Monthly Archives: June 2015

Aging Dancers: An Alternate Vision

Dare I say it? From what I am noticing internationally, we are in the midst of a new wave of appreciation for older dancers. At the moment several superstars of dance are crashing the age barrier. But I think it goes beyond those extraordinary artists to dancers who are less well known. This post includes examples of both types, quotes from observers and practitioners, and Pat Catterson’s (somewhat humorous) list of roadblocks for those dancers trying to beat the odds.

First the Superstars

Alessandra Ferri, Wendy Whelan, and Carmen de Lavallade are each totally unique dancers, a world unto themselves, and that is part of the reason their artistry has endured.

Ferri in McGregor's Woolf Works © ROH, phoo by Tristram Kenton

Ferri in McGregor’s Woolf Works © ROH, photo by Tristram Kenton

As seen in Martha Clarke’s Cheri, the exquisitely dramatic Ferri, 52, can still transport us from rapturous joy to utter despair. (See Gia Kourlas’ cover story for Dance Magazine from last fall.)  And just last month, she performed at Covent Garden as the muse for Wayne McGregor in Woolf Works at The Royal Ballet. For me, as I posted in “Alessandra’s Ferri’s Knowing Body,”  the ballet completely relied on Ferri’s ability to create a passionate yet vulnerable protagonist.

At the Joyce in April, Wendy Whelan, 48, danced with all the fullness and thrust she always had in “Restless Creature.” And last weekend, in a Works & Process program at the Guggenheim, she showed a sassy theatricality in Arthur Pita’s Tango that I hadn’t seen before. (In case you aren’t familiar with her glorious dancing, what I wrote about her in my recent tribute to her at Danspace still holds true.)

Brian Schaefer, posting in OUT.com, wrote that Whelan’s age “allowed for greater possibilities in interpreting the relationships and interactions on stage. It also added something soothing and serene to each work—maybe we can call it wisdom.” He went on to say, “Especially in ballet, young love still reigns. But with Restless Creature, Whelan…steps beyond ballet’s suggested expiration date and demonstrates that lifelong curiosity and experience are as valuable artistic tools as pirouettes and penchée.”

Wendy Whelan with oshua Beamish in Restless Creature, photo by XXYYZZ

Wendy Whelan with Joshua Beamish in Restless Creature, photo © Yi-Chun Wu

The legendary Carmen de Lavallade,  at 83, knocked ’em dead at Jacob’s Pillow last year in her show As I Remember It. She also became an object of desire at Huffington Post. Brian Seibert of The New York Times called her dancing terrific. And Erin Bomboy of the Dance Enthusiast described her as “mesmerizing and silky.” NPR also jumped into the Let’s-discover-Carmen act with this segment on her.

Carmen de Lavallade, photo: ©2011 Julieta Cervantes

Carmen de Lavallade, photo: © 2011 Julieta Cervantes

Ageless in Europe

As it happens, venerable superstars of Europe are performing in Rome on June 24 and 25. In a presentation of Daniele Cipriani Entertainment http://www.dancemagazine.com/blogs/admin-admin/6468 the Swedish choreographer Mats Ek and his illustrious wife, Spanish-born Ana Laguna, will perform two of the most sparely poetic works I’ve ever seen: Memory and Potato. He is 70 and she is 60. The program, entitled “Quartet Gala,” also includes well known Tanztheater choreographer Susanne Linke, who turns 71 this month, and Bessie-award-winning Pina Bausch dancer, French-born Dominique Mercy, 65. For more info on the program, which has choreography by Ek, Linke, and Pascal Merighi, click here.

Ana Laguna and Mats Ek in Ek's Potato, photo © John Ross

Ana Laguna and Mats Ek in Ek’s Potato, photo © John Ross

Postmodern Forever

Simone Forti at 80 still performs. Though she’s not quite as stable as before, her earthiness and wit are still accessible to her. In an online Fjord Review about Forti’s recent shared performance in Los Angeles, Victoria Looseleaf described her as “Monumental in her simplicity.”

Another historic figure who helped redefine dance in the 1960s, Yvonne Rainer, also 80, brought her premiere Dust to the Museum of Modern Art this month. Rainer supposedly doesn’t dance any longer—though she slipped in a quick chassé and a hovering relevé during the June 13th performance. In an advance story in The New York Times, Siobhan Burke quoted Rainer saying, “My preferred mode of self-presentation is ‘existence.’ I love to exist on stage. I no longer ‘dance.’ ” Later in the article Rainer claimed a right for the aging dancer to exist without judgment: “The aging body is a thing unto itself and need not be judged as inadequate or inferior if it can no longer jump through hoops.”

Stephan Koplowitz and Heather Ehlers in Connor's The Weather in the Room, photo © Scott Groller

Stephan Koplowitz and Heather Ehlers in Connor’s The Weather in the Room, photo © Scott Groller

Choreographer Colin Connor cast two dancers over 50 for his work The Weather in a Room that premiered at CalArts last year. They were faculty members Stephan Koplowitz (dean of the School of Dance) and Heather Ehlers (of the School of Theater). He believes in age diversity onstage. Partly because, like Schaefer, he is interested in the relationships that older dancers can inhabit. “In our time,” he wrote in an email to me, “dance tends toward youth, to newness, and to the illustration of things youthful. Here I was drawn to the idea of a relationship that is not new but lived in, to a landscape of ongoing experience and the expressiveness of maturity, and to revealing a palpable physical intimacy between people of an age where this is less noticed or considered.”

Another choreographer interested in age diversity is Vicky Shick, who at 62 still dances in her own work. I happen to be on the receiving end of her largesse and have performed in two of her recent pieces. We’ve danced in each other’s work before so she knows my body and won’t overextend. In rehearsals, I loll around, slowly warming up my body, while she works with the other dancers until it’s my turn.

And just last week I participated in American Dance Guild’s tribute to Frances Alenikoff, who danced into her 80s. I am 67, and my dancing partners were Deborah Jowitt, 81, and Ze’eva Cohen, 75. On performance days, I would go through my daily exercises more thoroughly and add extra time for balancing on one leg. I widened the stance of some of the moves in an effort to be more stable. In performance, I sometimes had the thought, Whew, I got through that bit without keeling over!

Nothing New

Of course the interest in older performers is nothing new. Liz Lerman started using older people in her dances in the 1970s; the Dance Exchange in Takoma Park, MD, carries on her tradition in some of its programs. Choreographers like Stephan Koplowitz and Risa Jaroslow have chosen to work with older performers. Naomi Goldberg’s currently active Dances for Variable Population gives performances and workshops throughout the summer. These kinds of explorations ask the question, Who gets to dance?

Almost twenty years ago Gus Solomons, along with Carmen de Lavallade and the late Dudley Williams, started Paradigm Dance Company, which challenged choreographers like Dwight Rhoden and Kate Weare to make work for these storied but limited performers. Valda Setterfield, 80, whose stage charisma grows with each decade, has danced with Paradigm as well as with her husband David Gordon.

Between This World and the Next

When I wrote about older dancers for The New York Times 15 years ago, I quoted Eiko Otake saying, “Because their bodies are not young, older performers carry something that is almost between this world and the next, that itself is artistic and transcending.’”

Eiko in A Body in a Station, photo © William Johnston

Eiko in A Body in a Station, photo © William Johnston

Now in her early 60s, Eiko has been illustrating that idea with her haunting current project, A Body in a Station.

About a year ago, I was fortunate to see butoh artist Ko Murobushi in Yokohama, who embodied a certain brute strength as a man in his late 50s.  But this work too, with it’s sudden falls and its offering of lilies, hinted at death.

Alternative Vision

To return to Rainer, she sees the acceptance of age as an “alternative vision.” Here’s an excerpt from an essay she wrote last year for Performance Art Journal (PAJ 106):

“The evolution of the aging body in dance fulfills the earliest aspirations of my 1960s peers and colleagues who tore down the palace gates of high culture to admit a rabble of alternative visions and options. Silence, noise, walking, running, detritus—all undermined prevailing standards of monumentality, beauty, grace, professionalism, and the heroic.”

PatCat’s Nine Lives, or, How to Dance Full Out at 69

But maybe older dancers are a new kind of heroic. Enter Pat Catterson, a dancer/choreographer/teacher who dances full out as a member of Rainer’s group—at 69 years old. (The other members are not far behind: they are all over 40.) She never stopped taking daily class. I asked her to tell me the hardest thing about keeping her body in dancing shape, and she came up with nine hardest things. The rest of this post is direct from Pat Catterson’s lips—or rather email.

From left: Yvonne Rainer, Pat Catterson, Patricia Hoffbauer, and David Thomson in Dust, photo © Julieta Cervantes

From left: Yvonne Rainer, Pat Catterson, Patricia Hoffbauer, and Keith Sabado in Dust at MoMA. Rousseau’s painting of The Sleeping Gypsy is in background, photo © Julieta Cervantes

1. It is difficult to walk the fine line between challenging my body and not overdoing. I can so easily inflame something if I do too much repetition or work past muscle fatigue or not give myself enough recuperation time. When to push and when not is hard to gauge. And the balance is always changing. What I could do two years ago in terms of endurance, I cannot do now.

2. Doctors are dismissive. Oh it is arthritis they say and treat me like I am some kind of crazy person who thinks she can still dance. I try to convince them that I take full class six days a week and am performing and intend to continue but most of them do not take me seriously. It infuriates me. But then I wonder if I am a fool. I find physical therapists more encouraging and helpful than doctors.

3. My brain does not work as quickly as it used to. One of my strengths was always that I picked up quickly. I got the steps fast and often led across the floor. It may not be noticeable to others but I do not pick up as fast now and I have to work at it. Sometimes just as we are to begin a combination, my mind goes blank and I cannot even remember how it starts. The brain does age.

4. I am ignored when I take class. I am used to it now. I am very self-disciplined but I could use a correction now and then, an outside eye. (An exception: Rachel List always gives me corrections.) It is really strange to feel so invisible. And it makes me a little angry, frankly. I am paying for the class like everyone else!

5.  I need to rent some ballon! I still could do convincing jumps one year ago but then it ended. I am in shape and I jump every day but I do not go up! I am strong. I stretch. I practice jumping. But the ballon disappeared! I still love leaps and jumping steps anyway even though I look quite unimpressive doing them.

6. My joints are stiff, particularly in my hips. It is very hard to get up and down from the floor. I can only do it in certain pathways.  I try to cover it up as best I can by the choices I make. The body just does not fold easily in the joints anymore. Grand plié is now not so grand. Annoying. I am so envious of the ease of the others as I struggle to do things that used to be so easy.

7. Dance clothes. Clingy does not look good on saggy skin! I am bony and I have muscle tone but the skin is saggy. I cannot wear the biketards or the skin-baring tops or leotards the others wear in the summer. I want to wear something sleek and contemporary looking but most regular dancewear just looks ridiculous on me. My age group is not the focus of dancewear companies.

8. In class, I used to love just barreling into everything but that is not possible now. I usually start a big or fast combination a little under in energy to pattern it first in my body so that I don’t strain myself. I can build up to a good energy but I have to start soft. I look at the young ’uns and I remember well that agility and energy. But I do take the full class. Use it or lose it as they say. I try to push past what feels completely comfortable, but just how much is a continual negotiation. Friends who are in their 40s or 50s think I am crazy to continue to take full class, especially Cunningham technique. One says that Cunningham is for young bodies and that I shouldn’t be putting my body through it. But it is my “home” technique and I love the physical and mental challenge of it.

9.  In the end I love to dance and perform as much as I always did. The adrenaline of performing still carries me beyond what I think I can do. I have a lot of energy, but I do not want to end up crippled or in a wheelchair. I have to be able to know when to stop demanding too much of my body. And only I will know because the doctors do not know.

 

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A New Sleeping Beauty——But Why?

What does it mean that American Ballet Theatre has come out with a big new Sleeping Beauty? The production of Ratmansky’s new/old staging cost six million dollars (half of which is to be covered by the co-commissioning company, La Scala Ballet). I know I’m not supposed to think about money, just art. But while watching this production (twice), I couldn’t help but notice how extravagant it is—400 costumes and 210 wigs—compared to how little relevance the ballet holds for us today.

Tchaikovsky’s music is lushly beautiful. With its danceable waltzes and big dramatic bursts, it expresses the clash between anger and harmony that drives the narrative. But the tale is about an ancient kingdom that has only one worry: to make sure the daughter doesn’t get hold of a spindle. It’s not a ballet that stirs complex emotions or stimulates a train of thought about life’s dilemmas.

ABT in Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty.  Photo by Gene Schiavone.

ABT in Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty: a 6 million dollar tab. All photos by Gene Schiavone.

The other ABT classics are perennials because they each have something that speaks to us today. The violence between the warring factions of Romeo and Juliet is always painfully relevant. Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake is searching for something that’s more spiritual than his materialistic upbringing; and Odette, who feels trapped, has to rely on a man’s faithfulness. We learn from Giselle that class differences can forbid one from marrying for love, and that recognizing your mistakes can change your life.

And then there’s The Sleeping Beauty. Sure, it’s about the battle between good and evil, but what’s the message? Be careful not to incur the wrath of a powerful person? Of course no ballet can be reduced to a single message—but this one comes close.

I applaud Ratmansky for immersing himself in the Stepanov notation and drawings of Petipa’s original 1890 version. It’s interesting that he was guided more by his passion for ballet history than his personal choreographic desires. I also applaud the dancers, especially Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes, who imbued the leading roles with a shared spirituality. (Similar, as I wrote in 2011 in Dance Magazine, to the partnership of Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg when they danced these roles in ABT’s last version.)

Diana Vishneva as Princess Aurora and Marcelo Gomes  as Prince Désiré. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

Diana Vishneva as Princess Aurora and Marcelo Gomes as Prince Désiré: shared spirituality.

But at a time when people around the globe are plagued by violence, racial issues, and environmental degradation, a story that focuses solely on the aristocracy can only serve as an escape. But is there some undercurrent to this type of escape? Is it also some kind of reinforcement of complacency? The audience can get swept up in the glory of Tchaikovsky’s music and the detail of Petipa’s steps, as researched by Ratmansky and his wife Tatiana. But in the end the ballet represents a very privileged population.

One of my colleagues suggested taking pleasure in the precision and communicative aspects of the dancing. But I find the predictable structure of the choreography a deterrent. When I see the many repetitions in the Garland Waltz, I imagine Petipa saying to his dancers, “Do three of these and one of those.” In steps as well as story, The Sleeping Beauty doesn’t measure up to the other classics.

In her Dance Tabs review, Marina Harss writes, “The real challenge isn’t replicating the steps but bringing them to life, and through them, channeling the spirit of the age. In this, it seems to me that Ratmansky has succeeded, producing a ballet that glows from within.”

I agree that the dancing is stamped with the spirit of the times. ABT has given us a piece of history, and there is value in that. Ballet historians are soaking this moment up. But for some of us, it’s like seeing lithographs of dainty ballerinas come to life. In this Sleeping Beauty I missed dancing that extends into space; I missed the directness that Balanchine has given us. Dance evolves for a reason. It adjusts to how cultures and bodies change.

Maybe I’ll get used to this Sleeping Beauty as one flavor in the pack of ABT’s repertoire—the old world flavor. But if this reconstruction was intended to be the centerpiece of ABT’s 75 years, it seems a misstep to me.

Finale of The Sleeping Beauty

Finale of The Sleeping Beauty, with Lilac Fairy and Carabosse in background.

I can’t help but point out that the previous, equally anticipated new Sleeping Beauty for ABT premiered only eight years ago. It was assembled by esteemed dance artists Gelsey Kirkland and Kevin McKenzie, along with Michael Chernov, none of whom is a choreographer. It kept some traditional things and changed or condensed others. It created some beautifully tender moments that propelled the story. (Again, I cite my posting from 2011.) To my mind its worst mistake was not giving the prince a physical struggle to reach his goal. He did not have to fight to arrive at the castle.

And the Ratmansky version makes the same mistake. It’s too easy for Prince Désiré to find the love of his dreams. If he had to overcome the barrier to the castle, if he had to work hard and sweat, if he had to shed his princeliness for a few minutes, the ballet would offer some sense of a catharsis. In the New York City Ballet’s version, the prince whacks away the choking vines that have encrusted the castle for a hundred years. By the time he reaches Aurora, we feel he has earned her love.

Isadora Loyola and Sean Stewart as the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots, Photo by Gene Schiavone.

Isadora Loyola and Sean Stewart as the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots, Photo by Gene Schiavone.

But Petipa/Ratmansky’s Prince Désiré has no such grit. He has technical grit, e.g. difficult petit allegro, but no emotional grit. He sails easily, guided by the Lilac Fairy, from his vision of Aurora to the bedroom of Aurora. All the royal characters retain their royal calm in every scene. This production seems to say that beauty and harmony only reside in a smoothly running aristocracy.

That said, I was delighted that Ratmansky reinstated the storybook characters that add such fun to Aurora’s Wedding. The White Cat and Puss-in-Boots are particularly welcome, with their witty clawing and flirting.

So….will there be another Sleeping Beauty in eight years?

 

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Trisha Brown: Dance-maker, Leader, Humanist

On the occasion of Dance/USA honoring Trisha Brown, I was asked to write a tribute from my point of view. It was originally published by Dance/USA’s From the Green Room and is reprinted with permission.

Trisha Brown is becoming more sacred to us every year. Not only is she a great artist who pushed the boundaries of contemporary dance, but she is also a fine human being, an example of compassionate leadership. While dance legends like Martha Graham and Jerome Robbins were notoriously “difficult” to the point of occasional cruelty, Trisha was always respectful, nurturing and generous. She fulfills the promise of a new, feminist way of being an artistic director.

Having danced with Trisha in the 1970s, when the company was just five women, and having followed her choreography since then, I have felt close to the work aesthetically and emotionally. On this occasion I would like to talk about the two categories of gifts she gave us: as an artist and as a leader.

Redefining Dance

Walking on the Wall, 1971, Whitney Museum, photo @ Carol Gooden

Walking on the Wall, 1971, Whitney Museum, photo @ Carol Gooden

Who would have thought that a dance could consist of the audience lying on their backs and looking up at the ceiling to imagine seeing what Trisha’s voice is telling them? (That was Skymap, 1969.) Who would have thought that two people surprising each other with what direction they would fall toward could be a piece of choreography? (That was Falling Duets, 1968.) Who would have thought that the optical illusion created by people walking on walls could hold the attention for a good thirty minutes? (Walking on the Walls, 1971.) Not me. But when I saw her concert at the Whitney Museum in 1971, these three actions were thrilling—kinetically, intellectually, perceptually.

Now, years later, I can rub my chin and say Ah yes, I see the influences of Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer, or Steve Paxton. But at the time, this event gave me a pleasant shock that brought me up close to Trisha’s singular imagination. I wanted to dance that way—with an alert mind and a relaxed, pleasurable body.

She has said she felt sorry for spaces that weren’t center stage—the ceiling, walls, corners, and wing space. Not to mention trees, lakes, and firehouses. She caused a revolution by simply, sweetly, turning to spaces that other dance-makers don’t. But she also caused a revolution in the space of the human body. She rejected the pulled up stance of ballet and the inner torque of Martha Graham. She loved Merce Cunningham’s work but she had no wish for dancing bodies to be so upright. She was going for something else, something more yielding, more off-balance, a way for the energy to flow on unusual paths through the body. In her choreography the pleasure of surrender coexists with the willpower of adhering to a rigorous structure. (For a full bio of the choreographer, click here.)

Starting with Improvisation

Trisha’s earliest works were improvised. She had learned to deploy simple structures from Halprin when she studied with her in California in 1960. In Trillium (1961) she took a basic improvisation exercise to choose when to lie down, sit, or jump, and did it her own way. “I made my decision about lying down and jumping at the same time,” she said in a 1980 interview. By all accounts, Trillium was a wild solo that made people believe she could be suspended in the air.

Trisha in Water Motor, photo © Lois Greenfield

Trisha in Water Motor, photo © Lois Greenfield

Trisha often asked her dancers to improvise based on either a loose idea (e.g. “Line up” or “Read the walls”) or quite tight verbal instructions. She wanted the look of improvisation, the feel of not knowing what you were doing until you did it. That aesthetic reached its apex in Water Motor (1978). Babette Mangolte’s film of that exhilarating solo has become essential viewing for students of postmodern dance.

When she taught us a choreographic sequence, her movement was so elusive that I remember thinking, “She teaches it as a solid but she dances it like a liquid.” The key to attaining that liquid quality was to know in your own body how one impulse triggers another, to know exactly what and when to let go. While Trisha rejects the term “release technique,” the dancers have to be precise about utilizing release as well as strength.

Lines vs. Chaos, Rigor vs. Sensuality

The lovely paradox is that she also insisted on containing this sense of discovery within a rigorous visual or mathematical order. In Line Up, which we made collectively in the mid 70s, lines of people would materialize and dissolve—like following one’s own thoughts.

She brought nature into the studio. She loved her home territory of the Pacific Northwest and, come summer, she often returned there to take her son backpacking. While teaching one phrase of “Solo Olos” (part of Line Up) she said, “Imagine you are seeing Puget Sound in the distance and are tracing the length of it with your fingers.”

But it wasn’t landscapes alone that captivated her; it was the human body in an environment, for example the inevitable sensuality of the body up against the absoluteness of lines.

In Group Primary Accumulation (1973), four or five prone women move the right arm from the elbow down, then repeat that, then go on to the second move of raising the left arm from the shoulder, repeat both and so on, up to 30 moves. The pelvis lifts softly on move # 7—in a meditative way of course. The dance is incredibly sensual to do and to see, and yet the accumulation score keeps the mind strictly focused. (Click here to see a 2008 performance of it in Paris.) While we were on tour, Trisha once said, “When I am doing Primary, I’m thinking, ‘This is all there is.’ ”

Spanish Dance in the 1970s. I'm the second from the right. Photo @ Babette Mangolte

Spanish Dance,1970s. I’m second from the right. Photo @ Babette Mangolte

And then there’s the delightful “Spanish Dance” (1973), wherein five women tread slowly across the stage, accumulating one at a time to form a crush of bodies that hits the proscenium wall on the last note of Bob Dylan singing Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.” While nothing much happens, each woman is sandwiched by others, flesh on flesh, swaying pelvis on swaying pelvis. The audience can see where the line of women is heading but the physicality of it still elicits chuckles of delight.

Simplicity to Sublime Chaos

Over the years—Brown has created about 100 works including operas—I felt I was seeing a progression from simplicity to complexity, from clear strategies to hidden strategies, from orderliness to a sublime chaos. Set and Reset (1983), with is freeform look and lids-off sense of play, definitely qualifies as sublime chaos. With music by Laurie Anderson and set by Robert Rauschenberg, it’s a masterwork that bears repeated viewing. It offers a sense of possibility, a sense of the dancers being ready for anything. While jogging from upstage to downstage, Stephen Petronio suddenly gets pulled offstage by Trisha grabbing his neck. Another time, Trisha dives into the arms of another dancer who seems to be looking the other way. Set and Reset is so overflowing with possibility, with unpredictable interactions and close calls, that it took me three times of seeing it to realize that simple walking and running are also woven into the dance. She is teaching us to see things that are not obvious.

Trisha with Stephen Petronio in Set and Reset, 1983, photo @ Lois Greenfield

Trisha with Stephen Petronio in Set and Reset, 1983, photo @ Lois Greenfield

Her trajectory of simplicity to chaos is paralleled by the trajectory of earth to air. Just as she managed to catapult herself to be prone in the air for Trillium, and horizontal while walking on the walls of the Whitney, she set dancers above the ground—floating with help, one might call it—in Planes (1968), Floor of the Forest (1970) and Lateral Pass (1985). And then, in the opera L’Orfeo (1998), she created an extended passage for Diane Madden to be airborne, floating as the demigod Musica, rigged by the ultimate professionals, Flying by Foy.

Dance and Visual Art

Part of Trisha’s vision has to do with giving dance the same seriousness accorded visual art. That means bestowing it with intellectual attention. It also means, in the balance of art and entertainment, tipping more toward art and less toward entertainment. When we gave lecture-demonstrations and the question came up, Why don’t you dance to music, she would counter with, “Do you walk around a piece of sculpture and ask why there is no music?” Now that we are engulfed in a wave of dance in museums, I feel it’s still Trisha’s early work, the silent pieces oriented around lines, that fit so nicely into the museum milieu.

After all, she is a visual artist too, and her drawings have been shown in galleries in the U.S. and abroad. It was natural to her to collaborate with some of the best artists of our time, including Robert Rauschenberg, Nancy Graves, Donald Judd, and Elizabeth Murray.

Going Back to the Beginning

Her vision also had to do with going back to the beginning, questioning the assumptions that have built up and figuring things out for yourself. In clearing the air of “modern dance” histrionics, of course she had comrades in Judson Dance Theater like Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton. Yvonne ran or screamed, Steve walked, and Trisha fell. While that’s a gross exaggeration of the ground-breaking experiments at Judson, it shows how committed they were to getting down to basics, how much they aimed for the “ordinary” (to use their teacher Robert Dunn’s term).

For Trisha that meant channeling the radical into an ordinary container. In the 70s she wrote a statement on “pure movement” that included this: “I make radical changes in a mundane way.” (Click here to read her full statement on Pure Movement)

Glacial Decoy with left to right: Lisa Kraus, Stephen Petronio, Trisha Brown @ Babette Mangolte

Opal Loop, with, left to right: Lisa Kraus, Stephen Petronio, Trisha Brown @ Babette Mangolte

When she started making works for the proscenium stage, she started at the beginning again, asking herself what was essential about the stage. She  enlisted Rauschenberg’s help in questioning the conventions of the stage. In Glacial Decoy (1979), they both envisioned the dance extending beyond the proscenium, creating the illusion that the dancers did not stop at the wings. For Set and Reset (1983), he made the stage wings transparent, blurring the difference between performing and not performing.

Her Influence

Trisha Brown’s influence is larger than we can ever know. Young dancers see her work in a studio or in performance and learn how good it feels on their bodies. They may incorporate a version of her style, which tends to fold the body along different lines than in “modern dance.” There’s a respect for the plainness, the sensuality of simple movements framed by rigorous scores (structures). Even if they haven’t seen it first-hand, her way of moving is now in the air. It’s like a Trisha Brown mist that dancers all over the world are breathing in.

Do you remember the beginning of Set and Reset, when several dancers hoist one in the air so she can be horizontal and walk on the wall? I’ve seen this echoed many times in the work of others, most recently last month at Sadler’s Wells in London, during Partita 2, a collaboration between Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Boris Charmatz.

Beth Gill's New Work for the Desert, photo @ Cherylynn Tsushima

Beth Gill’s New Work for the Desert, photo @ Cherylynn Tsushima

And then there are those who imitate Trisha very deliberately. Last year Beth Gill’s New Work for the Desert borrowed liberally from Brown’s 1987 Newark (Niweweorce). At the end of Newark there’s is a double duet made of new and strange ways of leveraging each other’s bodies: holding or pulling by the neck and hooking an ankle—almost animal-like—though again, within strict lines. In this interview with Gia Kourlas of Time Out New York, Gill says that she studied this section on video and incorporated it into her work.

Of course it’s fair to study an older artist’s work, but appropriating it is another story, maybe even a legal one. However I think the fact that Gill paid Brown tribute in this way speaks to how iconic Trisha’s work has become. It’s like Rauschenberg erasing a drawing by de Kooning, or Van Gogh copying whole scenes from Hiroshige.

Her Generosity

Trisha was always generous in her encouragement to dancers like Stephen Petronio and me who were choreographing on our own. She once hosted a small gathering for possible funders to see my work, and she gave Stephen access to studio space in her building.

Steve Paxton and Trisha, Bennington College, 1980 photo @ Tylere Resch, courtesy Bennington College Judson Project

Steve Paxton and Trisha, Bennington College, 1980 photo @ Tyler Resch, courtesy Bennington College Judson Project

But most of all, she was generous to the dancers within her work. I spoke on the phone with Diane Madden, who has been a member of the Trisha Brown Dance Company since 1980, first as a dancer then rehearsal director and now co-associate artistic director. “She created a clear space that allows people to have lots of room,” Diane said. “You felt trusted by her, which allowed you to take more risks and give more. … She would give us very clear guidelines, whether working around the perimeter of the space, or keeping close proximity to the floor, working in slow motion, but wouldn’t over-define or over-direct…She would challenge you to go beyond your comfort zone because she was always challenging herself. We all were challenged.”

In 1984 she asked Diane to become rehearsal director. “There would get to be a point,” Diane told me, “where the managerial role of taking care of the dancers’ needs had to be separate from the creating process. Things would happen that would turn her off or piss her off, and she didn’t want that to sully her creative relationship with the dancers.”

I always felt that Trisha had an awareness of herself as a woman leader, and Diane agrees. “It was important to her to lead well, to make sure she was making all the right choices,” she said. “She wanted to be a good role model for other choreographers and dancers.”

One choreographer who has been outspoken about her influence is Stephen Petronio, who danced in the company from 1979 to 1986. “The air of democracy in the room—I emulate that,” he told me. “I learned to be inclusive and democratic from her. She always made me feel part of the team, not her slave, and that made me want to give everything I have.”

Endings Are Beginnings

I’ve noticed that in some of Trisha’s most beautiful works, for instance Opal Loop (1980), Lateral Pass, and Newark, the last segment ushers in an entirely different sequence from what came before. These non-conclusive endings break so clearly from the rest of the piece that they could be the beginnings of something else.

Trisha Brown Dance Company in "Eights" from Line UP, on tour last year

Trisha Brown Dance Company in “Eights” from Line Up, last year at Museum Navarra in Pamplona, Spain

In that spirit, I am going to end with a beginning. The Trisha Brown Dance Company has just initiated a new series called In Plain Site. For medical reasons Trisha withdrew from making new work in 2011, and the company took on a three-year legacy tour of the proscenium works under the direction of Diane and the other associate artistic director, Carolyn Lucas. Now, the company will perform in non-proscenium spaces; the rep will include not only the early works that fit so well in museums, galleries and outdoor areas, but also snippets from the proscenium works. It will be a bit like Merce Cunningham’s “events” and it will be tailored to each different space. This month In Plain Site comes to New York City’s River to River Festival, to Jerusalem, and more. (Clear here for calendar.)

The education projects of TBDC continue apace in colleges and dance centers in the U.S. and in Europe, where Trisha is especially lionized. As an alumna who occasionally leads these classes, I can say that students everywhere continue to find the keys that open doors to personal discovery within the vast and challenging oeuvre of Trisha Brown.

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Resources:

Website: http://www.trishabrowncompany.org/

DVD: ArtPix DVD: Trisha Brown: Early Works 1966-1979

Books:

Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue 1961-2001

“Trisha Brown: Gravity and Levity” in Terpsichore in Sneakers, by Sally Banes

And lots of things online.

 

 

 

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