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Obituary: Trisha Brown, 1936-2017

Trisha Brown.<br />© Marc Ginot and courtesy <a href="">Trisha Brown Company</a>. (Click image for larger version)
Trisha Brown.
© Marc Ginot and courtesy Trisha Brown Dance Company. (Click image for larger version)

Trisha Brown – An Appreciation

Trisha Brown, one of the most influential figures in late twentieth century dance, died, on 18 March, in San Antonio, Texas, aged 80. She had been suffering from vascular dementia, since 2011.

Brown described herself as a ‘hard core, abstract choreographer.’ Others saw her as predominantly a visual artist who became the pre-eminent innovator in postmodern dance. She routinely breached the link between seeing and understanding her work; through dislocation, discontinuity and spatial disruption, in terms of both the performance space and also the relationship between performers and their audience. Brown believed herself to be a ‘perpetual learner, an individual who takes nothing for granted other than discovery itself.

Trisha Brown was born in Aberdeen, a tiny city in Gray’s Harbor County, Washington, on 25 November 1936. In 1958, she achieved a BA in Dance from Mills College in Oakland, California; and two years later, participated in Anna Halprin’s ground-breaking experimental workshop devoted to improvisation, in Kentfield, California.

Brown’s artistic life was shaped by creative cycles. Certain principles governed the core of each cycle until her obsessions were satisfied and she deemed the series to be complete. The early part of her career was spent principally as part of the Judson Dance Theater group, a choreographic collective working in New York, during the 1960s.

The Judson group was the precursor to her postmodernism; rejecting traditional dance forms and techniques, together with narrative and theatricality. It promoted close collaboration with other visual arts, embracing the prevailing theories in music and art which emphasised the need to capture the everyday; thereby characterising the pedestrian approach that hallmarked Brown’s first artistic phase.

Her equipment pieces required an in-situ building or other piece of equipment, such as in Homemade (1966), where Brown had a projector strapped to her back, relaying film of her dance onto a screen, viewed simultaneously to her movement. Later, her work fell into a complex, multi-layered structural phase relating to a three-dimensional kinosphere of space surrounding the body. Brown dictated the movement through autobiographical words corresponding to an alphabet, which in turn related to a numeric sequence coded against each point in the kinosphere.

These cycles appeared to be independent of one another but certain core principles crossed the boundaries of each series to be present in much of Brown’s repertoire. She rejected narrative and placed a priority on simple tasks, props and movement, creating an ongoing ‘foregrounding’ obsession with the mechanics of the moving body. Many of the key ingredients of deconstruction are generally prevalent throughout each phase of Brown’s work, although her particular deconstructive emphasis moves from spatial disruption to body movement, over time.

Performed in April 1970, the year in which the Trisha Brown Dance Company was formed, Man Walking Down the Side of a Building was of key significance in the early period of Brown’s creativity when she chose to have her work performed outside of a conventional theatrical context: in lofts, galleries, rooftop spaces, parking lots and plazas.

Brown sent her dancer down the façade of a seven-storey building at 80 Wooster Street in Manhattan, strapped into a mountaineering harness. There were no tricks or illusions: the dancer simply walked down the side of the building, arms held at his sides; straight legs moving perpendicular to the building. Out-of-sight from the small audience congregating in the building’s courtyard, an assistant on the roof slowly let out the rope that held the performer.

Brown’s contemporary, Yvonne Rainer, described the spectacle as a ‘death-defying feat,’ which made for ‘a terrific tension in her work of this period.’ Several years later, Brown herself observed that the dancer’s powerful body, undergoing this simple everyday motion, illustrated ‘the paradox of one action working against another…gravity working one way on the body…a naturally walking person in another way.’

From May 2006 - Trisha Brown Dance Company at Tate Modern -<I>Man Walking Down the Side of a Building</I>.<br />© Graham Watts. (Click image for larger version)
From May 2006 – Trisha Brown Dance Company at Tate Modern –Man Walking Down the Side of a Building.
© Graham Watts. (Click image for larger version)

London was privileged to see this gravity-defying work when it was repeated against the façade of the Tate Modern on a wet and windy May bank holiday, in 2006. I wrote at the time: ‘…the man loomed Christ-like out of his steel frame, arms raised out from his sides, before quickly tilting forwards into the unnatural position of being entirely parallel to the floor below’. The uncredited man followed Brown’s orders of 36 years’ previously: ‘You start at the top, walk straight down, stop at the bottom’. Brown was challenging the accepted view of gravity’s pull and refusing to succumb to it: her man walks slowly. Although gravity always won, it did so only on Brown’s terms and in her own time (each downward journey took about five minutes).

In Falling Duet (I) (1968), Brown and her fellow dancer, Barbara Lloyd, took on another punishing contest with gravity as they repeatedly fell to the floor until they were too tired to continue; and the inevitably futile “war” continued on into Pamplona Stones (1974), where a dancer dropped a large rock onto the stage as Brown – like a modern-day Canute – loudly commanded it to stop, in mid-air.

The essence of Man Walking…. was taken indoors at the Whitney Museum of American Art with Walking on the Wall (1971) where Brown and fellow performers, supported by harnesses suspended from the ceiling, walked around the walls, sometimes throwing in the odd leap parallel to the floor. Her theme was continued to large extent in Set and Reset (1983), which marked the end of her cycle of innovative experiments at creating dance as a reflection of molecular structures. It was revisited, in 2011, to be Reset once more, for performance by Candoco, the first time any major choreographer had restaged an iconic work for an inclusive company. Sadly, Brown’s illness meant that she was to make no further work after 2011.

In 1973, Brown took another gravity-defying walk in Woman Walking Down a Ladder: the ladder being suspended at a slight angle from a water tower. Here the suspension of the audience’s belief was even more dramatic as there are no evident wires or pulleys in Babette Mangolte’s iconic photograph of the performance. Then again, in 1991, she collaborated with the late Dominique Bagouet’s Company (the first time Brown made a dance for a company other than her own); to make One Story as in Falling, which is about diffuse shadows of falling images.

This was followed by the core set of Accumulation works (1971-73), executed in-situ; on the floor, in a park, on a lake, or anywhere from which the spectator could draw different perceptions depending upon where he or she stood. One such event was Primary Accumulations on Rafts (1972), performed on a lake in Minneapolis, whereupon the wind and the currents took the small rafts on which dancers performed in whatever direction nature was to determine.

From Dance Umbrella's celebration of Trisha Brown in 2010: Trisha Brown's <I>Group Primary Accumulation</I> (1970), at Tate Modern.<br />© John Mallinson. (Click image for larger version)
From Dance Umbrella’s celebration of Trisha Brown in 2010: Trisha Brown’s Group Primary Accumulation (1970), at Tate Modern.
© John Mallinson. (Click image for larger version)

The British dancer/choreographer, Theo Clinkard, studied Brown’s original Accumulation solo, during research with her company, in December 2013, performing it in several UK venues, the following year (he had previously performed the solo, in 2008, without this expert first-hand study).

Accumulation is essentially based on gesture, primarily via the hand, beginning with a simple action from the thumb and in the rotation of the fist. In making Accumulation, Brown was both posing a series of post-modernist questions about what is acceptable in dance and following through with her career-long obsession about the mechanics of movement (an interest that also became manifest in her exceptionally detailed drawings of the hand and body).

The layering of simple movement motifs such as dropping the arm, rotating the wrist and stepping back becomes a structured form of dance through its clever interaction with the pulsating music in the recording of Uncle John’s Band by The Grateful Dead. Brown herself described Accumulation as ‘very lonely to perform’ and there is certainly no room for error – and nowhere to hide – with the solo dancer placed centrally on a well-lit stage. In Accumulation with talking plus Watermotor (1979), Brown performed two dances while telling two stories simultaneously, thereby disrupting audio-visual logic and disorientating the audience.

One key aspect of both Man Walking… and the in-situ Accumulations series is that the audience could only ever see a part of the performance: a partial view dictated by the constraints of architectural perspective or the natural obstacles to vision of trees, buildings and contour. From the ground, it is impossible to see both the man walking down the side of a building and his colleague hidden away on the rooftop.

It is much more difficult to establish the same deconstructive principles in a conventional theatre space. But, inevitably, Brown took on this challenge, by moving from the diversity of outside spaces into the theatre. Her frequent artistic collaborator, the artist, Robert Rauschenberg said: ‘In her early work Trisha was using the world, as it was, for her sets and lighting, and as her theatre….I guess she went to the house when she realised she didn’t have that and missed it.’

In this context, it is hardly surprising that the first work created by Brown for a proscenium theatre should continue the deconstructive principle whereby parts of the performance are happening away from the audience’s gaze. Glacial Decoy (1979) marked the beginning of several new concentric cycles of Brown’s work: not only her first piece made specifically for a conventional stage, but also the beginning of her collaboration with Rauschenberg and, through him, it also marked the start of a long journey, exploring the dynamic, largely theatrical, relationship of visual arts and human movement.

Despite marking important changes of direction for her work in the late 70s, Glacial Decoy also clung to her past by continuing the earlier trend of performance without music. The choreography and, more importantly, Rauschenberg’s wonderful, shifting, monochrome imagery of rural and urban American life had no need of music.

From Dance Umbrella's celebration of Trisha Brown in 2010: Trisha Brown's Sticks (1973), at Tate Modern.© John Mallinson. (Click image for larger version)
From Dance Umbrella’s celebration of Trisha Brown in 2010: Trisha Brown’s Sticks (1973), at Tate Modern.
© John Mallinson. (Click image for larger version)

Four female dancers, dressed in voluminous white muslin nightgowns, form various combinations. Performers enter from the wings already in perfect harmony with those onstage: sometimes dancers appear only fleetingly before either disappearing or joining others in full view. Aspects of the performance are continuing out of the audience’s sight. Brown described the piece as ‘a women’s’ quartet that slides back and forth,’ a ploy that suggests an infinite number of dancers offstage to the right and left. This illusion is clinched late in the 18-minute performance when a fifth dancer enters the stage, implying that she has always been there as an unseen part of the ensemble.

In his essay, Story about No Story, Klaus Kertees notes: ‘….she gave as much emphasis to the wings of the stage as the center’. Following so many outdoor works, this was clearly Brown’s way of hanging onto something of that uncertain, often unseen, performance world while venturing into the more intimate confines of a theatre

William Forsythe is one of many choreographers to have been greatly influenced by Brown. He took the offstage performance world of Glacial Decoy a degree further in Artifact (1984) where the curtain dramatically falls several times in mid-performance, thus disconnecting the audience from the performers whilst they are still dancing onstage.

From Dance Umbrella's celebration of Trisha Brown in 2010: Trisha Brown's <I>The Floor of the Forest</I> (1970), performed by Candoco Dance Company & Trinity Laban at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.<br />© John Mallinson. (Click image for larger version)
From Dance Umbrella’s celebration of Trisha Brown in 2010: Trisha Brown’s The Floor of the Forest (1970), performed by Candoco Dance Company & Trinity Laban at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. © John Mallinson. (Click image for larger version)

Glacial Decoy is a work about memorised and formalised spontaneity. It created a personal style that would shape most of Brown’s future work. Speaking about Glacial Decoy, in 1979, Brown said: ‘My work is about change – of direction, shape, velocity, mood, state. There are total, instantaneous shifts from one physical state to another. This is tumultuous to perform, but if the momentum is just right, there is an ease.’ After seeing Glacial Decoy, the philosopher and art critic, Guy Scarpetta applied the term ‘Brownian Motion’ to her work.

In Foray Forêt (1990), Brown introduced a new dimension of audio-visual defamiliarisation and delocation by deconstructing the relationship between performer and spectator. Altering audience perception is a central concern, as Sousa’s music was played by a marching band, circling the space around the exterior of the theatre (in Lyon) with occasional forays into the lobby. Brown’s intention in separating the choreography from the music, which is often barely audible to the audience, was to force individual audience members to go back in time to the memory of a parade.

Brown often messed with traditional perceptions of stage space, placing crucial choreography at the margins (such as half-on and half-off stage, as in Glacial Decoy); or she has her dancers facing backstage, as if the theatre had been rotated, so that the audience sees a back view, never previously seen.

This attack on the basic theatrical concept of frontality was taken to the extreme in ‘If you couldn’t see me’ (1994), a ten-minute solo, performed by Brown herself, danced entirely with her back to the audience. In preparing for the solo, Brown asked Rauschenberg, “what do you think would be the most difficult thing?” and he replied, “for a dancer to dance with their back to the audience’. Rauschenberg was also responsible for the music, composed on a Yamaha electric piano he had just received as a Christmas present; visual presentation; lighting; and costume. It was first performed at the Joyce Theatre in New York on 3 May 1994

Brown wore a dress with a deep V cut into the back and two long panels, front and back, open at the sides, with a pair of shorts. Describing her performance, Steve Paxton, wrote to her: ‘You cannot know, but may have heard from others, what the sculpture of your back can accomplish. It is Indonesian in line and volumes: richly shadowed and starkly lit in its highlands, it became an abstraction shifting from an anatomical event with muscles like a whippet to a large looming face to a mask – something alien and frightening although weirdly comic as the rest of the body reconnects and we see again a back’.

Trisha Brown Dance Company in Set and Reset.© Stephanie Berger. (Click image for larger version)
Trisha Brown Dance Company in Set and Reset.
© Stephanie Berger. (Click image for larger version)

The principles that governed the core of each series of Trisha Brown’s work have always enveloped core ingredients of deconstruction: beginning in the 1960s and 70s with a disruption of visual logic in many of her pedestrian and equipment pieces where the audience sees (often only partially) dance performed in ways and by means that defy conventional understanding; then, at the end of the 70s, taking those deconstructive principles of defamiliarisation, disruption, discontinuity and dislocation into the conventional theatre space and introducing new concepts, such as rearranging the audio-visual logic through the itinerant musicians in Foray Forêt. By 1994, Brown was deconstructing the basic theatrical convention of frontality and the movement of her own body in the context of its particular relationship to the audience.

Both as puppet and puppeteer, Trisha Brown turned the metaphysical truths of dance around, and inside-out, disrupting the logic of visualisation through altering perceptions about the space in which dance happens and the way in which dancers interact with each other and their audience.

Brown won countless awards and accolades during her long career. She served on the US National Council on the Arts and was an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her reputation was especially significant in France where she was named a Chevalier in L’Ordre des Arts et Lettres, in 1988; subsequently promoted to Officier (2000) and Commandeur (2004). She was awarded the US National Medal of Arts (2002) and a lifetime achievement award in the Prix Benois de la Danse (2011).

Her husband, the artist, Burt Barr, died on 7 November, last year. She is survived by her son, Adam; his wife Erin, and four grandchildren; together with a brother and sister.

Trisha Brown leaves the most enormous legacy of repertoire and ideas, such that it is impossible to imagine the development of modern dance without her seismic contribution.

About the author

Graham Watts

Dance Writer/Critic. Member of the Critics' Circle, Chairman of the Dance Section and National Dance Awards Committee. Writes for leading dance magazines & websites - in UK, Europe, USA, Japan & cyberspace. Graham is based in London.

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