The Johnston Letter: “Cunningham belongs to that great shift of focus — from representation to the concentration on materials — which is so central to the revolution in art in this century….”

By Jill Johnston
Copyright Jill Johnston 2009

(Originally published in the Village Voice and Art in America and reprinted by permission of the author, whose many milestones include being the first dance critic of the Village Voice – and thus the oracle of Judson.  Dance Insider subscribers get access to five years of the Jill Johnston Letter, as well as 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading critics of performances around the world from 1998 through 2015.  Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for just $29.95/year by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. If the Merce Cunningham Dance Company no longer exists, the Cunningham works “How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run,” previously performed in Paris by the company, “Inlets 2,” and “Beach Birds” will be reprised next May 30 – June 2 at the Theatre National de la Danse Chaillot (across the river from another monument, the Eiffel Tower) by the company of the  Centre national de danse contemporaine d’Angers (whose recent directors include the influential Emmanuelle Huynh), featuring veteran Cunningham dancer Ashley Chen. Today’s publication sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock Dance .)

It is not easy to see. Outside the theater, living as we do, most of us see very little with our eyes wide open…. It is rare to see more than a general outline. Or to see more and still enter. That is the crucial transition, from seeing to entering. Not only crucial but mysterious, so I won’t say any more except to note that I think most people who go to dance concerts don’t see very well, not even dancers, sometimes dancers especially, and most often critics, who must attend special classes in becoming blind.

Mr. Cunningham presented a new dance, “Aeon,” almost 50 minutes long, to a score by John Cage and with decor by Robert Rauschenberg. “Aeon” is a dance of great scale. It moves through so much, in range of quality, physical force, the human condition, that the whole thing is staggering to think of in retrospect. Human events: the activity of dancers on a proscenium stage. Other human events: the ways people communicate with each other, or speak for themselves. Exterior events: explosions, clouds, lights, a machine, sounds. And always the dancing, the superb dancing. The stillness too, which is never a mere choreographic stop, but an act of undaunted containment, of simple yet magnificent composure, of not-being which is the essence of being. A complete act, not a choreographic or dramatic transition.

Cunningham’s own range in this dance is fantastic. Not only those typical sudden shifts from motion to stillness, but the subtle gradations of energy (I have a vivid memory of an ‘incident’ originating as a vibration in the thighs, transferred to the stomach, traveling upward to the arms and shoulders and exploding like a geyser at the top); not to mention all the complicated coordinations, and wordless drama that every movement event secretes.

Cunningham is a great dancer, and you know it not by his technical range and command alone; you feel it in the whole man, the whole man is in it every time. You may see a procession of selves and the man never makes a move not true to himself.

— From “Dance: Cunningham in Connecticut,” The Village Voice, September 7, 1961.

The exclusion of Cunningham this summer, despite the anniversary, despite the fact that Limon is a charter member of the whole affair and that Graham is almost a national monument, is a sad reminder of how impossible it is at any moment in a history of anything for certain (controlling) groups of people to see where a thing is going, to put their fingers on the heartbeat of a movement…. Maybe New London should stick to a museum policy only. In this category they can hardly miss. And Limon and Graham easily command the field where statues are in question. They both have attitudes about themselves and about dancing that have more to do with the glory of Greece and grandeur of Rome than they do with life in America at the present moment.

— From “DANCE: New London,” The Village Voice, August 30, 1962.

The dance world is embarrassingly backward. Cunningham should pack Philharmonic Hall for a week at least. He has no peer in the dance as a consummate artist. Moreover, he continues to be abreast, if not in advance of all recent developments…. Cunningham belongs to that great shift of focus — from representation to the concentration on materials — which is so central to the revolution in art in this century…. The curious thing about this kind of dancing is that emotion is created by motion rather than the reverse, which is the traditional view of modern dance. But since there is no specified emotion, I believe that what you feel in the movement is the impact of a total action. Each movement means only itself and it moves you by its pure existence, by being so much itself. It is Cunningham’s magic as a performer to make every action a unique and complete experience. The gesture is the performer, the performer is the gesture.

— From “DANCE: Cunningham, Limon,” The Village Voice, September 5, 1963.

In the 1980s Cunningham presents a profile of extremes. His iconoclastic approach to choreography (launched in the ’50s in collusion with Cage) — the dance and music co-existing in a common time frame, but otherwise independent of each other; the application of chance procedures to the movement itself; the defocusing of the space in an allover look, no element supposedly more important than another — is still state-of-the-art work. And where Cunningham sees examples of work by younger choreographers in which dance movement is measured in meter, to the music, or in which movement appears to represent anything other than itself, he will characterize it as 19th-century work. Yet in some respects Cunningham himself exhibits 19th-century characteristics. In the ’50s, and even in the ’60s, this 19th-centuryness could hardly have been apparent, if at all, because the deep, or a priori, structure of the work, the gender-given aspect, still went unquestioned, and was therefore invisible.

Conscious gender play has in the meantime entered into the choreographic considerations of a number of younger artists (among them David Gordon, Mark Morris, Steve Paxton, Lucinda Childs). But Cunningham himself clearly continues not to question this ‘deep structure.’ Most apparent, and most boring, in the range of male/female breaching in his work is the predictable lift. “Roratorio,” with its extensive social partnering, has more than the full complements of lifts to be expected in a Cunningham dance. Again, he inherits this convention from the ballet, yet generally the way his men lift or carry or place or drag his women is much more like a vestigial echo of the ballet than anything resembling the no-nonsense support of the ballerina for the purpose of exposing her line and ‘sex’ and sweeping her through pedestals in the air. Although Cunningham’s manipulations of women are comparatively matter-of-fact, frequently like an afterthought, en passant really, they still appear to affirm, if only perfunctorily, the assumed dependency, weakness, helplessness, etcetera, of women. Certainly, his women remain armless in this way, except in the conventional decorative sense. But Cunningham would no doubt say that lifting is, simply, along with leaps, jumps, turns, etc., part of the raw material of his medium, something that bodies can do on stage, and to which he can apply his chance operations, obtaining the most interesting variations in rhythm and sequence.

“Roratorio,” like all Cunningham’s dance, brims with the most wonderful changes in speed, direction, rhythm, dynamics, groupings, as the whole piece moves stage left to right, in a linear action (not, incidentally, unlike the circular structure of “Finnegans Wake”), finally exiting to the right as the dancers carry off the seven or so stools that accompany them as they traverse the space. But the one variation you won’t find is in the lifting of women. Men always lift women, or “girls,” as Cunningham calls them throughout “The Dancer and the Dance,” the excellent book of interviews with him by Jacqueline Lesschaeve. And these days, no doubt because Cunningham, in his late 60s has lost even a hint of virtuosity in his own dancing (he essentially walks, and gestures), the vigor and expansiveness in his work is all projected through the males in his company.

At one time, say as late as 1972, when Carolyn Brown quit the company, Cunningham’s men and women were at least technically somewhat closer together. He had more mature women dancing with him then, not only technically accomplished (Brown was of prima quality) but with interesting character as well, and he and the men also of course were nearer in age. Now there are great gaps in his demography. He is 67, one of his men is 40, the rest are in their early 30s, and 20s. His men are fun to watch, his women are good, certainly attractive, but only Cunningham, immobile and arthritic as he is, carries the weight of character, of presence, of the necessary eccentric factor, that makes any company great. The general impression is of a marvelous gaunt grandfather tree, craggy and leafless, weathered and patinated, amazing in its knotty configurations, its sheer endurance, sticking way up over a band of brightly colored acorns dancing at the foot of its trunk.

There was a certain perfect reverberation between Cunningham, on stage, and Cage, in his box, in “Roratorio.” Cage delivered his Joyce text like some hoary old poet; Cunningham appeared on stage like some ancient satyr. And the panoply of noise along with the explosion of movement that surrounded them invoked that great line of Thomas: “Do not go gentle….”

— From “Jigs, Japes, and Joyce,” Art in America, January 1987.

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David Gordon’s Pure Dance: No Cynicism or Pedestrian Movement Around Here

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2001, 2017 Susan Yung

NEW YORK — It is a nearly inconceivable truth that David Gordon has been making dances for about 40 years. The truly amazing thing is that his recent premieres, as seen at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church Friday, are fresh by any standard, without resorting to shock tactics or cynicism. And if you expect choreography by Gordon, a charter member of the Judson Church movement, to be banal and pedestrian, you’d be wrong. It is visceral, technically challenging, immensely pleasing dance/theater executed by performers equal to the task….

To receive the complete article, first published on January 8, 2001, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. Subscribers receive full access to the DI Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $129 (institutions); $99 when you order before October 15.  Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@@gmail.com .

Making decoys with Trisha Brown and Robert Rauschenberg at MoMA in NY

trisha moma smallFrom the exhibition Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends, running through September 17 at the Museum of Modern Art: Trisha Brown, “Glacial Decoy,” 1979. With costumes, set, and lighting (with Beverly Emmons), by Robert Rauschenberg. From  performances by the Trisha Brown Dance Company at the Marymount Manhattan College Theater, New York, June 20–24, 1979. Left to right: Trisha Brown, Nina Lundborg, and Dance Insider contributor Lisa Kraus. (See below for Kraus on setting Brown’s “Glacial Decoy” on the Paris Opera Ballet.)  Photograph: Babette Mangolte © 1979 Babette Mangolte. (All Rights of Reproduction Reserved) Courtesy Museum of Modern Art.

If you could see her & Chuck Now: Remembering Trisha Brown on Stage

trisha

The Trisha Brown company in Brown’s “Foray Foret.” Photo by and copyright Lois Greenfield, and courtesy Tanzquartier Wien.

By & copyright Tom Patrick, Alison D’Amato, Marisa C. Hayes, and Paul Ben-Itzak

Trisha Brown died Saturday, at the age of 80, after a long illness, the Trisha Brown Dance Company announced yesterday. She is survived by multiple generations of choreographers, dancers, and dance presenters from around the world.

Flash Review 1, 5-3-2000: A Dream-Upon-Awakening
Cracking Trisha Brown’s Code

By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2000, 2017 Tom Patrick

NEW YORK — I must confess that it perplexes me in a delicious way to reflect on the smooooth concert I saw last night at the Joyce. Trisha Brown and Company gave us a silky opening night of Brown’s 30th season. To explain my perplexity: Her [and most others’ of the Judson Church branch of the tree] mode is something undeniable that hits me as finely and elusively as a dream-upon-awakening. I concentrate hard to absorb as much of it as I can, to crack the code, but it being so different from my as-yet-earthly milieu I struggle to understand….

Last night’s program began simply with the source. Trisha Brown danced the unaccompanied 1978 solo “Water Motor” gracefully, with the fluency and familiarity of the true mother. Not to say dainty! Ms. Brown dives in, and creates a beautiful portrait of kinetic ebb-and-flow. After this wonderful appetizer, a cubistic reprise/flashback followed, in the shape of Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film “Accumulation with Talking plus Water Motor” The film was a treat, in that it’s a terrific portrait of Ms. Brown and a wonderful feat by Mr. Demme, as well as providing a tickle of pleasure seeing glimpses of Stephen Petronio et al observing Ms. Brown’s dancing and speaking….

Jumping to circa 1987, “Newark (NIWEWEORCE)” for sextet was less whimsical (I felt), but an intriguing sample of compositional interplay, an unfamiliar dialect for me, and it took me a while to adjust to Ms. Brown’s arrest and configurations of rhythm. A unison pair (Seth Parker and Keith Thompson) anchor things at first with a long and deft interlude in-synch before others arrive, in shimmering counterpoint to the pair of men. Clad in clay-gray unitards — by Donald Judd, who also provided “sound concept”(it eluded me) — the six dancers venture into many juxtapositions of structural balance, taking turns as the legs of the table (my view), and I was absorbed [if not familiarly-satisfied] by this ensemble piece. I particularly enjoyed the later sections’ partnering, where anatomy and physiology seemed truly married.

Leading off after intermission was Trisha Brown’s 1994 solo “If you couldn’t see me,” with costume and music by Robert Rauschenberg. Alone in a backless white dress, Ms. Brown dances this entire yummy dance without ever once letting us see her face. Now, is she hiding from us, or just “facing the back” in a clever trick? No. I’d read about this solo when it premiered (thank you, NY Times) and wanted to see it. I’ve been a reluctant dancer on some days, and had certainly secretly wished sometimes still to dance but not so frontally exposed. “If you couldn’t see me” runs [at least] this through a prism to showcase the expressive powers of other vantage points of a dancer and a dance. And what a back, what a pair of legs has this woman! After a wait of six years, this solo satisfied and intrigued me on many levels, and it was again a treat to see the source herself!

The concert concluded with “Five Part Weather Invention,” a new piece that is the second in a specially-commissioned, full-evening jazz trilogy to be premiered [entirely] in June (@ the American Dance Festival, in Durham, NC). Danced by nine to a score by Dave Douglas that was all over the place, the piece left me feeling really in-over-my-head, and hoping the other sections would give me more context for “Five Part Weather…” I was particularly taken with a snaking canonic section, and with a later quintet where unexpectedly someone would periodically fall. The abruptness of these momentary drop-outs was tasty. True to form, Jennifer Tipton’s lighting was a soft-spoken co-star here, as well as the revived “Water Machine.”

Overall I felt off-kilter, as I’ve stated, by the rhythm thing, which is so different from my “experience,” but that’s just me (perhaps I’d be a little more comfortable initiating through TB’s “M.O, to Bach”?) At moments I felt I’d had my fill of smooth&organic, yearned for a little more punctuation, maybe, but that’s just me too(!?@:*&!!). Regardless of that, a great choreographer and her company in such a diverse and extended run as this is definitely something to get to this fortnight in May. Check soon, ’cause it was a full house tonight….

Happy Anniversary, Trisha Brown!

Flash Review 2, 5-14-2009: Watch the decoy
Dance & Order: Feeling Good Unit, starring Trisha Brown

By Alison D’Amato
Copyright 2009, 2017 Alison D’Amato

NEW YORK — Trisha Brown’s opening night performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music April 29 began by hypnotizing me. When Diane Madden, Tamara Riewe and Laurel Tentindo signaled the end of “Planes” (1968) by climbing down to the stage from the vertical set piece they’d been climbing on, I blinked — perhaps for the first time since sitting down. I was reminded of that experience the other night while watching Law & Order: Cynthia Nixon was getting taken under by a crackpot psychiatrist, and just as her eyes were fluttering closed he said something like, “When I touch your shoulder you’ll come back, feeling calm, refreshed and relaxed.” Watching Brown’s work is like that, although her magic is the real thing. I felt better somehow — lighter and with a renewed sense of optimism — when I walked out of the theater at the end of the night.

I’m not the only one to observe that Brown has a tendency to lull you into complacent satisfaction. Alastair Macaulay concluded his New York Times review of the BAM performance by offering a few “reservations” to temper his otherwise unconditional praise: the work is “consistently undisturbing,” “unvaryingly charming,” and “limited in expression, always shying away from moments that might turn into drama.” I don’t disagree with him, but I do wonder why Brown should be expected to generate drama or disturb us. Isn’t there enough sass and fierceness to go around in the dance world? Hasn’t it been 45 years since our eyes were opened to the profundity of the body showing us things without necessarily expressing things, the body that doesn’t feel the need to stir up drama?

“Planes” has the distinct flavor of cool 1960s experimentalism, and the dancers get no opportunity to project emotion; they’re there, in fact, to be projected upon. As they navigate that wall, gridded with holes big enough for arms and legs to pass through, the speed and quality of their movement never changes. We don’t see faces, eyes or effort. But there is something about the collision of real bodies making gentle, unhurried progress and Jud Yalkut’s video with its creepy shifts in perspective (we’re looking at Manhattan from a helicopter, now we’re lying on the ground looking up at a towering, leotard-clad woman) that compels us to keep looking, to go deeper into that trance.

The other piece on the program that brought me to that suspended, pleasantly reflection-less place was “Amour au theatre,” or “the new piece,” as everyone I’ve been talking to calls it. It’s a bright, buoyant work with lots of gorgeous partnering. My favorite moments were when the group coalesced to create multi-person assemblages that supported surprising, almost kooky locomotion, like a huge gallop for a dancer who leaned so far back as to be almost lying down. Smaller, more fleeting treasures are all over the place, too — little, heartbreaking details that make you wonder how a choreographer working on this scale could possibly find the time to break new ground with a quick, throwaway movement of the wrist. “O zlozony/O composite” (or, “the ballet piece,” as everyone calls it, the work having been created  on the Paris Opera Ballet; see elsewhere in these DI Archives) hinted at Brown’s attention to detail and seemingly effortless originality, but those qualities almost hovered behind the dancing, just one step behind, shadow-like. There’s probably a lot to be said about Brown’s negotiation of balletic conventions and vocabularies, but I’ll leave that to someone who knows more about them, and who is more comfortable with the imprint that ballet training leaves on dancing bodies.

“Glacial Decoy” was the historic “masterwork” in the program, and it should be required viewing for anyone who’s ever said or thought that they don’t get dance. Each movement performed in this work is exactly what it should be and exactly where it should be. Each gesture is relevant to real bodies and the real world, while adding depth and richness to the pristine world of the piece. “Glacial Decoy,” which is now exactly 30 years old, strikes me as important precisely because it is a virtuosic display of movement invention, exceptionally rare even among dances that cram in the jumps, lifts and high kicks. The movement itself is almost a character, engaging conversationally with Robert Rauschenberg’s set design and costumes. The iteration at BAM moved along briskly, skimming back and forth across the proscenium with the lateral shifting that constitutes the exquisite formal pleasure of the dance. (For more on “Glacial Decoy,” see Paul Ben-Itzak’s review of the Paris Opera Ballet performance, elsewhere in the DI Archives.)

The company members in ‘Decoy’ — Leah Morrison, Melinda Myers, Tamara Riewe, Judith Sanchez Ruiz and Laurel Tentindo — performed it very capably, although everyone seemed to be having more fun in ‘Amour.’ I imagine the company members played important roles in generating and honing that work’s vocabularies, and their commitment to it and to each other is palpable. It was a pleasure to perceive that, just as it was a pleasure to witness Trisha Brown’s assured mastery of the form. She reminds us that that dance can do a lot of things that aren’t necessarily about shock and awe. Sometimes, making us feel good is enough.

Flash Dispatch, 12-9-2009: If you could see her here

By Marisa C. Hayes
Copyright 2009, 2017 Marisa C. Hayes

VIENNA – It’s easy to lose yourself in Vienna’s history, but today the city is a driving force in contemporary dance, with two world-renowned  institutions: Tanzquartier Wien (literally “Dance Quarter Vienna”), snuggled in the cozy, central Museum Square, and ImpulsTanz, Europe’s largest summer dance festival. In order to host one large-scale event for the annual Europe-wide “Long Night of the Museums,” these two organizations joined forces to present the Trisha Brown Dance Company in a selection of three collaborations with visual artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) on October 3 at Tanz Quartier Wien’s theater, Hall E.

“You Can See Us,” performed to music by Laurie Anderson and danced by Leah Morrison and Dai Jian, is an intelligent reworking of Brown’s early solo “If you Couldn’t See Me.” In this version, originally performed by Bill T. Jones and Trisha Brown in 1996, two dancers complete the same movements with one facing the audience, the other turned away from them. Aside from what watching the back of a dancer reveals — an unexpected, uneasy feeling that arises from never seeing the performer’s face, among other things — the partnership in “You Can See Us” creates a dynamic conversation, not only between dualities (front/back, man/woman, etcetera.) but between the movement itself and the typical Brown vocabulary it diverges from: here there are no turns for momentum that would reveal the face, no side gestures, only the looming depth of the stage on which two dancers, who never touch or see one another, advance, retreat and cross. Rauschenberg’s costumes are low-key, but well suited to the movement, with a silken quality that trails alongside the dancers.

Although quite different in approach, “Foray Foret” — which looks more typically Brown in its loose and organic movements — considers similar themes, particularly perception. This time audiences are not questioned in terms of what lies directly in front of them, as is the case in “You Can See Us,” but rather in what is transpiring around them, as external music played by a live marching band — here the Musikarbeierinnenkapelle Wien — travels around the lobby of the theater, behind the stage, and other various points at the periphery of the theater. These faint sounds waft in and out with varying degrees of intensity as the marching band follows a predetermined path outside the auditorium. While the movement of the marching band remains hidden, we sense its mobility through auditory perception while the dance on stage remains a visual constant. At times, the music and movement seem to brush hands, and at other moments they are in complete discord, maintaining their own respective balance. “Foray Foret” features costumes by Rauschenberg that represent the trademark look for Brown’s company: minimalist, free-flowing shirts with short, bell capped sleeves and loose calf-length pants that provide easy mobility for the dancers.

Watching Trisha Brown’s choreography is a bit like reading a well-developed novel with a variety of characters and side stories that eventually tie into the whole. Sequences that begin in unison with the group often diverge, form sub-groups, become solos or acquire new members. Mini-stories happen on all parts of the stage, but like migrating birds, performers may reenter and reestablish links at any given moment. This is the case in “Foray Foret” as well as the final piece, “Set and Reset.” Created in 1983, this seminal work is danced beneath Rauschenberg’s sculpture dubbed “Elastic Carrier (Shiner),” a large box with several panels that frame white fabric suspended from the ceiling. Four pyramid-shaped forms decorate the end panels of the overhead rectangular sculpture onto which four black and white films are projected (all edited by Rauschenberg) simultaneously on the front sections. As the curtain opens, “Elastic Carrier (Shiner)” is grounded on stage, but after one minute, it is lifted in coordination with the projectors and remains hovering overhead with films playing throughout the duration of the 25-minute piece. Meanwhile, the dancers take little notice of the elevated sculpture creating patterns of shadow and light above their heads. They dive and fall to Laurie Anderson’s composition, “Long Time No See,” commissioned expressly for “Set and Reset.” Once again, this time with the aid of Rauschenberg’s sheer grey-blue costumes, Brown addresses perception and visibility. “I wished that the costumes would provoke your looking past the costumes and back to the dance,” Rauschenberg once said in an interview. With visual cues like these, interesting questions arise surrounding notions of invisibility and exposure within the liquid framework of Brown’s geometric eye.

Flash Review, 7-5-2002: It’s no Draw at All
A Master Class from Trisha Brown

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

MONTPELLIER, France — Before I actually saw Trisha Brown’s “It’s a Draw,” commissioned by the Montpellier Danse festival, I grimaced. Not just because it seemed like a gimmick but because I’ve had too many recent experiences where dance artists stray into another art in which they have no qualifications. Having dancers play musical instruments on which they’re not trained, for example, insults the profession of musician because it says anyone can do that. So reading that Trisha Brown would be drawing for this new solo, I thought, “Just because she thinks it would be neat doesn’t mean she has the right to do it on stage.”

But in fact, the only thing my presumptions revealed is that I’m pretty ignorant about Trisha Brown. After welcoming the audience of about 50 to the tiny black box theater in a residential neighborhood of this Mediterranean city, Brown turned her back and began to dance. For at least ten minutes, before she lifted a piece of chalk, she set the tone that this was, in fact, a dance concert.

Let’s in fact talk a little about that dance, quality-wise at least (capturing and relaying American post-modern not being this reviewer’s strength). A colleague more familiar with Brown had explained to me that she is unique among dancers of a certain generation in not walking like a bag of broken bones — because she’s kept in training. At the risk of seeming patronizing, what’s fascinating is that Brown’s face — that of a 60-something woman — doesn’t seem to go chronologically with her fluid, elastic, slithering body, which moves agelessly. I am thinking of Douglas Dunn, eternally fascinating to watch and yet who sometimes makes me wince and think I hear joints cracking and creaking as he cavorts about on stage. It is not painful to watch him — it is always riveting — but it’s more like his spirit seems so much younger than where his body is now.

With Brown, I don’t know that she has had to lower her expectations for her body from what they might have been 40 years ago; the tasks are still rigorous. And task-oriented — it became clear as soon as Brown, turning around to face the audience and announcing, “Lets’ draw!,” set to work on the first of three large white paper canvasses — is exactly what “It’s a Draw” is. What drawing offered to Brown was not a gimmick, but a new task with which to charge and challenge her body.

In the first segment, the thick black stub of charcoal was used almost as a twister board might be, the dancer-choreographer landing the chalk on the canvas first with her hand and then maneuvering her body around it. Tracing was involved, but Brown usually took the most difficult route to get to a place where finally her head was on the ground, her butt often in the air askew from the obvious even plane, as she ran the chalk around her face.

Before we move on to describing the making of the second canvas — after stagehands hung the first canvas on the back wall — a word needs to be said about Brown’s public disposition towards her visual art task. At the time it just seemed like meaningless banter; “for some reason, I always start on this corner,” she announced. Later, she murmured: “Hmmm…. No….. Ah-hah. Yes. Okay.” But really what this telegraphed is that Brown was not pretending to be her frequent cohort Robert Rauschenberg, but acknowledging that she was a total neophyte. She was not making great art; she was playing. She was us, trying to draw, except that it was far more intriguing what happened to her body when she tried than it would be on ours.

The second canvas didn’t really work as visual art, and the results were less varied as dance. It involved sticking a thinner piece of chalk between her toes and trying to draw that way. The chalk had trouble hiting its mark, the toes trouble holding on to it. The result was a few vague circles. The third seemed to echo the first, involving tracing.

Choreographically though, “It’s a Draw” was 100% dance, presented with integrity and pride. Far from eclipsing the dance by presenting another element as more sexy, if Brown diminished anything it was the drawing, which was clearly defined as just a tool to help this seasoned artist ford new frontiers, bringing us with her.

Flash Flashback, 11-1: Grounded Flight — Butcher Returns to Judson

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2008, 2016 Josephine Leask

(First published on December 4, 2008. Rosemary Butcher died of cancer on July 14 in London where, on December 17, Independent Dance is organizing a “Remembering Butcher” day.)

LONDON — Rosemary Butcher has been a quiet but significant presence in the British dance community for more than 25 years. An independent choreographer who has always been riveted by architecture and the visual arts, Butcher has chosen to work on the margins rather than at the center of dance, mainly situating her work in galleries or other buildings not specifically designed for dance. While she has detached herself from the mainstream, her work has always been included in both large and small dance and arts festivals, nationally and internationally. This year’s Dance Umbrella presented her recent creation “Episodes of Flight,” which I saw November 5 at the Riverside Studios in West London.

Conceived for one dancer — Elena Giannotti — “Episodes of Flight” is based on Butcher’s recent research trip to New York, in which she retraced the time she had spent there from 1969 to 1972, immersed in the Judson Church movement and its many off-shoots. On her return visit, she searched for the people and places that had influenced her own development and reflected on how the Judson legacy had been carried on in the work of many other choreographers over the last 40 years.

In the program notes, Butcher talks about how memory maps, prompted by places, sounds, and conversations with acquaintances in New York guided her back to her past; “Episodes of Flight” is a reflection on how she felt after her journey. A bare, intimate room at Riverside Studios, the performance space is long and thin, bordered by the audience, with two screens marking the extremities of the stage, on which are projected a moving collage of abstract diagrams and grids. The installation created by both the screens themselves and the diagrams projected onto them, by architects Matthew Butcher (the choreographer’s son) and Melissa Appleton frames and limits the performance space as well as illuminating the geometry of the city. It also responds to Giannotti’s movement, like a form of dance notation.

Cathy Lane’s soundscore mixes fleeting sounds recorded from the urban jungle — police car sirens, snippets of conversations, children’s voices, and traffic noise — with synthesized material. What is so powerful is how the soundscape travels up and down the studio and creates a three-dimensional environment which is both evocative and immediate. It reminds me of sitting in some quiet little square in the Lower East Side, just off a busy huge high street, immersed in the city but distanced from it as well.

I mention the aural and visual components before the choreographic because each are just as important in the realization of “Episodes of Flight.” Giannotti has worked intensively with Butcher over the years and has a deep understanding of how Butcher likes to represent movement, economically and with a neutral body. Here the material is uncompromisingly minimal and highly contemplative. Pedestrian movements are employed by Giannotti as she rigorously travels round her confined performance space: standing, lying on the floor, sitting or crouching. Prolonged periods of stillness are followed by fast scurrying dynamics as she shunts herself awkwardly backwards semi-reclined, supporting her weight on her forearms, or lying down, dragging her body over the length of the stage. Through the effort of enacting some of the more punishing actions, Gianotti’s visual countenance, which is otherwise calm, neutral and expressionless, stirs just a little in the wake of exhaustion. Because we the audience are sitting close to her we can detect that the absence of emotion in the choreography is replaced by an introverted intensity which lasts for the 45-minute donation of her solo. She is so absorbed in her own journey, physical, aural and visual, that any extraneous factor is denied in her performance. Thus the essence of Judson minimalism is recalled.

For some at the performance I attended, “Episodes of Flight” was just 45 minutes too long. There was some fidgeting and whispering, and a couple walked out, but mostly the audience seemed captivated. To be familiar with the ground-breaking work of Judson and the city in which it took place definitely helps one make a connection with Butcher’s work. But so do choreography, sound and installation which portray how memories are triggered and convey the indefatigable energy of New York.