Trending

Trisha Brown: Taking postmodernism to new heights

Brown in her Pamplona Stones (1974). Photo by Johan Elbers, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

As a member of the ground-breaking dance collective Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s, Trisha Brown carved out a reputation as a highly innovative choreographer. Over six decades, she created a diverse body of more than 100 works, using a process-oriented approach and rule-based structures.


Born in Aberdeen, Washington, Brown studied ballet, tap, jazz and acrobatics as a child. After receiving a dance degree from Mills College in 1958, she taught at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. In 1960, she attended pioneering dance artist Anna Halprin's summer workshop near San Francisco. She was inspired by Halprin's use of structured improvisation. A year later, Brown moved to New York City, where she joined an experimental composition course taught by composer Robert Dunn, a disciple of John Cage. Her classmates included Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton.

While dancing with Judson Dance Theater and later the 1970s improvisation group Grand Union, Brown created works that used improvisation and specific rules. She was interested in generating and organizing dances through logical systems, which often resulted in humorous and unconventional actions. For example, in an early work, La Chanteuse (1963), she stood in fourth position and fell over while saying, “Oh, no."

In 1968, she began to use equipment like ropes, pulleys and harnesses in her choreography to challenge viewers' perspectives and push the boundaries of what could be considered performance space. Her 1971 Walking on the Wall, in which dancers walked perpendicular to the floor on the walls of the Whitney Museum of American Art, is one of her most memorable works.

In 1970, Brown founded her own company. She continued to use unconventional performance spaces, like parks, plazas, lofts and the roofs of buildings. She also developed a series of dances based on mathematical formulas, most notably her 1971 Accumulation, in which she repeated a simple hand gesture and gradually added small movements of other body parts to generate a highly complex phrase.

The 1980s and '90s saw Brown delve into work on proscenium stages, including opera. She often collaborated with celebrated artists and composers like Robert Rauschenberg and Laurie Anderson. Brown continued to dance in her own work until the late 2000s. In 2013, due to health issues, she stepped down as director of her company. DT

In 1998, Brown choreographed and directed the Monteverdi opera L'Orfeo. Photo by Paul Jacques, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

The Work

Rulegame 5 (1964): In this early work, five dancers walk and crawl along parallel lines of tape on the floor. The dancers have to navigate creative ways to move past one another while staying on the lines.

Walking on the Wall (1971): Brown played with the dancers' and audience's orientation to gravity by having her cast walk on the interior walls of the Whitney Museum while hooked up to harnesses.

Set and Reset (1983): For this exhilarating, highly acclaimed piece, Brown collaborated with Robert Rauschenberg to construct translucent costumes and wing panels. Though the movement was set, she sought to harness the spirit of improvisation, with unexpected group partnering and dancers nearly crashing into each other, all to Laurie Anderson's driving score.

Style

Brown's choreography stands out for its quick bursts of energy, collapses of weight, use of pedestrian movement and loose, yet controlled motion of the limbs. Her movement often functions independently of the music, and she used a wide range of processes, including drawing, formulating rules based on environmental elements and using mathematical formulas to devise structure. Brown frequently incorporated humor into her choreography as well, through movement and spoken word.

The Legacy Lives On

Following Trisha Brown's retirement as artistic director of her company, leadership passed to company members Diane Madden and Carolyn Lucas. The Trisha Brown Dance Company continues to hold residencies and perform Brown's work at concert venues, colleges and alternative spaces worldwide. Many company alumni have gone on to have careers as teachers, choreographers and writers, including Dance Magazine editor at large Wendy Perron and choreographers Stephen Petronio and Vicky Shick.

Further Research

Print:

Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance, by Sally Banes, Wesleyan University Press, 1987

Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue, 1961–2001, edited by Hendel Teicher, The MIT Press, 2002

WEB:

Dance Heritage Coalition: “America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures": danceheritage.org

Trisha Brown Dance Company: trishabrowncompany.org

DVD:

Trisha Brown: Early Works 1966–1979, ARTPIX, 2005

News
Layeelah Muhammad, courtesy DAYPC

This summer's outcry to fully see and celebrate Black lives was a wake-up call to dance organizations.

And while many dance education programs are newly inspired to incorporate social justice into their curriculums, four in the San Francisco Bay area have been elevating marginalized youth and focusing on social change for decades.

GIRLFLY, Grrrl Brigade, The Alphabet Rockers and Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company fuse dance with education around race, gender, climate change and more, empowering young artists to become leaders in their communities. Here's how they do it.

Keep reading... Show less
Teacher Voices
Getty Images

I often teach ballet over Zoom in the evenings, shortly after sunset. Without the natural light coming from my living room window, I drag a table lamp next to my portable barre so that the computer's camera can see me clearly enough. I prop the laptop on a chair taken from the kitchen and then spend the next few hours running back and forth between the computer screen of Zoom tiles and my makeshift dance floor.

Much of this setup is the result of my attempts to recreate the most important aspects of an in-person dance studio: I have a barre, a floor and as much space as I can reasonably give myself within a small apartment. I do not, however, have a mirror, and neither do most of my students.

Keep reading... Show less
Music
Allie Burke, courtesy Lo Cascio

If you'd hear it on the radio, you won't hear it in Anthony Lo Cascio's tap classes.

"If I play a song that my kids know, I'm kind of disappointed in myself," he says. "I either want to be on the cutting edge or playing the classics."

He finds that most of today's trendy tracks lack the depth needed for tap, and that there's a disconnect between kids and popular music. "They have trouble finding the beat compared to older genres," he says.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.