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.