skyline semaphore as dancers performed simultaneously on different rooftops across Manhattan.
In her “mathematic series”, Brown’s focus was on addition and multiplication. In Accumulation (1971), basic flexions and rotations of the joints – a head turn, an elbow drop, a knee lift – were accrued one by one into increasingly long chains of action. Not satisfied with that, she remade the dance while simultaneously telling a story. Later, she tried inserting segments from an entirely different piece, Watermotor – a fluid, multi-directional solo she made in 1978 – into the accumulation structure. And finally in Accumulation with Talking Plus Watermotor (1979) she spliced together the two dances while simultaneously reciting excerpts of two different stories. No trace of “triple redundancy” here.
For nearly 20 years, all of Brown’s pieces were performed in studios, galleries, or out of doors. Then in 1979, she made her first theatre piece – for pragmatic, rather than idealistic reasons (her eight-year-old son had mentioned going to college one day, and she realised she’d need to tour her work if she was ever to make enough money). But Glacial Decoy was by no means a conventional theatre piece, with its own world conjured up on stage. A slideshow of outdoor scenes (by Brown’s close collaborator Robert Rauschenberg) is projected across the backcloth, like passing windows onto the outside world; in front of them a line of four female dancers keeps slipping in and out of the wings, as if the dance continued offstage and the proscenium were just a viewfinder within a wider field of vision.
In the early 1980s, Brown embarked on her “unstable molecular structure” cycle, so-called because of the slippery, fleeting choreographic configurations that kept fusing and decaying throughout the works. The best known of this series is the 1983 Set and Reset, again designed by Rauschenberg but now, for the first time in Brown’s career, with a musical score (by Laurie Anderson). It is a dazzling work of slipknot formations, full of off-the-cuff accents and accidents, its timing as taut as it appears happenstance.
Then came the “valiant” series. Out went fluidity; in came force (Brown’s inspiration came from heaving furniture around her studio). In pieces such as Newark (1987), her focus was on partnering – not the fleet encounters of her earlier work, but hefty lifts and hauls, launches and leverings. It was very arduous for the dancers (“they were barfing backstage”), so she soon began a much more minimalist “back to basics” phase, deliberately toning down the physical dynamics, simplifying the composition, and for the first time gently allowing personal imagery and emotion to suffuse the atmosphere of pieces such as Foray Forêt (1990), For M.G., The Movie (1991) and her emblematic solo If You Couldn’t See Me.
Since then, Brown has experimented with modern jazz music (her El Trilogy series, 1998-2000), with technology (motion capture animation, remote-controlled robots), and perhaps more surprisingly, with works deliberately set to existing scores – Bach in A Musical Offering (1995) and Webern in Twelve Ton Rose (1996). Still, those composers offer a level of abstract structural rigour that you can see would appeal to Brown’s process-oriented imagination. Much more surprising was a different musical/theatrical turn – to opera. In 1998, she choreographed a production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, in 2002 she staged a version of Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle, with the dancers supporting singer Simon Keenlyside; and more recently she has made work to excerpts of Rameau’s Hipployte et Aricie (L’Amour au Théâtre, 2009) and directed another Rameau opera, Pigmalion in 2010. Was all this – dancing with music and words and stories – a reversal of everything she once stood for? Had she succumbed to the triple redundancy that once so exasperated her? Not exactly. Now she has the confidence to let the dance partner the music and story – to create a “third music”, as she calls it – rather than fear that it will follow their lead. So you still see the Brownian choreographic structures in place – the mechanisms, the maths, the molecules – but you also see the dance exchanging complicit sidelong glances with the music, or words, or story, coinciding with a musical cadence here, a narrative image there. It’s as if, with these operatic works, Brown has returned full circle to her point of departure – though now, of course, with a different outlook and a different front – to face the young choreographer who turned her back on dance all those years ago: herself.